Hot Air balloon safari over the Mara

You haven’t enjoyed the Mara in all its magnificence until you have experienced it in a Hot air balloon I remember my friend Carla once stating.

That was five years ago when Hot air ballooning was a ridiculously priced luxury and only the wealthy could afford it. So I tucked it away in my ‘List of things to do before I die’ and “Things to do when I am a millionaire” and imagined I would do it before I clocked 80. Of course nowadays it is more affordable but for some reasodue to ignorance I chalked it up to the future.

So when Crista Jappinnen called me up one fine Wednesday morning to invite me to experience one for myself I nearly died with happiness. Rarely does a journalist get to experience something they have always desired to do and after a quick word with the editor I was packed and ready to fly.

We were booked in at the exquisite Entim lodge, overlooking the Mara River and simply on our ride to the lodge we caught glimpses of Elephants, giraffes, lions, leopards, gazelles and of course the breath taking wildebeest migration. As I squealed in glee, our driver Sammy Leiyo told me that “This is nothing, tomorrow morning from the balloon it will be ten times better” and with that promise I could hardly wait for the next morrow.

The gorgeous tents...sigh!

After a sumptuous, relaxing dinner with the owner of Entim Lodge-Azim Rajwani, who regaled us with hilarious tales of his experience with the wild at the lodge, we were escorted by armed maasai guards to our luxurious tents.

“Zip up tight” Azim heeded “You don’t want a leopard peeping in like last time” and Crista added “be ready by 4.30 am as we want to catch the sunrise from the balloon”.

I could hardly sleep that night with excitement and curiosity as hyenas shrieked themselves silly and Hippos snorted and grunted 150 metres from my tent.

I couldn’t believe I was going to be experiencing 1 of this generations ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ from a Hot Air Balloon. You see I had heard somewhere that a Hot air balloon safari over the Mara is listed among the world’s top 1000 things one must do before they die. And to catch it as the wildebeest make their great migration across the Mara River to the Serengeti National Park and back is the icing on the cake, the foam on the beer and the red heel of the Louboutin shoe.

My mother would have been proud at how quickly I sprang out of bed at 4.15 am, and at 4.30 sharp we were off in our van in the crisp, chilly morn and headed to the launching point which is a cool 45 minutes away.

We jabbered away in excitement as Azim told us more stories of his experience in the ‘Hot Air Safaris’ balloon and more about our dashing pilot, Riz Jiwa and of course Hot Air Safaris. Azim told us that Riz had clocked in tons of experience by flying in the Mara and Amboselli for years after being trained in the US and is also the first Kenyan balloon pilot.

As we arrived at the launching pad the site was alive with activity as we are given a quick pep talk from Riz, made last minute dashes to the bathroom as the enormous balloon was being inflated. It takes about 10 men ten minutes to get it doing and no sooner was it ready to sail in the wind than Riz instructed us to “Hop in”.

‘Easy for him to say’ I thought to myself as I surveyed a teeny basket with no protection. You see as excited as I was it was rather daunting jumping into a basket attached to a humungous balloon with no safety belt to protect me. The coward in me nearly gave in as the basket danced and bobbed in the air but a reassuring smile from Crista and Riz and a literal push from one of the hands on deck had me tumbling head first into the basket- and with that inelegant entry we were off.

The balloons are licensed to carry ten to sixteen passengers and we were four journalists, the pilot, his second in command, Crista, Azim and four American tourists. Riz quickly instructed us on landing and taking off protocol with a quick “enjoy the experience” as we are up, up and away! As we were tucked into the basket, holding on to ropes dangling from the side we didn’t see much as we took  off, but the hiss of the fuelling gas burner indicated our rise to magnificence.

I had honestly imagined a scary, bumpy ride –sort of like a roller coaster ride thanks to the wild morning wind, but thanks to the experienced, efficient pilot it was smooth and the balloon simply glided vertically into the air. And here is the interesting thing about a balloon safari; while the pilot can control the altitude, the direction in which you fly is totally dependent on that of the wind, so each ride is always a different experience.

Every time Riz’s keen eyes spotted wildlife, we would descend from 1500 feet to 500 feet and that feeling is indescribable. From our vantage point we could spot the ‘actual’ migration as wildebeest danced, pranced and leapt over boulders and vegetation across the river. At moments all we saw were dark patches from high up and every time Riz lowered the balloon we would realize that those were the wildebeest- simply breath taking and magical.

The experience made me want to sprout a pair of wings as strangely the entire experience was spiritual. At the risk of sounding like a parody, I honestly felt one with the universe and God/ the universe’s creation. The restless spirit in me finally felt at peace as I watched the Mara’s inhabitants graze contentedly and without a care in the world.

Watching the sunrise, hearing the grunts and various calls of the animals and smelling that fresh air was worth any price and I would have sold my kidney and first born to have that experience again.

Riz kept us informed on birds, vegetation, rivers, plains and we even got a chance to spot Killimanjaro.

So why go on a balloon safari that will cost you 40,000, opposed to a cheaper version of a game drive? Because you will spot animals that you never dreamed you’d spot in their own habitat. Game drives don’t offer you that view and since you can’t stray from trails, you are limited in what and how much you can see. A ballon safari also takes away that bumpy, tiring, dusty trip you’d experience in a van and gives you smooth, painless gliding over the Mara plains.

Riz adds that people come from across the globe to experience this indescribable and magical experience and it is something we need to try before we die. “Hot Air Safris wants to encourage Kenyans to take advantage of the opportunities that lie in our very own backyard and experiencing the migration and The Mara from a Balloon will definitely be the highlight of your life. It truly is the only way to enjoy the entire vastness of the mara and truly appreciate the expanse of the land. Remember anything you can see from the ground you can see it a 100 times better from up in the air”.

The landing in itself is an experience worth paying for. Once the journey is complete, Riz expertly brought the balloon to a bumpy yet adventurous, tumbling stop. Vans immediately whisked us away to transport us to the bush Champagne breakfast in the middle of the Mara.

A sumptuous English breakfast consisting of fresh fruits, yogurt, juices, meats, pastries and live cooking stations fuelled our hearty appetites and excited hearts.

And there’s nothing like a cuppa in the wilderness…sigh….

In the end this was truly the most inspiring experience of my life and will be worth every penny you spend. I can now strike this off my ‘List of things to do before I die’ and head on to the next adventure…Sky diving anyone?

For more information: www.maraballooning.com or email riz@maraballooning.com.

 PUB in The Star July 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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