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Published: February 15th 2020
Very early this morning two of us, Patsy and I, were woken at 4:30AM since we were the only two in our group to sign up for the optional tour "Sunrise Safari & Hot Air Balloon Ride Over the Serengeti." At first I hadn't signed on because of the expense, but I had never been up in a hot air balloon, plus when would I ever have the chance again to do it over the famous Serengeti? So I signed on. I was a bit afraid at first, not knowing what to expect, but once we all clambered into the basket it lifted off as gently and silently as a train leaving the station. Waking up early is no hardship for me; I've usually been up by 4AM every day so far and was lying there waiting for one of the staff to come quietly calling. And what a surprise: this pre-dawn morning turned out to be dry, and astonishingly beautiful. At camp it was pitch black with the boundless sky full of southern stars, the constellations confusingly upside-down, an amazing sight especially since there's been so much rain this year, much much more than to be expected, far too much, in fact. So this morning itself, being rain-free, was a gift. The driver who picked us up drove over the now familiar bumpy, muddy trails that serve as roads in the Serengeti, so deeply trenched or washed out because of rain, rain, and more rain, plus safari vehicles pounding through, sometimes not making it and getting stuck in the hungry mud. Somehow so far, each time our vehicles had gotten through, even plowing through lakes that had been "roads," so it wasn't unexpected that this morning it took us an hour to go ten miles. (This driving through so much deep water reminded me again and again of being on safari in the Okavango Delta in Botswana!) The African sun was already peeking over the horizon as we pulled into the Serengeti Sunrise Safari grounds, and met Frank, our pilot.
Instructions included in which of the eight compartments each pair of us would stand; also we were given seatbelts that hooked us securely into our parts of the basket. One main caution was "No smoking!" Everyone laughed at that, but it sounded like nervous laughter; I don't think I was the only one who was a tiny bit worried about our imminent adventure.
Tethered in, standing and looking down, we saw the ground recede; our enormous balloon lifted gently, effortlessly, into the sky. This was magnificent! I have no fear of heights and hoped that Frank would take us higher and higher so we could see to the ends of the earth, an impossible wish except by rocket. Our flight lasted well over an hour, all too short a time looking for animals and just watching the unbounded glorious expanse of the Serengeti. Between 5000 - 7000 square miles in area, the word Serengeti is Swahili for "endless plain." It is surprising to see so much green, stretching out in all directions, to listen to the quiet of it, interspersed with blasts of hot air up into the balloon. We moved with the wind, although the pilot is able to change the direction the basket is facing and height. The lower we flew the more animals we could see; the higher we went the more extraordinary the expansive view. Just seeing the animals' paler green walking trails through the tall grasses looked like a work of art. There was beauty in all directions, everywhere one could look. This is an exceptional tour! Take it if you can. Hot air ballooning is now my most favorite mode of travel.
Finally, sadly, we had to land. Frank prepared us for two different ways the basket could come back down to earth; the first was the obvious one: we would simply glide along the grasses and stop, landing upright. There was a bit of a wind, so the second possibility was that the basket might stop at first semi-upright, at an angle, and then it could continue angling down, down, to finally land with all of us lying on our backs, astronaut-style, in our basket lying sideways on the ground, the way we had originally seen it. This is what happened. At first, landing at an angle, it felt as if maybe the basket could somehow be pushed back upright, but no. The ground was, of course, muddy, and the basket sank - quite gently - further and further until Patsy and I were lying on our backs, on the bottom. Everyone unhitched seatbelts and scrambled out as well as each of us could, younger passengers helping those who were older, and finally all of us were standing upright once more, returned to having our feet on the soft, muddy earth.
Safari vehicles came to pick us up, to rescue us, and took us to somewhere else in the vastness of the Serengeti, where long tables filled with cloth table coverings, china, and a very delicious breakfast awaited us. For our convenience and comfort, loos with views were set up not too far away, with a separate hand-washing table with soap, hot water, and fresh towels offered by one of the Serengeti balloon staff (all Tanzanians, in full traditional dress). Patsy and I sat down at one of the tables and, while enjoying our sumptuous breakfast, chatted with other balloon passengers on either side of us. Unlimited champagne was available; a short history of hot air ballooning was given, and then we all toasted each other and our shared morning's experience. After breakfast and cheery good-byes everyone climbed back into the vehicles and was driven to the Visitor Center to meet up with all of our regular groups to continue safari game viewing in the Serengeti.
It has been three years since I've been to Africa, far too long for such adventures. I am so glad I have returned.
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