Balloons Over The Serengeti

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The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what’s right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
~ Toto (lyrics from their song, Africa)


This time, you get to have your cake and eat it, too. Meaning, you get a break from the stuff I dish out here. Better still, you’re in for a treat: Prepare to be served with a delectable travelogue.

Yep, thanks to our contributor Kitty Fassett, we get her terrific travelogue about a recent trip to the Serengeti in Africa. Regular readers will be familiar with her name. For those who aren’t, I invite you to check out some of her past contributions which have graced our digs here:

With that, all aboard, because here we go! And no, not to your local mall—sheesh, that can wait, can’t it?—but to the plains of Africa.

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1. B’wana, She No Home

“Don’t worry about chui. If we don’t bother him, he won’t bother us.” The guard’s reassuring voice eases my jitters as he escorts us along the dark path to the waiting Land Rover.

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2. Where Angels Fear To Tread…

The guard is complying with hotel rules to ensure our safety outdoors after dark, but it’s not Chui that’s giving me the heebiejeebies. My daughter and I already have an easy familiarity with him since he’s been napping in a tree right outside our back window. His name is familiar to us from our rudimentary study of Swahili, and we recognize him by his spots as he slinks along the path that runs behind our cabin. Unlike other big cats, leopards don’t hunt in groups. They are solitary animals. Whatever chui kills is his alone to enjoy.

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3. Contemplating (For Now) Up, Up, And Away!

What bothers me today, as we head for the Serengeti, is the prospect of today’s balloon ride. Given the Maasai name for “endless plain,” the Serengeti is an area of about 12,000 square miles of Tanzanian grassland, and I wonder if we could get lost again the way we did over the Maasai Mara in 2002, before our crash landing. It could have been worse, of course, if we’d fallen out of the basket or the propane tank exploded. There’s good reason for our host’s insistence on being held harmless in case of our accidental death or decapitation.

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4. One More Time, How Does One Stop A Rhino From Charging?

To be at the launching pad by sunrise, we head out in the middle of the night. In equatorial Africa the sun will insistently rise at the same hour every day. It won’t wait for us, and neither will the balloon if we’re slowed down by a rhino attack on the way.

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5. When Nighttime Fell

Under a black, moonless sky, the acacia trees lining the side of the road jump out at us like gray ghosts, illuminated by the vehicle’s headlights. A zebra darts in front of us, its aggressive white stripes lighting up the darkness like neon tubes. We stop. Animals in the conservation areas have the right of way, for after all, they were here long before people. The zebra is followed by throngs of others, for zebras count on safety in numbers in case of meeting up with a lion. We wait until they pass slowly—pole pole.

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6. Creatures Of All Stripes

In Swahili a zebra is called punda milia, which means “striped donkey.” Zebras are Simba‘s favorite munchies, and if you’ve seen the movie Lion King, you already know that Simba is the king of the beasts. Simba prefers zebras over other edibles because of their delicate bone structure and succulent flanks. But lions are wary of zebras, because a zebra can break a lion’s jaw with a single kick.

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7. Refinement Itself, Kind Of…

Hakuna matata — no problem. If there’s no punda milia on the menu, there’s always nyasi, otherwise known as “wildebeest.” Sometimes called a “gnu” because of the nasal sound it makes, Nyasi is a strange-looking antelope with useless horns topping an oversized head and bearded neck, disproportionate to the rest of its body. Awkward, ungainly, and uncommonly stupid, the wildebeest, among all animals on the African plain, is most likely the one that was put on earth to feed the big cats.

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8. Have I Told You Lately?

Alongside the road we come upon a pride of lions gnawing on a carcass, and from the horns on the deceased animal’s head, I can see that it had been a wildebeest as recently as an hour ago. Within the pride, there seems to be only one male, and it will have been one of the females that secured the prey. Female lions are the hunters and the homemakers, with the males too lazy and inept for anything other than eating, sleeping and mating.

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9. Your Dwindling Gyre, O Vulture Of Yore

With their stomachs already half full, the lions have no interest in us. Some lick their chops and stretch the way domestic house-cats do, while others continue chewing on the remains. When they’ve finished, they’ll abandon the leftovers for hyenas. Then it will be up to vultures, jackals, and dung beetles to finish the cleanup.

