Our wake-up call is 4.15 am; we have an early coffee session before leaving. Jonathan of Serena Amboseli, our host, Serena, explains we have to be at Kilimanjaro Safaris latest 5.15 am if we have to make it to catch our flight for our scheduled hot-air balloon flight, the only flight for the day.
I skip the tantalizing buffet breakfast in favour of the long-awaited experience flight – I could not miss an adventure that has been on my “must-do” bucket list for more than a decade.
By the time we are driving out of the hotel for Amboseli Balloon Safaris, dawn is setting in, and I get to see a beautiful-lit sky. It is 5.30 am and the sun has not yet shown its golden-yellow face.
Upon arrival, a warm team received us, and Casey, the team leader proceeded to usher us to the reception where we fill in the Passenger Information form, before proceeding to the Guest Pavilion for our morning beverages. He then took us through a brief that consisted of the does and don’ts while riding on a hot-air balloon.
Casey informed us that after many years operating in multiple locations, and countries, the Balloon firm finally settled for one location, the Amboseli, one of the most favourable flight locations. He said the location was favourable flight centre globally due to its great ecosystem, local wildlife, and culture.
We then set off for the take-off station, about a kilometre from the offices and guest pavilion. We arrive at the launch field through what is seemingly an early morning nature walk. As we walk, Captain Casey fills us in on are likely to encounter on this short trip – probably a snake, which makes my skin develop goosebumps.
A technical flight process
At the launch station, we are given another briefing on safety before boarding the balloon basket.
Captain Casey, the pilot for the flight takes us through the procedure before take-off. He explains how the balloon’s “engine”, a magical-set-up that uses gas burners works. He then proceeds to explain the takeoff and the floating balloon process thus:
The balloon is “powered” by ordinary cooking gas to heat the air in the envelope. The fuel system is duplicated in every respect to prevent failure of the burner. If all power should be lost, however, the balloon would enter a stable cold descent with the envelope acting as a parachute. This feature of the balloon makes it one of the safest forms of flight.
Normally the burner or burners point directly into the centre of the envelope-shaped balloon, where in place is a pilot light, the kind found used while lighting an ordinary gas stove. This assures rapid access to heat whenever necessary.
There is also a blast valve allowing the pilot to adjust the rate at which fuel flows from the fuel tanks. To draw fuel into the burner, the pilot pulls the trigger on the blast valve. This causes the liquid propane gas to be carried under pressure from the fuel tank to the burner, where it is set on fire by the pilot light.
A pressure gauge on the burner tells what this pressure is. The propane is transferred from tanks in the basket through a flexible hose to the burner system. The fuel goes through coils on the burner that vaporizes the liquid gas.
Then the pilot light ignites the vapour, sending a six-to eight-foot flame into the envelope, an action that leads to a loud whooshing sound while at the same time adding heat at the rate of 12 million BTUs (British Thermal Units) per hour.
The BTU is defined as the quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.
To give a better idea of the tremendous output of a burner system in a hot air balloon, said the Captain, a burner produces at a rate per hour that would be enough to heat 120 three-bedroom homes comfortably.
My excitement is at a high peak as I climb into the gondola (the balloon basket), where we go through another safety briefing. The breeze gently starts to lift the basket up, the sun is beginning it is calm rising up and I can feel its warmth on my face, as it cuts through the crisp clean air of Amboseli.
Meanwhile, Captain Casey is vigorously adding more heat to the balloon. The balloon gracefully starts to rise into the magical skies of Amboseli as the humourous Casey winks at me announcing, “Time for an amazing adventure in a hot air balloon begins now!” I check around and see that the sun has already crept above the eastern skyline. I watch in awe as the rising sun “kisses” Africa’s highest Mountain, giving it such a phenomenal glow!
Within minutes, we were in flight and Captain Casey tells me that my experience has just begun with a 360-degree view. I could sense the earth coming alive. To my east, the sun was rising up, giving the surrounding environment a sensational view.
As we begin “floating with the wind, the Captain explains the variations of the Amboseli ecosystem, pointing at the astonishing view of Mt Kilimanjaro to the South. Amboseli National Park stood out to our north with its plentiful wildlife. There was too, the occasional local Masai manyattas and bomas.
We continue with the slow ascension, but a few minutes later, we begin to drift over the open woodland and grassland savannah that is peppered with Acacia tortilis (Vachellia tortilis) trees. I could see through the binoculars a vast array of wildlife crisscrossing the wilderness.
Across this vista, I look beyond and see that one side of the park is crowned with magical Mt Kilimanjaro (we are at 8,0000 ft ASL), the world’s highest free-standing mountain. On the other side, the view is of lush green wetlands, open savannah grassland, and Lake Amboseli. This is just sensational. As I continue to float over the pristine wilderness until the time comes to a standstill. Too soon the spectacular experience ended with the announcement from the captain, that we are about to begin our descent journey!
Mother Nature was on our side with fantastic weather, which allowed us to “float” for more than one hour against the usual 45 minutes. The experience is out of this world, so sensational as if I was experiencing a new dawn, a new beginning skyline, and watching in awe as the rising sunshine upon Mt. Kilimanjaro, with changing hues throughout the flight
After what seemed to be an endless time in “Utopia”, Captain Casey announces that it is time to go back to reality. He explained the intrigues of the landing “hoping that we do not land on top of a herd of elephants, a manyatta or across the Tanzanian border,” an experience he said would not be an extreme one as now Kenya and Tanzania were on friendly terms. However, all this, I learn was in tune with the hilarious nature of our flight captain
We start descending, and the ground comes to view, I can see the Chase Crew that has been following us. Casey quickly gives details of our probable landing base through radio transmission (all through the flight this was the mode of communication with the ground crew). It was a scary moment as I compared the balloon landing with that of a plane, but to my utter surprise, the landing was so smooth, I did not realise we “had touched the ground”.
Thirty minutes later, we were travelling back to the Kilimanjaro Hot Balloon Safaris base where a Traditional Champagne toast celebration awaited us. Captain Casey narrated stories about the origin of the hot air balloon, the Balloonist Prayer.
During the celebration, we reminisce about the morning’s magical flight after which a commemorative flight ascension certificate for successfully embarking on a Hot Air Balloon flight is issued to me as a memento of my Kilimanjaro Balloon Safari Experience. After two decades of waiting, I finally checked off “Hot Air Balloon Flight “from my bucket list.
With happy memories, I leave for Serena Amboseli Safari Lodge, just in time for another phenomenal event to remind me of the success story of this adventure – a souvenir to remind me of this experience, and a fantastic game drive.