It is Kenya’s most iconic safari experience: floating over the vast plains of the Masai Mara in a hot air balloon. There’s simply no better way to see the wildlife and experience the scale and beauty of Kenya. A balloon safari is simply a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; so we asked travel writer Jane Barsby to give it a try…
A balloon safari starts early: at around five am. It’s inky black outside the flaps of your tent, and surprisingly chilly as you follow the night watchman’s wavering torch-beam to where an open-sided safari vehicle awaits you. Your fellow ballooners acknowledge you with a nod. It’s too early for wit. As the vehicle grinds its way across the savanna, the sky turns from indigo to lilac, and then to a heaven-tinged golden pink.
Arriving at the take-off point, you wonder why you had to get up so early. There’s plenty of activity from a team of men in overalls with torch-lights strapped to their foreheads. But the balloon itself lies limp as a rainbow-coloured pancake. A tangle of ropes streams out behind her and a huge basket is dragged into place.
A sudden roar shatters the grey blanket of dawn as a bank of burners fire up, and great dragon-breaths of fire lick into the swelling rainbow belly of the balloon. And very slowly, she begins to inflate and rise into the dove pink dawn.
On the ground, the tempo changes. The watching ballooners stuff their cameras into their pockets, zip up their jackets and await the signal to hoist their chilled-stiff bodies into the high-sided basket. There are four compartments; four passengers in each. And it’s only when we’ve settled on our allotted benches that we realise what a rash thing we’ve done. The balloon, now fully inflated above us, is the size of two elephants. And she’s straining on her guy ropes, keen to be off. Do we really want to do this?
Benignly aware of the rising tide of panic among his passengers, the balloon pilot begins his spiel. He tells us in which direction we will be flying. He explains how the balloon can be steered by her guide ropes, and how she can dip down over the river and rise up again into the ether. Unease stirs when the landing is mentioned.
I shall say, ‘no more photographs’, says the pilot, looking round the white-pinched faces, ‘at which point you must put away your cameras, make sure you have nothing hanging around your neck, and take up your landing positions.’ He indicates the loops of rope that hang from the sides of the basket, ‘holding on to the landing ropes’. We nod grimly.
‘Right,’ says the pilot, pulling on a pair of thick leather gloves, ‘lets go.’ He pulls down on the aluminium bars that control the burners, the ground-men cast off the ropes and, with supremely silent grace, the great orange, blue and yellow bulb rises serenely through the morning mist, flirts with the tree tops, and sails away.
Flying at bird-level in the vastness of avian air space is a novel experience. So is skimming the tree panoply, flying past eagles nests, and peering down into glades where waterbuck browse. The experience has a curious dream-like quality. Only the great gouts of hot air belching into the balloon disturb the silence as we drift over the peacefully plodding elephant herds, and spy on the courtships and clashes taking place in the theatre of wildlife below. The hippos, drawn up on the banks of the river, look like so many well-browned sausages, and breakfast seems a long way off.
The balloon is curiously agile. She swoops down to skim the surface of the river; and hangs suspended over the flurry of hoofs and horns that is a leopard kill. She ascends rapidly and twirls like a lollipop at the pull of the the pilot’s guide-ropes. Far below, toiling ant-like in the massive shadow cast by the balloon on the landscape, the procession of support vehicles trails us.
What goes up must come down
‘Cameras away please,’ says the pilot suddenly, ‘take up landing positions.’
The balloon descends swiftly from on high: she’s moving fast across the scudding landscape. The ground draws ever closer: and looks ever harder. We brace, grab the ropes, clench our teeth, and accept our fate.
Bump number ONE – the basket merely kisses the ground.
Bump number TWO – the basket ploughs through the grass and then hauls herself up again.
And bump number THREE – we’re down.
All tearing, gouging motion stops. There’s a profound silence as we peep timidly over the side of the basket. Behind us, with a sigh of exhalation, the balloon topples away to lie flaccid on the khaki-coloured turf. We don’t know whether to whoop that we’ve made it. Or wail that it’s all over.
But it isn’t. Chilled fizz is proferred. A low table has been laid out on the plains, surrounded by erect Maasai spears and set around with folding stools. ‘Welcome to the most expensive breakfast in Africa,’ says the pilot. Now that’s how to end a balloon safari.
Balloon safaris – need to know:
Your tour operator or Mara camp/lodge will be able to organise your balloon safari either before you arrive or once you’re here. There are several reputable operators with impeccable safety records, including Governors Balloon Safaris, SkyShip, and Africa Eco Adventures.
Watch the balloon safari video from Governors’ Camp, Masai Mara National Reserve.
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