The crew headed to the wide open plains of the Serengeti for a hot air balloon ride. The van ride over was quiet, partly because it was 5am, but also because there was some nervous tension in the air. Most of us were newbies to the hot air balloon experience, and the unknown can often be anxiety provoking. Our pilot, Mohammed, was the first and only native Tanzanian hot air balloon pilot.
As we received our instructions from the him, a cold wind blew. Last year, the balloon ride was cancelled due to wind. This year, the wind had blown through most of the morning, but was starting to settle down, and things looked to be a go. This particular balloon is the third largest in the world. It can carry 16 passengers. The basket starts out on its side, so you have to enter and then lie down, astronaut style, facing toward the sky. As the balloon heats up, the balloon rises and pulls the basket right side up.
Lift off was soft and gentle. We skimmed a few feet above the ground, silent and smooth. Even as we gained altitude, the ride was so stable and peaceful, there really was no hint of danger. Watching balloons from afar, you don’t realize that they are constantly gaining and losing altitude. We slowly bobbed up and down through the air, Mohammed hitting the gas when we would drop, and easing off as we rose higher. He managed speed and steered the balloon by finding different elevations to ride the various wind currents. He was very skilled, deftly finding a current to take us leftward, and then dropping us down right next to a pair of female lions and her cubs. We finished off the ride with a champagne breakfast in hippo country.
Afterward, we hopped on a 12 passenger Cessna, and flew back to Arusha. I’m used to being the calmest person in the room, at least outwardly. Being able to control my emotions and get work done in a room full of chaos is what I do. And I know the tossing and turning in a little plane is perfectly normal. But I have to admit that that ride back was . . . tense. The irrational anxiety of flying in a little plane irks me to no end. Nevertheless, we touched down safely, and I didn’t throw a complete hissy fit before we did, though I was a bit lathered and wobbly kneed.