It’s 4:30 a.m. when I hear a voice at the flap of my tent.
“Jambo Edward!” It’s my guide sing-songing the traditional Swahili greeting. He’s wrapped tightly in a fleece sweater to ward off the cold, while clutching a kerosene lantern in his gloved hand to stave off the darkness. Today, we have planned the ultimate capstone to our Tanzanian safari — a sunrise balloon ride over the Serengeti.
I grab an extra cup of coffee and push steaming mugs of cocoa into my daughters’ hands before crawling into the back of our Land Rover. We bounce through the inky darkness at speed, pausing only when our driver slams on the brakes to avoid a baby hippopotamus. We inch our way cautiously past the massive mother following closely behind her calf and continue to our launch site.
After a short pre-flight briefing, I’m lying on my side stretched out awkwardly in a compartment of a giant wicker basket that has been tilted to lie horizontally. My nine-year-old daughter is beside me, giddy with a combination of excitement and lack of sleep. I can’t see them but somewhere underneath me, in a separate compartment, are my wife and seven-year-old. Tongues of super-heated gas belch massive noisy flames less than two metres from my head. The intense heat is a shocking contrast to the crisp cold of the Tanzanian pre-dawn. The blackness of the Serengeti plains is quickly giving way to dappled muted smears of purple and streaks of orange as we race against the rapidly approaching sunrise.
I clench my teeth and grip the side runners, anticipating a lurch as we tilt vertically to begin our ascent. Instead, I experience a gradual weightless feeling as we float into position and begin drifting upwards. The powerful heaters fire intermittently up into the belly of the balloon but I am struck by the intense silence that exists between the flaming blasts. Our pilot, Captain Frank Bellantoni of Serengeti Balloon Safaris, cracks a joke under his breath about Serengeti air traffic beating the daily grind along Highway 401. I stare at him slack-jawed and he chuckles. “I’m from Guelph, I could tell from your accents that you guys live close to home.” Two international flights, a bush plane, and countless kilometres along an off-road dirt path in a Land Rover and my balloon pilot turns out to hail from a town 30 minutes down the highway from my house. Small world indeed.
My reverie at this amazing coincidence is broken as I am suddenly blinded by the appearance of the sun. The difference is dramatic as I begin unzipping layers of fleece, my face already perspiring in the heat. We glide over a pool, soundlessly floating just 20 feet above the water. The grey blobs I initially thought were boulders crack open giant maws revealing enormous stained teeth. Hippos.
Captain Frank hits the jets and we begin to gain altitude. We skim past a tall acacia tree and stare down at a vulture’s nest. The mother bird glares at us with fixed black eyeballs. She ruffles her feathers but stays fixed to her perch. We are close enough to count the eggs huddled protectively under her belly. As we clear the tree and continue our ascent, the criss-cross of thousands of trails begins to unfold. We have arrived here just a week late for the grand spectacle of the Great Migration, where 1.5 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras pound the ground into zig-zag patterns.
A pair of bat-eared foxes dart out of a burrow while a group of five dik-diks appear to defy gravity as they bounce over a thin stream. A lioness suddenly senses our proximity and I can see the muscled fur of her shoulders tense, her ears twitch and flatten, as she turns her head skyward to watch our strange contraption pass overhead. We climb higher and higher until we can clearly see the ribbon of emerald green marking the path of the Seronera River slashing its way through the brown and tan coloured plains.
Too soon Captain Frank announces that we are approaching our landing site. The balloon descends, the basket bouncing as it hits the ground before gripping the dirt and finally tipping smoothly over, leaving us lying on our backs staring up at the blue sky. Our safety latches are quickly unhitched and champagne flutes are pressed into our hands (fresh orange juice for the girls). We toast our successful flight before being driven just a few hundred feet where, in the shade of a giant acacia tree, we settle in for breakfast. Toast. Fruit. Eggs to order. All while a group of disinterested wildebeest, zebras and gazelles chew their own morning repast within sight of our tables.