The knock at the door at 04h00 meant that my hot Kenyan café latte was waiting in the butler’s pantry. It also meant that it was time to get ready as I was quite literally rising with the sun.
Even though June falls within the Kenyan winter, it is by no means cold and some long pants and a light jacket do just the trick. The 40-minute drive to the Governors' Camp launch site is an invigorating way to wake up, especially for a slow morning person like myself.
We arrived at the launch site which was abuzz with excitement. Three massive wicker baskets lined the lawn and attached to them the 'envelopes' (the technical term for balloon). Nothing can prepare you for the size. While I had watched them each morning from my red rocking chair and imagined their enormity, you can only fully grasp it when you’re standing next to one. As you sip some more coffee during your pre-flight briefing, the balloon burners are lit, and you watch transfixed as the balloons start to inflate and each one is pulled upright. Then, it’s time to climb in — it's showtime.
Being the daughter of a pilot and having flown in what feels like every type of aircraft, I anticipated a take-off that involved some sort of force and so I waited. Yet no jolt was felt, rather just a peaceful rising. The only sound that could be heard was the burner fire and we were up, up and away. Did I mention that I was in a basket?
Nothing can prepare your soul for the magnificence and expanse of the Maasai Mara from this vantage point. As we rose, all 12 of us passengers were speechless. I was reminded of the words of Rupal Asodaria, ‘Sunrise is the reminder that we can start a new beginning from anywhere.’
It is the wind that carries you on this journey and it is her breath that determines the path you will follow that day. As we rose over the riverine forest a leopard was seen ambling through the trees in all her glory, totally unaware of the giant balloon and tiny humans whose balloon safari she was starring in.
Floating over the treetops I remember taking a few deep breaths, as if by doing so I could somehow inhale some of the life that can be felt at the tips of the canopy of this thriving forest. Drifting along the bends of the Mara River the sound of splashing draws you to the numerous pods of hippos who are clearly early risers. Of all the animals, these territorial creatures seemed most aware of our passing.
As we veered across the Eluai Plains towards the Oloololo Escarpment we spotted a pride of lions feeding on a zebra at the river’s edge. A successful early morning hunt for them and another success for us. Three white rhinos suddenly dashed into the open sweep of the Plains. We were close enough to hear the pounding of their hooves, my heart felt it, too, and started beating with the same intensity.
The plains are alive in the morning. The herds of buffalo, zebra, giraffe and Thomson’s gazelle are all taking advantage of the fresh dew-laden grass and crisp treetop shoots that have had time to rejuvenate in the starry night. There are more than one herd of ellies in the distance and I assume they are making their way to the Mara River for some lush grazing and a few raucous mud baths.
An hour had passed and it was time to descend into the grass. In the distance, we spotted a cheetah and her two cubs perched upon a termite hill; she was absolutely regal with her boys neatly tucked at her side. Signalled for landing by our pilot, we clipped in and sat in our padded nest. We were pulled along the grass for a bit then arrived at a stop in a sideways fashion. It was all over too quickly but the impact of that journey will last me a lifetime.
A. A. Milne said, ‘Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.’ As I looked around at the other passengers on the flight, it was apparent he was right.
Special thanks to Andrew Andrawes, a member of the team in the Photographic Studio and a fellow hot-air balloon lover, for the beautiful photographs and video.
Filed under: Stories From The Mara
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