Serengeti balloon safaris in northern Tanzania offer a thrilling adventure. You’re suspended in a wicker basket above the plains of East Africa with the sun peeping over the horizon and a waking wilderness below you. This is game viewing like you’ve never experienced it before.
Our balloon safari in the Western Corridor of the Serengeti began long before sunrise. My partner and I were woken in our beautiful Tanzanian safari tent with a fresh pot of coffee. The first birds had begun to twitter: the Serengeti was waking.
We joined a group on the back of an open Land Cruiser and were driven to the Serengeti balloon safaris’ launch site. It was still quite dark and along the way we spotted nocturnal animals, including a magnificent civet cat sloping through the long grass.
We came to a clearing, where a yellow-and-green balloon lay semi inflated, and were introduced to our pilot, James. He gave us a thorough safety briefing and demonstrated how we should climb aboard the basket, as well as how to brace ourselves for landing.
Flames from the burners lit the dawn with eerie tongues of fire. The balloon was upright now, ready to take to the purling sky. We climbed into the basket and, with a roar of hot air, lifted off just as the sun began to rise. Our thrilling balloon safari had begun. I held my partner’s hand as we soared upward. It was the most intoxicating sensation.
Our basket was suspended in the cool morning air above the plains of the Serengeti. The balloon drifted in whichever direction the wind decided, our speed determined by its strength. Even the pilot didn’t know where, exactly, we were heading or where we’d land.
Serengeti balloon safaris offer you an opportunity to see the savannah from a unique perspective. I noticed the many wildlife tracks made by generations of animals, impossible to see from the ground. What’s more, we were flying over areas that are out of bounds to vehicles, as off-road driving is not permitted in much of the Serengeti.
This might just be the most beautiful place in the world for a balloon flight, I thought. There were no power lines, no fences and hardly any roads: just wild African bush bathed in soft morning light and us ghosting along on a Serengeti zephyr. It was simply magical.
Now James took us lower, almost scraping the treetops with our basket. Lower still. We were within a few metres of the ground, planing on an air cushion in a spell of silence. Then up again we soared, into a blue, blue sky. We drifted above a herd of elephant who flapped their ears at us, sniffing the breeze with their trunks, then trotting off across the plain.
Our flight path took us through the Serengeti’s Western Corridor. Close to the shores of Lake Victoria, this is a particularly scenic corner of East Africa: open plains dotted with towering termite mounds, acacia woodlands and rivers punctuated by hippo pools. We saw the meandering Grumeti River lined with fig trees, and the sinister, cigar shapes of cruising crocodiles.
The wildlife numbers and variety on Serengeti balloon safaris are astounding. ‘Aside from the great wildebeest migration, the Serengeti offers an incredibly diverse ecosystem,’ said James. ‘It’s home to great herds of buffalo, elephant and giraffe, and thousands upon thousands of eland, topi, hartebeest, impala and Grant’s gazelle.’
James was employing the burners to manipulate our height, using varying altitudes and layers of air to navigate the balloon. ‘Each day is different, some of the flight may be low, offering a close-up perspective, and at other times we may climb to a 300m or more,’ said our pilot. ‘No two flights are ever the same.’
We continued for about an hour, then James started looking for a place to land. We descended slowly, kissing the earth once or twice. Then the balloon and basket keeled over gracefully and we climbed out. My partner and I were utterly elated.
After landing, James celebrated with a toast of sparkling wine. The cork made a pop that echoed across the veld: to a glorious flight and a soft landing! We headed off in the Land Cruiser for a special, Out of Africa breakfast. It was prepared in the bush and served under a convenient acacia tree. Linen, bone china, Sheffield cutlery and freshly prepared fare in the company of our fellow passengers was the ideal finale to our balloon safari.
After breakfast we received Balloon Certificates – just to prove to the doubters at home that we’d really done it. Then it was back to camp to start our next round of safari activities … But the balloon ride is the thing that has stayed with me, a perfect climax to our luxury Tanzanian safari. It had been a moment outside time, drifting above the wilderness in a bubble of blissful peace.