Monday, November 7, 2016

The Serengeti and a hot air balloon ride: Day 6

My eyes open. It is 4:45am. We groggily get dressed and open our tent door. It is pitch black. I scan the area with my headlamp. No glowing eyes. We cautiously make our way to the bathroom with some other members of our group that we find already awake as well. I look up; the sky is full of stars, infinity as far as the eye can see.
Vehicle lights shine in the distance, heading towards our campsite. Soon, the truck pulls up and we pile in.
We are heading to ride a hot air balloon over the Serengeti.
The drive is bumpy and rattles us around in the pre-dawn light. All we can see at first is the dark silhouette of the driver. Slowly, a few acacia tree shadows are visible against the pale light of the dawn sky. “This is so cool,” I whisper to J.
Eventually, we arrive at the balloon launching site. The giant fabric is spread out on the grass. We are given a seat belt to put around our waist, and a safety briefing card. A large machine starts blowing air into the balloon as the sun slowly rises behind us. After several minutes of this, the balloon is full. We are instructed on how to get into the basket (2 people per basket pod; 16 people total, plus the pilot) and in we go. The basket is on its side, so we are lying on our backs, seat belts clipped in, hands holding the hand holds.

The pilot starts to blast hot air into the balloon. Ever so slowly, the balloon starts to get a bit of lift, and the basket rights itself. Suddenly we are right side up! We are now allowed to stand up. The balloon rises ever so gently above the ground. Soon, we are floating over the Serengeti.
Our pilot is partially able to control the direction of the balloon by modulating the hot air. Typically, a balloon is at the mercy of the wind currents; however, by adding or removing hot air, the balloon can be made to rise higher or lower to a different air current that is going in the direction that you want it to.
We floated over many animals (sometimes breathtakingly low and close to them). Passing over a river, we saw the grey backs of hippos. They look like rocks, almost completely submerged in order to keep their skin hydrated. We were lucky enough to see one “run” through the water in funny little waddling splashes. A moment later, a crocodile swam by, sleek and sure of itself before disappearing under water again.

Suddenly, our pilot spots something far away. “Lions,” he says, and tries to maneuver the balloon towards them. As we slowly and silently float closer, we see the brown dots slowly take shape into lions.
Fifteen lions, to be exact! Mostly young cubs. They were playing in the grasses. We watched, awestruck. How often do you get to see 15 lions from a seat in a floating balloon?
We glided onwards, floating just above tree tops, occasionally going higher or lower. A couple of dik-diks ran by underneath us. A very small member of the antelope family, they are known for mating for life. If one of the pair dies, the other one will starve itself to death. Thankfully, the two we saw were happily bounding along.
It was amazing how oblivious all the animals were to our silent glide above them. Only the bursts of the hot air would occasionally send some zebra running off (but they're skittish anyway).
The last fifteen minutes or so of the hour-ish balloon ride were spent floating over a very large group of zebras. It was fun to just watch them be zebras. I'm fascinated by these calm creatures and their bold stripes. What is a zebra? I did not know before to day. To me a zebra was a funny striped creature; something to put in children's books for the letter Z. Something interesting to look at in a zoo.
But now to me, zebras are wild things. Creatures that bound away if you come too close to them. Who hang out together in larger groups, sometimes hundreds or more. Who travel in straight lines, one behind the other. Who help guide wildebeast to the Serengeti during migration. Who spend their days calmly grazing. I'll never look at a zebra the same way again. The last page of every children's alphabet book will forever transport me back here... to the Serengeti.
What goes up must come down, and eventually it came time to be us. Our pilot chose a good spot to land, and we slowly touched the ground, skidding for a minute or so. The pilot cheerfully reminded us - “I don't have brakes!”
Our balloon pilot

