The elephant was staring at me. So close I could have reached out and touched its leathery skin; so close I could see its individual eyelashes. I wondered momentarily if that might be the last thing I’d ever see.
If it might decide to use its unfathomable strength to shove our Jeep out of its way and have done with it. But no. Post-gawp it decided to lumber on, leaving us trembling in our seats with a heady mixture of fear and excitement.
It’s moments like this one, deep in Kenya’s Masai Mara, that I love most about travelling in open-sided safari Jeeps. With no windows and often no real roof to speak of, they put you right at the heart of the action, giving you the ultimate sensory experience.
You can smell, hear and feel it all. The wind on your skin as you bump along the dusty bush trails; the moist scent of earth and wild grasses as they whip by; the calls of the beasts as they interact, barely noticing you at all.
The theory is that animals can’t distinguish people in these vehicles. They see us as a kind of moving bush, I’ve had guides tell me. Over my seven trips to Africa, there have been times when lions have prowled right over to our Jeep and fallen asleep in its shadow, seemingly oblivious to the handful of appetising humans peering down from inside. If we took one step out at that moment though, we’d likely be torn to bits.
It’s that element of imminent danger that makes this such an exhilarating way to travel. During one Zambian safari, our truck pulled up beneath an acacia in which a leopard was sleeping, its mottled legs dangling over the boughs.
When someone stood up to grab their camera, the leopard stirred and began hissing into the truck, yellow eyes blazing. It rattled us, sure. But we also felt more alive than we had in a long time.
There’s a delicious sense of freedom that this kind of nature immersion brings, too. On a recent sunset drive through Kenya’s Samburu reserve, my friends and I stood on our seats, torsos poking out the top of the Jeep and hands reaching out to ride the breeze, singing Toto’s Africa as we gunned along.
In the quieter moments, when the vehicle stops for you to observe the animals, it’s a form of transport that unfurls you. Out there in the bush, far from the toss of the world, your mind unspools. By day’s end, you can feel as if you’ve sorted your whole life out in your head.
Some of the most memorable safari moments, though, are created just outside the vehicle. Piling out at some spectacular spot at sunset, your guide will flip a small table down from the front of the Jeep, instantly transforming it into a tiny bush bar. There you’ll drink G&Ts and chat about the extraordinary creatures you’ve seen that day, as the sky explodes with colour.
The best part comes once the bar has been packed away. When you’re bumping back to camp through the inky night, wrapped up in blankets, nothing between you and the cosmos of stars overhead.
Bench Africa has been organising safaris for Australians for almost 50 years; see benchafrica.com
THIS ARTICLE WAS PART OF A LARGER STORY. IT FIRST APPEARED IN PRINT AND ONLINE HERE