Hot Air Ballooning over the Masai Mara
There are some things that just have to be done once in a lifetime and hot air ballooning over the Masai Mara wildebeest migration is one of them. There is little that can match the aesthetic appeal of a huge colourful balloon rising like an airborne lollipop out of the pre-dawn darkness into the first rays of the sun.
Hot Air Ballooning Over The Wildebeest MigrationAs the gigantic candy-striped balloons took the shape of giant lollipops and started to rise from the ground, so did the sun. 'Gee look at that sunrise, isn't it beautiful,' expressed a middle aged American lady. 'Yeah, and it's totally natural' added her friend.
Whilst I was pondering this statement we were commanded to climb into the shoulder high basket straining on its tether- the front bumper of a truck - which apparently accompanied the flight on one occasion.
As we clambered ungainly into the padded suede interior - three in each of the four compartments and the pilot in the middle, a fellow passenger asked if I was afraid. Far too excited to contemplate fear, I felt only a serene elation as we floated gracefully over the thigh-high grass covering 1000sq miles of undulating Masai Mara.
Skimming The Grass Like A Lawn MowerHot air ballooning is not an instant adrenaline sport, more of a spiritual upliftment experience and we drifted in silent contemplation over a tree-lined river full of hippopotami. Suddenly the peace and tranquility was broken by a pyrotechnic frenzy of flames and the hippos submerged with a grunt. The powerful burners had to be lit every couple of minutes in order to blast heat right up into the balloon which stood a full 100ft above us. The effect was festive and the glowing balloons looked like Christmas baubles floating across the landscape.Several more blasts lifted the balloon to almost 1000 feet with magnificent views of smooth golden grass plains in every direction and the purple hills of Tanzania and the edge of the Rift Valley in the distance. Such is the skill of the pilots and the control they have that one moment we were sky high, and the next skimming the tops of the grass like a lawn mower.There are 7 lodges in the Masai Mara offering balloon flights and if staying at the renowned Little Governor's Camp, getting to the takeoff field is an adventure in itself. It involves walking in spooky pre-dawn darkness accompanied by 6 different Askari's (Maasai minders), in whose hands you are passed rather like a baton in a relay race.
You are then coaxed into a wobbly wooden boat and pulled across the roaring Mara River by a ubiquitous ferryman, whom I regret to say, in the darkness, I forgot to pay. Bad mistake for if anyone deserved a tip he did, for the occasion when he had to spar with a 15ft crocodile who began snapping at the ferry.
Wild BusAs we drifted effortlessly on to cover about 10 miles in the early morning light winds, our pilot pointed ahead and shouted, 'Wild-bus approaching.' Looking for the distinctive lope of migrating wildebeest, we saw instead twelve little white safari buses looking like toy cars racing against each other.
We were witnessing the beginning of the spectacular 1.4 million-strong wildebeest migration from the Serengeti Plains in Tanzania into the lush pastures of the Masai Mara. It was early August and the migration had been eagerly awaited for several weeks. Like marching black ants, the wildebeest move in slow moving single-file lines that snake far off into the distance. A lone zebra at the head of each line.
A Period Of FeastingVast herds of wildebeest may wait for days on the banks of the Mara River in fear of the raging current and lurking crocodiles. Eventually their migratory instinct takes over from any modicum of sense and they leap into the water from ridiculous heights and exit at the steepest banks ignoring a gentle slope just 100 feet further on. In the desperate panic many animals die underfoot and the young and weak drown in soupy mud, crocodile jaws or the overpowering torrential current.After a major crossing we saw wildebeest carcasses piled up on sandbanks with vultures squabbling over the pickings. The hippos although vegetarian, became extremely cross at this invasion of their riverine territory and waddled around wide-mouthed, trying to chase the vultures away. As far as the eye can see were wildebeest, zebra, springy Thomson's gazelle, dopey topi and elegant impalas all mingling together in colourful herds. This is the time of year when lions get fat and all the carnivores settle into a period of feasting.
Champagne Bush BreakfastThe inhabitants took little notice and continued grazing as amongst them the balloon landed. The basket tipped on its side and dragged us a little way in the increasing wind and we found ourselves looking up at a wispy blue sky. The breakfast truck, which had been following our progress, arrived within seconds and the crew helped us crawl out.With curved metal pangas, they slashed a circle in the long grass right where we landed and set stools around a low table. The chef laid a trestle table with plates of soft sweet paw paw and pineapple, chocolate croissants and muffins, crispy bacon and sizzling sausages. At the far end he stood smiling in his tall white hat and invited us to order our choice of omelette and into the deep frying pan he added grated cheese, ham, onion or hot green chillies.
The French Champagne was popped and this delightful yet bizarre bush breakfast commenced. It was not hard to imagine how those elaborate hunting safaris of the 1920's would have felt, especially since I was sitting right in the middle of the 'Out Of Africa' film set - I was literally treading in Meryl Streep's footsteps.I felt like I had had a full day's worth of new experiences and my senses and stomach were fulfilled. Like the carnivores whose active day ends with the dawn I also felt like resting in the shade but looking at my watch I realised I still had my whole day ahead of me. All this action and it was only 9.00am.
- By road the Masai Mara is a 4½-hour drive south-west of Kenya's capital city Nairobi or ½ hour scenic flight from Wilson Airport.
- There are numerous comfortable lodges, luxury tented camps and basic bush camps and the renowned Governors family of luxury tented camps with their own balloon company.
- Transworld Safaris operate balloon flights from many of the lodges. Book in advance or on arrival. They will also arrange your safari and light aircraft flights.
- Zoom lenses and binoculars are essential.
- An animal field guide will enable you to get the most out of your safari - recommended author; Richard Despard Estes.
- The Maasai are very proud and private people with disdain for outsiders. It is worth reading up on the Maasai culture before heading into their homeland.
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