10. Travel Escapade – An African Safari in Search of the Big Five

Chapter 10

Flying Over Serengeti

This day started too early for my liking! As we were scheduled for the hot air balloon ride at 6 am, we had our pick-up by the hot-air balloon company vehicle planned for 5 am. It was really cold outside and I dressed up in layers wearing all the winter clothes I had brought without sparing even a single item. Insulated from all sides and dressed up to counter a “snow storm”, we waited at the “lobby” for the pick-up vehicle. To my surprise, the staff was up and had already prepared coffee for us. Sipping the hot coffee, we could see the headlights of our pick-up vehicle from miles away driving towards us. We waited for the vehicle to reach us while enjoying the beautiful night sky illuminated by millions of stars.

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The early morning drive through Serengeti was a wonderful experience. It was so dark outside that we could not spot any animals other than the ones illuminated by the headlights. Around us we could see hundreds of wildebeest eyes glowing reminding us of a colony of fireflies hovering in the air.  It looked so beautiful as if the starts from the night sky had descended on to earth. Even though we couldn’t see lions or leopards, we could see small hares around us running away from the path of the vehicle. We were also lucky to see the spring hare (commonly known as the African kangaroo) in the grasses. Though unrelated to kangaroos, they resemble a mini-kangaroo and have well developed hind legs which help them to leap at least 2 meters.

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Twenty minutes into the ride, we were braving the cold and enjoying the view, when it happened. The vehicle came to a grinding halt and we could hear our driver contacting other vehicles over the radio. On enquiring, we understood that we had a flat tire and that there were no other vehicles around to provide assistance or to pick us up. There was no other alternative than to fix the flat tire in pitch darkness.  Our driver mustered his courage, took out the flash light and stepped out into this lion infested plains. With near zero visibility we could not even be sure that there were no dangerous animals around. There was no use racking my brain for self-help tips on “How to handle a lion in the middle of Serengeti?” Hence I resorted to praying that there are no lions or leopards nearby to give this day a macabre twist. Fortunately, he was able to replace the tire and continue our onward journey without any unpleasant incident.

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It was sunrise soon and we reached the launch site almost on time despite the delay. We could see the balloon staff laying out the big balloons and filling then up with air. There were two hot air balloons flying that day and our balloon was piloted by Moses who has been in Tanzania for a very long time. Moses showed us how to climb the wicker basket and secure ourselves safely. Soon, they lighted up the fire and the balloon was ready to lift off. Given the instruction to board, I clambered into the basket, sat down in astronaut launch position with my entire body weight resting on my back and hooked up myself to the basket. My mind was filled with pictures of me dangling outside the basket with my arms and legs flaying and shrill screams filled my head.  I bravely swept them aside (at least I can say that now) and filled my head with pleasant music. Soon, Moses jumped into the basket and balancing himself lighted the engine, which started pumping out hot air and fumes into the balloon. I was sitting right next to the engine and could feel the heat on my body. This was a welcome change from the cold outside!

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In a short while we were airborne enjoying the magical beauty of Serengeti which was spread around us in all directions. As we approached a region near the Seronera River we could see a pride of lion with plenty of cubs walking around. Moses lowered the altitude so that we all could get a great view. He had a great eye for spotting and always kept the balloon at a lower altitude so that we could see plenty of animals. We could see hippos lying in the river, warthogs walking and genet cats hunting. Just to showcase how high the balloons can fly, Moses took us to 1000 ft above the Serengeti. It was a beautiful sight to see the plains basking in early morning sunlight!

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Since the wind conditions were conducive for our flight we flew for slightly more than 90 mins above Serengeti. The landing location was a clear ground with plenty of wildebeests and zebras grazing.  As our hot air balloon was preparing to touch down, the animals scurried around everywhere hearing the roaring of the engine. Yet wildebeests, due to their poor memory soon came back here for grazing and continued running away on hearing the engine noise.  Moses asked us to prepare for a rough landing by sitting down with seatbelts on as the landing mostly depended on the wind speed. Fortunately we had a smooth landing with the basket being dragged by the balloon only for a short duration. All of us leaped out of the basket once it came to a halt.

