You’ve made the very exciting decision to go on safari—and not just anywhere—in one of Africa’s wildlife epicenters: Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Whether you choose to stay at a camp located within the reserve or in an adjacent private conservancy, your days will likely revolve around morning and afternoon game drives. To build some variety into your itinerary, you may consider adding activities that get you out of the safari vehicle. One splendid option is a hot air balloon safari over the Maasai Mara, a whimsical way to zoom out and appreciate the vastness of this very special place. However, ballooning isn’t to everyone’s taste. Here’s what to expect before deciding if it’s an activity you should experience on your Kenyan safari.

Hot air balloon taking off for a flight over the Mara. Image courtesy of Getty Images

What is a balloon safari?

A balloon safari is a Kenyan spin on a classic hot air balloon experience. Floating over the Mara, you’re backdropped by picture-perfect African plains backlit by a glorious rising sun. You’re likely to see animals like hippos, elephants, giraffes and impala—hence “balloon safari”—but Extraordinary Journeys safari specialists emphasize that this experience shouldn’t be booked for its game viewing, so much as the pure pleasure of drifting over the Mara.

In setting expectations, it’s important to acknowledge that ballooning is not a private experience. Flights are shared, accommodating up to 16 passengers. The oversized basket is separated into four sections, each containing a bench which comfortably fits up to four guests. Don’t worry, you won’t be seated within a section with passengers who are not on your booking. Balloons do not need to be fully booked in order to depart, so some lucky passengers may enjoy a half-full/semi-private flight.

Giraffe grazing with a hot air balloon in the distance. Image courtesy of Getty Images

What is taking a hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara like?

The magic of ballooning in the Mara peaks as you float, suspended above the African savannah, taking in the glory of the rising morning sun painting the sky in a kaleidoscope of color. Apart from an intermittent hiss of flames overhead, it’s eerily quiet. From this bird’s eye view, drink in the vast, unspoiled landscape as far as you can see—interrupted only by the horizon. As you drift, wildlife-dotted plains give way to serpentine rivers hugged by trees where you’re likely to spy a pod of hippos. Post-flight, take a seat back on Earth for a hot bush breakfast and a fizzy Champagne toast. Hot air ballooning in the Mara is an experience that many of our clients describe as a trip highlight, especially when shared in the company of loved ones.

Extraordinary Journeys Safari Specialist Amelia Adamson describes her Maasai Mara ballooning experience: “Sunrises and sunsets are just better in Africa—they’re so red. The landscapes are vast, it’s unpolluted and there are no buildings. You’re just a little higher up so you can see even [more] of the Mara landscape. It’s really beautiful. You’re also up there floating somewhat near another balloon while viewing sunrise. That’s kind of the best part of it.”

Three balloons floating over Kenya’s Maasai Mara Reserve. Image courtesy of Getty Images

What happens on a hot air balloon safari ride in the Maasai Mara?

You’ll be fetched from your camp before daybreak and transferred to the departure point. The drive will take place cloaked in darkness. Upon arrival, you’ll sip tea or coffee while the ground crew assembles no more than a handful of balloons. A safety briefing will take place and as the light of day softly illuminates the horizon, you’ll enter your designated section by climbing over the lip of the basket. During take-off, passengers sit on the bench and grasp the handles. Once off the ground, the pilot will give the verbal okay to stand. A burst of flame will coax the balloon skyward. Along with a few other balloons, you’ll begin drifting, low at first, then rising up mid-flight and arcing back to the ground to prepare for landing. During the ride, pilots double as guides, offering insights and highlighting points of interest. In our experience, pilots are charismatic personalities who contribute to the memorability of the experience. Thanks to the cumbersome nature of navigating a hot air balloon, the flight path is sketched in pencil rather than ink—though efforts are taken to land near the breakfast set-up. Ideally, you’ll be able to walk to it; realistically, you’ll be picked up and driven a short distance to breakfast.

Passengers should also be prepared for an eventful landing. The balloon does not land squarely on the ground in a vertical, downward motion. Instead, the inertia of a gentle-but-sweeping landing may cause some bumpiness, and depending on the inertia of the balloon, may cause the basket to tip. Not to worry—you will be seated and any tipping is experienced in slow motion. Actually, it’s considered good luck and your pilot will likely capture the souvenir moment by jumping out and snapping a group photo.

Cheetah mother standing guard over her cub in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Image courtesy of Richards River Camp

What wildlife will I see on a balloon safari in the Maasai Mara?

You’re likely to spot pods of hippos lounging in the river. On land, you’ll probably see elephants, giraffes, antelope, zebras, gazelles and wildebeest. Less likely but reported by our staff and clients are lion, leopard, and hyena sightings. That said, hot air ballooning won’t be the best game viewing of your trip. When the balloon’s flame is not engaged, the experience is a quiet one. When applied, the hiss tends to scare off any wildlife ambling in close proximity.  What’s more, pilots don’t “steer” the balloons, so wildlife can not be pursued. In combination, these factors make a hot air balloon a less-than-ideal safari vehicle—yet another reason we position the activity as a unique and memorable experience where wildlife sightings are the cherry on top.

Going on a hot air balloon safari in the Maasai Mara is a prime way to view wildlife. Image courtesy of Getty Images

How long is a hot air balloon ride in the Maasai Mara?

The period of time spent drifting in flight lasts approximately 45 minutes to an hour. A long table bush breakfast follows.

How long the total excursion takes depends on your camp’s location relative to the balloon departure point. (Our safari specialists’ preferred operator departs from the centrally located Little Governor’s Camp which means guests who stay there can arrive on foot.) If you are lodging within the Reserve, the transfer may only take half an hour. Those staying in the adjacent private conservancies might budget an extra hour or two round-trip. Typically, guests depart before sunrise and are back at their camp by mid- to-late morning.

Watching the Great Migration from a hot air balloon is one of the most unique experiences on earth. Image courtesy of Saruni Mara

How much is a hot air balloon ride in the Maasai Mara?

Depending whether you visit during low, high or peak season, a hot air balloon safari in the Mara will cost $500 – $700. You can expect ballooning during the height of The Great Migration to cost more than shoulder season.

Hot air balloon rides in the Maasai Mara operate year-round, though less popular during the rainy seasons. Though cancellations due to wind or rain are rare, if ballooning is on your bucket list, it’s prudent to schedule it earlier in your itinerary in the event weather postpones it by a day or two.

Love zebra? There’s plenty to see in the Maasai Mara from above. Image courtesy of Unsplash

How far in advance should I book a hot air balloon safari in the Maasai Mara?

Ballooning in the Mara is popular and there are only a handful of operators to choose from. Those who want to balloon with a group or their family will want to book in advance to guarantee members are in the same basket on their preferred date. Travelers who are interested in ballooning but won’t be heartbroken to miss out on it might consider booking on the ground, direct through their camp in order to save a little bit of money.

Spend some time with the locals before and after you hot air balloon safari to get a real glimpse into their culture and lifestyle. Image courtesy of Getty Images

What should I bring on a hot air balloon safari in Kenya?

  • Pack or wear layers. You’ll be departing before sunrise, so dress in layers to avoid catching a morning chill.
  • Binoculars
  • A camera
  • Sun accessories (hat, sunglasses)
  • Cash to tip your pilot (~$10 per passenger is appropriate)

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