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10. You, Keep Your Distance, Okay?

A hyena (called fisi) appears at the side of the road, its spots clearly visible in the headlights. Fisi is unrelated to any other animal in Africa. Some people confuse it with the African Wild Dog, but being of a category called feliformi, it’s more like a cat, and like any member of the cat family, it’s a skilled and dangerous hunter. I developed an uncomfortable familiarity with hyenas in 2002 on a different occasion when we got lost on the Maasai Mara—this time after dark—and found ourselves surrounded by a hyena family that viewed us with glittering eyes while holding a conference to decide what to do with us. Today, we keep a respectful distance until the hyena slinks out of sight. Here, like every other animal, Fisi has right of way.

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11. Houston, Do We Have Liftoff?

The sun is peeking over the horizon when we arrive. People are standing around watching five identical green and tan striped balloons on individual launching pads, flopping about like strange sea creatures as they gradually fill up with hot air blown in from propane burners.

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12. Ever Been Packed Like Sardines?

Our basket is lying on its side, waiting for sixteen of us to squeeze into its claustrophobic cubby holes—eight people on top, and eight on the bottom, like bread loaves going into an oven. It’s just what it claims to be—a basket, like one you’d take to market, only bigger. It feels tight inside until the balloon fills with enough hot air to rise and jerk it upright, lifting us off the ground.

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13. The Journey Is The Destination (Right?)

“There’ll be bumps when we land,” our pilot says, and I cringe, recalling my bruising in 2002. But for now I’m pleasantly surprised. Skimming over the grassy plain, the ride feels as smooth as silk, and the silence is almost surreal except for the occasional whoosh of flame from the propane burner that lifts us higher. But as we approach a tree, my stomach seizes up as I anticipate the scraping sound I heard in 2002, when our basket got tangled in tree branches and came down sideways, dumping us onto a termite mound.

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14. A Canopy With A View

We manage to clear the tree, and from a higher vantage point, I see birds and a hippo pool and clumps of bushes. But where are the massive migrating herds of zebras, wildebeest and other antelopes that we should expect? All I see is grass — miles and miles of it, as far as the horizon. Are the animals avoiding what’s hiding in the bushes? On our way here in the Land Rover, we already saw what had happened when a wildebeest wandered within Simba‘s range.

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15. Hey, Is That My Local Mall Down There? No?

Despite the scarcity of game, the ride is peaceful and pleasant, and I find myself wishing we could stay up in the air, instead of landing and getting bruised again. As we start the descent, I tighten my abdomen and shield my eyes, anticipating the bumps that our pilot has already warned us about. And it happens as he described it. The series of rocks we land on feels like a small mountain range, slowing our progress before we finally come to a stop.

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16. We Alight: Or, Rediscovering The Joys Of Terra Firma

At least we land upright, and everyone cheers as all five balloons arrive within minutes of one another. We climb out of our basket and see spread out before us the promised banquet celebrating our survival, with chefs in attendance ready to serve us a voluptuous selection of omelets, smoked fish, cakes and pies. I remember a similar feast in 2002 that was delayed for an hour after our ill-fated landing, because the tracking vehicle couldn’t find us.

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17. Certified Genius: Or, My Muse

I have no stomach for gourmandizing, but the champagne feels good, and I’m proud of the certificates we receive to commemorate the occasion. They’re straightforward, with no frills. Mine says “This is to certify that Kitty Fassett flew over the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, in a hot air balloon,” and my daughter’s is worded similarly.

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18. Yo, Gimme My Magna Carta. Right Now.

My certificate from 2002 was much more elaborate, befitting the occasion, and written in French. Entitled “Certificat d’ascension en Machine Aerostatique,” it certifies that “la Citoyenne Kitty Fassett s’est eleve dans les airs a bord de la Montgolfiere en faisant preuve de courage et de sang-froid.” In other words, “Citizen Kitty Fassett has risen into the air on board a balloon, while showing proof of cold-blooded courage.

Accolades like those cast history in a rosy light, and the champagne helps, too.

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All Good Things Come To An End

And so does our lovely journey. May there be many more.

Meanwhile, won’t you join me in extending a big thanks to our guest contributor who brought us this terrific travelogue: The one and only Kitty Fassett!

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