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As the custom dictates, we toasted to our successful balloon ride with a glass of champagne on an empty stomach. While the staff disassembled the balloon paraphernalia, we were taken to a location nearby to have breakfast in the open. The tables were already set and we had a sumptuous meal with plenty of seasonal fruits, excellent African coffee and champagne.  After the breakfast, each of us was issued a certificate for hot air ballooning over Serengeti.  We were dropped back to the tourism office where James was awaiting us.

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We drove around a bit hoping to sight some elusive animals. As luck would have it, we came upon one of the most elusive animals, the leopard itself! As it was climbing a tree trunk, we were able to get a proper view. We continued moving only after the leopard had climbed up further and hidden itself amongst the branches of the sausage tree. James drove us to a view point located on top of a small hill from which we could see Serengeti stretching in front of us. Soon, we decided to drive back to Kati Kati to have our lunch. On the way back, we came upon a cheetah lazing underneath a tree. We stopped our vehicle to observe the animal. Within a short while, the cheetah started moving and we followed closely behind. The cheetah had its stomach almost caved it and it was evident that it was looking for a prey. There was a hare nearby who had seen the cheetah looking around was desperately trying to hide someplace. The cheetah noticed this and even before we could react, the hare was caught between cheetah’s front teeth in a matter of seconds and was dangling limply from there. It sat down camouflaged in the grass and ate its kill. We were thrilled to see this magnificent beast in action and astounded at its speed.

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After a heavy meal at Kati Kati we retired to our tents for an afternoon siesta. Since morning I was feeling a bit of uncomfortable due to mild dehydration as I was not drinking enough water during the safari. The pain intensified after lunch so I drank around 1.5 litres of water in one go! After this I slept for a while hoping for the pain to subside. We started the evening trip around 4.30pm. The sky was already overcast by this time with heavy rainclouds. We drove around the Seronera River hoping to spot some animals other than the hippos. Around this region, we saw few acacias that are light yellow in color. James informed us that these are the fever acacias. These trees grow near swamps or water sources where mosquitoes also thrive. Though the mosquitoes spread malaria, it was initially considered by the people that it was these strange colored acacias that are the cause of the fever. Hence they got the name fever acacia.

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Near Seronera River we came upon a lioness relaxing under the shade. She was awake and looking around for a hunt. We waited a while to see if we will be lucky enough to witness another hunt. This time around we got our cameras ready in recording mode so as not to miss the scene. Alas, she did not make any move even after waiting for some time. As the sky was overcast and the air was heavy with rain so we made our way back to the camp faster.

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Reaching the camp, we freshened up and moved to the common area enjoying the coffee and snacks. We could see the orange glow of the sky at dusk frequently brightened up the thunder showers. We had dinner with James where he taught as more Swahili titbits. After dinner, we were escorted back to our tent by an employee. Reaching near our tent we could hear a commotion nearby to see few giraffes grazing right behind our tent, feeding on the branches of the trees. Happy that it was just giraffes and not any carnivores, we went inside and got ready to sleep. I had a peaceful sleep owing to the early start of the day. My husband was woken up at night hearing angry snorting from outside the tent. Hoping the angry wildebeests wouldn’t breach our tent perimeters he went back to sleep.

Swahili Lessons

  1. Mvua : Rain
  2. Usiku : Night
  3. Sita     : Six
  4. Saba    : Seven
  5. Nane   : Eight
  6. Tisa     : Nine
  7. Kumi   : Ten

To be continued …

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One thought on “10. Travel Escapade – An African Safari in Search of the Big Five

  1. Pingback: 9. Travel Escapade – An African Safari in Search of the Big Five | Book Escapade

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