Floating on air

Over the past two weeks, I have journeyed through three countries on an Exodus overland truck. It had hauled its way up and over a volcanic national park, carefully negotiated primitive hillside roads, slalomed perpetual potholes and weaved around myopic cattle.

I have sat beside a family of mountain gorillas, enjoyed precious moments with orphaned Rwandans, jet boated at the source of the Nile in Uganda, straddled the equator in the pouring rain and watched dumbfounded as a hippo strode past camp at midnight.

In Kenya, I witnessed a herd of belligerent buffalo drive off a male lion along theshores of Lake Nakuru before eating brunch on Baboon Cliff under the watchful eyes of red-headed agama lizards. I caught a long-awaited glimpse of a leopard lounging on an olive branch and watched with bated breath as a cheetah mother emerged cautiously from a croton bush with three cubs in tow...

Now I am bumping and lurching in a 4x4 along a rough dirt track under a midnight blue, false-dawn sky, heading for yet another box office contender – a sunrise balloon flight over the Masai Mara.

Stopping only briefly to observe a yawning pride of lion, we drive on towards the take-off point in the heart of the reserve. With the reassuringly thorough safety drills over, we clamber in and tuck down in our wicker gondola. Flames roar overhead inflating our multi-coloured envelope and warming the pre-dawn chill. My anticipation builds until we are at last freed from the restraining shackles and soar up in one smooth, effortless motion. No bumping. No slaloming. No weaving.

The sun, now half visible on the horizon, bathes the plain in a warm amber glow that dances on the lingering mist. Below the animals are active; a lone bull elephant strides purposefully through the oatgrass, a pair of ostrich feed feverishly and the tail of the migrating herds amble south.

We are soon rising high, the balloon’s ascent seemingly mirrored by the sun. Riding the thermals against a brilliant blue sky, the silent serenity of our flight is punctuated only by the occasional short blast of the overhead furnace. From around 500 metres, the highly accomplished pilot dips us to within just a few feet of the ground before floating above the swollen Mara River.

Hovering just above the canopy, I see the legacy of many fateful migratory crossings which scar the banks of the river below. Nearby a curious hyena couple skulk around a carcass well past its best before date, occasionally peering up to the mysterious flying object above them.

Before a seamless descent and impeccable landing, there is time to fill yet more memory cards with at least another dozen species: grazing zebra, flighty impala, gangly giraffe and a languid lion pride bathed in the glory of the Mara sunshine just some of the highlights.

Out of the basket and we are quickly whisked off in jeeps. As the convoy slows, a
champagne breakfast laid out on gingham materialises.

After my hot date with the cafetiere, a sticky with date several Danish pastries and more than enough Buck's fizz for 8am, I grab some shade under a nearby Boscia tree.

I may be back on solid ground but really I am still floating.

By Natasha Preston who travelled on Gorillas & Masai Mara.

Please note: the Masai Mara hot air balloon experience is an optional extra on this wonderful wildlife holiday.

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