This year, my vision of marking a new year in different style, started at treating my birth day celebration as a one-week affair. Since my arrival in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, on a late Tuesday afternoon; every single minute and second of the week feels like its mine, to celebrate and note that it’s my birthday (4th Sept).
This year, I didn’t want a party or some kind of celebration in the city, so I ran to the serene wild, where one of my best friends, Smiles and her hubby, happen to live their happily ever after. It’s great to reunite with Smiles and her hubby Danny (also referred here sometimes as Dan or Daniel) who is a pilot. I also meet his pilot friend John. Smiles works at Mara as a balloon ride photographer alongside Danny, who flies balloons. They have already booked me for a balloon ride tomorrow morning.
I am so excited about this ride; I can hardly sleep on my first night. I am however, already dreading how early we have to get up tomorrow morning to prepare for the ride – 4:00 a.m.! “I’ve been doing this for years and I’ve never got used to waking up that early,” Smiles confesses. Danny’s strong voice acts as our main alarm system on Wednesday morning– “Girls! Time to get up!” I am not a morning person but boy! Am I excited or what? Quick shower, warm clothing, some hot tea and minutes later, we are outside the Serena Hotel, joined by several Norwegian tourists. What nobody (except for pilots) ever realizes is how meticulous the journey of steering a hot air balloon is, even before takeoff.
First, the pilots explain to us that we’ll have to take a 25-minute drive into the bush, into a flat and open area, safe for the balloons to take off. And how, when we arrive, they will have to ascertain that the weather conditions (not rainy) support takeoff. As we drive off into the wilderness, it’s still pitch dark; it must be about 5:00 a.m. now. Some wild animals like Antelopes and Gazelles are graving. They stop to watch the lights from the safari vehicles disturbing the peace. When we arrive, passengers marvel as the pilots start to operate the two balloons flying this morning. But before that, pilot Daniel gives us all instructions while a balloon assistant demonstrates how to enter the rectangular-shaped balloon box, now lying on its side. “You have to enter the box while lying down. Ensure that your feet are attached to the strings inside and if you have a handbag ensure that it’s between your feet – to avoid it flying off or hitting you, during landing. (Why – oh why – did I carry a handbag here?).
During takeoff and landing, ensure that your head is placed on the board of the box, to avoid yourselves bumping into each other or being shaken tremendously.” This is harder than I thought it must have been for balloon pilots. I have heard all the rules, now all I want is just to hop in. It’s time! It’s a little awkward though, lying upside down and turning your neck backwards, to watch the pilot blow the balloon with cold air, then hot air. It is around 6:00 a.m. now. It’s bright and I can finally see how grandiose a balloon really is. It’s nearly five times the size of a basketball court, and nothing as small as they seem in pictures above air or in the movies. After what seems like a dangerous hot and cold air blowing mission, complete with fire blazing, the pilot alerts us that we are about to take off. The balloon starts to swell and rise upward. Its strength raises the wooden box decorated by reeds. Within no time, we start to slowly rock, left to right; and then we start to slowly rise above. A crew of around 20 men and a tractor, out of the box, are holding onto the balloon, propelled by strong ropes, pulling left and right – until the pilot feels it right to takeoff and signals them all to let go. We are slowly flying up. Yeeeeei!
We slowly ascend further and move towards north of Mara. As the pilot blows air into the balloon, there is a constant alternating “Hoooooooov!!” sound above our heads, after which there is a short period of enjoyed silence. We spot Topis, ugly vultures above trees (with beautiful nests resting on their heads) and a lioness on top of a rock. She is later chased by two Buffalos. Then we spot dozens of zebras, next to a herd of migrating wildebeests along their milky curvy shaped path. That hovering sound off the balloon scares the wildebeests, which take off in speed. I just witnessed part of the wildebeest migration! The pilot turns out to be a safari guide just as brilliant. He explains to us the nature of all the wild animals and their behaviors, we see. What a sight!
The beauty atop the game reserve beats anything! It’s like a game drive from above. It’s something everyone has to partake. I turn back to check out the other balloon, a couple of metres from us and there it is – the sunrise. I’ve never seen a more striking sunrise. The clouds have opened just like in those ‘what heaven is like’ pictures published in the Jehovah Witness books, usually issued for free. After snapping away a few pictures (which I don’t have now, because at the time of this experience, my phone has just a few days before it gets acquired by a forceful new owner – let’s call it Nairobbery), I am dire need of a nice selfie, so I ask the Norwegian woman next to me to get into the shot. It’s such a beautiful morning and feeling that I have already forgiven her for having asked me during takeoff– “Do you speak English?” But I can’t really blame her after all, seeing I am the only black person/Kenyan on this balloon. All the others, holding onto the balloon, were left on ground. I probably could speak and write better than her. I actually do speak better English; I discover as we strike a rapport.
We land in the middle of nowhere, the border of Kenya and Tanzania – somewhere in between Serengeti National Reserve’s Lemala Kuria Hills at about 8:00 a.m. The grass here is taller than I am; so glad I wore my worker boots. I am dazed from the spectacular view and the pilot’s art of steering the balloon/smooth landing– everything that got us here. As the balloon’s crew is back at disembarking, from afar I hear Pilot Daniel calling out my name, “Anyiko! Are you okay? Uko sawa?” When was the last time I had such a good morning? I converse with my inner self– ‘Oh! It’s Wednesday morning—the eve of my birthday. At approximately this time, I could have easily been in Nairobi’s polluted traffic or at work, but I am not. I am lost in this Bday week bliss.’
Even though I wasn’t in the same balloon ride with Smiles, she knows what this means to me and understands when I can’t respond to her question on ground, “So how did you like your first ballooning experience?”
The Serena Hotel crew has set up a magnificent breakfast buffet somewhere by the bush. We start off by tossing to a glass of champagne before the real deal. From afar, I can see a towering beautiful giraffe grazing into the jungle. “It’s not even my birthday” *Insert Riri Voice*
BONUS: Later this afternoon, we are heading over to Narok at one of the ballooning pilot’s farewell party, at his crib. Tomorrow, my birthday should be super chilled. We have only planned to catch the wildebeest migrating across the Mara River …
In the continuation of my tales from Maasai Mara during Bday week, read Bday in the Wild: The Wildebeest Migration (Part III)
. Coming soon …