Kenya 6/22/06 - Hot Air Balloon Safari, Nature Walk with a Maasai Guide

We woke up at 4:30 am because this morning would be our hot air balloon safari. Craig realized that we had wanted Patrick and James to drive some of the items we had bought back to Nairobi but we wouldn't be seeing them again today. The SafariLink flight we would be on tomorrow had a weight limit of 32 pounds per person, and we didn't want to exceed it. We packed Craig's small stuffsack with the merchandise we had bought so far, and left it in reception area for Patrick to take along with him. We were in the lobby by 5. Peter, one of the Maasai who had served us drinks the night before at dinner, was already up and working, serving coffee, tea, and "Nice" cookies with his omni-present smile. The cookies (biscuits) here have different names. Not just on the packaging but printed on every cookie. This always made us laugh when there was a platter full of them. You could always tell exactly what you're dealing with when faced with a pile of cookies. Some were plain, some were shortbread, but "nice" cookies had a sprinkling of sugar over the top of them. Craig grabbed a few of these as he couldn't resist a little extra sugar at five in the morning. I didn't eat or drink anything because I wasn't sure how my stomach would hold up through the balloon ride.

Sammy and Nicholas from Fig Tree Camp picked us up at around 5:05, and when they arrived they insisted that Craig finish his tea. We went outside and got into their large, army-like vehicle. It certainly wasn't a smooth ride. The thing drove like it had no shocks. Every pit, bump, or rock in the road was immediately transferred through our bones and we felt like we'd rattle to pieces. The vehicle was hardly quiet while thundering down the dirt road in the darkness. It wasn't moving very quickly either. We would see a car miles behind us and in no time at all it was passing us and then lost in the darkness ahead. We saw what looked like a rufous elephant shrew in the road, some plovers, and a jackal in the headlights. It was dark and rather chilly, so they had the vehicle all sealed up.

We arrived at Fig Tree Camp, which was on a little river spanned by a covered bridge, much like the one at our camp. We filled out the paperwork for Adventures Aloft (the Fig Tree's resident balloon company) and made a quick stop at the bathroom. People began gathering. Some folks like us would arrive from far flung destinations, but many more just stumbled into the lobby straight from their lodgings. It was funny that a few of those locals were joking about how early they had to wake up for this experience. Craig and I had already had an adventure this morning, it felt like we had already been awake for hours. Craig had two cups of coffee and some breakfast cake. We sat in the lobby and chatted with a church group from Florida. Apparently, one of the group wanted to bring some extra hot water and tea with them on the balloon ride. She finished her small bottle of water and replaced it with hot water from the coffee maker. She tucked the bottle into her pants and sat back down. In a matter of minutes she let out a small cry and jumped up onto her feet saying "It's burning me, it's burning me!" Immediately she reached down into her pocket to remove a water bottle that had partially melted. The small water bottle was clearly no match for such hot water. As the bottle heated and twisted, it eventually ruptured and began leaking down her leg. She laughed pretty hard once she realized she was ok. It was just one of those early morning things you do before your brain wakes up.

At 6:15 they collected us in another large vehicle but it was only about a 5 minute ride to the launch site. The windshield was so foggy that you couldn't even see out of it. As we arrived at a small clearing, the balloon was on its side already filling with hot air. A whole team of men in matching red jumpsuits and hats were setting things up. They looked like oompa loompas or something. Our pilot, Milton, was from New Zealand. He stood in the middle of the huge basket. It had four compartments around the perimeter which held four people each. Including the pilot that was a total of 17 passengers! When I went for my first balloon ride at the Boar's Head Inn in Virginia in 1984, we rode in the largest basket in the country at that time, which held lucky 13. One couple was late arriving and we almost left without them. The pilot really didn't want to, as the balloon would be unbalanced. This would mean we would all have to shuttle in and out until we were balanced again. Not only would this time would be wasted, but he really was itching to take off in time for the sunrise. Right as a decision had to be made the final couple came running up. The group was now complete. We shared a compartment with two Estonians. Before taking off, Milton made us practice landing position: sitting on a little cushion holding onto loops of ropes with our shoulders braced against the wall of the basket. The basket walls were quite high and when seated you couldn't even see anything except the inside of the basket.

