A balloon safari was not included in the eight-day safari tour with Lamara Tourism. It was an option I found while staying at the reserve. There was enough time on the last morning of the three-day stay at AA Mara Safari Lodge to take a balloon safari and still get to Amboseli National Park that afternoon.
Tour pickup time at my lodge was 04:45. As compensation for the godawful early start, the tour provided breakfast at the end of the safari. There were a couple of others in the jeep-like vehicle when it arrived. We had to pick up two more at another lodge. The “road” from the hotel is just a dirt track. It was severely rutted in places, and the vehicle that we were in seemed not to be in great shape.
On the drive to the park we ran into zebras scurrying about in the dark. Seeing various forms of wildlife around the lodge was common. AA Mara Lodge is two miles from Maasai Mara National Reserve’s Sekenani Gate. The reserve is not fenced.
I think the balloon tour hired a contractor to transport customers. The vehicle that picked me up looked like it had seen better days a long time ago. Sure enough, it conked out in the dark at about 06:00 about 1/2 mile from our destination.
The driver gave up on efforts to restart it, and we started walking. Being in the middle of the Maasai Mara, in the dark, on foot, with only a flashlight gave this tourist some concern. Fortunately, someone at the base camp spotted us and sent another vehicle.
The base camp had security like a little airport. IDs were checked. Passengers emptied their pockets of all metal objects and were wanded before being cleared for the flight. That seemed a bit excessive under the circumstances. Maybe security was required by Kenyan aviation authorities.
While the ground crew tended to the balloon passengers received a preflight briefing. The pilot said he had calculated the landing point for the one-hour flight based on current weather reports. A lot of the briefing pertained to Covid. At one point I had a little cough and got an annoyed look from the pilot. Ha ha!
The balloon basket was sitting on its side. This was an eight-passenger balloon plus the pilot. The balloon looked huge. Some balloons are more than twice this size and carry up to 16 passengers. We awkwardly climbed in and sat on our backs while the pilot finished inflating the balloon.
Bursts of flame from four propane burners pumped hot air into the balloon’s envelope lifting us off with a slight bump. Takeoff was at approximately 06:15. The balloon rose slowly as the pilot continued short bursts from the burners.
Even though the flight is called a safari, spotting animals was difficult from our maximum height above the surface of about 1,000′ (305m). With the elevation of the terrain, that put our altitude at about 7,000′ (2,134m) msl. At that altitude, the air was noticeably thin, but views were awesome.
The pilot climbed or descended by hitting the burners or venting hot air. The direction of flight was determined by skillful use of the winds aloft. Winds in an air column travel in different directions and speeds at different altitudes. The pilot used information from his preflight weather reports and his own observations to control our direction of flight by changing altitude.
It was amazing to float silently above the landscape. The pilot periodically descended to within a few feet of the surface where it was easier to spot wildlife.
We saw hippos returning to the river after a night of grazing in the grasslands. People do not want to meet these animals on dry land. Hippos kill people without provocation. Hippos are strictly herbivores but very aggressive. Hippos will crush you and trample you. They won’t eat you though, if that is any consolation.
Elephants and most other wildlife didn’t like the noise of the burners. When they heard the burners, the leader or other adults would look at the balloon, shake their heads and trumpet angrily.
The service vehicles caught up to our position as the pilot began our landing.
We landed with a thump that was softer than most touchdowns in a commercial airliner.
The gondola sat straight up which made getting out easier than getting in.
While the ground crew secured the balloon, passengers were driven a short distance to our champagne breakfast in the bush. On the way we passed what may have been the same family of three cheetahs that I’d seen the day before beside the road. They were sitting atop a small mound keeping a lookout for prey I imagine.
Safari people must not have been on the menu that day because the well-fed felines paid little attention as we drove past.
The buffet breakfast was outstanding! The breakfast crew did an excellent job. Champagne flowed freely. A couple of mimosas hit the spot.
The buffet offered many of the dishes you’d find at a fine hotel — fruit, yogurt, cereal, pastries baked beans and baked potatoes, pancakes, and more. Eggs were cooked to order.
Since there wasn’t much vegetation to hide behind, the tour even had a tiny porta-potty in a small tent. The staff kept the mimosas topped off. I left a generous tip for the breakfast workers.
The drive back was a mini safari of its own. Not far from where we ate breakfast, we drove by another group of predators lounging on another mound.
The balloon flight with its outstanding breakfast were worth splurging on. This was my only balloon flight so far. Now I’ve been in every type of aircraft except a rocket ship. Because of the noise of the burners and usual height above ground, in this case a balloon was not the ideal vehicle for a safari. The experience of the flight made the tour a very satisfying experience and we did see a good deal of wildlife. I think a balloon safari would be perfect during the Great Migration when the savannah is covered by enormous herds of antelope and other grazing animals.