Sunrise hot air balloon safari over the Maasai Mara in Kenya

by Oct 25, 2021Kenya

Kenya Hot Air Balloon Adventure

A hot air balloon safari taking you high over the plains of the Maasai Mara in Kenya is an adventure that you will not likely forget. Here’s how a morning on a hot air balloon adventure in the Mara unfolds. You will see animals and the landscape at sunrise in a way you never would otherwise.

When a soft voice at our bush camp tent door chirped, “Good morning,” at 4:15, I wasn’t feeling very enthusiastic about the sunrise hot air balloon safari we had booked to soar over the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

We popped our heads out of our tent in the darkness to grab that morning’s coffee and cookies and scrambled together our bags of coats and camera gear. To be honest, I was a last-minute signup for the hot air balloon adventure with Africa Eco Adventures (Mara Ballooning), not being overly convinced about hot air ballooning in general or ballooning in Kenya in particular. Now that I had slept a mere few hours and it was cold and dark, I felt even less convinced, but I was committed so off we went at 5 a.m. for the drive by jeep to our liftoff site.

Kenya Hot Air Balloon Sunrise Inflation

When we arrived, joining several other tour vehicles, the field was teeming with balloons and their crews all prepping for morning flights. Part of the adventure is of course watching the inflation just before sunrise as the pinks, oranges and blues in the sky paint the landscape of the Mara like only impressionist Claude Monet might. Teams prep the baskets, spread out the balloons, start fans for inflation, then light flames for the hot air needed to lift the balloon and eventually your basket and you into the air for your hot air balloon safari. It all seems like a bit of a hectic scramble since timing is precise to get guests into the balloon and up into the air for sunrise.

Kenya Hot Air Balloon Mara Sunrise

The balloon baskets are large and usually filled to maximum. Each is divided into five sections for a total of 16 guests — two sections on each end for four people each, and one in the middle for the pilot to have room to navigate. Our pilot, Capt. David Eris, was educated in Gatwick, England, but born and raised in Kenya, and had been piloting balloons since his training began in 2007 in the Mara. His bright, charming smile lit up the basket, and his precise explanations instilled confidence in me for our balloon flight.

Captain Eris Mara Ballooning

Mara Ballooning Capt. David Eris’ friendly smile, charming demeanor, and precision piloting make a balloon safari both entertaining and safe.

Minutes before the balloon was ready for liftoff the captain announced it was time to load up. Four guests in each section must efficiently slide into the basket, settle in on their backs, and hang tight to their gear. Since I had been photographing the balloon prep, I was the last to clamber in, and trying to wedge myself into the remaining tight corner next to the others was not easy with all my gear. I had bundled up for a chilly morning but as soon as I was situated, I found that the closeness of others and the heat from the balloon’s flame was plenty to keep me warm; even a T-shirt or light sweater on this chilly morning would have been plenty.

Hot Air Balloon Safari Seating

The starting “tip-over” position feels a bit odd since you can’t see where you are going at first. You do have to have a certain amount of agility to get in and out of the baskets.


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There is a rather uncertain moment as the balloon starts to lift into the sky behind your head – a slightly uneasy feeling actually because you can’t see it all happening since you are in the “tip-over” position on your back — and then the basket gently rights itself. Within seconds, you are told it’s OK to stand up. And that is when the amazing scenery starts to unfold below as you soar like a bird through the sky.

Wildebeest Hot Air Ballooning Kenya

The ride itself may seem short at just 75 minutes or so, depending on the winds, but the experience brings with it extraordinary views, not only of the landscape lighting up as the sun rises over the horizon, but also of the herds of animals streaming below you. Sometimes they sense the balloon, especially if your pilot goes down for a closer view, and they scatter in all directions, unsure of the WHOOSH of the flame that punctuates the ride. Your hot air balloon will also not be the only one in the sky, since Mara Ballooning and other companies normally have several balloon tours, meaning you can get great photos of the experience with other balloons floating above the horizon around you. We had experienced unsettled and rainy weather a couple of days prior so clouds lingering in the sky offered a breathtaking sunrise and backdrop.

Hot Air Balloon Safari Skyline

Below us, herds of wildebeest flowed like the sand in a piece of moving art, seamlessly rippling apart, then ebbing together again. Giraffes seemed to be racing our balloon along the grasses below. We spotted zebras and gazelle, and even birds working on a carcass left behind by hyena or lions. A hot air balloon safari from aloft is mesmerizing, offering an entirely different perspective than on land in four-wheel drive vehicles. Yes, I was sold after all.

Wildebeest Herd On Hillside

Before I knew it, the ride was over, and we were told to hunker back down on our backs and hang on to our gear for landing. I grasped the basket holds and even tensed slightly, expecting a few bumps and lumps, but the landing was so gentle and whisked us to a stop so quickly that my hot air balloon safari – the one I had been a bit unsettled about doing — was now complete.

Giraffes Zebra Wildebeest Hot Air Ballon

I climbed out of the basket and righted myself on my feet in the morning air now warmed by the sun. Jeeps were at the ready, having followed our flights below, to take us to the crowning glory of a hot air balloon safari in Africa: an extensive, cooked-to-order, multi-course breakfast with bubbly, which is of course mandatory after hot air ballooning. This is all set up on the Mara savanna with views spreading in all directions (including from the portable lavatories, dare I add).

Breakfast Cooked To Order Hot Air Balloon

We were joined by the guests from other balloon tours, mingling around tables set with white tablecloths, folded cloth napkins and silverware. This is not a picnic, but an elegant buffet with chefs taking orders and whipping up omelets, highlighted with bubbly to toast the morning’s hot air balloon adventure over the Mara.

Breakfast With Views Hot Air Balloon Safari

A view on all sides for your hot air balloon champagne breakfast. See the little green cabins in the background? Those are the portable potties and, yes, they offer a pretty nice view from the throne, too!

Lingering in the sun, we all swapped “did you see…” stories and “I think I got this great photo…” tales with our fellow hot air balloon safari guests, toasting the morning with a clink of champagne glasses. All too soon the morning adventure was over. I bade adieu, said thanks to our captain, and took one last look over my shoulder at the setting to embed it among the memories in my head.

Champagne Breakfast Mara Hot Air Balloon

Oh, but the day was not over; it had in fact only just begun! Our own guides were there to scoop us up in our regular safari vehicles, and we headed out for a morning photo game drive – this day bringing us near a mama cheetah with three young cubs. It was just another day on the Maasai Mara in Kenya on safari where every day brings even more adventures.

And to think I didn’t really want to do the hot air balloon safari adventure…. Don’t make my (almost) mistake.

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About The Author

Therese Iknoian

Passionate traveler, wordsmith, photographer, and observer of people and place, Therese lives a life full of all the above. Trained as a newspaper journalist and a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning news team, she now applies those skills to feed her globe-trotting curiosity – and hopes her storytelling in photos and words encourages others to do the same. Winner of multiple awards for photos and stories, Therese loves to get outdoors, be personally immersed in adventurous experiences, and have a front-row spot with her camera and notebook to document stories that offer authentic insights about a place or its people. And she’s never met a cheesecake she doesn’t have to taste, a ghost town that doesn't demand exploration, or a trail that doesn't beckon.