At exactly 6:30 we began the ascent. It was so smooth you wouldn't even know you were moving if you had your eyes shut. There was a camera hanging from a boom which took periodic digital photos of the passengers. As we glided over the treetops we saw the rooftops of the Fig Tree Camp. We saw an elephant and buffalo. We saw two hyena dens, with a mother and baby running from one den to another. We saw gazelles, a fox, and a lioness with a cub, and two elands. Of course, seeing these animals beneath us, we couldn't help but thinking ahead to what might be lurking in the tall grass when we landed. It was so peaceful gliding above the Mara. All of the passengers were very quiet and the only real sound was the burners igniting. Once they turned back off the quietness was startling. You had a gorgeous 360 degree view of a classic African landscape. Most of the animals looked at the balloon as we passed overhead (especially when the burners were making noise). A few gazelles were watching when one got the inclination to start running. The others all followed suit. The sun rose quickly and prettily. It had been chilly when we had first set out, but with the warmth of the burners at first, followed by the warmth of the sun, we were soon quite comfortable. We saw a male and female ostrich. There were white headed vultures nesting in the treetop. We could see other balloons way off in the distance and the Mara River near the escarpment. It was gorgeous - so wide open. We had thought that with only an hour of balloon time, that it would be over before we knew it. But it was such a relaxing activity and it was so peaceful that time went slowly and we were able to savor the experience. At times we were at a very high altitude. At other times, we were closer to the ground, and could see animals and vegetation quite well. It was quite an interesting perspective; much different than that from the ground in a Land Rover. There was nothing to constrict our movement; no power lines, etc. Our pilot seemed to have ultimate freedom.

The shadow the balloon cast on the Mara was breathtaking. The chase vehicle was always within sight. Criss-crossing through the scenery below, always trying to predict exactly which route they should take to follow us. We knew we would be landing soon when we saw them pull up under a tree and start to set up for breakfast. We proceeded a bit further and the pilot told us to get into our landing positions. The landing was shockingly smooth. It was not jarring at all and the basket didn't even tip to one side. It was unbelievable. We landed in the tall grass. While the oompa loompas in their matching red coveralls packed up the balloon in an extremely efficient manner, we were driven for a few minutes to the tree under which breakfast had been spread.

We were handed silver champagne flutes upon arrival, and many people were trying to refill our glasses for the remainder of the breakfast. There was a table with some souvenirs, a buffet line, and nicely appointed tables to sit at. It was all so fancy. Because of my stomach (and the long ride back to the camp) I decided to eat lightly. I had some pineapple, a roll, and a piece of breakfast cake bread. Craig on the other hand had an omelette, sausage, bacon, and home fries. We each took a tiny sweet banana which we saved for later. The waiters (dressed in their Maasai best) brought over fresh crepes, which we could not resist. Yum! We chatted with the other couples at our table: Masahiro and Haruko from Japan, and Rodolfo and Ana from Portugal. They were both very nice couples and we enjoyed sharing breakfast in their company. Hopefully we will keep in touch with them in the future. Meeting great people when you travel always makes a vacation extra special.

There was more food than anyone could handle. Eventually nobody wanted anything else and the food lines were broken down. At one of the tables there was a laptop set up where you could view the digital pictures that the pilot had taken on the flight. Some of them were very nice, but at a whopping $28 for the CD, it was just too expensive. A bunch of us had agreed that a more reasonable price would have meant more sales. We chatted for a little with Milton the pilot about New Zealand. It was a very leisurely breakfast that lasted from 7:30 - 9:00. People started getting rides back to their hotels and the crowd was thinning rapidly. Before we left, we were presented with a certificate which stated that we participated in the balloon safari on this day. The balloon ride was truly spectacular. It was not cheap but was definitely something we are very glad we did anyway. When planning the trip we were a bit hesitant to book two seats on the balloon ride because of the sheer cost. We wondered if it would really be worth it. The very day we were making the decision to book or not, we saw a Globe Trekker episode where Ian took a balloon ride over the Serengeti. The last thing he said was that it was worth every penny and that if you should find yourself in the same place that you should save your pennies and just do it. We were very glad that we did, Ian was right again!

Keith and Kay from Bristol, UK (the couple who had arrived late through no fault of their own) shared our ride back to camp. It wasn't really a game drive; the driver sped past everything to try to get us back as quickly as possible. We saw zebras, gazelles, wildebeest, etc, pass by in a blur. But when a herd of a dozen giraffes was seen spanning both sides of the road, I stood up to get a picture and he immediately stopped to let me. The sun was finally starting to feel really hot on our skin so Craig took my handkerchief and tucked it under the back of his hat. Not only did it keep the sun off the back of his neck, but he was looking stylish too!

