I am beyond excited when I discover a hot-air balloon ride is on our honeymoon itinerary. Can you imagine anything more romantic than a sunrise flight over the Serengeti plain? Me neither. Sadly, my acrophobic husband is having none of it. Heights to him are the same as sharks to me: freaking terrifying. So, like Bridget Jones, I am all by myself for this once in a lifetime experience with Gilles on the ground, following along in the land cruiser.
After a 4 a.m. wake-up call, we meet our driver at reception. The launch site is an hour away and we need to be there by sunrise when the winds are at their calmest. Every car trip on the Serengeti is a safari in itself, and this ride introduces us to something we hadn’t seen before — nocturnal life. Our headlights illuminate mysterious pairs of eyes in the darkness and startle groups of zebras and Thomson’s gazelles. Then our driver slows down and points out the window. Right beside the cruiser are four hippos. I can’t believe we are so close. Typically you don’t see hippos on land during the day – their sensitive hides burn in the sun. Instead, hippos prefer to spend daylight hours lolling about together, submerged in ponds At night they climb out of the water and eat their fill of grasses before the sun comes up.
As promised, the sun is breaking as we reach the launch site. At first the sky is pink, then yellow, then a brilliant fireball rises above the horizon.
The crew is already there working in unison to raise the balloon in preparation for our flight. We are briefed on balloon safety and receive our takeoff and landing instructions. Then, fitted with harnesses, we pile into the basket. The sides are high and there are no foot holds for me to climb. I attempt to hike my leg over the side and end up clinging Spidey-style to the basket. Seeing my difficulty, a kindly balloon guy hoists my ass over the edge and I’m soon settled in.
There are only 11 people booked on our flight for 16 so I have my little two-person berth all to myself. On a windy day, the basket starts on its side and is turned upright as the balloon takes flight. We are lucky today. On this still morning, we begin our journey straight up.
Aloft, I’m surprised by the complete quiet. People talk among themselves but mostly there is awed silence, punctuated by the sharp hiss of expelled propane as the pilot ascends. After experiencing the Serengeti by land, its amazing to view it from a different perspective. I spot groups of gazelles, zebras and elands traversing the plains. Giraffes lumber by. Warthogs run in circles with their tails pointed up while hyenas survey the scene.
From above you can appreciate the vastness of the space and the unique geography of the Serengeti. Meaning “endless plain” in the Maasai language, this part of the Serengeti consists of open grassland with patches of acacia trees. Granite rock formations, called kopjes, punctuate the landscape, creating look-out posts for predators to survey the area for their next meal. It’s common to see lions sunning themselves on the rocks.
After little more than an hour of flight, we touch down. Light winds makes for a very soft landing. The landing crew catches up with us and I’m reunited with my dear love. Seeing how easy the flight was and how low we actually flew he regrets his choice to remain land bound.
The crew brings out the champagne for the customary post-flight toast and our captain tells the story of how this tradition came to be. In Paris on November 21, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers (in French, a hot air balloon is “une montgolfiere”) launched their invention — a hot-air balloon — manned for the first time by actual men, Pilatre (the word pilot is derived from his name) and Francois, in front of a huge crowd which reportedly included Benjamin Franklin. The balloon managed to stay aloft for 25 minutes before landing in a vineyard. When fearful farmers approached this strange ship with pitchforks, the pilots offered them champagne. To this day, it is tradition to drink bubbly upon a successful balloon landing.
After the champagne ceremony, it’s back to the cruisers to be transported to the breakfast site. On the ride over we spot elephants, an alligator near the river and a lazy leopard sleeping in an acacia tree, paws hanging loose.
Breakfast is served open air. We sit at a long table and chat with our fellow fliers over mimosas, coffee, eggs and croissants. Each of us is thrilled by the experience and appreciative of the professional crew that has taken great care of us. The captain presents us with our flight certificates and we say our goodbyes.
Before we go I excuse myself to the “loo with a view”, a porta-potty hidden from fellow diners by tenting on three sides. From this movable throne, kilometres of landscape spread out before me. I am in love with the Serengeti. And, lucky me, today I got to see it from a hot-air balloon and a toilet.