Have you ever wondered what it’s like to take a hot-air balloon ride over Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya?
My adventure began in the wee hours of a mid-September morning. The alarm clock bleated loudly, summoning me out from beneath the warmth of my cozy duvet. Crawling out of bed, I began layering nearly all of the clothes I’d packed, one on top of the other. You see, even in the heart of Africa, the weather is quite cool before the sun rises. And if you’re going to soar over the savanna aboard a hot-air balloon, you have to be out the door well before the crack of dawn. The goal is to be in the air above Maasai Mara before the sun rises above the horizon.
In the lobby of the exquisite Mara Serena Safari Lodge, I met up with the seven other people who would be joining me on my adventure, as well as an entire convoy of crew members. I had few expectations since the folks at African Sermon Safaris had made all of the arrangements as part of the custom safari package they’d whipped up for me. I quickly realized there was a lot more to the ride than simply piling into a basket and taking flight. Under the cover of darkness, our jeeps wended through the rugged savanna in search of the perfect place to launch our balloon. Every one of us was silent as we exited the vehicle and awaited further instruction.
As soon as I was outside, I started shivering. But it was only partly due to the cool nip in the air. The rest was nerves, especially after our pilot explained the rules of the ride. Our instructions were brief but firm. Don’t lean out of the basket. If the pilot says to sit down, don’t hesitate. Just do it. And be prepared for a bumpy landing that may involve rolling through a field. For this reason, if you have long hair, it needs to be tucked away entirely—you could be choked by your own ponytail if not. And the same goes for camera straps around the neck. What seemed like a quaint morning excursion was turning out to be a bit frightening. Until we finally took flight.
It’s hard to explain the majesty of the African savanna as you soar over the plains. Unlike driving in a jeep through herds of wildlife, giraffes, gazelles, elephants, and other exotic animals roam undisturbed hundreds of feet below your basket. How high you fly is entirely dependent on the weather. My basket stayed fairly close to the ground, giving us a great view of the landscape. Wind in my hair, I watched the sun rise into blue skies. It nearly brings me to tears just thinking about it.
But when it’s over, it’s really over. There is no set path for the flight. The pilot decided where to land on a whim, and the convoy followed closely behind the balloon, ready to scoop us up where ever we touched down. On this particular journey, we ended up across the border in Tanzania. And the pilot joked that she would bribe the authorities with a bottle of wine if we got caught. We laughed and laughed, until she abruptly told us to sit down.
And that was it. With a thunderous jolt, we hit the ground, our basket rolling on its side as we skidded for what felt like miles across the grassy plains. My teeth clamored and body quaked. I knew the landing might be rough, and I’m a pretty tough cookie, but it was much worse than I had expected. Shaken, I crawled out of the basket and into the awaiting jeep. Within a few moments, the shock of our rocky landing had worn off, and I was flying high on the adrenaline. I would gladly tumble across the plains another ten times if it that’s what I had to do to take another hot-air balloon ride over the Maasai Mara. It was that good.
After a quick drive back into Kenya, we arrived at the final leg of our journey. In the middle of the African savanna, we were treated to a gourmet brunch. There were buffet tables filled with every type of breakfast food you could imagine, from pastries and meats to cereals and juices. It was a feast for the eyes and the stomach. The hot foods were prepared fresh on site. We sat at long tables and talked about our exciting adventure. All the while, we knew there were lions looming in the nearby fields—we’d passed them on the way to the site. But not to worry, a small herd of zebras separated us. They would make a much better meal for the felines.