Ben Groundwater's best travel moment of 2016: That one amazing moment that trumps everything else

It's dark out there in the wilderness, pitch black at this time of night, so it's hard to tell what that large shape is moving outside our camp. There's so much that's alive around here, so many rustles in the bushes, so many sets of eyes that reflect the torchlight when you shine it out into the great African unknown.

Earlier we'd spotted a hyena skulking around camp, searching for food. This particular animal is actually a fixture around here, so much so that it has a nickname: "Spider". Spider is a misunderstood hyena who has an unfortunate habit of sneaking up on people and scaring the bejesus out of them. You'll be sitting around the campfire minding your own business when Spider will just appear at your shoulder, come to check things out.

Most campers scream like they've seen a huge arachnid. Spider, equally scared by the screaming, will take off into the bushes.

Tonight, however, we spotted Spider before he spotted us. But that shape out there on the edge of the flickering firelight is too big to be Spider. It's too big to be one of the jackals that are always hanging around trying to steal food. And it's too large to be one of the baboons that have their home in this area.

There's a wall of blackness out there, a moving mass that's barely distinct from the rest of the murk. Four of us are sitting around the campfire, nursing glasses of whisky, trading tales of African adventure, and we all go quiet as we figure out what it is, and as we realise it's coming towards us.

Soon we can pick out white tusks, and a grey trunk, and the flap of ears the size of sails. There's an elephant in our campsite, in the little clearing in front of us. A real, huge elephant. If you threw a rock you couldn't miss it. It's that close. It's that big.

But the elephant doesn't care about us or our little fire. It lumbers silently over to a huge tree in the middle of the clearing and begins rubbing itself on the brittle trunk. We hold our breath, half in fear, half in wonder, as it moves on to a smaller bush and feeds on the leaves and branches.

And then, as if it was never there in the first place, it just disappears into the great unknown, dissolving into the savannah, another dark shape, another set of eyes.

You can't script these moments. You can't plan for them. They either just happen, or they don't. These are the scenes that will be seared onto the highlight reel of your memory for the rest of your life.

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It's not so much the event itself, but the way these moments make you feel. I will never forget the thrill of sitting deep in the Botswana bush and watching as an elephant just wandered past. It's fear and excitement. It's surprise and joy.

That moment in Botswana, at a campsite called Third Bridge in Moremi National Park at the base of the Okavango Delta, is my travelling highlight of 2016. Of all the amazing places, of all the fantastic people, of all the beautiful sights, that is the most memorable couple of seconds.

It's this time of year that you get to look back on things like that. You can weigh up the travel successes and the failures, the good ideas and bad. I got to visit Jerusalem in 2016. I learned to cook in Palestine. I ate breakfast with giraffes in Kenya, trekked through the Alps in Switzerland, and skied in Aspen. But still, Third Bridge was the highlight.

Even the journey there was an adventure. My girlfriend and I were in the middle of a month-long holiday, a road trip in a Hilux ute through South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. We knew the drive to Third Bridge would be a challenge, with about 45 kilometres of sandy track to negotiate, a road crisscrossed by rivers and streams, with the threat of lions and deep isolation on the off chance we got stuck.

But we made it. Third Bridge campsite is unfenced, just a clearing within the park. You can hear lions roaring there at night. Leopards are sometimes seen flitting through the darkness. Elephants wander in to camp to feed on the trees.

You're always a little bit on edge there, always on the lookout for eyes in the dark, always scanning the bushes for tawny fur or grey, leathery skin.

And eventually, inevitably, you do see it. So close. That's a highlight of any year.

Ben Groundwater paid for his own travel.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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