Our second night in the Serengeti seemed to be pretty uneventful, though, as we later discovered, the lions had been busy in the night quite nearby camp. As we weren’t leaving on a pre-dawn expedition again, it was quite clear that all were accounted for in our party and we were the only ones at camp once again. Though there had certainly been an influx of tourists over the last months, the numbers still remained down due to COVID and I know that the camp staff were more than happy to have us there. I should say that everyone was at breakfast other than Paul, Kelley and Vitalis. They had all risen before 5:00 am as they Paul and Kelley had a date with the balloon gondola and Vitalis had volunteered to drive them to the launch site.
As I had mentioned before, Leonard’s brother, Jones, has been a balloon pilot in the Serengeti now for over ten years and, when the planets seem to align, there are often opportunities for a few of us to go up in the balloon with him for a reduced cost, crucial to our ability to do so, as the experience is quite expensive. Back in 2014, Danielle Becker and I had spent a week in Serengeti and, on boarding our flight in Arusha to head to the Northern Serengeti to watch the migration, we bumped into Jones, who was heading to the Central. He volunteered that, if possible and they had some open seats, he might be able to get us on a flight with him when we arrived in the Central Serengeti. Well, things worked out and Danielle and I had an amazing time and the experience of a lifetime.
You arrive to the launch site in the pitch black darkness that is the night in Africa and, when your eyes finally adjust to the darkness, you realize that there is this enormous balloon laid out on the ground and beginning to fill from the hot air that is being supplied by the jet burners on the top of the gondola. The gondola, by the way, is lying completely on its side for that is how you take off – once the balloon is filled with hot air and begins to ascend, it drags the gondola along the ground for a bit until it stands fully upright and lifts off. There are nine compartments in the gondola, four on each side and a larger center compartment for the pilot. There are two passengers typically in each of the compartments, as well as a bolster pillow that is for takeoff and landing, allowing you to lay back with your knees and legs above you resting on the bolster. You’re buckled in and, once aloft, are standing up and watching the simply incredible scenery. There are two balloons that usually fly in tandem and you slowly make your way across the Serengeti Plain at slow pace with the pilot guiding the balloon based on what thermals are at what altitudes.
The feeling of being in a balloon is that of simply floating in complete silence as long as the burners are off, which, when they are on to gain altitude, do make a noise that sounds a bit like a soft jet engine for it is burning gas to create the hot air that makes these balloons float. The flight is about an hour and you’re constantly going up and down so you’re heading in the right direction, but there is much more silence than there is noise. If you spot animals, the pilot will usually try to take you down so see them up close. You are often flying below treetop level which can be a bit nerve wracking, but the pilots are incredibly experienced and I know that Jones has trained in Europe and the US and continues to receive training even though he’s been a pilot for so many years. Landing is interesting as it is essentially a controlled crash, lowering the gondola to the ground while the balloon is still traveling with some speed, albeit slow, and being dragged for some distance on your side as the gondola just falls over while you hang on for dear life.
Once on the balloon is officially down, though, it’s time to proceed to the breakfast spot where they have tables set up for everyone from both balloons to enjoy a totally homemade breakfast with eggs, meat, fruit, toast, orange juice, and, of course, the traditional champagne that is drunk with every successful flight, or at least that is what they have told us.
It was an amazing adventure when I went up and I knew that Paul and Kelley were going to have a wonderful time on their trip and I was happy to be able to do it for them. What I didn’t know, though, was that Jones had decided to put Vitalis on one of the balloons as he had never been up on one despite having led safaris here on hundreds of occasions. I found this out later, when Jones, instead of Vitalis, came back to the camp with Turtle and told us that he would be driving us for the morning until we met up with the others at the Visitor’s Center.
Meanwhile, the rest of our team, including Kindu, who had stayed back at camp with us, were treated to a delicious breakfast of eggs, fruit, beans, veggies and toast. Though we were all packed up, we had wanted to take a walk to the nearby hippo pool after breakfast, led, of course, by our camp manager, Lydia. We all followed in close proximity as we walked between two of the tents on the opposite side of camp and were soon walking along a fairly open area in the direction of the pool. We couldn’t go before breakfast as the hippos may have still be out of the water, grazing, which they do for most of the night, eventually making their way back to their pools for the day to stay cool. Hippos are very neurotic and anxious and, coming upon one out of the water, you must be extremely careful as they are the most dangerous animal in Africa and responsible for more human deaths than any other animal.
