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.

Kenya: Wildebeests and Their Cousins

Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — I had known about the Great Migration — the annual movement of herbivores across the grasslands of East Africa — but I did not know that wildebeests imitate their migratory behavior on a regular, less-grand scale.

During a recent morning’s game viewing on the Maasai Mara, another journalist and I saw one example of this, as the animals moved en masse from one grassy plateau to another.

To effect that move, the animals had to cross a gully and the Ntiakitiak River, which — for good reason — they did at a run: There was a crocodile in the river near the wildebeests’ legs, looking for lunch.

Wildebeests run across the Maasai Mara’s Ntiakitiak River to get to the grasses on the next plateau.

Wildebeests run across the Maasai Mara’s Ntiakitiak River to get to the grasses on the next plateau.

The Maasai Mara area (encompassing the Maasai Mara National Reserve and neighboring private conservancies in southwestern Kenya) is famed for its place in the Great Migration.

Broadly speaking, the animals move in a circle, departing from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and flooding onto the Maasai Mara plain in mid- and late summer. The return trip to Tanzania, at the end of the year, is more gradual.

In my book, Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, I reported that an estimated 3 million to 3.5 million animals make the move, about half of them wildebeests. The line of wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, the predators that live on them and others can stretch across the landscape for 25 miles at the height of the relocation.

At the time of my recent sightings, I was part of a press group hosted by the Kenya Tourism Board. Our group spent a significant portion of our time on the Maasai Mara National Reserve and in the adjacent conservancies.

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Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

Thomson’s gazelles breakfasting under bright early morning light, on the Maasai Mara.

Thomson’s gazelles breakfasting under bright early morning light, on the Maasai Mara.

When we visited the Maasai Mara, most of these animals had just returned to Kenya.

We were thrilled to see what I call a mini-migration, during which thousands of wildebeests moved a fairly short distance, but en masse. They were seeking grass, which is the motivator for the Great Migration, too.
Duncan, our driver/guide, said wildebeests regularly move together in large numbers because they have a tendency to behave like lemmings.

He said, “Once one decides to do it, others follow.” We saw the animals lined up beyond our horizon. Some of them ran just to join the line — or maybe jump the line.

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Kenya: Big Cats in the Wild

Undeterred by a tourist vehicle, the cheetah strides very close to her visitors.

Undeterred by a tourist vehicle, the cheetah strides very close to her visitors.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — I have two cats at home, which probably makes me just that much more likely to enjoy game viewing that includes some of the big cats. I was lucky enough to do that recently, when I joined a press trip, sponsored by the Kenya Tourism Board.

Jeeps and driver/guides for our group’s game viewing were provided by the Sanctuary Olonana tented camp, where we were hosted one night, and Great Plains Conservation, which owns two camps where we were guests, Mara Plains and Mara Toto.

Our group watched the big cats several times on the Maasai Mara National Reserve or, at times, while in nearby privately held conservancies.

Lions

Isn’t he the true Lion King?

Isn’t he the true Lion King?

We saw the lions first. With one exception, though, that was not where the action was. Generally, the cats were doing what cats do very well — sleep, stretch and yawn.

Lions know how to enjoy a good yawn.

Lions know how to enjoy a good yawn.

In the one exception, a lion pair was doing what comes naturally to make those cute little cubs. And, we were probably indecently amused.

The family that naps together stays together. These young lions are seen on the Maasai Mara.

The family that naps together stays together. These young lions are seen on the Maasai Mara.

As it turned out, out observations of leopards and cheetahs were more gripping — although, in no case, did we see a kill. Fine by me.

One of our guides could not resist referring to gazelles as cheetah chips. He also called the wildebeest lion sausage.

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