African safari 2013: Part 8

July 8, 2013

Our family’s “Jambo Jambo” call was at 4:00 AM so that we could go on a sunrise balloon ride over the Serengeti. I feel sorry for the camp staff. Their days start very early and end very late. They had prepared coffee and cookies for us to get us going, and we hit the road by 4:30 AM.

We had to step over the largest line of ants that I have ever seen to get to the vehicle:

The balloon operator picked us up and carried us to the launch site. They have a special permit to drive in the park before daylight, so we got a unique pre-dawn look at life there. We got to the gate, and it took a few minutes for the ranger to wake up, come out of the guard-house and let us in. The rangers carry a long weapon at all times, even at 4:45 in the morning. They have to be ready for anything from wild animals to poachers. On the drive we saw a bat-eared fox and a hyena stalking just at the edge of our headlights.

We got to the launch site as the first light was breaking:

There were four balloons at our launch site. Each of them holds 16 people, plus the pilot. They are laid over on their sides at first, and giant fans are used to fill the balloons with cold air.

Sunrise happened as we watched the balloons fill up:

Two people sit in each compartment. There are four compartments on each side of the balloon, two on top, and two on bottom. The pilot has the middle, which is not subdivided. Each person crawled into the compartment (like bees in a honeycomb). We each sat down on our backs with our gear tucked down between our legs. We were strapped around the waists, and there was a connecting strap to the balloon. Our pilot began to send hot air into the balloon, and it began to rise. The burners are quite loud and warm, and the morning chill was soon gone. In a few moments, our basket turned upright and we launched. It was exhilarating! I have never flown in a balloon before, but it was a wonderful feeling of soaring over the plain. As soon as we were aloft, we were allowed to stand and look out.

Our pilot deftly guided the balloon over the Serengeti. He had better control that I would have imagined. He could rotate the balloon at will, so that part of the time each person got to be “in front” and then the rest of the time the other half of the folks in the balloon got that chance.

We flew directly over an eagle’s nest. The bird seemed annoyed with us for coming so close:
 

Our pilot could make the balloon go lower if we saw something of interest, and he could make it soar high over the plain. We noticed a lot of cars gathered around a particular spot and figured there might be something interesting going on.

 

We saw the lioness and had a great vantage point:

She had two other accomplices, and everyone in the balloon watched enthralled as she tried to run down a gazelle. She did not succeed. I did not have my camera up to my face, but I am not sorry. I watched the whole thing unfold in a matter of seconds. I would have missed it had I been fiddling with the camera.
 
The flight lasted one hour. We saw a hippo running beside a river. We saw countless gazelle, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra: it was an animal bonanza. We saw more animals in an hour than we had seen all day the previous day. The balloon gives a unique perspective that just cannot be gotten from the ground. When viewing from the trucks, we are looking across and through the tall brown/golden grass, and our field of vision is limited. From above, we can see the wildlife moving directly underneath us, and they are like millions of ants. They are everywhere!
 
A few landscapes:
 Zebra and giraffes seen from above:

The dots are hundreds of water buffalo:

After an hour, we made a safe though bumpy landing. Our pilot instructed us to get back into our seated positions while he put it down. Basically, our pilot just had to skid us to a stop. We hit the ground with a thump, bounced up again, hit again, and then started dragging. Genene squealed with delight and thought it was great fun. I was glad when it was over. Eventually the basket slowed and turned back over to its side. We were on our backs again, and we waited to be unstrapped.

All of the passengers from the four balloons met at a central spot on the Serengeti so that the celebration could start. The operators explained that ballooning is associated with champagne because the early flights took place in France. We got a short and painless history of early ballooning, and then the champagne corks popped and the fun commenced.

Our pilot gave the balloonist’s prayer, which I had never heard before but thought was quite beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes:

The winds have welcomed you with softness
The sun has blessed you with its warm rays
You have flown so high and so well
That God has joined you in laughter
And set you gently back again
Into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
 

From there we rode to another site, where a full English breakfast was served to us by men in some kind of “Out of Africa” garb. Linen, bone china, Sheffield cutlery–all the finery of a proper breakfast under the acacia trees.

Genene enjoyed the “loo with a view,” a toilet set up in the middle of the plain with a spectacular view of some nearby mountains:

We met a very nice couple from California who told us of their adventures. Another couple from Chicago had left their children at home and had been on safari for weeks. They had started in Kenya and seen the Great Migration up there. There is so much to see.

Our only problem with the breakfast was that the bees soon found us and swarmed us. They were after our foods and were not particularly aggressive, but Genene could not relax with them diving into her juice glass every three minutes.

On our way back to reunite with the other Thomson safari guests, we saw a leopard hanging in the crook of a tree, thus getting number 4 of the Big Five:

You must look carefully at all the kopjes. We found another leopard hiding in the rocks:

We rode as a family the rest of the morning. The only thing that Genene wanted to see on the trip was a cheetah, and Greg and I were starting to be fearful that it would not happen. Then the guides got word that there was a mom with two half-grown cubs nearby and so we were off. It was truly a close encounter. I had my 500 mm lens on the camera, and I was afraid I was going to be so close that I couldn’t capture their entire bodies. The cheetahs are beautiful, photogenic creatures. They are the fastest land mammal on earth and can achieve speeds of up to 80 mph. The tear stain under their eyes serves the same purpose that it serves for a football player: it cuts down the glare and helps them to see their prey in bright sun.

 

We watched them until they wandered away from the cars and blended into the grass:

We rode as a family all morning and had a picnic lunch by a kopje. This was no ordinary box lunch. I guess the guides had heard our complaints and brought plates and silverware and all kinds of good food, which we ate under the shade of the trees. Everyone was grateful for the treat.

After lunch, the kids got in their own car, and Greg and I rode with Sheryl and Jim. We saw tons of wildlife and checked some new things off our list.

The kids get a close encounter with a lion in the green grass:

And around the corner, two more:

Still more lions:

This big guy never would come close:

On the watch:

Elephants crossing:

 
African fish eagle:
 
This has to be one of the coolest things we saw. We did not see the leopard, but we saw what he set aside for himself. An entire Thomson gazelle was hanging in a tree:

We stopped by a hippo hole and found crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank:

I caught the hippo with his mouth wide open:

It was perhaps the best day of wildlife viewing we would have. It was a long but rewarding day. We went out first as a family at 4:30 am, and Sheryl, Jim, Greg and I were the last to come in after 6 pm. The kids were already playing in the yard when we drove up. We showered off just in time to see another spectacular sunset (and I realize that I am overusing the word spectacular; I just cannot think of a better word):

Dinner was delightful. We had lamb chops, African soybeans, green beans, cauliflower, zucchini soup, and fried banana dessert. Genene actually asked us if she could go to bed, something that never happens at home. We sent her to the tent, while the adults sat by the fire for a little while longer and talked over all the things we had seen that day. We came in later to find Genene sound asleep with her little stuffed dog, Senior. Senior has been to Belize, Tuscany, England, Paris, Mexico, Ireland, and Rome, but we think he likes Africa best.
 
 
 

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