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Ballooning over the Masai Mara

Set off in a hot air balloon to see Kenya's Masai Mara and its stunning wildlife from a perspective few people have ever seen

Ballooning over the Masai Mara
Image: Getty

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At home, I rarely see the sunrise. On safari, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. It sometimes feels wrong to head to bed around 10pm, just as the crackling campfire is tempting everyone to linger for one more nightcap, one more story. But it’s worth it every time.

That soft wake-up call in the darkness, that splash of cool water and sip of hot coffee: they’re all part of the ritual. Just as the ash-black night begins to soften, I listen for the first bird calls — strident, insistent solos, followed by a cheerful chorus — and inhale the earthy morning air. Anyone who’d like to sample the quintessential thrill of hot air ballooning in the Maasai Mara (and why wouldn’t you, given half a chance?) has just a sliver of opportunity each day. Balloonists start inflating their colourful craft long before the sun peeps above the horizon. It’s in the cool, still morning that they get maximum lift. There’s no time to waste.

As we gather at the launch site, a vivid blue glimmer is seeping into the sky. The basket is on its side, its burner a roaring dragon. The envelope — a stripy one — heaves into shape, billowing and swelling like a giant, tethered sea creature. Around it, the ground team holds it in check, their bodies tiny silhouettes against the glow.

On the signal from our pilot, Graham Luckett, we climb in. A few fiery blasts and stomach flutters later, we’re rising to greet the dawn. I lean over the basket’s lip. Below, our shadow scuds across the grass, sending zebras cantering off in a blur of black and white. Beyond, young wildebeest and gazelles, bursting with morning adrenalin, gambol like lambs. Soon, we’re following the flight paths of vultures, skimming the treetops and floating above the Mara River’s lazy, chocolate-brown bends.

These days, the triple wonders of helicopter gimbals, drones and Google Earth have diluted the novelty of seeing landscapes from above. But there’s nothing quite like gazing down on the Maasai Mara with your own eyes. As our flight drifts to a close, Graham hunts for a smooth landing place, devoid of termite mounds. It’s hopeless.

They’re everywhere. At the yell to adopt our landing positions, we brace and prepare for the worst. “That wasn’t there yesterday!” jokes Graham as we hit a bump. It’s the first of many. Mildly shocked to discover that the world has tipped on its side, we climb out, giggling, ready for breakfast and Champagne.

So, was our trip more or less disruptive and invasive than a short drive in a vehicle? Some worry that the sudden roar of a burner and the rapid descent of a basket packed with humans could terrify the herds below. But on balance, the Mara’s balloons are gentle giants. They don’t crowd around wildlife like vehicles sometimes do, and they’re only in the sky for the first, fleeting hour of the day. After that, like ghosts, they’re gone.

Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)