After 12 super hectic weeks at work during the recording of Coke Studio Africa – 2017 and running around doing the show’s PR and a million media tours – I recently took a short break to Maasai Mara with my special someone. As we start to plan the trip, we are just happy to reunite with our hosts: my best friend from the Mara, Smiles, and her husband Danny (who happens to be the balloon pilot at Mara Serena).
It doesn’t cross our mind that around this time in August is the wildebeest season. Just as we are about to step out of the plane, a quinquagenarian man alighting as happily as a bouncing Impala prods us. “So you are here for the migration?” We look at each other and in the brief silence he goes: “Aren’t you here for the migration? That’s what people pay so much for to come from all over the world to see!” Thinking of it – our main reason for coming to Mara is the balloon ride, and thankfully the migration comes with it.
Initially, we have 3 nights at the Mara and we’ve set out to take a balloon ride each and every day. I am the sissy as I back out on Day 3.
Journey to a balloon ride
First you have to set out quite early. We leave the hotel at around 5:30 a.m. every day and then take a 25-minute drive off to the location where the balloon is set up for taking flight. This place for Mara Serena is just by the Mara River banks and as we wait for the pilot and his assistants to fire up the balloon using blown air and then hot air – it’s quite ordinary to hear lions roaring and hippos grunting or see a dozen zebras crossing by. The pilot goes through a meticulous process of showing the passengers how to get onto the balloon’s basket. We always board the 8-man carrier. Some can carry up to 14 or more people.
How to get on the balloon basket
It’s a clumsy affair. The basket is tilted over and passengers are required to first embark on as it lies on the ground – you are sort of sitting bent over your back and the floor becomes a side of the basket. The pilot will then steer the balloon away as soon as it gets lifted by air and then you find yourselves in an upward position where you can now stand.
Atop the Maasai Mara
In the wise words of my darling Smiles, “There isn’t one balloon ride that is the same. Every day is so different.” I had only been on a balloon ride once before but being on a ride on several consecutive days was by far the most breathtaking thing I’ve encountered in the recent past. Apart from a few animals declaring their territories by singing or making strange sounds, it’s so silent in the bush that you start to hear all your thoughts. The air is fresh and crisp. The skies threateningly display the best mix of dark blue, white and orangish-yellow you will ever see. And the sunlight is just the most beautiful thing to start your morning.
Game Drive while atop a balloon
While up there – depending on where the wind and pilot steer you, you might see the Big Five: lions, elephants, buffalos, leopard and rhinos. We see them all and many more wild animals including so many exotic birds, jackals and hyenas. It’s the best thing to be on a game drive atop Mara. You are not too close to the wild animals on ground so they will stop to check what’s happening above. If and when they get scared to run into the bush, you most likely have perfect view of the bush and its environs too 🙂
The landing of a balloon
The balloon usually takes off slightly around 6.30 a.m. to land an hour of two later. By that time, the sun is shining down at you in full glare and that paired with the balloon’s hot air, provide a mix of different warm or even hot temperatures. A balloon lands just like a kangaroo gallops because the pilot has to balance between landing in a legal territory (as the ride usually takes guests off till the boarder of Tanzania Serengeti park) and a smooth zone. If it’s a rough landing, it will be your best thrill! We end up extending our stay by another night just to take our fourth, and last ride.
Balloon Ride Vlog:
From the trips to Serengeti/Mara boarder, to the sunset picnics and lovely champagne – we can’t thank you enough Smiles and Danny!
BONUS: Read more on my Mara trips: