Selenkay Conservancy, Kenya -- Sipping my ice-cold Tusker beer beside a campfire while the sun sets over the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro, I'm thinking I have the best seat in the house.
Not so. An even better one awaits me for the trip back to our camp in southern Kenya. The invitation goes out from our guide, Isaac: "Who wants to take the bait seat?"
It's a small canvas-covered seat on the front left corner of the hood of our muddy but sturdy Land Rover. It's positioned to help spot game during evening drives; the occupant is sometimes given a spotlight.
When seated, your feet go on a protective metal frame that surrounds the headlights. Another metal bar next to your right hand gives much-needed stability around corners.
I've been on game drives in Kenya before, sitting comfortably in the back of such vehicles. I've also enjoyed seeing game on horseback and on foot.
I've seen ostrich mating dances, hippos fighting and a baby giraffe no more than a few hours old all unforgettable experiences. But strapped to the front of the car, a living hood ornament, I can't help feeling excited as well as just a little vulnerable. Isaac looks absolutely delighted that he has a volunteer.
As soon as he straps me in, we're on our way back to the Amboseli Porini Camp (www.porini.com) near Amboseli National Park, an area known for large herds of elephants that cover their bodies with the surrounding brick-red soil the red elephants of Amboseli.
Personally, I quietly hope most of them have called it a night and are sleeping somewhere far away. The engine fires up, the headlight between my legs comes on and the hood beneath me begins to vibrate. The ride back lasts 30 minutes, and it's beyond anything Disney could ever come up with.
Staring into the road ahead (and by "road" I mean barely visible tire tracks in the tall grass), I can see only as far as the headlight beams. Past that, total darkness.
When the wind rises, I look up to the sea of stars filling the sky. Every constellation sparkles. The truck carves through the grass, and the odd acacia branch clips my shoulder. One grazes my neck. Occasionally, Isaac yells out, "You okay up there?" and I always give him the thumbs-up.
Shadows created by the headlights are playing tricks on my eyes. That's a shrub, not an elephant, right?
Seeing that I'm enjoying my perch, Isaac hits the accelerator. (In Kenya the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, so his vision isn't obstructed.) Sometimes I begin to giggle but stop because bugs fly straight down my throat. One or two are probably still buzzing around my trachea.
Those I don't ingest land in my teeth, my ears, my hair and on my face. I wonder if I'm going to be beaned by a dung beetle the size of baseball.
While I'm trying not to laugh, Isaac makes no such effort. His bellows can easily be heard above the engine. He's enjoying himself far too much, I think. "Hey, look at the size of that lion," he jokes.
I actually manage to spot the odd animal small dik-diks and a few scurrying antelopes.
But you don't need a spotter to see the half-dozen zebras that suddenly bolt in front of the vehicle, causing my heart to stop briefly. I'm not sure who's more startled.
Seeing a small collection of lights ahead, I'm disappointed it's over I could have driven to Tanzania like this. When we pull into the campground, a group of Masai welcome me with broad smiles and laughter as well as a few handshakes.
Covered in dirt and bugs, my face must look like fly paper.
No matter. I wouldn't have changed seats for the world.