We meet with the sun sitting low but still bright.
The midday heat hasn’t entirely settled and I’m too warmly dressed in black stockings, a knee length parka slung over my arm and scarf wrapped tightly around my neck. I stand by myself, awkward beside groups of friends, tourists and family hovering in clumps checking camera cards and glancing at watches.
The ranger calls out our names and one by one we clamber up to find a seat. I feel like the kid queueing outside the field trip bus – more people present than good seats available. My name is called and I quickly claim a front row ‘window’ seat. There are no windows on a safari truck.
We head through the camp’s gates and a quiet bliss slips over me. For the next two and a half hours I don’t have to drive, think, take pictures or make conversation. Yet there’s entertainment in the form of central Kruger’s flat landscapes as they glide past. I can watch the grass and occasional trees stay the same for the entire time and be happy.
We’re briefed that a night drive is different from a day drive because the animals aren’t as ‘exciting’ as the lion, elephant, giraffe and leopard seen during the day. This doesn’t matter. Simply being allowed to sit back and breathe in the bush is a treat in itself. The curfew for self drives is coming up so the roads empty. It’s off season so we might not even pass another safari vehicle.
Alone with my thoughts, I distance myself from the conversations and questions between ranger and travellers.
The sun sets sooner than I imagined it would. We stop for a picture. Mostly I stare at a phenomenon so distinct it was awarded its own name. Herds of wildebeest and buffalo kicked up dust all day so the sun could spend its last waking minutes as a fiercely red ball – a true African sunset.
We listen. The sounds of the night are chirping up. To me it’s only cricketing and buzzing, but coupled with the absolute stillness of the bush, each small sound is pronounced and seems to find its cue perfectly.
We do see a few goodies – a porcupine crossing the road, a tiny owl in a tree and even a pride of lion guarding the carcass of a giraffe. I’ve wrapped my scarf even tighter and pulled on my parka. The air is cool through my stockings, cool enough to remind me it’s late May, but not of shivering intensity.
Cosy in my seat, my feet are propped up on a bar in front of me. The night is wind still, but the air whizzes by as we drive along. The scent of the bush is different from the natural surroundings of Cape Town. It’s more fragrant, warmer.
We drive like this in the dark for a long time. The game ranger’s spotlight pans from the one side to the other and back again, but the night crawlers are hiding. I slip into a peaceful lull. I don’t have cellphone signal. I’m off the grid, yet safe. I’m far from home and I’m happy.
Everyone should experience a night drive. Don’t expect to see predators or action, but expect to meet the blissful, slightly subdued side of a normally frantic destination. Breathe it in. Cherish it.