Visiting a safari in Kenya is on most people’s bucket lists. Another frequent item on that list is flying in a hot air balloon. Those two things paired up – well, that’s just an adventurer’s dream.
However, it’s not an unrealistic one, since these trips are available all-year round these days in the popular tourist areas of Kenya, with Maasai Mara among the top destinations for this amazing experience.
Origins of the Idea
More than half a century ago, an English hot air balloonist, inspired by a Jules Verne novel, came up with the idea to fly over Africa, i.e. some parts of it, in his balloon.
He set out on this trip together with a cameraman named Alan Root and they succeeded in their attempt. They flew from Zanzibar to Tanzania and, encouraged with this achievement, later sailed the skies above Serengeti and Great Rift Valley.
Root, who became a popular film-maker thanks to his African adventure inspired film, thought of a way to make the extraordinary experience of flying above beautiful African regions accessible to the broader public.
That’s why he decided to open the first balloon company, which was situated on the Mara planes. The word got out and now, tourists are circulating through the area all-year long, admiring the scenery while taking this once-in-a-lifetime flight opportunity.
If you are thinking about setting out on this adventure, you have to be aware that it isn’t a trip for just one person, since you’ll wish to share with someone all your impressions. That said, here are a few more things to consider and expect.
Booking the Balloon Flight
Make sure that you book the flight in advance. Sometimes, when it’s not really peak season, you are able to do it on short notice through any lodge camp.
However, if you are already planning your vacation, there’s no harm in booking your balloon flight some time ahead through a secure and reliable tour operator. Moreover, make sure you’ve confirmed your booking the day before the big event.
You don’t need to worry about the vicinity of the launch site and your camp, though, since there are a few of them. So, wherever you are staying in the reserve, you’ll be close to one or the other.
An Early Start
When it comes to this kind of trip, you must expect a really early start. Usually, you’ll be expected to wake up before 5:30 in the morning.
This might seem stressfully early for a vacation, but the calming sounds of nature, the stirring of life in the vegetation and an occasional distant lion roar will make you want to go out and explore these unknown, picturesque surroundings instead of sleeping in.
Even if you are travelling with your kids, don’t worry about them being grumpy for having to get up this early – the excitement over the flight should make them forget about their morning peevish disposition.
For a boost of energy, tea and coffee will be traditionally served as soon as you get up. Then, at around 5:30, the driver will come to pick you up and you set off for the launch site.
Make sure you’ve brought some sort of jacket, since Kenyan dawns can be quite chilly, especially high up, but quickly turn into a hot morning.
In addition, pay attention during this short road trip, since you might catch a glimpse of hyenas’ glowing eyes somewhere in the dark, which is a film-like experience.
The Launch Site Routine
The ride to the site should take around half an hour, so you’ll be reaching it at around six in the morning. You’ll see a giant deflated balloon stretched across the field and a sixteen-seat compartmentalized basket attached to it.
The staff will need around 10 minutes to prepare for the flight. So, in the meantime, you’ll be offered some refreshments – usually coffee. Furthermore, if you’re bringing your kids along, they should be at least four years old.
Another thing to be mentioned in order to avoid any unpleasant situations is that people who weigh over 265lbs (120kg) might be asked to buy a double ticket for safety reasons – that is if the flight is completely filled.
If, on the other hand, there are untaken seats, this request won’t be brought up.
The Take Off
Once everything is prepared, the passengers will be gathered up for a safety briefing and then you will be allowed to board afterwards.
The first moments of lift off are incredible – they can’t be compared to any other sensation you’ve felt. It is truly a one-of-a-kind feeling, especially on a busy day when you are able to see a number of other balloons beside yours rise up in the air.
It’s so calm up there in the sky; there is no loud motor, turbulence, or a huge loud bunch of fellow passengers. So, you’ll feel peace and serenity you’ve never experienced before. Just you and a few more stunned people, sliding above Africa’s untainted nature.
Everything will look like some sort of spell, in fact, there can even be a romantic touch to it if you bring your partner.
An Extraordinary View
Once you are high up there, you’ll be able to see the amazing scenery and wildlife. In fact, your altitude will allow you to observe a much wider landscape than a van tour would. On top of that, there are no unsightly power lines or any humps on the ground to block your view.
So, you’ll get to peacefully watch elephants, zebras and giraffes move from one area to another. Moreover, unlike the traditional ground-based safari, you won’t disturb or frighten the animals.
Thus, you’ll get to witness how they actually move about between themselves when there are no outside influences. Plus, you’ll be able to do it without any restrictions which you would be faced with when travelling on the ground.
Simply, you’ll get an exclusive peek into the genuine wildlife affairs. The finest time of the year to get the best out of this trip is between July and September. This is when the annual migration of wildebeests across the Mara plains takes place.
So, if you plan your vacation on time, you shouldn’t have any problems booking it within this period, which is considered the peak of the season.
Yet, even at the prime time of the year, it is not 100% certain what you might catch or see. Since wildlife can be unpredictable, it can’t be relied upon to follow the precise straight routes and to move over so you could see them a bit better.
The weather conditions are, unfortunately, also a bit capricious, even above Maasai Mara, which is amongst the more predictable regions.
You might ask:
Why is the weather that important?
Well, for a number of reasons, the most important element being the wind. Namely, the pilots are there to control only the altitude. So, they are responsible for moving the balloon closer or further from the ground.
Depending on their decision and security estimation, you’ll be given a glimpse of panoramas from 300 meters above the ground, or a more close-up peek at the animals. However, when it comes to the direction of your vessel, they are helpless, since only the air currents control that.
This is why each tour needs the ground chase team and why you will never end up on the same spot from where you’ve started. On the other hand, this unpredictability is what’s behind the uniqueness of each and every tour.
Another thing that nature has control over is the actual length of your trip. Depending on the wind’s temper, your journey can last between 60 and 90 minutes and the distance you’ll cross will be around 12 kilometers (or 8 miles).
Furthermore, don’t be surprised if the basket ends the journey on its side. That’s why those specially designed seats are there – to keep you from getting harmed in case this happens.
Landing for Breakfast
Once you’ve landed, you’ll be offered the bush breakfast. This rich, hot meal prepared upon landing – either on wood fire or the gas burner – and served in the center of Maasai Mara, is a wonderful experience.
You surely won’t stay hungry or thirsty, since, according to tradition, champagne is served upon finishing the journey to celebrate the safe landing.
Hearts filled with joy and stomachs full of delicious food, you’ll be taken back to your camp by mid-morning and left to collect your thoughts and feelings regarding this astonishing enterprise.
A safari adventure and hot air ballooning – these two fantastic experiences paired up will certainly make an unforgettable trip. However, some of the enthusiasts might need to save up money before they book the tour, since it’s not really a low budget undertake.
Costly as it might be though, it is highly and wholeheartedly recommended, since the wonderful memories you will take home are invaluable.