Hot-Air Balloon Ride Over Maasai Mara: A Wanderlust Experience

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.

To my great surprise, our private safari guide arrived at the site with my mother, who was my travel companion for the trip. She’s a wee bit of a fraidy cat, so she opted out of the flight. Instead, they had followed our balloon to the site and were waiting to whisk me away in search of the big five, which we saw later that day. It was one awesome experience.
Hot-air balloon rides over Africa don’t come cheap. It’ll set you back a few hundred bones, but it’s worth every penny. Have you ever taken a hot-air balloon ride over Africa or anywhere else? What advice would you give anyone thinking about giving it a try? Share your ideas on the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group.

Learn to Have a Relaxing Vacation

I’ve always been the kind of person who can’t sit still. And I found it difficult to have a relaxing vacation. But not anymore.

 

Does the thought of kicking back on a beach scare you? How about the idea of being stuck on a cruise ship with no access to the Internet? if you’re the kind of person who likes to keep busy, you know how hard it is to have a relaxing vacation. Here’s how I learned to overcome my fear of doing absolutely nothing for more than a few hours at a time.

1. Start Small

Don’t try to be something you’re not. Just because a friend tells you how refreshed she feels after a week sunning herself on a beach in Mexico doesn’t mean you have to jump on that train. You like the fast lane, and that’s okay. If you’re used to the kind of vacation that takes you on a whirlwind tour of six countries in seven days, booking a week at a relaxing resort in Cabo San Lucas may be a bit overwhelming to start. It would be a huge departure from what you’re used to. Instead, try booking an overnight stay at a secluded cabin in the woods or a cruise that has one day with no port stops. You’ll get a taste of what it’s like to have no choice but kick back.

relaxing vacation

2. Travel Someplace Remote

If you’re ready for something a bit more extreme, go someplace where you simply can’t do anything but nothing. Take an African safari, an eco tour through Costa Rica, or a river cruise through the Mekong Delta. You’ll be hard pressed to find a good mobile connection or even a television. But you will find amazing scenery that will distract you from the fact that you’re having a relaxing vacation. Take along a good book (or eReader), a deck of cards, a travel board game, or some crossword puzzles. Heck, toss in an adult coloring book for good measure. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you adapt when you have no other choice.

My first foray into forced relaxation was on Tortuguero Island, a remote village on the northern coast of Costa Rica. There were nothing but iguanas, geckos, and torrential downpours to entertain us. I thought I would die of boredom at first, but after a few hours I eased into the slower pace. We were only there one night, so it was a great experiment. Later, I would take a safari where I was out of connect with the rest of the world for seven of nine days. With elephants roaming the savanna right outside my window, it was easy to enjoy myself.

relaxing vacation

3. Leave Your Electronics at Home

The biggest favor your can do for yourself vacation is to leave your electronics behind—specifically your cell phone and tablet. For most of us that’s a bit of a challenge since nowadays we all use our phones to take pictures, set an alarm, and tell time. So a good alternative is to skip buying an international cell phone plan or buy one with fewer minutes. The costs of data roaming are atrocious without want, stopping you from using it to connect with folks back home. Set your cell to airplane mode and tune out. Tell everyone you know not to expect to hear from you for a few days. Plan your work in advance so that you can clear your calendar. If you really must take your work with you, then schedule specific days and times to do it and tell your coworkers they will only hear from your during those times. The rest of the time, you’ll be having a relaxing vacation.

relaxing vacation

4. Treat Yourself

For days when you know you’ll be doing absolutely nothing, treat yourself to a little something special. Get a massage or pedicure, for example. Doing this first thing in the morning can help you get into the spirit of things. Or if you want a break from doing nothing, schedule one for the mid-afternoon. A low-impact workout, like some yoga or a swim, is another great way to unwind. Go for a walk around the area and grab an ice cream, or splurge on a dinner at a fancy restaurant. These are all relaxing ways to enjoy your day.

relaxing vacation

I’m still never going to be the kind of girl who can sit on a beach for days at a time. But over the years, I have come to enjoy a day or two of a relaxing vacation. What are your tips for taking a few days away from it all? Use the #wanderlustwayfarer on a relaxing vacation photo of yourself on Instagram to share your ideas.

 

How I Got a Luxury African Safari for Under $2,000

So you want to go on a luxury African safari, but you don’t have a lot of money. Anything is possible if you follow my simple five-star safari planning tips.

 

After months of researching safari tours, I knew exactly where I wanted to stay, which parks I wanted to visit, and what I wanted to do in each one. But I simply didn’t have enough money to fund the kind of experience I was after. Or did I?

It turns out that with a little hard work and perseverance, I could get exactly what I wanted at a price I was comfortable paying. Here’s how I got a five-star, luxury safari experience for under $2,000.

Luxury African Safari Jeep

Know What You Want and Go After It

I wanted a very specific safari experience, and I went after it. I spent months researching what was available from different safari operators. I investigated various types of accommodations, ranging from glamping in tented camps to hotel chains or independent lodges. I looked into private tours versus group tours. And I explored the kinds of activities you can do in Africa aside from game viewing, including village visits and hot-air-balloon rides.

I researched what different tour operators had to offer and how much they were charging. Then, I decided what I wanted from my experience, how much I wanted to spend, and how long I wanted to be away for. At first, it seemed impossible I would ever find what I wanted at a price I could pay, but I decided to make it happen come Hell or high water.

Ask for What You Want

Once I knew exactly what I wanted from my safari, I crafted a very specific email. I made sure to provide the exact hotels, locations, and activities I wanted to experience. I was very clear about what I didn’t want as well. If you don’t want to get up at 5 a.m. every day for game viewing, include that in your message. Describe exactly your ideal experience.

My email included:

  • Type of tour (private)
  • Approximate dates (September to October)
  • Safari parks (Amboseli, Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru)
  • Hotel names (Serena and Sarova lodges)
  • Activities (hot-air balloon rides, traditional folklore shows, curio shopping)
  • Price ($1,750)

Pro tip: The price you give in your email should be $500 less than you want to pay. This gives you a bit of wiggle room.

Once you’ve drafted your email, send that same message to every reputable tour operator you can find. It’s as simple as performing a quick Google search, clicking “Contact Us,” and pasting your message into a new email for each company. No need to draft a new message each time.

Luxury African Safari Hotel

Negotiate the Best Deal

You will get a lot of responses. And very few will offer what you asked for. But a handful will come close. You will most likely need to bargain a little bit to get the exact price you’re after.

Most of the responses I received were way out of my budget. They were upwards of $3,500 for a 7-to-10 day safari in Kenya. But as more emails came in under $3,000, I started to gain hope that I could negotiate something in my price range. I knew I would likely have to pay more than the $1,750 price tag I’d suggested, but I wasn’t willing to pay more than $2,250 tops.

In the end, three tour operators came to me with prices between $2,000 and $2,250. I was delighted. After a few emails back and forth with each of the operators, I managed to get the price to just shy of $2,000 per person for an 8-day private safari that included every item on my hit list.

I would have loved to spend another 2 days in Kenya, but I wasn’t willing to budge on any other part of my negotiations, so that was my sacrifice. African Sermon Safaris fulfilled every one of my other wishes, and created an experience of a lifetime.

Pro tip: Before wiring funds to the tour company, check it’s the real deal. If so, it will be registered with international agencies. And once you’ve confirmed your booking, fire an email to the hotels where you’ll be staying to be sure they have a reservation in your name before you arrive.

If a luxury African safari is on your bucket list, try these tips to find one in your price range. Then, share your tips with the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group.

Untold Morsels