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Sunrise Balloon Safari over the Maasai Mara, Kenya

Image Title: Sunrise over the Massai Mara. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Sunrise over the Massai Mara. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Balloon Safari over Wildebeests. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Balloon Safari over Wildebeests. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Balloon Silhouette over a confusion (herd) of Wildebeests and a dazzle (herd) of Zebras. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Balloon Silhouette over a confusion (herd) of Wildebeests and a dazzle (herd) of Zebras. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Breakfast is served on the African Savannah. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Breakfast is served on the African Savannah. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Silently soaring over the African savannah at sunrise, riding on zephyrs of wind above the animals below as the sun rises over the plains.

Today we are in a hot air balloon on a sunrise safari over the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The silence is deafening as our balloon rides with the wind.  From an altitude 500 feet above the ground, you can’t hear the bird calls or animal grunts below us. Every now and then, the pilot either fires the burner to add heat or dumps hot air out of the top to raise or lower the balloon to a different thermal. There is no sound when she dumps hot air, but when she fires the burner it is like a jet engine shattering the peaceful morning and startling the unaware herd of zebra below.

We have chosen Balloon Safaris, ltd, a company that has been offering sunrise balloon safaris for nearly 20 years and works in partnership with the Sarova Mara Camp, luxury resort where we have been staying. Our pilot, a Kiwi who married another Balloon Pilot working a sister Balloon today, has been working the balloon season in Kenya, which runs from May to September. The high season is September when the great migration of wildebeests and zebras are returning south through the Maasai Mara. From the balloon, guests can watch the great herds cross the African plains. The balloons typically carry eight, twelve, or sixteen passengers in four compartments on either side of the pilot. There are half-dozen balloon safari companies operating in Maasai Mara. All of them offer essentially the same sunrise safari that covers around 25 km (15 mi) of ground in a one hour ride and finish with a bush breakfast on the plains that were just flown over.

Balloon pilots and aircraft around the world adopt the American Federation of Balloon Pilots standards for certification - who knew there was a federation of balloon pilots? Climbing into the basket before takeoff and climbing out after landing are the most interesting parts of the ride. The basket starts out on it’s side, with the open end facing downwind. Guests climb in and lay with their backs on the ground. It is important for cameras and binoculars to be tucked away so guests don’t get injured by them swinging around their necks. Once everyone is set, the pilot fires the burner with long blasts and fills the remainder of the balloon as it drags the basket downwind and lifts it into the air. All of the sudden, the wind we felt on our faces stops because we are now blowing with it and silently rising above the earth. Once in the air, balloons have no steering mechanism. They go where the wind takes them, their only control being up or down and the ability to spin by dumping hot air through side vents that rotate the balloon.

We booked our late September balloon safari through our Travel Leaders partner, Giltedge Africa, and it delivered a powerful experience. The wind is pushing us along at around 25 kph (15 mph) as we rise to max altitude of around 300 meters (900 ft) and hover at a minimum altitude of just 10 meters (30 feet) above a herd of unsuspecting elephants. The only evidence of our passing is the massive shadow cast by the balloon in the early morning sunshine. The sunrise itself over the African savannah is breathtaking. We can see other balloons behind and below us as the sky turns from grey to purple to orange and the sun peeks over the small ridge directly behind us. The cool morning air quickly gives way to early morning heat as the sun warms our faces.

Landing a balloon is not a trivial process. The guests basically sit down in the basket facing backwards and prepare for a controlled crash landing that will tip the basket onto its side. The pilot must estimate the current velocity of the balloon itself and the expected wind velocity on the ground and then time his decent so that the balloon touches down gently – without hitting a rock or a tree or a land rover - before dumping all of the air to stop the balloon from dragging on the ground. All of this happens in about 10 seconds. Once safely on the ground, the guests again perform their gymnastic moves to extract themselves from the basket laying on the ground.

As if a sunrise balloon safari wasn’t already an over-the-top experience, following the balloon ride we are treated to a linen table cloth breakfast amidst a herd of zebras on the savannah we had just flown over. The whole morning was definitely one of the highlights of an African Safari Holiday that was chock full of memorable highlights.

[Disclosure: Open Door Travelers did not receive any promotional compensation for this article]