Safari Adventures: Soaring to New Heights

Before dawn, the trucks headed out. We knew we were going on a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti National Park, but I had no idea what to expect. Of all the organized activities on our 10-day Serengeti adventure, the hot air balloon ride was the one I was most nervous about. I had never been near a hot air balloon, and the only things I knew about them were the stories of how hot air balloons sometimes blew into power lines. At least that was what the news reported in well populated places. What if this hot air balloon ran out of gas and wild animals were waiting for us to crash? It seemed unlikely, but it could happen. Right? I wanted to enter the experience fully trusting that we’d be fine, but my instincts told me otherwise. If we did experience a free fall from the sky, my entire family line would hit the earth alongside of me, hence the anxiety. I chose to do the balloon ride anyway because deep down, I kind of wanted to go in spite of my fear.

We arrived at a field as the sun began to rise where 5 deflated balloons and their baskets lay on their sides. We were instructed to climb in. The large wooden basket had 8 compartments that could occupy 1-2 adults or in our case 1 adult and 1 medium-sized kid. Twin A and I were nestled in together, and Twin B sat with his grandpa. Our other relatives were tucked in all around us. We strapped ourselves in using lap belts similar to ones you might wear on a school bus—a nylon strap that really wouldn’t do much to save us if we plunged into those power lines that I had referred to earlier. We lay on our backs looking up. The sky was painted a beautiful shade of pink.

The driver? navigator? captain? of the balloon cranked open the propane gas tanks, and hot air rushed into the balloon. The motor or whatever it was that blew the gas into the cavity of the balloon was loud and made me flinch. He opened that valve every 30 seconds it seemed.

Eventually there was enough hot air in the balloon, and it began to lift off the ground, still tethered to its long ropes. The basket full of people righted itself, and now we were sitting or standing and could peek out to see. The men on the ground released the ropes, waved goodbye, and up we floated.

We glided across the Serengeti like a bird. I think that’s the best way to describe it. We floated high enough to skim the tops of the acacia trees but low enough that we could still spot a pride of lions in the grass and a group of hippos in the river. The entire Serengeti opened up before us. It was the perfect unobstructed view and yet it was still hard to grasp how vast the area really was.

Before we knew it, the balloon began to make its descent. I’ve been in airplane rides that have had bumpy landings. Airplanes have wheels and brakes and usually a paved runway to land. I wondered how the balloon driver was going to manage without any of those things: wheels, brakes, or runway, but he obviously knew what he was doing. We came down as if we were riding on a puffy cloud. A gentle tap, and we were back on solid ground, safe and sound.

Every experience on safari was outside my comfort zone. I reassured myself not to be afraid, but at the same time, I knew that tourists every year got killed by the same wild animals that they had come to photograph. By the end of the trip, I was suffering from anxiety fatigue—I was literally tired of being overly alert—Did my kids remember to take their malaria pills? Was that a lion in the bush just beyond the dining tent? What the heck was that nighttime noise? One night, I saw a lizard bigger than my shoe on the inside of the tent screen. My kid thought it was cool.

The word safari means journey in Swahili.

To me, safari means expect the unexpected and try to enjoy every minute.

For more safari adventures, check out BECAUSE OF KHALID, a middle grade novel about an African American kid who moves to the Serengeti and gets the education of a lifetime from a Maasai warrior.