Waking up at 3:30AM sucks. Big time. However, it was for a good cause: I, along with four other members of my group, was heading out to an early morning hot air balloon safari, which would be followed by a champagne breakfast and then a game drive. We were on our way by 4:30AM, arrived at the launching site by 6:00AM, made a pit stop at the bathrooms, hustled to the balloons, and then waited for the wind to die down so that we could go up. We waited. And waited. And waited.
We took pictures of the balloons, the baskets, the people, and the landscape. We waited some more. Finally, our pilot told us the bad news: the wind was only going to get worse, so there was no way that we could go up that day. Extremely disappointed (and feeling bitter at having had to wake up so early for nothing), my group headed to the front desk, collected our refunds, ate a champagne-free breakfast, and then made arrangements to join up with the rest of our group, which had already headed out for a game drive.
After meeting up with the larger group, things turned around. We saw so much new wildlife: a bat-eared fox, a mama lion and its cubs, loping elands, a lounging cheetah, topi, amazingly awkward-yet-regal-looking secretary birds, and a small family of elephants crossing the road in front of us. In the afternoon, we arrived at the Masai Lookout and got to see both pods of hippos and groups of crocodiles, sleeping in the sun. Not long afterwards, we spotted another leopard. This one was hiding in the bushes, panting heavily. Soon (after looking upwards), we knew why. Tucked high in the branches of a nearby candelabra cactus were the remains of the leopard’s lunch: a hapless impala. We ended the day by spotting hartebeest and some shy warthogs.
The next day, four of the original five ballooners tried our luck again. This time, our early wake-up time paid off: we achieved lift-off. As we floated towards the Mara River, we watched the sun rise over the Masai Mara. We looked down and spotted some straggling wildebeest from the Great Migration. Also in the mix were some hyenas and zebras. We eventually landed softly and safely, and I thought that we were done with the ride. Instead, our pilot–a colorful, joking, South Korean guy name Kim–announced that we would be going up again, this time in order to land on the back of a flatbed truck.
I chuckled at first but quickly pulled it together when I realized that he was serious. We rose upwards once more and (fortunately) landed successfully on the truck, if a little askew–our pilot nervously asked us all to lean to one side so that we wouldn’t inadvertently unbalance the basket. (Another balloon tried the same feat and failed. Our pilot laughed heartily: “They have an ugly pilot. Only handsome pilots can do this!”) After a group photo, instead of alighting from the basket onto the ground like normal people, we opted to climb directly from the basket through the windows of the waiting mega-Land Cruiser-ish vehicle that would be taking us to breakfast.
Breakfast was amazing. A fully-uniformed staff prepared our made-to-order omelets and crepes and plied us with coffee, tea, hot chocolate, champagne (of course), and any stronger alcoholic beverages of our choice. I got my fair share of ribbing from my table because I imbibed four glasses of champagne in quick succession. In my defense, though, let me explain: I had two glasses at first because I am a normal person, and, hey–free champagne; a third glass because, when I asked for water, the bottle hadn’t been opened yet, and some of the others suggested that I should just drink from the already-opened champagne bottle–makes sense; and, a fourth glass because I had forgotten to take my vitamins and malaria medication earlier, and there was just enough champagne left in the bottle to serve one last glass–it would be a shame to let it go to waste, and, besides, it was for medicinal purposes!
In any event, after all that liquid, I was in urgent need of a washroom. After doing the uber-touristy thing and buying an overpriced, cheesy CD from Kim of professional photos of our balloon safari (including additional photos of animals, all set to the tune of Toto’s “Africa”), I went in search of bathroom facilities. Unfortunately, the only “facility” in sight was the lone acacia tree under which we had breakfasted. I talked to the staff, and they directed me to a patch of grass directly behind one of the Land Cruisers. I had to do some tricky angling to make sure not to flash the staff to the right or the remaining breakfasters to the left, but I returned triumphant and just in time to join the rest of my foursome for the morning game drive that was included with the balloon ride.
The highlights of the drive were many. Three of us confused our poor driver by having him pull over so that we could hop out and pose, quickly and nervously, while our fourth took photos of us with the zebras and wildebeest galloping in the background. Later, our vehicle broke down less than 20 kilometers from our lodge due to the fact that one of our group members insisted on a bathroom break at that point–obviously, we mocked him roundly and unfairly blamed the break-down on him; good times. While we were waiting for our replacement ride, we bought overpriced trinkets from a group of Masai women in exchange for them letting us take their picture. All in all, it was a great morning. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to get back to the lodge and crash into bed to nap in advance of joining up again with my full group to head out for an afternoon game drive.