It was a no-brainer to say yes to an offer to fly over Kilimanjaro in a hot-air balloon, something that had been done only twice before. This expedition was organised by my friends from Ultra Magic Balloons in Spain, with a plan for 11 balloons to fly over Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain at about 5 895m or 19 340ft.
I looked high and low to find a large enough Ultra Magic Balloons balloon to form my own team, but time was too short and logistics too complicated to make it happen. Instead, I decided to go with Uwe Schneider as his second pilot (a former World Champion hot-air balloon pilot… yes, there are world championships in ballooning) which turned out to be a great decision.
Our expedition began at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, in Arusha, where the rest of the group arrived from Europe and the US via Nairobi. We spent a night at the foot of Kili, waiting for the balloons to arrive. In Africa, everything tends to happen at a slower pace. Balloons that had left Europe mid-September finally arrived on 4 December, and we all rushed to prep them for our first attempt on 6 December, Saint Nicholas Day. Tanks had to be filled, banners put on, oxygen systems installed and tested. We were like ants on sweetmeat.
Ours was a 210 000 cubic feet balloon, straight from the factory — just beautiful. We left the hotel in Marangu at 03h30 and drove to the launch field for a quick briefing and weather report; all was looking good. Each team started the preparation and inflation of the balloons. In our team, we had three pilots, along with a photographer, while our ground crew included our wives. With balloons inflated, last checks done and final kisses from the wives, it was time to take off. Up, up and away we went in our beautiful balloon, climbing through the clouds and out into the open skies.
We crossed Mawenzi peak first, impressive but dwarfed by Mount Kibo. The clouds, the halo around the sun and the presence of friends in the balloon made me feel incredibly special as if I was touched by angels.
At 4 000m, I started the flow of oxygen for the occupants and the burners. We slowed our climb a bit to catch a more southerly flow, so we would be able to fly over the top of Kilimanjaro’s highest peak. About 15 minutes later we started our ascent again and lo and behold, we were right on top of the highest point on Mount Kibo’s crater rim, called Uhuru, the Swahili word for “freedom”. A feeling of true euphoria enveloped the basket — we could not believe we had done it.
Thinking back on it, the whole experience seems surreal. It’s amazing that we small humans have conquered even the highest peaks. At the same time, it takes a bit of humility to know that our actions on this planet will melt the snow cap on this majestic mountain in just 20 years. Sustainability, responsible tourism, leaving next to no footprint on the places we go to — that is the key. We all have to do our part.
For the rest of the flight, we were still in awe, landing next to a village, Roseline, where the community came out to greet us. The school children had been given the day off to celebrate this unique event and everyone helped us to pack up before we returned to the hotel. Tired, exhilarated but with huge smiles on our faces, we were still trying to fathom what we had just experienced.
Filed under: Stories From The Mara
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