August 15, 2010
One of my favorite activities of the safari was a hot air balloon ride over the Masai Mara. Ballooning over the Mara is a very popular activity and is #1 on the cover of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, so when visiting the area it should be at the top of your list. Unless of course you are afraid of heights or have any motion sickness issues, because if your experience is anything like mine was, I promise you will be traumatized. However if you enjoy a bit of motion and can keep the fear at bay of floating in a little balloon with nothing but air between you and the wild animals below you are in for the experience of a lifetime.
The hot air balloon rides can be arranged for you through your lodge or tour company so all you have to do is wake up bright and early and show up. And when I say bright and early, I really mean dark and early because you get up around 5am to be there before sunrise so you can see sunrise while in the balloon. For people like me who would sleep to noon if they had their druthers, this can seem like torture. I can assure you however that it is well worth it. Watching the sun slowly peak through the trees and illuminate the plains below is truly magical. It is also a wonderful time to photograph because the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset are commonly called magic hour for the beautiful warm hues and soft lighting that is cast on the world below. In other words, perfect photographic lighting.
There are two types of balloons that go out in Kenya. There is a large approximately 18 person seater and a much smaller 4 or 6 person seater. My dad and I were lucky to be in the smaller one. We were joined in the balloon by another father and daughter pair who’s mother, like mine, was still fast asleep in the comforts of the lodge. Again I mention this trip is not for the weak of heart so any family members who do not like heights should stay at the hotel! We were also joined by a hot air balloon pilot from another part of Africa who wanted to know how this particular company ran their business, and then of course the pilot himself so we were 6 people all together. Our balloon was pretty roomy and while there were seats we stood up most of the time. The ride itself lasts about an hour and a half.
The ride was relatively smooth and we actually spent most of the time at a low level elevation so we could see the wildlife better. It was actually quite fun to watch the animals watch us, most were indifferent and had no reaction, but the wildebeest would scatter even when we were high up and they do the funniest spazzy dance/run when they scatter.
The first time the pilot really pulled on the fire scared me a bit, because while I knew there would be fire, I hadn’t really realized how much and how hot it would be. After I got used to it I found it quite nice because it was a cold morning and the blasts of fire above us felt like a warm crackling fire place on a frigid winter day. The pilot can control the altitude of the hot air balloon, but the direction is purely up to the wind. He can make slight adjustments by pulling on the ropes, but for the most part you are in the hands of fate.
The perspective you get from the balloon is unique and very different from the one you get sitting in the safari vehicles. You really get a feel for the expanse of the open plains and land in Kenya. It was made particularly great by the great migration because we were able to really get a feeling for the number of wildebeests and zebras and gazelles. You also get a great perspective to spot animals you may not be able to see on the ground. The grass is so high and the trees can be so dense that you only see 10 to 20 percent of the big game wildlife that is actually out there when you’re driving. From the balloon you have a better chance and we spotted our first hyena and rhino that morning.
I loved the feeling of being in a hot air balloon. It felt like I was simply floating above the world, it was the closest to feeling to actually flying I have ever felt. Being in an airplane or helicopter is usually much higher up and feels more mechanical. The feeling of floating in a balloon with the wind on my face and no walls keeping me in felt like it was just me flying alone above the plains. It was magical…until the landing. The landing was not magical. The landing was 50% percent terrifying and 50% exhilarating and 100% why I suggest those who do not like motion or flying or heights stay at the hotel. This is because the term landing is used loosely, really you are crashing. I kind of pictured we would float softly down to the ground and land upright in our basket. I have never done any other balloon rides so I am not sure if this is how it is usually done, but here on the Masai Mara you crash land. Luckily our pilot warned us about it, so we had braced ourselves to tip over, but being dragged for another 50 or so feet after crashing to the ground and tipping over came as quite a surprise to me. The pilot informed us that on windy days it is quite common for the basket to tip and that we should just stay seated and lean back against the basket (which was the back of our seats). Our basket touched the ground a few times, bouncing against the high grass and my dad and I really thought we may stay upright, but then (inevitably) we tipped over and the still inflated balloon caused us to drag on our backs through the tall grass. It was slightly painful, but only in a bumpy way that you can shake off as long as you don’t have a bad back. I was more worried for my cameras which I was hugging to my body like a newborn baby. I also had pictures in my mind of a very wily lion who was waiting just up ahead with his mouth wide open waiting for use to be dragged right into his salivating chops. Luckily we were not eaten. A stick bug flew into our basket, but he was harmless and we all were able to climb out and brush ourselves off relatively unharmed. As a reward after the hard landing the hot air balloon companies have a champagne breakfast out on the plains. We had &Beyond arrange it so my mother could come and have breakfast with us, which I recommend insisting upon if a member of you group stays at the lodge. We were then able to head out on our morning drive by 8:30am so it did not interfere whatsoever with the rest of the day. Overall it is an amazing experience that is not to be missed!