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 4×4’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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This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.