We got back to the camp at 10:30. We had hoped to be able to say goodbye to Patrick and James before they left for Nairobi, but at the reception desk they told us that they had left at around 10:00. The good news was that they had taken our red stuffsack full of purchases, which would significantly decrease our luggage weight on the small plane tomorrow. We walked back to our tent and saw a flycatcher in a tree. Then we saw that the dik-dik was waiting for us to arrive. We rested a little, took showers, and I wrote in the journal. We thought of Patrick and James on the long dusty, bumpy road back to Nairobi. We would see them at the airport tomorrow after a much shorter journey.

We went to lunch at around 12:45 with Bill. Craig had lamb and chicken stir fry which he really enjoyed. He drank a Pilsner Ice. Since my breakfast had sat well, I attempted to eat some real food...spaghetti, rosemary potatoes, Fanta, and veggie shepherd's pie. Bad idea. As soon as I started eating I ran to the bathroom and was violently ill. Once again embarrassed, I was leaving a trail of puke behind me across Kenya. I went back to the room to relax, leaving Bill and Craig to finish their lunch. I saw a pretty butterfly on the walk back to the tent, but it flew away before I could photograph it. I decided enough was enough with this stomach problem and took a Cipro.

A Maasai named Kelvin approached Craig in the dining room and said, "Patrick has left you. I'm supposed to talk to you about a nature walk." Craig told him my situation, and Kelvin said it wasn't a strenuous walk, and he hoped that I could make it anyway. Finishing lunch, Craig arrived back at the tent at 2:00. Bill wouldn't be joining us for the nature walk, so it would be just the two of us with Kelvin. It was a great opportunity for us to learn more about the Maasai's interaction with the environment, and I didn't want to miss out. I had to give it my best try so that I didn't miss out on anything. The walk was within the grounds of the camp and I could always return to the tent if necessary. All these factors made me convinced that I had to give it a try.

We met Kelvin Ole ("Son of") Rakua in the lobby. He had his name beaded into one of his bracelets. He grabbed his spear and we walked toward the main gate, turning right and following the electrified fence (being careful to keep a safe distance). Kelvin has been working at the hotel for 4 years, and originally comes from a village about 20 km away. He showed us aloe vera, which is used for burns and cuts. The roots are dried and used for making local beer. Craig always perks up when they discuss making beer. They make beer from aloe root? How interesting. We saw the sisal plant, which is used for making ropes and cloth. He taught us that "Mara" means "scattered little bushes", of which there are plenty in Maasai Mara. We saw the croton tree which is burned in houses and used as an insect repellant. The roots are boiled and used for medicine for joint problems. We saw the Egyptian thorn acacia, and Kelvin jokingly asked if he could demonstrate on Craig the way the Maasai pierce their upper ears with thorns. They also use the various acacia thorns to build fences to keep cattle in their villages and to keep predators out. The bark, when mixed with water, is used as a stomach cleaner. Of course Craig couldn't resist making a few jokes to Kelvin regarding my stomach and how maybe it needed a good cleaning.

We saw the euclare duivanorum, whose roots are used to treat gonorrhea. The finger euphobia plant yields a milky substance which can be used as a salve for animals' eyes when grass or flies irritate them. It is harmful to humans, and if they get it in their eyes they use a drop of fresh blood from a cut goat's ear or a drop of breast milk to clean it out. Mint is used as a cough remedy in the same way eucalyptus is used. You can either inhale its vapors or boil it in water and drink it. We saw the sandpaper tree, whose leaves are very coarse yet tough. They are used to sand their wooden clubs. You can also mix it with water and use it as an eye drop. A more ceremonial use is that you can put a branch from the sandpaper tree between two people who are fighting, and they must not continue fighting. For this reason it is also called a peacemaker tree.

