See Kenya by balloon safari: the greatest wildlife show on earth.
By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Mail on Sunday, Sunday 27th September 2009
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We took off at dawn. That is when the air is most likely to be still, without the turbulence caused by thermals.
As they pumped hot air into the giant balloon, its dark shape swelled against the lightening sky.
The first rays of sunlight caught the top of the balloon, just as a full moon was dropping behind the plateau that bounds the western edge of the Mara Triangle - the north-western part of Kenya's Masai Mara game reserve.
Our pilot that morning was an American, Mike McGrath. He came from Chicago to visit the Masai Mara in 1988 - and has stayed in Kenya ever since.
He works for a company called Skyship, which proudly boasts it can treat you to the 'greatest wildlife show on earth' by taking you on an early-morning flight in a balloon over the plains.
I am sure the bold assertion is right. If you are lucky enough to be in the Mara when the migrating animals are there - the exact timing depends on the rains - make sure you build the balloon ride into your safari. It's an unbeatable experience.
As you rise into the air, you gaze down at the vast expanse of plain. As far as you can see, indeed right up to the Serengeti itself on the other side of the Tanzanian border, the grassy plains are black with animals.
The sheer numbers are mind-boggling: more than a million-and-a-half wildebeest or gnus, half-a-million zebra, another half-million topis, elands and Thompson's gazelle.
With the sun behind us, the balloon cast a great shadow on the plains as we passed 50ft to 100ft overhead. When the pilot fired the burner, the whoosh of igniting flame often caused a mini-stampede.
Standing in the balloon's basket, we could hear the thunder of hooves and the squeals and rumbles of the herd.
As we floated downwind, we seemed to open up a path in the sea of animals below, like Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea.
Normally, a balloon ride in the Mara can last up to an hour. Seeing how fast our shadow was travelling across the plains, I couldn't help realising that we must have caught the wind.
'How fast are we travelling?' I asked Mike.
'Around 40 miles an hour,' he replied. 'Actually, we are making pretty good time this morning. In another minute or two we could be crossing the border into Tanzania, which isn't a good idea. They're not very keen on unannounced visitors.'
After that, things happened very quickly. 'Sit down in the basket and hold on to the ropes!' Mike shouted. 'Watch out for the bump!'
I'd barely had time to clench my buttocks before the basket hit the ground with a mighty thwack. That wasn't the end of it. We bounced hard and high, two or three times, before our craft finally came to a stop and we were able to crawl out on to terra firma.
Later, when the safari trucks had caught up with us and we were sitting around a long trestle table enjoying a champagne breakfast, Mike made light of the experience.
'One time,' he said, 'when we were being dragged along in the basket, we scooped up a 10ft python. Another time, we picked up the rotting carcass of a wildebeest.'
Of course, he sounded nonchalant, but I could tell that he'd had his work cut out that morning. 'I would have given you guys more warning,' he half-apologised, 'but frankly I was too busy trying to spill the air from the balloon.'
If that balloon ride was the first unforgettable feature of my four days in the Mara, the second was the extraordinary sight of wildebeest and zebra crossing the Mara River in the teeth of a small army of waiting crocodiles.
As far as timing goes, we were extremely lucky. My guide, Abdul Karim, told me that people can sometimes wait for nine hours for the animals to cross.
'The water is very low this year. The crocodiles are easy to see in the water so the animals turn back,' he explained. 'They crowd on the bank but just won't go in.' I almost found myself feeling sorry for the crocodiles.
The previous night we had stayed in a tented camp near the Tanzanian border. We were working our way back up north and were within striking distance of the river below the Mara Serena Lodge when Abdul, our driver as well as our guide, exclaimed: 'The animals are crossing.'
We must at that moment have been two or three miles from the river. The ground sloped down in front of us to the edge of the water and rose up again on the other side. On the distant slopes, Abdul had seen the animals massing. A cloud of dust rose from thousands of hooves.
On our side of the river, a dozen vehicles had already arrived. As Abdul nudged our Toyota Land Cruiser into a splendid vantage point almost directly above the crossing, we saw a crocodile lunge at the hind leg of a wildebeest as it splashed, panic-stricken, through the water.
The croc failed to get a good grasp of its prey and the wildebeest wrenched itself free to make a dash for the safety of our bank.
After that, there was a lull in the action. On the far side of the river, we could see the animals - led, it seemed, by the zebras - coming down to the water, even taking a step or two across the rocks, then catching sight of the crocodiles and withdrawing to the safety of the bank, only to be jostled and harried by other animals hoping to cross.
