Corinne Kendall— 14 August 2011 — in East Africa Project Share
A balloon ride seems like a quintessential part of the Mara experience, yet I have never taken the time to experience it. Every morning I watch 10 to 20 balloons take off and soar above the Mara like a chain of Christmas lights they flicker on and off as the burners lift them higher into the sky. Today I finally got a chance to see what it is all about. Ballooning makes for an early start and I was up and excited at 5:30 AM. After a quick drive in the park I found myself standing next to a turned over basket and a huge green and yellow balloon slowly being inflated with a small fan. I’d seen this done before – a sideways take-off – but I wasn’t really sure how it would work.
As the pilot readied the giant burner, the passengers were loaded into the four compartments to either side of the balloon. 16 people were lifted or gently pushed into a sitting position, lying on their back and looking up with legs tucked around a small seat and camera wedged between their knees. The first blast of the burner was loud and intensely hot, warming the skin on my face as the rest of me felt cool in the early morning air. It took perhaps a hundred blasts to warm the air in the already inflated balloon so that lift-off could begin. I clung to two ropes as the balloon slowly tipped upright. I couldn’t really tell if we were still on the ground or not, the only confirmation was the fingertips of the eight workers who were helping to stabalize the balloon before we started to soar. A few minutes after the fingers at disappeared, we were told to stand and found ourselves just a few feet of the ground, gently dragging through the tall grass.
Then the flight really got going. The wind pushed us along as we tettered up and down, viewing the landscape from first high above and then nearly gliding at the height of a car through the grass so that we could take a closer look at a small pride of lions. From above, I tried to imagine what a vulture must look for when it sees the Mara this way. I looked down to find that tall grass was only a minor impediment to my search at this height and looked out to visualize how a flying bird might look for fellow vultures who are dropping down to a carcass as they find a kill. Either way the views were spectacular. You could see for miles in all directions and from the air, the wildebeest migration truly took shape. You could see all the formations the animals were in as they either stood and grazed, readied themselves for an attack (mainly from the other balloons that came a bit close and scattered the immense herds), or continued to migrate, forming tiny single file lines that stretched on for a hundred animals or triangular formations with just a few animals up front and many piling in behind.
We spotted two leopards just in time to see them chase each other into the bushes. Then as we came over a small forest we could see the trees rustle and hear the crunch of the elephants within. The gray masses pushed through the large trees as if they were toothpicks. The Mara river stretching out ahead of us, I knew it was nearly time for our landing. The balloon lowered and we were instructed to sit down and lean back. Despite the lack of seatbelts, I felt secure in the giant wicker basket thanks to the tight configuration we were in. The other passengers were literally holding me into my seat as they squished in next to me. We landed with a bump rather than a sudden stop and it took a few minutes for us to drag and bounce before the balloon slowed. As we came to a stop, the wind pulled the balloon onwards and the basket tipped as if in slow motion until we were once again on our backs. We wiggled out to find ourselves kilometers from where we had started and not too far from an carcass where the birds had flown off as several more balloons came crashing to the ground.
Over champagne and baked beans, I contemplated the views. What a way to see the Mara. Though the animals were the same, my perspective on them had been totally different. The vulture’s eye view, via balloon, was such a spectacular way to see the environment and jealously I wished I could start every day with such a view as the birds do.
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