Kenya: Taking to the Sky

Sunrise on the Maasai Mara, seen from a hot-air balloon.

Sunrise on the Maasai Mara, seen from a hot-air balloon.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — During a recent Kenya trip, I had a few opportunities to do game viewing from the air, in some cases from small aircraft when traveling to and between tent camps and once on a helicopter tour of the Rift Valley just outside of Nairobi.

But the best choice for overflying the animals — for great views of the animals as well as their home turf — was the hot-air balloon ride operated by Kenya-based Balloon Safaris, Ltd.

I was in Kenya with other travel journalists, hosted by the Kenya Tourism Board. This particular excursion started at the Mara Plains tented camp, owned by Great Plains Conservation and located on the Olare Motorogi Conversancy, adjacent to the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

You don’t have to be a daredevil to take a hot-air balloon ride over the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya, but this is not for sissies. It’s not for the lazy either.

We were up early enough to depart by around 5 a.m. We needed to be at the launch site, about half an hour away, in time for lift-off before sunrise.

It was chilly being out and about at such an hour, even in June. During the ride to the launch site, we discovered that our four-wheel-drive transport came stocked with nicely lined ponchos. They were a lifesaver for this and other brisk early morning activities.

I can clock the journey by looking at my photographs. I took my first shot at 5:30 a.m. of the balloon on the ground, just being filled with air. The first shot in the sky was at 5:45.

In the intervening 15 minutes, we passed through a short security check then were lifted into the air.

As for takeoff, initially we were sitting down, but in a horizontal position, until the basket could be moved and came upright.

Our pilot revved up a fire to heat the air inside the balloon, which in turn kept the balloon blown up to its full size. This was enough to allow us to rise because the air was much thinner and warmer inside the balloon than the colder air outside.

One of several balloons that shared the skies with our own. The view also highlights the majesty of the Maasai Mara landscape.

One of several balloons that shared the skies with our own. The view also highlights the majesty of the Maasai Mara landscape.

Our pilot/guide was an Australian, Capt. Ellie Kirkman, whose husband, Capt. Milton Kirkman, was piloting another balloon traveling in tandem with us. In fact, there were several balloons in the sky and we could photograph them in all directions.

We had a beautiful sky and could enjoy views of sloping hills, winding tree-lined rivers and some wildlife below.

View of the Maasai Mara landscape as well as giraffes moving away from a floating balloon. A second balloon is visible in the distance.

View of the Maasai Mara landscape as well as giraffes moving away from a floating balloon. A second balloon is visible in the distance.

The biggest grouping was a really large herd of buffalo. We also looked down on lone or small groups of giraffes and zebras. Sometimes, aware of the balloon or balloons in the sky, they skittered away from us, but not in a great frantic rush.

Zebras, sensing a balloon nearby, skitter away.

Zebras, sensing a balloon nearby, skitter away.

The journey lasted 60 minutes — my last airborne photo was at 6:45 — but went very quickly.

We floated relatively close to the ground, it seemed, but, of course, there are no electrical wires or other such impediments on nature preserves to bother us at low levels.

The shadow of our balloon seen against the richly colored Maasai Mara landscape.

The shadow of our balloon seen against the richly colored Maasai Mara landscape.

At its Website, Balloon Safaris, Ltd., lists the cost of the balloon experience at $450 (I took essentially the same trip 10 years ago when, as I recall, that price tag was $300).

Balloon Safaris designates a specific tree where each flight will end and where breakfast will be served to passengers. As we neared our destination, we were amused to watch the balloon in front of us, piloted by our captain’s husband, head in a direction that would take it straight into the designated tree.

Watching a second balloon clear the tree that marks our breakfast site.

Watching a second balloon clear the tree that marks our breakfast site.

He brought the balloon up to clear the tree, leaving enough time then for our captain — his wife — to be first to land. On the ground, he claimed he had really been first in that “race.”

The flight was followed by breakfast in the bush, with seating at a table under the tree that nearly lost its top. The menu included pastries and croissants, yogurt, quiche, sausages, cereal plus hot drinks.

With this, we were primed for a busy day on the ground. After all, the day had barely begun. My timed photos show we were already game viewing by around 8 a.m.

The flight completed, a hot-air balloon deflates on the ground.

The flight completed, a hot-air balloon deflates on the ground.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of  Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

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