Afloat Above The Serengeti

Spring Equinox

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Today's wake-up Jambo Jambo came at the uncanny time of four. We had to get our butt in high gear, too, since we were to leave in 30 minutes to the launch point of our hot air balloon. It was interesting to be walking through the back of the camp, where we could see a large number of the staff up and about, some of the guides cleaning their Land Rovers. That explains why we found them in perfectly clean shape every morning - they are responsible for keeping them clean; but at 4:30 in the morning? I would know of better things to do...

The driver from the balloon company drove quite carefully, which was a good idea since it was pitch dark and the headlights may have been from the World War II era. At the entrance to the Serengeti National Park we picked up a ranger, since nobody is allowed to drive in the park at night. The ranger was a friendly young man who didn't say much, but I guess he didn't have to since he carried a very nice machine gun. The only animal on the road was a hyena who was running directly in front of the car for an extended distance, without a possibility for us to pass it. Eventually the ranger suggested to turn off the lights, and indeed a few seconds of darkness and the hyena was gone.

We arrived at the launch site after a bouncy 1:40 hour drive, and we saw something that remotely resembled a sunrise. Two 16-passenger balloons were being readied, and we were assigned to the 2nd, with Paul as pilot. He gave us a take-off and landing briefing, after which we proceeded to pile into the balloon. Each "couple" was assigned a cell in the balloon basket, and Jim and I were fortunate enough to get a corner cell. It's not that Jim or I are particularly obese, but let's say I don't think I've been ever this close to another guy in my life. I mean, it felt like I was sitting in his lap.

The take-off was not too exciting, which is a good thing - after all you don't want to be dragged about already at the very beginning of the ride. Unfortunately, the light wasn't very exciting either: in good old tradition the sun disappeared behind a thick layer of clouds and its existence has been only rumored about since. This meant cranking up the ISO to 1600 and hoping that things don't move too much. But wait, we were moving! Oh well. So let me tell you that we did see literally tons of hippos (which doesn't say much, of course), some odd antelopes, three lions - one of them with an injury - and a couple of hyenas. That was it. Who knows where all the wildebeest and zebras went. Photos would have sucked anyway, since there was really no light, and with no shadows things look pretty flat if you know what I mean.

We learned that the burners produce about 1 million BTUs, and that the balloon uses as much energy in 30 minutes as an average house in two months. I guess that explained where part of the $450 went. Good times. The wind carried us along at initially 6mph, then 13mph. This meant that our flight was over after 30 minutes, since we were being carried into a forest which is not a good place to be when you want to land a balloon - and especially if you're trying to retrieve it for another flight. Pilot Paul who's from Zimbabwe and who's been doing this for 16 years skillfully landed the balloon on bumpy terrain and we were dragged ah maybe some 100 ft before coming to a stop. Once again I soon abandoned a plan to count my bones because I realized that I didn't even know how many vertebrae we are supposed to have, and where is Wikipedia when you need it. So I was just content to be once again sitting butt cheek to butt cheek with Jim and hoping that the balloon will soon come to a stop.

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It seems to be a tradition that after each successful balloon ride you drink some champagne to celebrate your survival. Orange juice was also offered for the boring ones like myself. After the champagne we were shuttled to an outdoor breakfast table and were served a pretty spiffy breakfast in the open. Mmmm, sausage. By the time we finished eating the sun had come out, as if to spite us, and we were driven back to the lodge. This part was particularly funny as it gave us some insight into how other people travel. We've seen it all over the past few days, seven or even more people nicely piled into a stretch Rover or Toyota. It doesn't look so bad when you are looking at them from the comfort of your own 2-3 passenger truck, but once you are one of the nine, as we just were, the humor really hits home: (1) you see a giraffe at close range. (2) Instinctively, as you learned from the past few days, you get up, energetically. (3) You bang your head because the roof top is cut out to a far lesser extent than you expected. (4) You use profanities, grab your head in agony, and slowly sit down on your camera which just slipped out of your hand since you grabbed your head. (5) Slowly, you recover, and try to get up again, this time more slowly, fearing for the consequences. (6) You are told to SIT DOWN! by the friendly plus size lady sitting right behind you, since your head is directly in front of her lens. (7) For the remaining half an hour or so to the lodge you sit tight and hope for mercy that there will be as few animals as possible, so that you get to leave this contraption sooner.

I will say that I did manage to fire off three shots while sardined like the more common folks, since one very horny giraffe boy was clearly trying to score with a giraffe girl. Since I was shooting thru the window at the other side of the truck I didn't really know what I was shooting, and the pictures look like it. Fortunately, soon we got to the lodge and were picked up by Andy and guide James, who fought for the privilege to pick us up so that they got to sleep in.