The umbrella acacia has thorns and is also used to fence in villages. The roots and bark are boiled in soup to "keep people from getting fat." Kelvin looked at me seriously and said,"So, if you want a reduction, come to me." Tell me what you really think, Kelvin. Craig and I just laughed. Once again, its inner bark is fermented with honey and water to make beer. These people seem to be able to make beer out of anything. Kelvin told us that the Maasai wear red for two reasons. They believe that animals fear the color red. Also, it allows them to be seen over large distances (which we can attest to from seeing them out in the bush). Maasai buy cloth at markets now, but in the past they used to dye animal hides red with powdered stones and dye from the ochre plant. Kelvin rubbed the ochre plant onto Craig's hand to demonstrate the red color it produced. We saw yet another type of acacia, the desert date acacia, whose thorns are used for ear piercing and protecting villages. The mature tree bears fruit, and the Maasai use its seeds as beads. It's the only tree that is so strong that an elephant can't knock it over. When they name Maasai children, they bless them saying that they hope they will be as strong as the desert date acacia. One interesting plant, the Tachnanthus camp, also knows as leleshwa, is used by the Maasai as deodorant, toilet paper, and bedding. Clearly it is a very handy plant! This explains why we have seen numerous people with a small cluster of leaves under their arms. He showed us how bamboo stalks are also used as drinking glasses. We saw some marabustock vultures flying overhead. As if it were some kind of omen, Kelvin then showed us the snake plant. When mixed with boiling water it can be drunk or rubbed on a snake injury.

We came across an area of the camp where they were constructing "Presidential Suites." Jeez, wasn't this place big enough already? Nearby was a pool of water fed by an underground stream, where buffalo and elephants can drink year-round. It was clear that they were putting fancy tents along this area because of the view. The rooms built here will overlook the waterhole and will likely prove to be very desirable rooms. Kelvin told us that Maasai can go a week without drinking water. I had to repeat that to make sure I had heard him properly. Kelvin told us that April is normally the worst month for malaria because of all the rains. Another plant, the African green hut, is boiled with water as an anti-malarial medication. Mixed with cow urine, it causes people to vomit and cleans out their system. Craig joked again that maybe that was what I needed. This plant is also used as a toothbrush by the Maasai. This explains why we had noticed many Maasai chewing on small branches and rubbing them on their teeth.

Kelvin told us that the "Big 5" safari animals are so named because they are the five most dangerous. Trying to pass off interesting safety information, he told us how the Maasai escape them when they come across them in the bush. If you run into a buffalo, climb a tree or lay flat on your stomach so that their horns can't gore you (laying on your back means they will likely gore you in the stomach). He says lions and leopards know that humans are enemies. He says you should never turn your back on one and run. You should also never make eye contact. Step slowly away backwards, with your eyes still on the cat. An elephant has a good sense of smell but poor eyesight. If you can, stay downwind from them. If not, run down a hill. The elephant's ears will flap over its eyes as it runs downhill, and it won't be able to see you. Rhinos can run fast, but they can't take sharp corners. So if you are chased by one, run and then take a sudden turn.

Nearing the end of our walk we sat down on some log stools overlooking a water hole just outside the electric fence. There was a spotlight there for evening viewing. The people who had secured the tents nearby were very lucky indeed. During this rest, Kelvin took the opportunity to give us some information on the Maasai in general. They can live 80 or 90 years, but most don't know their exact age. They have traditionally survived on milk, blood, and meat from the cows, sheep, and goats that they raise (though today with the accessibility of markets their diet has varied somewhat). Maasai use donkeys as transport, but not as food. They have dogs which protect the herds at night. A Maasai can marry as many wives as he wishes. The goal is to have as many children as possible. Young people's fathers arrange the marriages and pay a dowry of cows. Kelvin talked about the concept of "early booking." It is a funny way to describe it, but if a boy's father knowns a pregnant woman who is of outstanding character, he can put his necklace around the mother-to-be's neck. That action will reserve the baby as his son's wife it is a girl. The same can also be done to a young girl. The Maasai really value integrity and good character.

