Story and photography by Barbara Penny Angelakis
Soaring Over the Endless Plain
The wakeup call came at 3:30 A.M. and jarred me out of a sound sleep. “Good Morning and how are you today Ms. Barbara… did you sleep well?” a friendly voice inquired replacing the usual crisp “it’s your 3:30 wake-up call” automated message I’ve grown used to in my travels. But, regardless of the warmth of the caller, it was chilly out of the cozy down coverlet; pitch black outside; and hardly morning! Still, I bounded out of bed in anticipation of my first adventure in Tanzania… a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti Plain… certainly a worthy cause for a little sleep deprivation.
We were over-nighting at the deluxe Bilila Lodge Kempinski, a cluster of individual villas and suites set right in the Serengeti National Park. A short flight brought us from the Dar es Salaam domestic airport to Seronera via Arusha and Lake Manyara, - where we got our best view of Mount Kilimanjaro showing off above the clouds with its perfect conical shaped snow capped peak - on Coastal Airways new executive 8-seater air conditioned plane. Coastal Airways has made hip-hopping between National Park reserves in Tanzania relatively painless with their frequently scheduled service and talented pilots able to land even on the most primitive air strips. But this morning I was looking forward to an even more intimate experience with flight.
I quickly dressed and with the aid of a flashlight made my way from my luxurious quarters, along the boardwalk linking the separate villas, into the central lobby to meet up with my fellow adventurers. Downing some coffee and sweet breads baked fresh for our early morning departure; we were on our way by 4:30 A.M. bumping along the unpaved road towards the Serengeti Balloon Safaris launch sight.
As we made our way in the blackness of the African night, relieved only by the brilliant stars above, the headlights of our Land Rover reflected eyes up ahead and we slowed in time to see a pack of yellow spotted hyenas crossing the road just in front of us. We stopped to give them the right of way and like the other animals we later encountered in the Serengeti; they appeared to be unafraid of the large, noisy, rapidly moving “animal” with big round unblinking eyes or the curious stares from inside the belly of that beast.
Further along the road we encountered a pod of hippos that also wanted to cross the road… there is a joke in there somewhere but it was too early to think of one and right after the hippos, we turned off-road and had to concentrate our attention to holding on for dear life… now at the mercy of the uneven terrain more rutted even then the road.
Still dark outside we could just make out the massive shapes of the balloons laid out on the ground, three in all, with tender lines attached to what appeared to be large rectangular devices, not the round shaped baskets that I had expected. As the light lifted slightly we could make out that the curious baskets were not open at the top but to the side. When first light finally broke along the horizon, we were separated into groups and directed to one of the three balloon sites. Our designated Captain Jaġa Rodriguez explained that each basket was large enough to hold 16 people in 8 separated compartments, 4 on either side. He explained how to grab the handles attached to the inside of each compartment and flip feet first into it, 2 persons per section, with the people assigned to the top level entering first lying down. Afterwards the people on the bottom level swung in and held on until the green and gold striped balloon was fully inflated and we were jerked upright and with a shout lifted straight up over the Endless Plain.
Siringitu is the Maasai word for “endless plain” and contrary to the popular verbalization of the word Serengeti, the emphasis should be on the first syllable. The Serengeti is 5,700 square miles of grassland, savanna, woodland and forest and is home to over one and a half million wildebeest and more then 200,000 zebra along with lions, elephants, hippos, giraffes, impala, gazelle, rhinos, cape buffalo, ostrich, baboons, monkeys, leopards, cheetahs, warthogs, and over 500 species of birds and water fowl. Serengeti is also home to the staggering annual wildebeest migration that takes the animals from their breeding ground in the grasslands of the south, westward past the swampy savanna and across the crocodile infested Grumeti River, into the northern woodlands; an often recounted intense journey that challenges the survival of all but the heartiest of animals.
Captain Jaġa controlled our ascent into the picture perfect blue sky with flame bursts from the powerful state-of-the-art whisper burners aimed into the balloon and took us from tree level, where we got a bird’s eye view of hippos lazing in the river-fingers swollen from the early rains, to high over the herds of wildebeest so as not to frighten them into a stampede. Silently we soared over thousands of wildebeest, giraffe and impala; silent that is except for the squeals, oohs and aahs involuntarily emanating from me and my fellow passengers, and the whoosh of the burner spewing fire.
The day was delightful, warm and sunny with a refreshing breeze and only the shadow of our balloon racing across the ground to indicate the speed we were traveling. It is mid-March and the rains began early this year leaving the savannah a carpet of green grass broken only by fields of colorful wild flowers. We glided over the Seronera Valley and the Western Corridor the better part of an hour until we spied the chase vehicles below and slowly descended upright onto a flat field, happy to be able to climb out with the help of the balloon handlers. We had been instructed that depending on the winds, the basket might land on its side and we would have to quickly scramble out on hands and knees to allow the top level of passengers to disembark without stepping on us. Our drivers collected us and took us to where tables had been setup for the Champagne toast, a tradition dating back to the first balloon flight.
As a colorful version of the story goes, in 1782 Joseph Montgolfier, son of a prosperous French paper manufacturer, discovered that if you filled a conveyance with hot air, it would float upwards. He theorized that if it was large and strong enough it might carry a man. Along with his younger brother Etienne, he constructed a silk balloon and sent a trial flight aloft with a duck, a sheep, and a rooster… of course, pigs don’t fly! They followed the balloon until it landed in a farmer’s field but by the time they arrived at the landing site the balloon was in shreds and the animals dead. Initially fearing their experiment a failure, they finally connected the disaster to the frightened farmer and villagers standing nearby with pitchforks at the ready. In defense of the villagers, having never seen anything other than birds in the sky, their natural assumption was that it was the devil in disguise as farm animals. Joseph concluded that if man was to attempt an assent, to make his landing sans pitchfork attack, he would have to have a peace offering for the villagers that could not be mistaken for demonic activity. Being French, Champaign came to mind! And thus was born the tradition of the celebratory Champaign toast after every balloon flight, and one that enriches the experience to this day.
After the story and the toast we were whisked off to tables set with bone china and silver cutlery under a spreading umbrella tree and served a hearty English breakfast by turbaned stewards in traditional Swahili dress. The food was prepared while we were aloft and consisted of eggs as you liked them, roasted potatoes, grilled sausages and tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, baked beans and freshly baked rolls. Volumes of hot coffee, fresh orange juice and Champaign accompanied our meal and there was even a loo setup out in the field modestly enclosed for privacy.
When we were sated, we received congratulations and certificates of hot air balloon ride survival, hugged all around, and boarded our vehicles to continue our Safari Odyssey in Tanzania “The Land of Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar and The Serengeti”.
Asante Sana for making this trip possible:
(Swahili words for many thanks)
Tanzanian Tourist Board www.tanzaniatouristboard.com
Africa Adventure Consultants www.adventuresinafrica.com
South African Airways www.FlySAA.com
Coastal Air “The flying safari company” www.coastal.cc
Bilila Lodge Kempinski www.kempinski.com
Serengeti Balloon Safaris www.balloonsafaris.com
Serengeti National Park www.tanzaniaparks.com
Asilia Africa www.asiliaafrica.com
© April 2010 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.