For my parents’ first trip to Africa, we included an itinerary that celebrated bush, beach, city, and cultural pursuits with two days in Nairobi, five nights in the Masai Mara, five nights in Lamu, and a week in Diani Beach on the Kenyan Coast. If given the choice for a single safari experience in your lifetime, Kenya’s Masai Mara is amongst the top when it comes to go-tos for exceptional game viewing, a palpable cultural component, a selection of activities beyond traditional game drives, and its abundance of quality camp options. One of the activities that was a must? Hot air ballooning in the Masai Mara, a first-time experience for all of us, including a couple of acrophobes in our family. Our experience hot air ballooning in the Masai Mara took place during COVID so a few additional precautions were in place but beyond that, our flight was what we would have expected during any other normal visit. So, what’s it like, what does it cost, and is it worth it? The extremely short answer is: it’s amazing, it was worth every penny, and even our family members not-so-keen on heights had a great experience. Keep reading for the full scoop. ⇣
The Experience – Flying Over the Masai Mara
First, let’s start with the basics: the who, what, when, and where of hot air ballooning in the Masai Mara. If you’ve seen those stunning images of balloons swirling during sunrise over the savannahs in East Africa or over fairy chimneys in Capadoccia, you’ve probably largely recognized that the balloons are in flight during the early hours of the morning which means an early wake-up call. We flew with Governor’s Camp, one of the area’s most reputed ballooning companies. Our scheduled time to be at the meeting point was 5:30AM, and we had to meet at the launch site for Governor’s which is located in the Mara Triangle. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty details here (please reach out to me if you want to plan an African safari — one of my favorite things to talk about!), but the Masai Mara is an area composed of the national reserve, plus a number of private conservancies. We stayed at Alex Walker’s Serian camp, ‘The Original, in the Mara North Conservancy, which was about a 40-minute drive from Governor’s Camp (we budgeted an hour). Logistically this meant two things:
1) We had to get up at around 3:30AM to get ready and hit the road. No surprise here, but we’re not talking about driving on freeways out in the bush; we’re talking rugged roads with no signs and you’ll be mind-blown that your driver/guide magically knows how to get from Point A to Point B under the cover of darkness. A feat, to be sure.
2) Your park fees are paid based on where you’re staying, whether that’s the national reserve or a private conservancy. In our case, we paid fees to the Mara North Conservancy for our ability to be visitors in the area ($150 per person per day). These fees help support wildlife conservation and community initiatives so I prefer to think of them as a contribution versus a ‘fee’ but they are an added cost nonetheless.
Now, if you’re not staying in the Mara Triangle where Governor’s Camp is located, you have to pay the fees to access the Mara Triangle for your hot air balloon ride. This can all be done through your camp in advance (they’ll add it to your bill) so it becomes a seamless process, but it’s worth knowing that if you’re organizing this in advance, either do it through your camp or inform your camp so they can help with organizing the fee payment in advance for a super seamless ride. As visitors on the day of our flight with all components pre-paid, we wouldn’t have really noticed the change from one conservancy to the next. Governor’s Camp offers transfers to their launch site, but you’ll likely find that the camp you’re staying at will assist with the transfers for you instead.
With COVID, we had some additional documents to fill out plus temperature checks and required mask-wearing but beyond that, we had no real limitations with our ability to fly as planned. You’ll have a briefing on what to expect, and the potential landing outcomes, plus with Governor’s Camp, they provide a ‘seat belt’ for landing (not all companies do this) to keep you extra secure for the grand finale. I’ll get to this below, but landings can be very mixed!
In terms of when you can fly, the balloon rides are operational throughout the year, weather permitting. With that in mind, if you have five days in the Masai Mara, for example, I’d suggest booking your balloon on day three to give yourself a buffer in case you have to push it off a day or two due to weather.
None of us had ever been in a hot air balloon before: for me, it was more a matter of circumstance and prioritization (same for my father); for my husband and mother, it was more of a matter of utter lack of desire to be in a floating balloon a million feet in the air (more on that below). We collectively decided that if we were ever going to go on a flight, we had to go hot air ballooning in the Masai Mara, because really — could there be any place more iconic?! So, our alarms buzzed at 3:30AM and we all sprung out of bed, a mix of excitement and anxiety for our height-fearing crowd.
After our orientation at the launch site, we loaded up into the balloon. Our balloon technically holds up to 16 people, parceled into four sub-baskets of sorts. Prior to our flight, I didn’t really understand how it all worked… Can we fall out? (Dumb question, kind of, but yes, a real question.) Is it hot? Is it cold? Do we sit or stand? If you haven’t been in a balloon before, how would you possibly know these things?
Here’s the gist, based on our experience: our baskets were divided into four cushioned sections, each with a capacity of four people. This is a technical capacity as the four of us were cozily snug in there. I’d imagine a family or group of four larger people would be wedged in quite tightly. You can stand or sit, though you begin and end in a sitting position with each of the four sections equipped with a small bench seat with a cushioned back. When the balloon is in flight, you’ll likely be standing, either on the basket floor or on the little bench seat inside of your section. For reference, the basket edge came up to the top of my chest (I’m 5’1″) so there was zero chance that I would ‘fall out’ of the basket. Even if you’re taller, let’s skip the worry about falling out; it’s not a possibility and not a reason for concern.