So, on our little trek to the hippo pool, we were going to make certain that we did not run into any of these humongous animals with canines the size of sabers for we all did wish to make it home in one piece. As we crossed an open area bringing us nearby the shore of the small creek (called Turner Spring) where the hippos would be relaxing in the water, what we did not expect to see was a pride of lions on the other side of the water, seemingly chilling in the morning sun, though, as we would find out shortly, there is only one time that lions like to chill and that is after they’ve eaten. With the lions in plain sight of all of us, and us in plain sight of the lions, we all decided, and clearly supported by Lydia, that the best strategy at the moment would be for all of us to reverse our direction, head back to camp and come back with the protection of our vehicles. Or, for those fans of Hanna-Barbera and their cartoon character, Snagglepuss, we decided to quickly “exit stage right!”
I truly doubt that we were ever in any real danger, but seeing lions while on foot is just something that you don’t expect. We made our way back to camp and, after packing the vehicles for our departure, headed back over the hippo pool to check things out. Sure enough, on the opposite back were not only two males and two females, one with the tiniest of cubs, but also another male down at the waterside guarding their freshly killed Cape buffalo from the night before. Apparently, several of the camp staff had heard a commotion over the night that must have been the battle which, it became quite clear, the buffalo had lost and we were now watching a solitary male lion attempting to drag the massive carcass further up the bank through the tall grasses. We watched the lions for a bit, then checked out the hippos in their pool, all from the safety of our vehicles. Eventually, though, it was time to make our way to visitor center, where the balloon crew would be dropping off Paul, Kelley and Vitalis, and we would once again be together.
We eventually began our slow exodus from the Serengeti by leaving Seronera and the Central Serengeti to make our way back to Naabi Hill and depart from the park. We took a side route, though, staying close to water in the hope that we might find more leopards, and, sure enough, were able to find two more of these powerful cats to bring our total to three for the weekend. Shortly after, while on the main road, we came upon a gathering of several vehicles, usually indicating there’s a cat in the area, with a number of very impolite tourists and drivers who just could not wait their turn to see what was lying under the tree. It was quite annoying and Vitalis was not at all in the mood to put up with it, and though it took several minutes to get a short view, we eventually did and found three cheetahs lying under a tree in the heat of the day. For the weekend, our final tally was 33 lions, four cheetah, three leopards and a black rhino. The group had seen the big five in a single weekend considering we had seen plenty of elephant and Cape buffalo along the way.
The road back to Naabi Hill Gate was significantly dustier than it had been days before with the rain, with each passing vehicle producing dust clouds that seemed to be endless at time. No matter, though, as were still in the magical Serengeti and there were still sights to see. We stopped at the gate to eat our lunches and there were so many safari goers that there wasn’t a table to spare and we ate sitting on benches which served us quite well. Departing the entrance, we were back in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area now and on our way to visit Kitashu’s boma on the crater rim, just off the main rim road. I’ve visited Kitashu’s family on a number of occasions now and it is always very special to see all of his relatives and all the children there. Kitashu’s wife and children were living there until this year, but have now moved to Karatu as his son is attending the Tumaini School, one of the better private schools in town. He no longer has to commute to the crater, though still goes home on many weekends to tend to his livestock that are still at the boma.
Driving into the boma is always a treat as everyone is out to greet us and there are children galore. We always bring gifts for his mother and father that consist of staples such as rice, oil, sugar, soap, salt, tea and other things as well as “pipi,” or candy, for the children. For nearly all of our visits, Kitashu has always insisted on preparing a goat roast for us as this is sign of respect and an honor for them to cook for us. And I will have to say that there is nothing like Maasai goat cooked on a stake over an open fire. Despite the fact that there are no seasonings used, it is one of the tastiest meats you can imagine and is sliced fresh for us on the hillside overlooking the lovely hills of the Ngorongoro Highlands that surround his village on all sides. This is a true delicacy and I’ve always been glad that the residents can share these experiences as they are like no others.
In addition to our goat roast and handing out pipi to the children, there has also been the tradition of everyone dressing in shukas (the plaid cotton wraps worn by the Maasai men and women) and also having our female residents wearing the beaded collars and other jewelry worn by the Maasai women. Then everyone is taught how to dance with the women singing and chanting while they dance and the men performing their famous adumu, or jumping dance, that is their tradition throughout Tanzania and Kenya. The women’s dance is performed with far less athletic prowess and tends to involve more of the shoulders and upper body.
Our day was now complete and it always seems to be a race to get to the gate by 6:00 pm so we don’t have to spend the night on the crater rim. We actually were able to make it with at least 15 minutes to spare this time. Both Kitashu and Leeyan caught rides back to Karatu with us as they both had to be at work with us the following morning and we had plenty of room in the two vehicles. The last two Sundays we had chosen to eat out at Patamu after getting home from our game drives, but none of us were up to it tonight and we decided to scrounge at home for food. Besides we had eaten quite a bit of goat at the boma were in no danger of starvation. We would begin our last week at FAME tomorrow and I think everyone was beginning to realize that our wonderful month was coming to an end soon.