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Rising with Africa at Dawn: A Balloon Ride Over the Maasai Mara

I was in the Maasai Mara for two nights, and after my afternoon game drive on the first day, someone from our balloon safari company was waiting for us back at camp for a short briefing on how it would work. “We will come and get you at 4:30 a.m.” Did he say a.m.? I was on a holiday! Why was I planning to wake up at 4:00 a.m.? He gave us a briefing on the pre-booked balloon safari, and I was starting to wonder if this would really be a good idea – the thought of waking up so early in the morning was not tempting at all.

We had dinner and rolled into our tents early. I was in bed by 9:30. Whether it was the anxiety of waking up so early or the sheer excitement of what was to come, I barely slept that night. I tossed and turned most of the night and kept thinking about being in a balloon. Finally, I heard someone say, “Good morning, it’s time for your wakeup call,” – It was already 4 a.m. The waiter left hot chocolate and coffee with cookies on my dressing table. I was still under my warm duvet cooking up excuses not to wake up, but then I thought about the gentleman who drove one and a half hours just to give me a briefing about this balloon flight. I finally got up, washed my face and grabbed the hot chocolate and cookies.  Alright. Let’s do this.

We walked to the reception desk where the driver was waiting for us. “Jambo!” he said with a smile.  All he heard from me was a mumbling jumble of “Yes, Jambo, morning...” Piling into the Land cruiser, we left our camp. I knew it was going to be about an hour long drive to the site and tried to get as comfortable as possible, which proved to be a bit of a challenge as the roads in the Maasai Mara weren’t smooth. There was also nothing to see as it was still too dark. Once again, I told myself, “this balloon ride better be worth it.

I finally arrived at my destination and the driver led me to the reception, where I was told I was in balloon number two. I was then taken to a lounge where tea and coffee was being served. There were at least 30 people around – most were eager and wide awake, having had their morning beverage; others were on their phones taking various selfies; and then there was me – grumpy, tired and sleepy.

It was 5:55 when we were finally told to board the vehicle, which was going to take us to the launch site – a mere minute away from where we were having tea. As dawn started creeping in, there was a lot of activity on the “field.” There were three separate groups with at least five people in each group tending to balloons that had been laid out flat on the ground, each with a basket on its side. I went to the second balloon, and another group of six guests joined me.  By now, I was a bit more awake. The pilot introduced himself as he tugged on different ropes and opened the gas casket at intervals to fill the balloon with air. The whoosh of hot air and the heat it was emitting added to the excitement of the events unfolding on the field as everyone was getting ready for takeoff. In between all of this, the pilot was giving us a spiel on balloon flight etiquette: how to get inside the balloon, what to do when it turned right side up and to really just relax after taking off. I continued watching in fascination as the air was being blown into the balloon. After a few minutes, it started to take shape.  Our pilot then showed us how to get inside the basket that was lying at a 90 degree angle on the ground.  When we got in, we were laying on the edge of the basket with our backs parallel to the ground.  I actually thought this was a joke at first, but then it made sense, because as the balloon grew larger and lifted off the ground, it brought the basket right side up. 

I looked to my left and right and saw the same thing taking place with the other baskets.  The sky was getting lighter as the sun started to rise slowly beyond the horizon. There was a soft breeze as the balloon team pulled at the ropes. The pilot kept tugging and flipping the ropes up and down and sideways. I glanced at the other balloons again and they had started moving. The baskets were a foot off the ground and were continuing to rise. Suddenly, all the ropes detached and the balloons were free to follow the path of the wind. I looked at ours, but we were still on the ground.  The sun was rising and we were all getting anxious. Why weren’t we off the ground yet? Why was it taking so long? Let’s be up there already!

Finally, we moved.  As if we were in a slow motion movie, the team released the ropes from our balloon and we lifted off the ground. We were making a slow and smooth ascent and every moment was spectacular as the sun was rising, the sky was clearing and the ground was expanding to provide us with a panoramic view of the wilderness. The rays of the sun brightened the sky further and there was a layer of mist that added to the romance and mystery of the atmosphere. 

There were other balloons in the distance. We kept on rising and falling as the pilot flew us over the magnificent Maasai Mara. We spotted elephants in thickets of trees. Gazelles and wildebeests were jogging away as we flew over the river. We even saw a hippo running. Oh! There went a lion with his companion, winding in and out of the bush. A jackal was following them from not far behind.  We passed over another body of water and the sun’s rays glinted off the surface. I felt like I was living a fairy tale from my childhood – the entire scene was magical and I almost expected to see some twinkling fairy dust over our balloon.  Everyone was buzzing with laughter and excitement as we kept spotting different game. The air was crisp and fresh and it was easy to forget the cold as I looked for signs of life on the ground.  Even the simplest landscape turned into a mystical scene enveloping me in a sense of peace and tranquility. I wanted to stay up there for a very long time.

After about an hour, the pilot opened a flap of the balloon that started releasing the air. Just like that, we slowly started descending from 2,000 feet. The descent was a different kind of thrill than the ascent as the ground grew closer and closer; a mellow kind of excitement. Again, it felt like everything was in slow motion as the balloon made its way down. At about fifty feet off the ground, the pilot told us to sit down and hold on for our landing. We couldn’t really see how close to the ground we were anymore. Suddenly, the basket touched down and bounced back up. This surprising jolt sent us all into bouts of laughter as we bounced up and down a few more times before coming to a final stop. 

After a few more minutes, we were finally allowed to stand up and exit the basket – the balloon itself was slowly deflating and coming to rest on the ground.  The sun was bright in the sky and there was a team waiting to take us to a champagne breakfast. 

We were finally brought to an open area that had been set up with a full buffet station on one side and tables and chairs on the other. The Food & Beverage manager and his team as well as the pilots welcomed us with glasses of champagne. It was time for breakfast.

As I looked around at the expressions of happiness, peace and excitement on everyone’s faces, I realized how lucky I was to be part of such an enchanting experience.  A bush breakfast out in the middle of nowhere with a spectacular sky overhead and the endless backdrop of one of the world’s most natural wonders… I knew I was experiencing something truly out of this world. My first balloon flight had been magical. The slow ascent and the tranquility of being in the sky and watching the world below come to life; I had felt free and at peace, more so than anywhere else I had been. There wasn’t any doubt that I wanted to fly again, even if it meant getting up before dawn.

By Aleema Noormohamed. Former Marketing Executive at Gamewatcher's Safaris Ltd

November 20, 2014
Before dawn. Photo credit: Aleema Noormohamed.

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