Above the Serengeti
In the darkness of the early morning we drove across the Serengeti. I had no idea where we were in the park or where we were going, but after rounding up people from various accommodations that popped up out of the darkness, we took off at great speed along a road to nowhere obvious. Knowing that animals are often more active at night, I furtively scanned the outside world looking for the glimmer of eyes reflecting in the darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. As we drove further and further away from our starting point, suddenly an unusual cat appeared in the headlights for such a brief moment as to almost be forgetful, but long enough to know I’d seen something special: a serval cat, one of Africa’s lesser known cats. It was the only wildlife we spotted on the drive that eventually took us to our destination just as a hint of dawn filled the air.
It was freezing cold when we got out next to a multitude of other jeeps, and next to us were the shadows of a multitude of hot air balloons. As we stood waiting for them to be readied, the horizon turned blue, then lightened gradually before a hint of red and then yellow arrived. These balloons were huge and took a lot of preparation to get them ready for boarding. We had to climb into the basket whilst it was lying on its side, meaning we had to lie down on the side of the basket staring up at the sky until everyone was loaded and ready to go. I was one of the first people to get on, and it felt cramped by the time we were fully loaded. As more and more hot air was pumped into the balloon, we were assisted to upright and among such a large group of balloons, I was excited to be on one of the first to take off. I’d never had much desire to go ballooning beforehand, but when the option had landed at my feet to balloon across the Serengeti, I jumped at the chance despite the added expense. I decided it would be one of those once in a lifetime experiences, and it certainly proved itself to be just that.
The sun broached the horizon just after we took off, quickly gaining momentum as we left the other balloons behind. The sky was by now a mix of orange and purple and as we silently lifted high above the ground, I no longer felt cramped in the basket. I couldn’t move much, but I was able to turn around, look up and over and absorb the expanse opening up right in front of my face. We’d taken off in an open area of the park, but we drifted towards hills, flying over a grazing topi and a large expanse of vague greenery. We spotted the odd safari jeep that was out early for a sunrise safari, including one that was parked up under a large acacia tree where no doubt a leopard was probably resting in its branches. Behind us the other balloons had finally taken off also and so began the balloon dance across the Serengeti National Park.
Initially flying low, we gained a bit of height in preparation for the hills that we would traverse over. Aside from the loud bursts of flame blasting into the balloon, the flight itself was incredibly quiet and it felt utterly peaceful to just drift over the land below. When we reached the first hillside, we flew tantalisingly close to the tops of the foliage, and I scoured the land for signs of life. For a while there wasn’t any animals, but eventually we spotted some giraffes among the trees, one of which looked up at us as we floated by. A little further was a small herd of cape buffalo who paid us no attention whatsoever.
After another rise we floated over a beautiful green stretch covered in trees, framed by small peaks and hills that rolled off into the distance. I presumed we were heading in the direction of where I’d camped for the night but really couldn’t be sure. We got quite close to a large herd of antelope, although they seemed unsure how to respond to the noise of the balloon flames, some of them scarpering, and others pausing to look up at us. In groups, their stripey bottoms stood out from a distance, with large groups of females being patrolled by an antlered male. Some of them looked positively inquisitive, others just plain confused.
For a long time we just drifted over an acacia-filled landscape. Occasionally we floated over a stream, some buildings, or another hill. We spotted a couple of zebra, and later a warthog took off at full speed. Behind us the other balloons continued to dance. I didn’t want the experience to end but sadly it had to. It was still so early in the morning, and there was so much of the day still to come, but after what did not seem like enough time, our landing spot grew closer. We were given instructions on how to brace for the landing, and we watched the first balloon come in to land ahead of us, a group of helpers ready immediately to assist everyone off and pack up the balloon. Then sadly it was our turn to return to Earth, and we had the smoothest landing possible and disembarked with ease.
The ground crew were incredible at herding the various groups over to some tables laden with flutes, and there in the early hours of the morning, I found myself drinking champagne in Africa. Standing somewhere unknown in the Serengeti, I watched as the other balloons lowered and landed nearby. All of them touched down gently apart from the last one which bounced before landing, a scream coming from one of the passengers within the basket. A little away some giraffes wandered by and I spotted a few antelope too. Once we’d had our fill of bubbles, we were whisked away to another spot that also felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, where a set of large tables had been set up for a banquet breakfast in the shade of a large tree. In the centre was more champagne, and across courses of fruit and bread and meats and coffee, all of us at the table were in heaven, and I myself felt warm and merry as the champagne continued to flow. A short walk away an open-sided tent had been set up so that you could look out at the open space of the national park whilst sat on the toilet seat.
From the sunrise to the peaceful flight over the plains, and from the champagne welcome to the gorgeous banquet in the shade of an acacia tree, the experience was one of my highlights of my time in Tanzania. I had missed out on a morning safari with the rest of my group, but I returned to them mid-morning with a lot of excitement for the day ahead. I’d missed out on a couple of close encounters, but with the day still young, we had a full day safari ahead of us and a lot more wildlife spotting to come.