The president of Tanzania formally opened the newest and most luxurious hotel in the Serengeti last week. Amid the celebrations, President Kikwete sounded a curious note by calling on the country's tourism authorities to go slow on building more hotels in the Unesco World Heritage Site.
As party pooping goes it was nuanced, diplomatic stuff. But the president's timing provokes a niggling question – what exactly is the $50m (£31m), 160-bed Bilila Lodge Kempinski, with its well stocked bars, infinity pools, sun decks, fine-wine cellar, conference centre, snooker room and health spa doing here?
The national park is one of nature's greatest showcases. "Serengeti" is derived from a Maasai phrase meaning "endless plain". It covers 5,700 square miles, roughly the same size as Northern Ireland, and is home to the spectacular annual migration that sees hundreds of thousands of wildebeest cross the grasslands to Kenya's Maasai Mara and back again. Big cats, elephants, giraffes, buffalo and hippos live out their tooth-and-claw dramas on the southern plains under the biggest canopy of sky I have ever seen. Humanity seems temporal and small; the Serengeti seems colossal, eternal and indestructible.
"It is a product," says Dr Christof Schenck firmly. He is the executive director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society. One of his predecessors was instrumental in setting up the national park, and the society has been active in its conservation for the past 50 years. Dr Schenck makes it clear that the Serengeti is far from indestructible – the park must earn its keep as a "product" in order to survive. "The wilderness is a product," he explains, "it is an experience that must not be allowed to devalue." The society supports the Tanzanian government policy of high-cost, low-volume tourism. So, in theory, Dr Schenk should be delighted by the arrival of the super-luxe Bilila complex.
The hotel is, without caveats, a five-star experience despite the remote location. That means hot showers, air-conditioning, food and drink to cater to western tastes, super-attentive service and spotless hygiene. The tech facilities (24/7 WiFi for iPhone and crackberry addicts, and dozens of satellite TV channels) are slick enough to be disorienting. It's Africa, Jim – but not as many of us know it.
My accommodation is big enough to take a Maasai family and a small herd of their cattle. My terrace has a mini infinity pool and an outdoor shower. I feel like the Sultan of Safari. The illusion lasts until I am given a glimpse of the presidential suite, with its multi-storey, multiple-terrace, three-bedroom, private swimming pool splurge. Mulholland Drive glam has landed in the Serengeti.
To make all this happen in the middle of the savannah must have involved some fancy logistics. The project brings together South African architects, an Arab invester, Chinese building contractors, German management, Tanzanian staff and, bizarrely, a team of Thai masseurs. There are also a few dozen Maasai warriors dotted around the elevated walkways, whose prime purpose seems to be decorative. Bilila is a small miracle of internationalism.
Dr Schenck however is not entirely impressed. "They didn't get what the Serengeti is about. The best way would have been to design the hotel to standards set by the environment, not the usual standards of luxury hotels." He thinks the Lodge has not given enough thought to its carbon footprint or committed to low-impact technologies such as solar power. He believes the hotel will have to embrace more sustainable policies because clients will increasingly demand it.
Bilila still has to bed into its environs in other ways. The noise and disruption of two years of construction has scared most animals away. I look in at the Mbuzi Mawe tented camp, about three miles distant, to get an idea of how Bilila might develop. Mbuzi is a little Eden where vervet monkeys, klipspringers, hyrax and hornbills cavort around the tents oblivious to human proximity. Lions and leopards, I am told, regularly prowl through the camp at night and each tent is equipped with a panic whistle. It's relatively basic compared with my luxurious lodgings but I cannot suppress a pang of envy for such a raw experience.
There aren't many trails in the immediate vicinity of Bilila, and safari vehicles are not allowed off road in the Serengeti. Consequently, a 45-minute commute is required to the Seronera central area where there is a greater density of trails and much better odds of seeing the stars of the show – the big cats.
