Thursday, February 21, 2013

Safari Day Ten

Day Ten – Balloons, Leopard and Hippos, Oh My

This morning we were up even before the lions could really get started with their overnight roaring. That would be 4:15, which is an ungodly hour for anyone, but today we had a sunrise hot air balloon ride followed by a champagne English style breakfast. We were picked up first in the pitch blackness. On the way we stumbled into an impromptu game ride when we came upon a gorgeous leopard just meandering its way along the road. The driver of the van stopped so we could admire it until it turned into the bush. Just then, another vehicle came from the other direction at a very high speed. It either didn’t see the leopard, didn’t see our driver flash his headlights to slow down, or both, but it went right at the leopard. Thankfully the leopard made it into the bush, barely, but not without my letting loose a string of expletives that I think may have embarrassed my fellow travelers. It was another one of those moments where I thought to myself that maybe we shouldn’t be here.

Finally after picking up two other groups of tourists, we got to the field where the balloon inflation. By this point it was still totally dark but the balloons weren’t even close to inflated that we swore we weren’t going to make sunrise liftoff. It was pretty damn close, but we did just miss it. We were up just after the sun went over the horizon. But let me tell you, that balloon ride was pretty amazing. The basket was on its side and we all loaded in horizontally. Once the air got hot enough in the balloon, it pulled the basket upright and then off the ground. The guys working the ground untethered the basket from the jeep it was tied to and up we went, smooth as silk. We gained altitude and literally floated over the Serengeti. The air was clear and smooth and it was completely silent except for the occasional blast of hot air to keep the balloon rising. The pilot could rotate the balloon so we all got a good look at everything around us. From up there, we saw a bunch of giraffe, some elephants, a lion on a giraffe kill, impala and hippos. They were small from high up but it was kind of neat to see them from that angle. The landing was picture perfect, two small bumps and we were down after about an hour of drifting. This was one of the most impressive ways to see vastness of the Serengeti, though, and well worth the price and painful wake up call.

We were met with a champagne toast, which is tradition after hot air balloon flights since they were founded in France. Then we were shuttled to a breakfast under an Acacia tree, which was a traditional English breakfast with eggs, sausage, bacon, tomato and baked beans. More coffee and champagne flowed and we got to meet and chat with all of our fellow travelers.

Said picked us up around 10:00 and we went straight out on our game ride. He said our goal for the morning was to find that leopard again for a better look. True to his word, we had spotted the leopard within minutes. Well, it was hard to miss the poor thing because the leopard paparazzi had staked out the road alongside where she was sleeping in the tree. But as usual, Said’s experience and our patience paid off. While several other vans came and went, we waited. At one point the leopard yawned and shifted position and Said said “She wants to get up.” And we knew if we waited long enough, she would. Not 15 minutes later, she got up, stretched, and went head first down the tree. Said started the car and drove far down the road, further than any other vehicle. Next think I knew, the leopard was headed straight for us, walking through the thick grass. She passed us and he moved the car again, this time even with another tree, which of course she went right up. It was a great experience, certainly better than yesterday, but again, only made possible by Said’s expert guiding.

We came back to camp for lunch, which was spaghetti, onion bread, spicy ground beef and ginger ale for me. It was pretty good, even after the big breakfast we had late morning. I’m getting used to these multi-course meals three times a day, I don’t know how I’ll live without them.

On days when we have two game rides, we would either nap, read or play cards during the few hours between lunch and our afternoon game ride. Here the tents get incredibly warm during the day, even though we leave the place zipped open all day. So we usually lie here like sloths and complain about how hot it is, which makes going out again in the moving vehicle that much more enjoyable, as it’s so much cooler out there.

For our last game ride, Said said “my goal is to find you a hippo.” So off we went. And after an extraordinarily long ride, we finally saw a sign pointing to the hippo pool. As we’d passed a few of those with a handful of resident hippos during our balloon ride, we all just assumed it was one of those. But we were wrong. Like everything else Said has conjured up for us, this experience was beyond what we could have ever imagined. This pool was good sized, but what was unique about it was that there were over 100 hippos here. There were hippos of every size and age, all lolling about in the water, barking and howling at each other. Little babies followed their moms around, trying to nurse. Big males stretching their mouth open 180 degrees to yawn big dramatic, over-exaggerated yawns. It was all just so surreal, that this was all natural and not a zoo. I loved it, it was a pretty cool way to end the trip.

On the way back to camp we came upon a handful of zebra and giraffes munching away. There was a large, adult giraffe, a medium sized giraffe and two of the littlest giraffes we’d seen to date. We felt it a nice way to leave, seeing two of the gentlest of the safari beast so far.

Again we had another round of storms come through that we seem to have missed here by driving down to the hippo pool. Coming back after the hippo experience though, we again saw the best of sunsets around and also some fascinating heat lightning which lit up the clouds around it in an electric pink. I’ll miss seeing so much sky when I go home.

Dinner tonight was a nicely marinated lamb like we had at the last camp, rosemary potatos, a green bean and carrot casserole and a guacamole salad. Dessert was crème caramel. I had a Sprite and vodka to celebrate the end of the trip. I will really miss eating so well regularly!!!

Tomorrow’s a travel day but Said promised a game ride on the way to the airstrip. Who knows what else he has up his sleeve for us. As I write this, the lions are doing their best to serenade us to sleep for one more night. I’ll miss this too!

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