Prior to our flight, everyone that I talked to about going hot air ballooning in the Masai Mara described it as ‘peaceful’, and ‘quiet’, and all of that is true. You’ll hear the ‘whoosh’ of the fire as it grows and wanes, and that’s about it. The balloon stays perfectly temperate: the elevation doesn’t make it too cold, and the fire from the balloon doesn’t create too much heat so it’s extremely pleasant even during otherwise chilly mornings. The flight is about 45 minutes give or take and you’ll spend that time just gliding over the treetops looking at hotel landscapes and animals below. It’s beyond words, honestly; like you’re living in a drone watching the world from above while the sun rises overhead. Besides your camera (and a zoom capacity, if you have it) I’d suggest bringing binoculars in case you have a distanced animal sighting. We saw two rhinos on our flight which was exceptional. Seeing a single rhino is a rarity so let me not set that expectation but suffice it to say there’s some game viewing from above that you’ll enjoy, too!
In terms of your flying height, it may depend on your pilot’s preferences, but our balloon stuck close to the ground, usually around 100′ above the earth, just above the treetops so we could see the wildlife and landscapes closely.
So, how does the balloon actually work in terms of mechanics and direction? I hadn’t really dug into this so didn’t have a solid concept of how the pilot directs the balloon but it all comes down to wind direction. The wind’s direction changes at different strata so as the pilot increases the heat flow and decreases it, the balloon floats higher or delves lower and clings to the wind direction at that level. They never know exactly where they’ll land but can more or less move the balloon in the general desired direction. It’s all part of the adventure!
What If You’re Scared of Heights?
This was a topic I wanted to address specifically because it was a big conversation for us! Can you go in a hot air balloon if you’re afraid of heights? Well, we had two case studies in our group of four: my mother, who’s been deathly afraid of heights for as long as I can remember. We visited Skellig Michael in Ireland about five years ago and she barely made it up six stairs before turning back. My husband has developed a fear of heights since I’ve known him; more of a fear of plummeting than of heights but I think those things are intertwined. I had a full come-to-Jesus conversation with my mom about a month before our trip when asking her if we should book the balloon. She resisted initially and then acquiesced because she didn’t want to hold us back and wanted to face her fears. The result? She loved it. For real, I’m not saying that she tolerated it, or found it doable — she loved it and said she would love to do it again!
A few things to consider about hot air ballooning if you’re afraid of heights:
- The balloon doesn’t go that high. You’ll hover at around 100′ off the ground for the majority of your flight.
- You’re focused on other things. You’re in the middle of the Masai Mara! There are rhinos and elephants and unbelievably beautiful landscapes while the sun rises. You don’t really have the time or energy to think about a fear of heights when your mind is being pulled in another direction.
- The basket edge comes quite high. As I mentioned, I’m a smaller person so the basket came up to my chest area but even for taller people, the basket’s high edge means there’s no fear of ‘falling out’ of the basket.
- There’s a seat – and a seat belt with Governor’s Balloon Safari – so if you’re having a moment you can sit and breathe and can literally tether yourself to the bsaket if that makes you feel more confident. No one needed to do that in our group but that’s an option if you need a moment to breathe.
So, you’ve been floating above the treetops for 45 minutes, and it’s time to land. Theoretically, you’d come to a floating halt with the basket sitting perfectly on the earth but there are too many factors to make that happen in practice consistently. During your briefing, they’ll show you how to buckle yourself in for landing and the pilot will announce that he’s preparing to land. You’ll sit down for the landing, buckle in, and hold on to the straps in front of each seat. If your balloon comes to a perfect stop, then yay! That’s an easy-breezy landing. There’s a chance that your balloon will flop over and drag a bit though as it comes to a halt, which was the case in our experience (this was my in-laws’ experience too, doing this about 3 years ago in the Mara). You’ll be sitting, holding on to your handles, and the basket will bounce along as it hits the ground until it comes to a full stop. We found it a bit of an adventure – I didn’t mind it at all – but I will warn that if you have back issues you should discuss with the ballooning team prior to booking to find out if this will work for you. If you’re pregnant, this is likely the reason that hot air ballooning is off-limits.
The Celebratory Champagne Breakfast
You’ve completed your flight, now time for the classic champagne breakfast to follow! Your rate for hot air ballooning in the Masai Mara includes not only the flight, but the bush breakfast to follow, which has become a tradition in the ballooning community. The origins of this stem back to the first balloon expedition in Paris in the late 1700s and remains part of the celebratory tradition of balloon flights. Fun fact: one of the two men on the first flight was Francois Pilatrê, which is where the word ‘pilot’ comes from.
You’ll enjoy breakfast family style with the others in your balloon and have breakfast with mimosas out in the bush. It’s a perfect ending to an amazing morning — and a great way to meet the fellow passengers that you just flew with!
Cost: Prices range from about €350 per person up to €440 per person depending on the season.
Inclusions: Transfers, the hot air balloon ride, plus a champagne bush breakfast
What to Wear: Layers are good – I’d take a light jacket in case it’s needed on the ground; flat shoes are a must though sandals or close-toed are fine.
Who Shouldn’t Fly: Pregnant women are not allowed in flight for the reasons I mentioned above with landing. If you have back or hip issues, I’d talk with the balloon company first to make sure that the flight is the right fit for you. Children are allowed (8+) and a child rate is applied for kids between the ages of 8 and 12.
Tell me: have you been in a hot air balloon before? What was your experience like?