It was cold and dark. Hippos grumbled and hyenas called as I peered through the gloom. I could just make out a basket lying on its side, a deflated hot air balloon spread out on the ground. We were going on a hot air balloon safari over Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.
As the dawn flush crept into the sky, gas flames flared and fans roared to inflate the balloon.
We were lucky to be staying at Little Governors Camp, where the balloon launch site is, so our pre-dawn wake-up had been later than for people coming from camps a 45-minute drive away. The balloon has to get off the ground at first light because the temperature difference between the heated air inside the balloon and the cool air outside gives it lift.
Governors Balloon Safaris have been flying balloons in the Mara for nearly 40 years. Royals, sports celebs and film stars have stood here before us, and the balloons have seen some memorable weddings and marriage proposals.
In the air over the Mara
Once fire and fan fully inflated the balloon pocket, 14 people clambered into the basket. With a whoosh of flame, the pilot made some last-minute adjustments and the ground crew let go of the anchor ropes.
Suspended under the multi-coloured canopy, the balloon floated like a ghost over an area criss-crossed with game tracks. Three spotted hyenas loped across the veld in the early morning light.
We glided over small herds of buffalo, impala, topi and waterbuck. ‘The substance that makes waterbuck fur waterproof makes them unpleasant to eat, so even lions will only take them if they’re desperate for food,’ said pilot David Chipping. ‘That’s why they can be so relaxed, as if they’re on Prozac.’
The balloon drifted on, over the winding Mara River and open plains dotted with flat-topped trees, where Thomson’s gazelle grazed. Ahead, a patch of forest appeared and David shot great tongues of flame into the balloon to gain height and slither over the tree-tops. We peered between the branches, hoping to make out the shape of a rhino or a leopard. No luck.
At another bend in the river, a huge pod of hippos dozed on the rocks, while a croc lurked nearby. We gazed down on a pair of mating secretary birds in a tree, a brazen lilac-breasted roller and a few giraffes chomping on leaves. Given how tall giraffes are, looking down on them was a novel perspective.
Although we flew low, to be able to spot game, at one point David took the balloon up to 300 metres and did two 360-degree turns to let us drink in the tree-dotted landscape and the Oloololo Escarpment in the distance. ‘They shot some scenes of the movie Out of Africa there,’ he said.
After about an hour, which flashed by, we had a soft landing on Eluai Plain. A few more photographs and then we rollicked over the veld in 4X4s to the foot of the Oloololo hills for a slap-up champagne breakfast.
The balloon is made of polyurethane-treated rip-stop nylon, the bottom two metres of which is made from fire-resistant Nomex, all held together with thick nylon webbing. It lasts for about 800 hours of flying before it needs replacing and the baskets last three times as long.
Your Mara flight is usually between 8 and 15 nautical miles, depending on the winds. Ours was relatively calm so we only did 7.6 nautical miles at a top speed of 17.6 nautical miles and an average speed of 8.4.
You may think it’s just a lot of hot air up there in the balloon, but David said the whole thing weighs 16 tons – and 14 tons of that is propane-heated air. It’s pretty impressive that we were able to glide along like we did.
Luck of the draw
Like on any safari, what you see is a matter of luck and timing – and that’s part of its appeal. Two days after our flight we chatted to people who’d seen both rhino and leopard on theirs. A few weeks later, SafariLIVE was filming from the balloon when a zebra splashed across the river. It narrowly avoided the jaws of a crocodile, only to run headlong into two hungry lionesses on the riverbank.
We saw antelope, hyena, warthog, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe and hippo, with buffalo our only Big Five sighting. We didn’t really mind. Being on a classic balloon safari in the Mara – a big fat bucket list tick – was thrill enough.
The Governors Camp Collection and Governors Balloon Safaris offer hot air balloon safaris in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. The adventure begins before dawn and ends with a champagne breakfast, cooked not far from where you land. Afterwards, a game drive transfers you back to camp. From $409 per person.
The launch site is at Little Governors Camp (from $305 per person per night sharing on Early Bird special for April and May 2018, if booked before the end of 2017). Your ballooning fee includes pickup from other camps in the area too.
To follow more of my adventures, see my African travel blog.