It's exciting. It's off-beat. It's expensive. To ride Kenya's unique Lengai safari balloon costs $1.66 a minute, or $6.66 a mile (actually $100 per passenger for a flight that covers 12 to 15 miles in up to an hour's "free flight" time).
This new approach to game viewing has been in operation for only a year but already has passed the 1,000-passenger mark. Jackie Onassis and her children were among the first to earn Balloon Safari Flight Certificates. Like all other passengers they rode in the small wicker basket suspended from the 10-story-hight hot-air balloon.
Up to four passengers (provided all are on the slender side) ride with a licensed pilot, taking off from a grassy pad about a mile from Keekerok Lodge in western Kenya.
"We go only once a day, just after daybreak," explained our pilot, John Hawkins from South Island, New Zealand. "Later in the day winds become chancey and our ability to land upright is impaired.
Hawkins works with Allen Root, who pioneered ballooning-and-game-viewing by riding his giant orange and white bubble over Mt. Kilimanjaro, a feat featured in a television special shown in the United States last year.
For our balloon safari we rode to the take-off field in the Land Rover that would become the chase vehicle once the balloon was airborne. A four-man Masai crew in brilliant orange coveralls had the deflated canvas stretched out nearly 100 feet on the grass, ready for filling with air to take it aloft. But the wind was gusting and our chances for take-off seemed slim.
Suddenly, Hawkins shouted, "Board!." We scrambled for the toe openings and handholds. Clutching our camera gear we tumbled into the basket as the balloon, now fully inflated, gently lifted us off and the ground receded. Blasts from the propane tanks strapped into the cornors of the basket sent us steadily upward. The balloon twisted, giving first one couple, then the other forward position. Throughout the flight the pilot controlled our altitude by pulling the rope, which opened an enormous "window" section high in the canvas to cool the air within and sent us lower, or he raised our flight level by infusions of hot air generated from the tanks.
We had no steering mechanism and no brake. This left us at the whim of the wind, which carried us at a relatively steady and fast pace toward the northeast, well away from the Tanzanian border 10 miles beyond Keekerok. We glided silently, watching for game below, intrigued by the unusual shapes of the animals when viewed from above. Out came binoculars and telephoto zoom lenses. We'd been told the lower section of the balloon was made of asbestos, thus there was no danger of fire. Nevertheless, the occasional roar as flames shot out 15 feet above the tanks to warm the air inside the balloon seemed to have more effect on the passengers than on the game below.
Drifting, sometimes at treetop level, sometimes as high as 500 feet, we traveled about 15 miles. The chase vehicle was having difficulty negotiating the wild terrain and trying to keep us in view. They later reported speeds of over 50 mph as they jounced across the rough and, for the most part, trackless savannah.
There was little space to maneuver as we stood (no seats or safety belts in the 4-by 5-foot gondola, suspended by wires from the balloon, about 20 feet above). We grasped the wires, or the edges of the basket bound with leather. We were reasonably comfortable and busy looking or "spotting" and working our cameras. The hour passed quickly. Suddenly it was time to land.
"Grab the hand holds and squat, not sit. We're coming down," shouted Hawkins, opening their air vent wide. Peering through the cracks between the wicker, we could see the grass coming closer and closer. Then there was a roar. Up we went.
"Not good for landing," said Hawkins. "Looked like rocks that would have torn the canvas."
From our lofty perch we saw more giraffe. A couple of elephants. Our certicicates, presented after landing, would show we'd seen also hippo, eland, zebra, topi, dik-dik, wildebeeste, kongoni, bushbuck, waterbuck, reedbuck, gazelle, impala, lion, hyena, jackal, warthog, baboon and ostrich, missing only buffalo, leopard and cheetah of those which have been seen from the balloon on previous trips.
"Over there," said Hawkins, pointing to a wide plain. "We'll to land."
We crouched low, gripping the rope handholds - one high, one low - and again watched the grass come closer. This time we were really down, hard. (Hawkins told us he never would have taken off under existing wind conditions with other passengers, but our group of travel writers had a schedule that did not allow us to wait another day.) The basket bounced, was pulled along the ground, and then tipped over. I suffered a minor but painful leg injury - the only casualty to date, according to Hawkins.
The balloon spread out on the grass.Ten minutes later the chase vehicle arrived, carrying our breakfast of fried chicken, fruit, cheese, hardboiled eggs and champagne. We ate while the crew rolled, folded and packed the balloon, which, amazingly, could be set into the rear of the vehicle along with the four crewmen and three passengers. It took more than half an hour to get back to Keekerok, to have our certificates properly documented, and to sign the log book. I read my parchment carefully. Under "symptoms shown during flight" I was credited with "courage" and "euphoria." Certainly there was no cause for "hysteria" or "boredom," the two other possibilities printed on a certificate that was cleverly enhanced by a sketch of an elephant and a balloon and by a pair of zebra and a wildebeeste. It was a suitable reminder of our game-viewing balloon safari.
Because of the limited passenger capacity (no more than two balloons are in operation even in the busiest season), reservations are a must. Contact Balloon Safari, PO Box 43747, Nairobi, Kenya.
Juckett is a free-lance travel writer who lives in East Hampton, N.Y.