En route my driver/guide, Andrew, indulges his "hobby" for music, which turns out to mean Enrique Iglesias, more specifically it means one song called "Hero". Andrew works front-of-house at the hotel. And he is very funny. But my god he loves Enrique. He loves "Hero". He loves that song with a passion verging on lunacy. "I can be your hero baby, I can kiss away your pain!" sings Enrique. But Andrew is making a world of pain – he plays it back to back all the way. And when a more finely honed torture cannot be imagined he spins it again sharpening the agony with his karaoke accompaniment. Andrew is truly, madly, deeply tone DEAF. By the time we reach the central area, he and Iglesias have rotted my central nervous system. Thank the Lord for hippos, they appear in the nick of time.
The hippos at Rotima pool are one of the great sights of the Serengeti but they are also a bunch of rude flatulent hooligans. They make an astonishing spectacle, hundreds of pink and mud-tinted balloons, farting, belching, scrapping, grunting, making visceral flobby, gloopy noises in their own filth. But they're more tuneful than Andrew.
We get word that a leopard has been seen. Andrew pushes the Land Cruiser into overdrive and we rattle and scrape along the trails until we see a group of three safari vehicles parked next to a tree. The passengers are hypnotised – staring intently at a few branches. The first hint of the cat is a dangling tail flicking elegantly from time to time. We manoeuvre the vehicle along and are rewarded with an extraordinary close-up. Of all the trees in the plains, the animal has chosen one on a track as if mindful of a contractual obligation to provide the thrill that tourists travel thousands of miles for.
It yawns, revealing a vicious set of incisors to a dozen eager telephoto lenses. Short of joining us inside the vehicle, the leopard couldn't be much closer. It stretches, examines its audience with mild curiosity, then turns and pads along the branch to the trunk where it poses for more photos. Eventually, it drops to the ground, and ambles off into the high grass in no particular hurry. The camera shutters finally stop and I can hear a collective exhalation of breath.
The Serengeti is not short of thrills. Over the next few days I see thousands of zebra and wildebeest gathering for the migration. There are giraffes, impala, hartebeest, topi, alert cheetahs on the ground and dozy lions in trees. As we make our way back to the lodge, accompanied as ever by the hideous wailing of Enrique, I spot a banded snake eagle ripping a big snake to shreds with its talons.
After a thoroughly civilised dinner at the Lodge restaurant, I step on to the elevated walkway, exchange a quick "Jambo" with the decorative Maasai, and gasp when I look up at the Milky Way glimmering in a pure black sky. As I try to make out the constellations I become aware of an immense presence close by in the wavering gloom. My heart is thumping. Twigs crack and grass rustles as the shape moves inchoately a few yards away. Elephants. A small herd has come to the lodge and is feeding next to the bedrooms in the dark. It is a cheering signal that wildlife is re-colonising the Bilila area.
However, I get a proper shock later when I find more wildlife than I bargain for colonising my bed. I glance up from my pillow eyeball to eyeball with a spider half the size of my hand clinging to the inside of the mosquito netting. Where is Enrique the Hero when you need him?
I grab the phone and summon help. A swat squad of Maasai warriors carrying spears arrives with impressive urgency – they don't seem so decorative now. "Snake?" they inquire enthusiastically and seem disappointed when I point out the spider. It no longer looks as big. There can be few more surreal sights than three Maasai warriors in ceremonial garb chasing a terrified spider around a five-star bedroom in the middle of the night. The poor arachnid is swept into the palm of one hand and bundled out of my life. And if the Maasai have any thoughts about the wuss in room 216 they are paragons of tact.
In the morning I wake having learned something. It takes more than a $50m hotel to tame the Serengeti.
Compact Facts: How to get there
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) offers return flights to Dar es Salaam from £547.
Bilila Lodge Kempinski (00 255 778 888888; kempinski-bililalodge.com) has an opening offer of "stay for three, pay for two nights" until 30 September 2009, with rates starting at €500 per night for two sharing a double room, including full board. Out of season, rates start from €400 per night for two sharing a double room with full-board.