BLOG Pt5 : The North Western Serengeti


18-19/07/2013 – Day 6 & 7

After tucking into bed early the night before, we were up at 5am to prepare for our much anticipated balloon flight. This was a first for just about everyone in the group. We were taken to the launch site, where the balloon team was already hard at work. After a quick safety briefing we were strapped into our harnesses and then told to board.

The balloon’s basket would today load 13 passengers plus the pilot and his assistant. Inside, the basket is cordoned off into little cages, to keep it balanced during flight. The basket was anchored to a cruiser, and lying on its side. After boarding, we lay on our backs and clipped onto the safety harness. Full gas was applied to fill the balloon with hot air, 120 degrees C to be precise. With the balloon straining to get airborne, the cruiser hopped and skipped after us. Once the basket was upright and the balloon fully filled, we were released.

It's HOT!

It was a weird sensation to feel no wind on one’s face, as we had a ground speed of 9 knots! The view grew better with each feet gained in altitude. We were flying a hot air balloon over the Serengeti!!  It might have had something to do with from where we launched, and maybe also a bit of luck with regards to the wind direction, but soon we were over the Grumeti river, and it would snake beneath us for the remainder of our 1 hour flight.

PIC. He has a Commercial Pilot's License and great sense of humour.

Game trails criss-crossed the savannah. Soon after lift-off the sun stuck its head over the eastern horizon, washing the eastern sky in a bright orange. We were treated to fabulous wildlife. Wildebeest, giraffes, hares, zebras, water buck, hippos, buffaloes, impala, crocodiles, two lions (one whose pot belly still strained to contain the previous evening’s meal), and a variety of birds .

The Grumeti river at sunrise.

Disturbing a croc's morning nap.

Snoozing for a few more minutes.

Serengeti Wildebeest.

After a flawless landing we were treated to the early history of balloon flight and why a bottle of champagne is always opened after a successful flight. Legend has it that early French aeronauts carried champagne to appease angry or frightened spectators at the landing site. Along with the champagne, a popular toast among balloonists is: “soft winds and gentle landings.”  We were then escorted to our breakfast spot where we were treated to a full English breakfast, served in the veld.  The balloon flight was a wonderful experience and privilege. Unfortunately we missed the great migration as it was already in Kenia, but it didn’t matter… I had just experienced a once in a lifetime activity.

Western entry point to the Serengeti.

That afternoon we went for a drive to the eastern shore of Lake Victoria. It wasn’t originally planned, but seeing as we were so close we thought it best to go and have a look. Lake Victoria is quite shallow compared to Lake Malawi and Tanganyika, and its water isn’t nearly as clear or blue as the before mentioned.

Lake Victoria, with the massive and hideous Marabou Stork.

We were taken to a local village situated on the south eastern shore of the lake. A local tour guide, who spoke very eloquently and knowledgeable, gave us a briefing about their daily life and routine. Afterwards a few of our group opted for a pricey $20 boat ride with the local fishermen. The visit to this village was personally a bit of a disappointment, but it was nice to interact with the locals, especially the kids, who posed and fooled around for our cameras. Again it was noticeable how close their personal space boundaries are…there aren’t any space constraints where they live, yet they sit or huddle practically on top of each other.

Lake Victoria kids.

That evening, back at our tented camp, we were once more treated to a fabulous dinner. A lady in our group had her birthday and the kitchen staff was so gracious and generous to bake her a birthday cake with their marginal and limited kitchenware.

The biggest croc I've seen in real life. @ the Grumeti river.

The next morning it was the second group’s turn for their balloon flight. They were off before dawn, but we had to load the whole group’s luggage onto the one cruiser that would take our luggage back to Arusha, as our charter flight would pick us up at 1:30 pm that afternoon. The planes each only had space for 12 passengers. Hand luggage was limited to preferably nothing. The designated driver was no one else but, yes you guessed it, our cowboy racing freak. Jokes were made that he would make it to Arusha before us. He left at 7am; with a daunting 10 hour drive ahead of him it meant his ETA was 5pm. I didn’t give him a chance, as the road surely would slow his progress. I reckoned he’d only arrive at our hotel by 10pm.  We would leave at 1:30pm, flying just over an hour to Arusha. It wasn’t even a contest…

Wildebeest pano, close to our mobile tented camp.

Last night in the Serengeti.

Soon after he left I heard weird intermittent jet-like noise in the distance. We soon realised that it was the balloon and that it was making a bee line for the camp. It was the typical romantic sight you might imagine it to be as the balloon appeared over the tree tops. The passengers were in a boisterous spirit and it was amazing how clear their voices carried in the still morning air. I was able to snap a few nice shots of the balloon whizzing by, at incredible speed. Breakfast was served at 9am, and soon afterwards we were reunited with our fellow balloon aviators, still buzzing from their experience.

Balloon whizzing by our mobile tented camp.

Serengeti National Park has a 24 hour rule, which means that if you enter the park at say, 8am, then to only pay for one day’s visit, you have to have left the park by the next morning at 8am. Because of our altered traveling plans, we now had to overcome this problem. We had to be out by 11am. The solution was to wait at the Grumeti  airstrip for 2 and a half hours. Although we were still in the park, we could play the card of “in-transit”. The time went by quite fast as I waded through the pictures I had taken thus far on the trip on my laptop. To the minute, the first Caravan arrived at 1:30pm and soon thereafter the second one landed as well. It was my first flight in a Cessna 208, and my dad and I took the far aft seats. It was hot, we were high and we were heavy. I won’t go into density altitude and the dangers of it now, but suffice to say your eyebrows should raise a little when you board an aircraft in these conditions.

Caravan. A Beast of a plane.

We stormed down the runway, which earlier that morning had various game on it. It took a while, but eventually we were airborne and then settled into a steady climb. Visibility with a camera wasn’t that great as my window was fuzzy, but a fantastic positive to come out of this flight is that we were able to see a vast amount of the Serengeti from the air. Soon the Ngorongoro crater appeared to my right and then the descent to Arusha started. Touch-down was just before 3pm. A bus that could carry the whole group of 24 people was organized to transport us from the airport to Mt Meru Hotel in Arusha. What they didn’t keep track of was that we had hand luggage.

Ngorongoro Crater.

What happened in the next hour I won’t go into now. All I can say is that it was unpleasant and unnecessary. The upshot of it all being that we arrived at our hotel only just before 5pm. And this is where it gets surreal…as I entered the foyer…our luggage stood there, all neatly (albeit a bit dusty) packed, waiting for their respective owners. Not only did our villain-gone-hero beat us to the hotel, he arrived there at 2pm!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…  I checked my suitcase for a wet spot, as it surely must have been the scariest and craziest ride of its long life.

Bus transport to Arusha.

The hotel was modern and stock standard, but very welcoming. After finalising payments for the charter flight, Karen, her husband Steve and our luggage speedster joined us for a lovely buffet dinner. Soon it was with a tinge of sadness that I had to say goodbye to Karen, with whom I communicated so frequently during the previous 9 months.  African Eden Safaris are in her own words a tiny company in the Tanzanian safari industry, but what makes them different from the pack is their attention to detail and personal touch. Karen, if you ever read this, it was truly a pleasure to organise this trip and safari with you. Without your help, experience and expertise it would have been near impossible to bring 24 South Africans, flying their own aircraft, to Tanzania and experience your beautiful and friendly country. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You did a fantastic job and I’m sure the other 23 guests will cheer in unison “Hear hear!”

Our Tanzanian safari had come to an end, but we had still a lot to look forward to…like watching the clear blue waters of the Zambezi river from the luxurious Royal Zambezi Lodge.

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