Last Updated on 10/15/20 by Rose Palmer
Our first African safari – a dream come true. My husband and I had been planning this trip for over a year and had included all of our wish list items. The only optional excursion offered on our tour was a hot air balloon safari in the Masai Mara. We decided to opt in for this activity, though I was very apprehensive going into it. I have a huge fear of heights and I was not sure if I would be able to handle the ride without getting a bad case of vertigo. I was really torn, because this would be a once in a lifetime activity and there was no turning back once it started.
I spent six months planning this African safari experience and working with the trip planners at Africa Adventure Company to make sure we would see everything that we wanted. And after only a few days in the Masai Mara, our expectations had been exceeded. I was a little worried that a bad experience on a balloon flight would negatively impact what had already been an amazing trip. But I was also not willing to give up on this opportunity.
My Balloon Safari in the Masai Mara
Balloon day began with a very early 4:30 AM wake up call with lots of tea and coffee. Drivers picked us up at our hotel at 5:00 AM for the 30 minute drive to the launch site at Fig Tree Camp. I don’t know how our drivers knew the route over the unmarked dirt roads in the dark – I could barely see anything out the window in the pitch black early morning.
We bounced along on the bumpy, rough roads for about twenty minutes, when our drivers abruptly stopped and did a walk around the jeep. We had a flat tire. Amazingly, they changed the tire in under five minutes, with all of us sitting in the vehicle, and we still arrived at the launch site on time.
By 6 AM, our pilot and his team had filled up the balloon, we had gotten our briefing, and were sitting in the basket, ready to take off. The pilot nimbly climbed in, gave a few quick pulls on the gas and all of a sudden, the basket started lifting slowly and gracefully up into the air. The ground was moving away from me, but the process was so slow and gentle that surprisingly, I was not bothered by it at all.
We kept climbing – 20 ft, 50 feet, 200 feet. The expansive scenery of the Masai Mara slowly started to spread out before us in the pre-dawn light. Then, all of a sudden, the sun came up on the horizon behind us in a spectacular burst of color, throwing a soft pink and orange glow over the landscape.
Our group had about a half dozen balloons that took off together that morning, and we followed each other for a bit until each pilot found his own path through the ether. We had roughly 10-12 people in the large basket with the pilot in the middle. The basket was divided into quarters and my husband and I had our own little corner.
Visually, I knew that I was really, really high up, but between being surrounded by the wicker walls of the basket and the smooth, gentle motion of the balloon, it did not feel like I was moving, much less experiencing altitude. I can’t get close to a glass window in a skyscraper, yet here I was, hundreds of feet above the ground floating in an open basket, and my stomach was not turning into knots. It was thrilling.
As the air currents slowly carried us along, the sky in front of us brightened to reveal more and more and more details and the pilot started searching the ground for signs of life.
The first sighting was of a group of local wildebeests. The large migration from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara was in progress, but it was still too early in the cycle for the millions of herd animals to have reached this part of their destination. It would have been amazing to see the plains covered with so much life, but even a few animals was still an awesome sight, regardless.
We continued to float, rising or dropping slowly to catch the air currents. I wondered if this was what it was like to soar like a bird. This was the closest I would ever come to experience the air and the scenery from their perspective and at their speed.
We saw gazelle and zebras, looking small below us, and completely undisturbed by our presence above them. We also saw the full scope of the Masai Mara landscape – the waving meter long grasses which looked so short from our perspective; the green ribbons that marked the rivers, and the many paths and roads used by both humans and animals.
As we continued our flight, we caught sight of two lions laying in one of the paths. Initially they were a little hard to make out since they blended in so well into the surrounding tall grass. It was only when the morning light reflected off them as they started to move that we could see them more clearly. Our pilot took us down lower for closer views, and with our quiet balloon hovering above them, we were able to track the lions for quite a while as they moved through the grass toward the river.
We continued to track the lions until they went off into the brush and caught one last glimpse before our balloon moved on.
Our balloon flight kept following the river for a little while longer, looking for more early morning wildlife getting a drink, but we did not find any.
As our pilot took the balloon up to much higher altitudes, we saw the full extent of the Masai Mara plains stretch from horizon to horizon around us, with the river producing a ribbon of green life across the yellow sea that was the savanna.
Much too quickly, our one hour flight came to an end, and we had to come back down to earth – literally and figuratively. I was so pleased and pleasantly surprised that the flight did not initiate my fear of heights in any way. It was actually a completely relaxing experience and I was able to enjoy the flight, look around and take photos in all directions.
Before landing, we passed over our breakfast site in the middle of the Masai Mara grasses. I was not expecting to see such an extensive spread in the middle of nowhere.
Once we landed (very gently), we were treated to a delicious and filling champagne breakfast. I was surprised at the diversity of the choices, and the lavishness of the set up. It was a full buffet with chafing dishes offering a variety of hot options for all food preferences, lots of fresh fruit, as well as an omelet station. There were also servers to bring fresh juices, coffee, tea and refills on the champagne. Since a number of balloons had gone up that morning, there were a lot of people in the buffet line and it took a long time to get each person’s egg order cooked. But I did not mind the wait in such a special setting.
After a very leisurely breakfast, we were driven out to the rendezvous point where we me up with our safari tour guide and the rest of our group to continue our Masai Mara game drive.
We ended up not seeing as many animals during the balloon ride as I had hoped we would. The migration had not yet reached the Masai Mara, so the savanna was not yet filled with the millions of wildebeests, zebras and other herdbeasts that migrate to follow the rains and the resulting green grasses. Despite this, the balloon ride ended up being one of my top three moments from the whole trip. Floating quietly up in the air and being able to see the expansive landscape from low altitude was an unforgettable experience.
In a small way, this balloon flight was a trans-formative event. I faced my fear of heights, and in these circumstances, discovered that it was not a problem. I am now addicted to balloon rides and will do them whenever I have a chance going forward.
For another on the ground experience in the Masai Mara you can read Into Africa: A Perfectly Wild Day in the Masai Mara.
Thanks for visiting.