We were up at the unearthly hour of 4am this morning, as we had a treat in store – a sunrise hot air balloon ride. Along with 6 others we were driven about 6km away from the hotel, outside the park boundary, to the balloon launch site, in time for a 6.30 launch. It may have only been a short distance to drive, but because we were driving out in the bush, it took us about an hour, and was a very bumpy ride.
Getting the balloon prepared was a job for many hands, the pilot and about 10 others. First they lay the basket on its side, and tested the gas burners – a spectacular flame throwing display, and then the balloon itself was laid out and filled up with air using a couple powerful fans.
Because there was a fairly strong wind, the pilot made the decision that we should get into the basket whilst it was still lying on its side, rather than first getting the basket and balloon upright and then climbing in. That was a bit of a challenge – it meant climbing into the basket, and lying on our backs with our feet in the air, and holding onto ropes. Once everyone was in, the pilot blasted the gas burners a few times, which felt like my ears were going to be singed, the balloon lifted, and the basket slowly righted itself. A couple more blasts and we slowly lifted off the ground.
What an amazing experience! I was slightly nervous beforehand, as I have no head for heights (put me two steps up a ladder and I start to panic), but like flying, this was fine. The ground slowly dropped away, and before long we’d spotted our first wildlife – two elephants up ahead. As we gained height, so did the sun, and we were treated to the most beautiful warm light, our finest sunrise so far on the trip.
We slowly ascended through the cloud up to a height of about 7500ft above sea level. In practical terms, about 3000ft above ground level. Once we were through the cloud, the peak of Kilimanjaro revealed itself. After enjoying the view, and learning something about hot air balloon flying, we descended through the clouds again, and floated along looking for wildlife and a good landing spot.
Because of the recent dry weather, the area we were over, which is an important wildlife corridor, was not as populated as normal. Still, we saw gazelle, rabbits and genereks. The poor gazelle were quite alarmed by our presence and ran every which way.
Our trip was planned to be one hour, but because of the winds, it took us longer to get lined up for landing. In fact, we had to first rise up again to catch the winds blowing in a different direction, and then when we were lined up better, start another descent. The balloon carries enough gas to keep it flying for about 2 hours. As we approached the ground, our pilot pointed down to a tree which had something colourful around it – ‘that’s breakfast’, he said. Indeed, once we landed, we were driven to the very same tree, under which was a table set for breakfast, a waiter, and a chef, ready to cook omlettes and crepes.
The landing itself was a little bumpy. We touched down, and then skipped across the ground a few times before the basket finally sank down gently onto its side, and the balloon collapsed. Still, it was a lot less dramatic than I might have imagined! After enjoying the breakfast, which was accompanied by champagne, we all piled back into the jeep and bumped our way back to the lodge.
Since we didn’t have a game drive planned until the afternoon, we thought it was a good opportunity to take advantage of the pool, and to sort through some of our photographs. In reality, though, we both sat down on the bed and fell asleep until lunchtime.