It had all seemed quite straightforward during the pre-flight briefing with the pilot. After describing how balloons operate and how the flights are staffed, the pilot had said that the wind conditions appeared favorable, but that if they were too strong in the morning the flights would have to be cancelled. He reminded everyone to dress warmly, to bring cameras, and just as the meeting was closing, he added, “Don't forget to bring a hat.” For the sun, you presume.
Now it is five in the morning in the Masai Mara. It is still dark. Inside the lodge one solitary light is on. A small group of sleepy people stand around, drinking cups of coffee. There is the sound of a jeep pulling up outside, a cheery, 'Good morning everybody. Come on, let's go!' and you climb in, shake hands with your balloon pilot and set off for the launching area. Just before you leave, the pilot asks, 'Did you all remember to bring a hat?
It is still dark when you arrive, but it is a scene of activity already. The balloon is stretched out on the ground, the padded basket or gondola, which will be your base for the next hour lies on its side, and the crew is busy getting the gas burners ready.
The pre-dawn air is chilly, but the sky is starting to get light as the crew begins to inflate the balloon. First, cold air from a fan is blown inside the balloon, and once it is half inflated, the crew ignites the gas burners. There is a loud rushing sound and flames shoot up into the balloon. As the air inside heats up, the balloon slowly rights itself until it is vertical, and is being held down by the crew just long enough for the passengers to scramble aboard the wicker gondola. The pilot gives one last glance to check that all is in order, the crew releases the gondola and you slowly drift up into the air and off over the Masai Mara.
The gondola is divided into sections, which are well padded and with handles. When the pilot turns on the gas, there is a loud hissing noise and it is suddenly very hot. You realise why he had suggested hats – to protect you from the heat from the gas and not from the sun.
As the balloon drifts along, the sky getting lighter by the minute, you pass over a Masai “boma” or village, its encircling protective thorn bushes looking like a pattern on the ground. Then the serious wildlife spotting begins: giraffe, elephants, a long line of wildebeest moving in single file. A quick movement in the clump of trees over which you are floating and the pilot says excitedly. “Did you see that? Leopard!” Just a glimpse, but leopard it was.
The noise from the gas burners alternates with total silence, as the balloon drifts along following the air currents. Dawn is the optimal time for balloon flights since the hot air inside the balloon is lighter than the cool early morning air. The hotter the air in the balloon, the quicker it rises. The cooler the air, the quicker it descends. The pilot controls the altitude by controlling the air temperature inside the balloon.
What he cannot control is the direction in which you fly. You simply drift along as the morning winds decide. Down below, you can see the support vehicles following. As no one yet has any idea of where the balloon will come down, the crew (and your breakfast) must follow as you lead.
Everyone is engrossed in the stunning panorama, the few trees below making beautiful abstract patterns against the dusty land. More giraffe and wildebeest, another herd of elephants, impala, gazelles, and all too soon, the pilot says “I think we’ll land over there”. “Over there” is a flat empty expanse of land.
Why don't you all sit down and hold onto the straps?” he suggests, having already outlined the emergency procedure to follow, should the balloon tilt over on landing. It does nothing of the kind, of course, simply bouncing once or twice before the ground crew grabs hold of it.
Out you all scramble and suddenly you're in the middle of a hive of activity. Tables have been set out, food has appeared from nowhere and a smiling cook, complete with white chef's hat, is standing at his portable stove asking, "How do you like your eggs?" Juice, coffee, and – why not? – a glass of champagne follow.
As you sit there, the sky by now a deep blue, figures appear on the horizon, seemingly out of nowhere. Masai tribesmen march briskly towards open your open-air restaurant, and sit solemnly in a circle, a polite distance away. They have come to see the spectacle and also to try and sell souvenirs to the day’s champagne-for-breakfast crowd.
The balloon pilot makes a beeline for one old man, and opens negotiations for a Masai spear. A cup of coffee later and the price has been fixed. But the pilot realizes he has forgotten his wallet. No problems, smiles the old Masai man. He will come to watch the balloon show tomorrow morning, and collect his payment.