In the comfort of a three-passenger stretch Rover we headed out into the Serengeti wilderness to meet up with the other folks from our group. Just as we could have told them based on our vantage point in the balloon, there were no animals to be seen. Everyone was driving around, looking for a cockroach or lizard to shoot, to get at least something in trade for the dust that we were inhaling. Then, suddenly, over the radio came the announcement that a Leopard was sighted in a tree. The mad dash got us there just after everyone else in the park had arrived, and we witnessed a scene which we dubbed Woodstock: trucks everywhere, fighting for the best viewing spot. It was absurd, and we started taking pictures of each other and especially of hot babes in other cars. This was reciprocal, though: many point-n-shooters saw their inability to shoot a good cat, and so they took pictures of us compensating freaks.

To make the very long story short, the cat sat in the tree forever and pretty much didn't move. Oh and it was backlit, and I have photos to prove it. Eventually, Andy got really grumpy and decreed that we'll go to lunch, which was to be Hilarity Part Two for the day. Here in the southern Serengeti, it's illegal to eat inside your car. It's also illegal to get out of your car (which is a good sanity thing, though). So if you want to eat, you have to eat at one designated rest area, with the five million people who just waited for the same leopard. We scored a table and the food trading from the DIAB began. Today's box took the cake by featuring what could be best described as a very, very large meatball. Or a small and odd shaped meat loaf. Where is a camera when you need it - maybe one of my fellow travelers snapped a picture? At any rate it was tragically comical, and people resorted to amusing themselves by building towers with their DIAB boxes. Given that there were millions of people in the same boat - er, I mean rest area, all with their own DIAB - this was something for Extreme Engineering on the Discovery Channel. I recall the tallest having been taller than Valerie, which on the other hand doesn't mean much, as she would be quick to say.

Less civilized people didn't entertain themselves by building DIAB towers but rather by feeding the RoUS's. I am quite sure that they were just "normal" rodents, but then people came and started feeding them, of course not seeing one of the hundreds signs telling them not to do just that, and so they turned into ROUS's. What is it with people feeding ducks and deer and bear and you name it, thinking that it's smart or cute? Just wait until the bear destroys your BMW like my friend Edwin's, or worse.

Back into the wilderness looking for wildlife, we had to be satisfied by the occasional giraffe, pooping elephants at close range, a lizard even, and some birds with (to us) strange behavior as they were riding a king buffalo's nose. It was time to go to camp early and relax. Relaxation was indeed possible, especially after taking a luke warm shower and putting on the freshly washed undies & socks, which came neatly packed from the friendly native laundromat (washboard) at a price that was less than I would have paid for the needed water in CA. Refreshed, I joined the folks watching the sunset and smelled up around the campfire.

Since this day's rant is not long enough yet, let me introduce you to sugar. Sugar is a remarkable person who was traveling with another group that was staying with us in this camp. Andy was trying to be nice and give her the benefit of the doubt and insisted that she must be deaf; the rest of us only said that she's loud and friggin' obnoxious. Intoxicated, too: when I approached the dining tent with my laptop in hand, the picture of Rachel was on my screen as background. She looked at it and yelled out "oh, is that a giraffe?" I know, if only my genes were involved I would probably be less surprised, but give my wife some credit here, folks! Anyway, back to sugar. Her presence ensured a cleared out dining tent, because it was impossible to partake in a conversation without wanting to go beat the living daylights out of her. Today, it was Sugar's group's last day in Tanzania, and she was keen on getting some group pictures. With that she handed her camera to a waiter and proclaimed "now everyone say SUGAR!" - at an even for her uncommon volume. Strangely, it was awfully quiet around her table, yet our group immediately and perfectly synchronized yelled out SUGAR!! It was priceless. With the 2nd picture, her request for SUGAR was very coldly responded to by Jim by shouting SHOOT HER!, and everyone else around our table laughing to tears.

With that, we poured out of the dining tent and went to quieter places. Stephen, Luvonne, Graham, Valerie and I stayed by the campfire and watched the lightning storm in the distance. I set up the 5D on a tripod with a timer cable release that took one long exposure after the next, until the familiar ramblings shook the ground. We headed for what we considered safety, while our security native came running with bow and arrow in hand. Nothing happened, but it was great to be told the story that "the other day we had 20 hyenas chase a herd of wildebeest through the camp" - and the bow & arrow will help with that how? We retrieved my camera and headed back to tent, not without first tripping over a magnificent, well over 1 foot long millipede. Cool stuff.

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