Kelvin talked briefly about male and female circumcision. The government is trying to outlaw female circumcision, but he says that it still occurs in many villages. Once girls are circumcised, they no longer stay at home and instead go to live with their husbands. Kelvin pointed out the yellow barked acacia. It is a very large and strong tree and elephants like to scratch themselves with it. People also chew the bark as tooth medicine. The ficus sur (or fig) is used as a glue. He said that it is particularly useful to glue feathers to wooden shafts when making arrows. My new sunglasses were now broken and Craig joked that I should try using some of that to repair them. That will be the last time I buy sunglasses with plastic rims! We walked back to the lobby but Kelvin wanted to show us a tree hyrax first. We walked over to a tree where they can normally be seen but none were found. We told him that we had seen two near our tent. He told us that they are a close relative of the elephant as they have similar digestive systems. This seemed unbelieveable because of the sheer difference in size but made sense for more technical reasons. At this point, Kelvin asked if we had any more questions. We were on information overload and couldn't really come up with any. He said that if we thought of something later we should let him know. We shook hands and said goodbye. Just then I noticed that my bag was gone. I wasn't fully "with it" for the entire walk as I had been feeling rather weak, but I was sure I had left it at the log stools. Craig and Kelvin went quickly back to get it. I was so relieved when they returned with it just minutes later! That could have been a real drag if it turned up missing, but fortunately that wasn't the case. It was pretty hot today and I was feeling a little weak. I ordered a cold water at the bar and Craig ordered a Tusker beer. We sat for a while at the bar in the open air dining room. After we finished our drinks, which didn't take very long today, we headed back to the tent.

We sat on our porch watching the dik-diks, hyraxes, and birds coming and going. The sounds of all he different birds were amazing! Craig recorded some of the sounds hoping to capture some of the beautiful bird song but he knew it just wouldn't register. We felt he had to try anyway. At around 4:30, one of the staff arrived to turn down our bed. We chatted with him for a little while. Having eaten very little all day I tried some bread and a little trail mix. I really needed to get my strength back. Wanting desperately to capture the serenity of the moment, while we sat on the front patio, we took some photos and recordings of the tent area. By 6:30 the generator power came on and a few small bugs were starting to fly around so we went inside. I journaled until 7:10 and we decided to head up to the lobby area in preparation for dinner.

We stopped at the reception desk and asked for more towels. They already knew our name and tent number. What amazing service!! We went to the bar and Craig got a Pilsner Ice. We talked to Peter, one of the drink servers, who had served us our tea at 5 am this morning. It seems like he is always happy, no matter whether we see him at 11 p.m. or 5 a.m. the following morning. He is a really great guy. We introduced ourselves and had a nice little chat. He always had such a sing-song way of saying "karibu" (thank you). We saw Bill go into the restaurant so we headed inside to join him. I had creme de courgette (zucchini) soup, and some pineapple, watermelon, and mango. Craig had chicken, various Indian food, and lamb. I was starting to get quite jealous of all the food Craig was eating and enjoying when I seemed to barely handle a few dry rolls. Peter came by with the little booze trolley and we got a photo of him. Jonathan, our drink server, also came by. Craig told him that in all the excitement at lunch, Jonathan had not charged us for my Fanta. Jonathan was very grateful and said that he had been short by 120 shillings and didn't know why. He was so happy with our honesty and thanked us many times. He said that in his village he has six children. He loves working at the camp and he loves making new friends with the clients. On his days off he likes to take some clients to his village. He asked for our contact info and said that the next time we are in Kenya we could come and visit him and see him in his traditional attire. He said that he would pick us up at the airport and take care of everything. For dessert, Craig had chocolate mousse with chocolate sauce. Throughout the evening, the guitar player was wandering around the dining room serenading people. At around 9:30, I got stomach cramps and headed back to the room to relax. I threw up soon after getting back to the tent and went straight to bed at 10. I had insisted that Craig stay at the bar with Bill, Peter, and Moses (the bartender) and have a beer. He stayed for another beer and continued chatting with everyone until the bar was closing down at 11. At one point Peter said his goodnights to everyone and Craig laughed with him, knowing he would be back to work before 5 a.m.
Hot air balloon inflating

Hot air balloon inflating

Hot air balloon inflating

Milton, Kiwi hot air balloon pilot

Sunrise over Maasai Mara, viewed from hot air balloon

Hot air balloon shadow over Maasai Mara

Hot air balloon during flight

Lionesses and cub, viewed from hot air balloon

Expansive Maasai Mara landscape, viewed from hot air balloon

Crew dismantling the basket

Post-balloon safari bush breakfast

Post-balloon safari bush breakfast buffet

Craig and Steph with Masahiro and Haruko

Craig with Rodolfo and Ana

Kelvin offering to pierce Craig's ear with the Egyptian thorn acacia

Steph and Kelvin chatting about Maasai customs

The ever-smiling Peter, with his drink cart, Mara Sarova Camp

Jonathan and Craig at dinner, Mara Sarova Camp

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