Friday, March 15, 2002 -- Part 1

Morning came extremely early today, since we had to be at the launch site before sunup. Did I say launch site? That's right -- we were going hot-air ballooning! Mark, Wendy and I were the only people from the Rhino group to do this; the others went on a morning game drive. We travelled in a hummer-type vehicle to the balloon, which was about a 30 minute drive away from the lodge. We saw a jackal in the road, lit up by the car's headlights. When we got to the site, the crew was busy getting the balloon inflated. Below right is our captain, David Weston.

Our balloon being inflated Captain David Weston

We were all filled with nervous anticipation -- none of us had ever been ballooning before. I was a little worried that we'd be crammed into the gondola with a bunch of strangers, but there was only one other passenger. Her name was Elaina, and she was a wildlife researcher from Moscow who was working with the Kenya Wildlife Service. Light began to creep into the sky, and David said conditions were absolutely perfect, with good visibility and light winds.

Mark and Wendy in the pre-dawn light Sunrise in the Masai Mara
Click here for a wallpaper-sized version.

Which brings us to the most difficult part of ballooning for the beginner -- getting into the gondola! The basket stands about four feet tall, and you only have a couple of footholds to help you (those are the dark squares on the basket in the very first photo above). Somehow, the three of us hefted ourselves in place, but I'm very glad we don't have that spectacle on video! We lifted off as light was filling the African sky, but the sun had not crested yet. The sunrise this morning was spectacular. The launch was smooth and peaceful, except for the occasional roar from the burners.

Our shadow Mark surveys the Mara landscape from the balloon

I have a pretty good fear of heights, but it didn't bother me at all. Most of the time, we stayed within a hundred feet or so of the ground. We didn't see very many animals, but we did drift right over four ostriches (below left). The noise from the burners startled them into a run that was really fun to watch from above. We startled a vulture off its nest, too, revealing its egg in the tree below us. We also saw a few antelope and giraffe in the distance. I'm sure if we had done this at the height of the migration we would have seen many more animals, but none of us were complaining. It was just so cool to not only be in a balloon, but to be in a balloon over Africa!

Ostrich at the Masai Mara Our shadow

After an hour and a half of peaceful drifting, it was time to come back down to earth. The landing was nice and smooth. Fortunately, getting out of the gondola wasn't quite as hard as getting in! As the crew packed up the balloon, we were driven to the breakfast site. A very nice champagne breakfast is included in the price. We toasted our good flight with David.

A very smooth landing! Toasting our memorable flight

Breakfast was no slapdash affair -- the chef made us omelets and crepes. Ah, roughing it! Elaina is seated across the table from Wendy in the photo below right (Mark has apparently sprouted a tree from his head). We learned that cheetahs are Elaina's specialty, and she was very glad to hear our story of the kill we witnessed yesterday. The mother cheetah had been injured the week before. They're so endangered that the wildlife service flew in veterinarians from Nairobi to stitch up her wounds in the field. Elaina and her colleagues had spent several days guarding them and hunting for the cubs while the mother recuperated. They weren't certain if she'd still be able to hunt, but our story was the first confirmation they had that she could. Needless to say, Elaina was very happy!

Roughing it in the Mara! From left: Elaina, Mark, and Wendy at our post-flight breakfast

Full of good food and great memories, we got back into the hummer for a short game drive on the way back to the lodge. Along the way, we saw a troop of baboon, a herd of cape buffalo, and a couple of giraffe (to the left of the tree trunk in the photo below right -- it's amazing how well these large animals can just blend into the landscape!).

Lone acacia on the Mara plains Giraffe



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