Bucket list ballooning

Posted On 30th December 2016

As the nocturnal population slunkth into a slumber and the cheery diurnals stirred to a rising sun, 5.30am to be precise, I in the company of similarly red-eyed adventurers hurdled in a safari vehicle that hurtled eastward in the dark for an odd ten minutes before halting at Skyship Safaris’ natural launch site where pilot Christian Wordsworth and his team received us. After coffee and a brief flight briefing by the English-born Christian who has been flying in Kenya since 2013, and in the USA prior to that, the team clambered onto a basket with a capacity of eight. This, however, was not before flames from the burners lit the darkness as a hearty crew inflated the craft.

As the first, pink tongues of sunlight flickered across the skies. As the Lindstrand manufactured balloon (one of the Best Balloon Manufacturers in the World) filled, then rose, I with a bravura bird’s eye view of the superlative savannah elatedly ticked off a highlight on my bucket list. Yes, I finally went on an hour-long, hot-air balloon dream as real as the tree-tops scraping on the underside of the suspended basket beneath the yellow-coloured canopy basket we floated into the horizon in. And yes, I reckon everyone should attempt if only once.

There is nothing quite like a hot-air balloon ride over the Mara expanse. The absolute peace of immense vistas, muted colours, crisp fresh air, and the ever present promise of something wild wrapped in veiled apprehension ensure an experience you will never forget. Early morning is the ideal time to see wild animals on the plains and the early start guaranteed sightings that I barely paid attention to thanks to the overwhelming majesty of the landscape and the snaking Mara River with its Nile Cabbage infestation. In my opinion, even as the ride offers excellent outward photographic opportunities, good ‘selfie’ images are hard to get. I suggest that one seeking this thrill, thus, savour the experience as it passes over rather quickly. Like all great achievements a certificate of participation and a champagne breakfast in the bush after you land, adds to the buzz you will get from the early morning air and the sights and sounds that only an eagle ever enjoys before the bubbly leaves you seeing double zebra stripes. So if you’re looking to share a romantic moment with that special someone; looking to pop the question impressively; or simply fulfil a lifetime goal, then there’s no better way to do it than floating in a hot air balloon surrounded by beautiful views. Such are the joys of the emerald season that leave me wondering why we do not take all-out advantage.

GLANCE BOX: Interesting facts about hot air ballooning in Kenya
  • The balloon’s lift comes from hot air which is slightly lighter than the surrounding cold atmosphere. The hotter the balloon the faster it rises. As the balloon cools it slowly descends. The pilot can control the balloon to brush the grass or the tops of trees, yet could if he/she wished, go as high as 15,000 feet. Flying in the Mara, however, is kept more down to earth. The balloons are not flown in winds greater than 30kph so the calm African mornings are the perfect time for our flights. The balloons must go where the winds take them but, as winds at varying heights often have varying directions, the pilot can choose his height and hence his direction. The average flight duration is one hour; travelling approximately 15 to 25 kilometres depending on the wind condition. On 95% of the days the wind takes the balloons south, deep into the Masai Mara Reserve where they land.
  • The balloon is “powered” by ordinary cooking gas to heat the air in the envelope. The fuel system is duplicated in every respect to prevent failure of the burner. If all power should be lost, however, (something which has, in fact, never happened) the balloon would enter a stable cold descent with the envelope acting as a parachute. This feature of the balloon makes it one of the safest forms of flight.
  • To pilot a balloon, it is necessary to gain a pilot’s licence exactly as with other forms of aircraft. There is a set number of hours of instruction and the same theoretical exams to pass as any fixed wing pilot. Also like their fixed wing counterparts, balloon pilots keep logs books, carry out pre-flight checks and monitor the weather conditions for safe flying. In addition, the Balloon pilots have undergone extensive professional training and have international experience.
  • There are no special requirements for participation in a balloon safari. For safety reasons children must be eight years old and above and taller than 1.2metres to participate in hot air balloon safaris.
  • Remember to put on practical clothes, preferably cotton, a sweater will shield you against sometimes windy flights. Sturdy shoes are necessary. Sunglasses and camera to catch the real drama will come in handy.
  • Skyship Safaris operate three balloons whose cost ranges around Sh50, 000 and can either be booked before the safari or in camp which also handles transfers from nearby camps and lodges: For smaller intimate gatherings, a Lindstrand 210 that holds an exclusive eight passengers; and two Lindstrand 400’s, which hold up to 18 passengers each that is perfect for larger gatherings.