After our smooth landing, we were taken in a four wheel drive down the road where we were given champagne glasses. Our pilot then told us the story of the first balloon flights, and why champagne afterwards is always a tradition (I have not had access to the internet to verify the origins of this story yet, so I'm going from memory). Apparently, the inventors of the first balloon sent some animals in the balloons they invented, in order to make sure it would work safely. They heard from the nearby village where it had landed that the animals had indeed arrived alive – but the villagers thought the balloon was the work of the devil and set it on fire. This balloon invention caught the attention of the king, and he wanted them to make him a balloon so he could watch it in flight. After they had done so, they had trouble finding someone who was willing to fly in it. Nobody had ever flown, after all. Eventually someone was found, and he took the first balloon flight. He again landed in some other village, where the villagers all tried to attack him, thinking he was the devil arriving in a mysterious flying machine. He managed to escape to tell the king his story.
Champagne first thing in the morning...
that's how we roll in the Serengeti
Eventually a plan was created by the king – all balloon flights would carry with them a bottle of the king's champagne (because in those days champagne could only come from the king) that bore a special label with the king's signature. When the balloon landed, the riders were to hold the bottle up high, announcing they came from the king himself, so that the hot air balloon could be celebrated and not feared.
And so it was that the champagne after a balloon ride tradition was born. So we held out our glasses to be filled, toasted each other, and drank champagne in the middle of nowhere in the Serengeti, at 8 o'clock in the morning.
Breakfast in the middle of nowhere.
After that, we were whisked even further down the road to where a beautifully set table under an iconic acacia tree had been prepared for us to have a full English Breakfast. The juxtaposition of the fancy table cloth, plates, cutlery, and food against the backdrop of the endless Serengeti plains was a really memorable experience.
(There was even a “loo with a view” - one of the best toilets in Africa we've had thus far, with three walls and the entire open Serengeti in front of you. Certainly a unique experience.)
Finally, it was time to drive back to meet the rest of our group. On our way, I saw a cheetah slinking alongside our truck in the grass – incredibly close and in sight. “A cheetah!” I say aloud. But no one seems to have seen it except me. I like to think that cheetah came by just for me.

We meet up with our group at the visitor's centre, and have a nice guided walk about some of the features of the Serengeti landscape and the animals that live there. We saw plenty of hydrax and gama lizards on the beautiful kopje boulders. Once we were back at the campgrounds, we relaxed for the hottest hours of the day, and then set out at 3 for an evening game drive.
The excitement of seeing all these animals never gets old. We came upon a pride of lions (many cubs and at least two couples) that were at first difficult to see in the dry, beige grasses. At first we just spent some time watching them play, leaping at each other and tumbling around on the plains. Then, someone noticed blood around one of their mouths, and upon closer inspection we realized that they were eating something! A fresh kill. We weren't sure what.
Yep, that's a zebra leg.
One of the adult lions soon clarified that for us, however, as she startled us by emerging from the grasses with a black-and-white striped leg. They were having zebra for dinner. Fascinated, we couldn't turn away. The little ones took turns playing and eating. A real-life nature documentary, happening before our eyes.
Every time our guide suggests moving on, we are always reluctant. How to decide when to leave behind the incredible scene we're witnessing and move off in search of another?
We saw more elephants today – a whole group of them, just relaxing near the trees, grazing on leaves or short shrubs. We stopped the truck beside them and just watched as long trucks reached up, curled around leaves and twigs, expertly pulled (who knew a trunk had such fine motor ability?) and then reached down and under into its mouth and stuff it full. Munch, munch. Another trunkful, another bite.

A baby elephant walks over and snuggles close to its mother. A larger one flaps its ears.
Further on down the road, we come across a jackal – it looks like a combination between a small dog and fox, it's grey fur running through the plains. After running a few metres, it stops and looks back at us for a few seconds. Runs again. Then another stop, another look back. Continues this pattern for a while, and then eventually wanders off.
What do these Serengeti animals think of us? We roll up in large, strange vehicles, with windows rolled down, our faces peering out at them. Most of them seem to completely ignore us. The lions couldn't care less about our presence – I'm not sure they even glance. Elephants will occasionally look or come closer, but not for very long. Giraffes are more skittish – too much noise will send them bounding away, but if you're quiet, they'll ignore you and go back to what they were doing.

Secretary bird
After the evening's drive is over, we head back to the same campsite as the night before. I start to take a quick shower before dinner, and look out the shower stall's window. My eyes widen in surprise. Zebras! I'm taking a shower with zebras outside my window.
We really are in the wild here, and despite last night's fright, it is incredible. I slept much better this second night. Surviving the first night without being a “lion sandwich” made me more confident that we really were safe (as long as we followed the rules).
As I drifted off to sleep, I heard the sound of galloping hooves.
I found out later that a herd of zebras had run through our campsite.


  1. Wicked! I did know about elephant trunks being as fine motor as they are: touch and smell all in one spot (from reading White Bone back in the day).