Finding serenity on a hot air balloon ride over the Maasai Mara

A hot air balloon ride over Kenya’s majestic Maasai Mara is the ideal way to celebrate a special occasion.

By Emma Gregg
Published 9 Nov 2021, 18:00 GMT
A hot air balloon floats over the Mara River in the Maasai Mara, home to four ...

A hot air balloon floats over the Mara River in the Maasai Mara, home to four of the Big Five.

Photograph by Getty Images

It’s unnaturally early in the morning, and my mind is racing. Our craft — a stripy, silky creation lit by a tongue of flame — is rapidly taking shape. For now, its basket is resting on its side, but very soon, we’ll be clambering aboard and slotting ourselves in, like milk bottles in a crate.

Gulping my coffee, I’m burning with curiosity. I’ve watched hot air balloons in flight countless times, both here in Kenya’s Maasai Mara and elsewhere. But I’m yet to fly in one myself. To say I’m excited would be an understatement.

As it turns out, it’s nothing like I imagined. Our take-off is as gentle as a whisper. One moment, we’re swapping smiles and chatting, and the next, almost before I know it, we’re airborne. Effortlessly, we ascend, feeling as light as a spider on a silken thread.

This sensation is intriguing, as the basket is a hefty, sturdy beast. Built of tight-woven wicker, it’s much bigger than I expected: besides our friendly, enthusiastic pilot, there are a dozen passengers aboard.

“Happy birthday, darling!” says the man on my left to his beaming wife. Everyone, seemingly, is celebrating something: a wedding anniversary, a birthday or retirement. And what better way to mark a big occasion than by soaring over the Mara, toasting your good fortune with Champagne?

Leaning on the basket’s leather lip, I peer down. Even at about 100ft off the ground, we’re still low enough to see every termite mound, tussock and shrub. Zebra and wildebeest trot away in a flurry of black-and-white stripes, smoky-brown flanks and swishing tails. 

“Ready to go higher?” asks our pilot, Graham Luckett, reaching up to adjust the burners. Gradually, the horizon expands, the ground falls away and the little details fade. 

There’s an endearing quirkiness to this mode of travel, I decide. Like unicyclists and vintage car enthusiasts, balloon pilots have limited controls to hand. The speed and direction of travel is entirely dictated by the breeze. “We have to know how to read the skies,” says Graham. “And no two flights are ever the same — which keeps us on our toes!”

We swoop over fig trees and acacias lining the lazy Mara River. “Sometimes,” says Graham, “we’ll witness something really dramatic — like cheetahs sprinting after a warthog or a crocodile grabbing a gazelle.” 

Exciting though this sounds, our flight offers something even better: serenity. In this chattering, clattering world, what could be more precious than that?

There are several companies that offer balloon Safaris in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. They typically start at sunrise and last around an hour, followed by an outdoor cooked breakfast with Champagne. 

Chairs are placed around a fire as night falls in the Maasai Mara.
 

Photograph by Getty Images

Three once-in-a-lifetime experiences in Kenya

Make a trip to Kenya that little bit more special with one of these unforgettable options, whether that’s sleeping under the stars or seeing incredible wildlife

1. Wildlife up close
Several of Kenya’s leading wildlife research foundations offer the chance to see wild animals at close range, while helping fund conservation. In Samburu, Elephant Watch Camp guides can introduce you to herds that Iain Douglas-Hamilton and the Save the Elephants team have been studying for many years. Ol Pejeta, which is leading the charge in rhino conservation, offers intimate sightings of black, northern white and southern white rhinos. In Nairobi, the Rothschild’s giraffes at the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Giraffe Centre drop in to the neighbouring hotel, Giraffe Manor, for breakfast. 

2. Tying the knot on safari
A Kenyan wedding ceremony — whether religious or civil — can be held in any licensed venue and is relatively simple to arrange. Kenya’s safari camps, lodges, conservancies and reserves can also serve as a beautiful, evocative backdrop for a proposal, blessing or renewal of vows. You could treat a partner or guests to locally grown produce or artisan-made gifts such as coffee, tea, kikoys (Swahili sarongs), jewellery and crafts. 

3. Sleeping under the stars 
Camping out in safety and comfort, with nothing more than a mosquito net between you and the stars, is a quintessential safari experience. The Star Beds in Loisaba Conservancy each stand on a private platform overlooking a waterhole with resident hippos. Equally wild and exciting are the treehouses in Kenya’s exclusive reserves. The Nest at Alex Walker’s Serian, perched in a warburgia tree in the Maasai Mara, is one of the prettiest, while the Nay Palad Bird Nest in Laikipia is a designer roost with a predator-proof crown of twigs.

For more information and to book your trip, go to magicalkenya.com

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