Oddly enough, it was a lone zebra that broke the deadlock. By now, half a dozen crocodiles were almost directly in the path of the migrating animals.
With water levels so low, we could see virtually the whole length, breadth and height of the massive reptiles. If we could see them from where we were, the migrants certainly could.
But the lone zebra seemed to have thought it out. He didn't try to dash past or even - heroically, on quick and dancing feet - over the crocodiles. Instead, he went downstream, round the back of them. An end-run, if ever there was one. Out of danger, he scampered up the bank.
That splendid solo effort was the signal for a sudden rush of animals. They came thick and fast - so thick and so fast that it seemed that even the huge, snapping jaws of the crocodiles were going to miss their mark.
The death we witnessed that morning by the Mara River had almost a balletic quality to it.
This might be nature red in tooth and claw, but still there was a terrible beauty about the way one crocodile managed to seize a young zebra, catching it by its throat, while three or four other crocodiles - hungry giants, all of them - swivelled into action in a stunning display of teamwork.
Within a minute they had forced the whole zebra under water. With the reptiles now otherwise occupied, the way was clear for a mass crossing to take place.
Sitting in our Land Cruiser, Abdul and I and my friend Toby Fenwick-Wilson, formerly one of Africa's top guides who is now in charge of Sanctuary's lodges in East Africa, found time to reflect on the noble sacrifice we had just witnessed.
'One zebra has died,' Toby explained, 'but in the meantime, hundreds, perhaps thousands, have made it to the other side.'
'And what is that zebra's heavenly reward?' I asked. ' Seventy-two virgin zebras?'
Abdul, who is a Muslim and who missed out on most of the meals including the champagne breakfast (it was still Ramadan while I was there), seemed to enjoy that one.
The great migration is, of course, the most spectacular attraction of the Masai Mara, which extends over 590 square miles. Its inner core of 250 square miles is designated a National Reserve.
But leaving aside the wildlife, the Mara has everything else you could wish for. I stayed at the beautiful Sanctuary Olonana tented camp, perched on the bank of the Mara River, with a small pod of hippopotamuses grunting and dousing only a few yards away.
I saw elephants, giraffes, lions and baboons by the score. And, on one excursion, a male leopard stalking a warthog. We had to get back to camp before the gates closed, so missed the denouement.
If birds grab you more than mammals, the Mara is rich indeed. Eagles, vultures, herons, kingfishers, plovers, wheatears - the Mara has them all. And if you have a guide as good as Abdul, you'll learn quickly how to tell a hawk from a handsaw.
What makes the Mara so special, of course, is that it is not a reserve that operates against the interests of the local Masai people. On the contrary, the inner National Reserve is itself divided into two parts. One-third is run by the Trans-Mara Town Council and two-thirds by Narok Town Council.
It is not a question, I was assured, of badly needed tourist dollars being siphoned off wholesale to Mr Big in Nairobi with no trickle-down effect for the locals.
On my last day, Toby, Abdul and I paid a visit to a Masai village. I was greeted by a delegation of the women, who decked me out in traditional beads and sang songs of welcome.
We stooped low to enter their huts, bought some carved animals, and watched a Masai fire-maker coax a flame from a piece of wood he twirled between his hands.
Trite, of course. Horribly trite. But if the Masai have bought in to the idea of the reserve (and they seem to have done), it is largely because of the very real economic benefits the tourist trade brings them.
I am sure there are eco-activists in London NW1 who will throw up their hands in horror at the thought of my balloon ride, at least in terms of its impact on global warming and so on.
But believe me, without tourists like me, the Masai will begin to question what is the real value, to them or indeed to anyone else, of one million wildebeest and half a million zebra.
The herds of Masai cattle are there, just outside the reserve, longing to leap across from the parched pastures of the villages on to the lush grasses of the Mara. You see them from the air in the little plane back to Nairobi.
The eco-activists, the 'socially aware' non-governmental organisations, might argue that even if the Mara is lost, there is always the Serengeti to fall back on.
Well, I'm afraid nothing could be further from the truth. This is one colossal ecosystem. If the Mara goes, the Serengeti goes too. As the song goes, you can't have one without the other.
So I am proud to have taken that wonderful balloon flight, even if we did have a hairy landing. It helped to make my brief trip to the Masai Mara one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
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