Safari Aloft in Masai Mara
Masai Mara - home to the Big Five and the greatest concentration of wildlife in Kenya. Located in the heart of Kenya’s Rift Valley where you will be greeted with vast golden brown plains, dotted with thorny acacia trees and littered with grazing zebra, leaping gazelles, fidgety warthogs and shy giraffes peering over the acacia trees. Local Masai people, draped in bright red and orange shukas (blankets) laced with fascinating beaded jewellery roam the lands here.
It’s dark, rigidly cold and seems like a terrible idea to be awake at 4am. A mug of hot coffee sparks some sort of life into me as our group huddle together for warmth whilst standing on the dewy grass of an open plain.
Pssshhhhhhhh!! The sound of gas and hot air being blasted into a large balloon parachute camouflaged in the darkness behind makes me jump and turn. Suddenly I am awake as I watch with fascination. The heavy woven basket is lying on its side as the pilot and his engineers tilt the jets and position fans as I watch in captivation as our balloon begins to inflate.
The sky beings to lighten. A soft mauve colour with the dark silhouette of the surrounding acacia trees contrasted with the vibrant yellow and orange balloon makes for a great photo. Excitement begins to stir and I forget about our early start and the bitter cold wind that is whipping my hair across my face with an unforgiving bite. With the mornings being so cool, the animals tend to be out on the hunt. This is one of the peak times to witness a kill or a chase before the heat of the day sets in and one of the most amazing ways to witness African wildlife – in a hot air balloon safari.
The balloon stands proudly vertical now as fire is blasted into its belly. It is time to board our flight. Climbing awkwardly and definitely not lady like into the bulky basket, we take our places as our pilot fiddles and flicks various switches to prepare us for take-off. There seems to be a lot of chaos for very little action as ropes are unpegged and flight engineers dash out of the way whilst yelling out to one another to stand clear.
With a gentle nudge, we slowly lift off the ground. The sky becoming lighter by the minute. We float and hover low for 10 minutes over the open plains of the Masai Mara with its tree lined edges in search of waking wildlife. The flight is smooth, like walking on a cloud.
As we ascend, the vast green savannahs expand beneath us, the plains illuminated by the rising sun, stretching to the horizon. Buffalos graze in small herds and fat hippos bob on the surface of the coffee coloured Mara River, crocodiles zigzagging just below the surface trying to remain hidden as naïve prey make their way to the banks to quench their morning thirst.
The blanket of clouds begins to lift and break up as the sun leisurely emerges. The infinite open landscape allows us excellent visibility and game viewing as we explore the grasses below for large predators that occupy niches of this environment. The soft lighting showcases the unparalleled Masai Mara and it is truly magical.
A fellow hot air balloon rises in the distance, floating quietly providing further picture perfect Kodak moments. Examining deep animal tracks below, my eyes follow a well-worn path and discover a large male hippo waddling towards the river after a morning forage. Creatures of routine, this hippo would retrace the same path day after day.
No-one speaks. A peaceful muteness fills the basket only interrupted by the psshhhhh sounds of the jets keeping the balloon filled with hot air and the occasional whirs and clicks of cameras. I glance around and look at everyone else in the basket. Each person is looking at something different in silence. Appreciating and taking in the magnificent land below. Their faces illuminated with joy and amazement at this wonderful experience we are all sharing together.
We drift toward the gentle slopes of the Great Rift Valley. A tower of giraffes chomping away on nearby trees suddenly scatter awkwardly, their legs and necks bobbing with unco-ordination as they fret which way to run. On the other side of the thicket, a herd of gazelle sprint off urgently. We hover waiting to see what or who is lurking in the brush but see nothing. Two lappet-faced vultures share a private moment on top of a thorny acacia tree dancing and pecking back and forth at each other.
Drifting silently aloft over expansive plains as the sun rises is a spectacular experience offering such a different perspective to that experienced in a safari truck. We float above the world as if nothing else matters. The stresses of everyday life seem so far away and insignificant at this moment.
We begin to descend and have a smooth landing on a nearby road. I hear the words “wow” escape every person’s lips. Little do they know the beauty and surprises are far from over! We jump into 4x4’s and enter the gates of the Masai Mara before veering off road to a clearing where tables covered in sharp white linen cloths greet us. Chefs expertly prepare a full and hearty breakfast in their mobile kitchen whilst we sip from flutes of chilled champagne. Quickly checking nearby trees for any lurking leopards, we enjoy our spread of fresh juices, bacon, sausages, eggs, cereals, fruits and toasts whilst reminiscing about our hot air balloon safari over the Masai Mara.
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