Travel Dreams Aloft: Serengeti National Park Hot Air Balloon Safaris

Picture this:

Dawn is seconds away from breaking across the acacia-strung savannahs of East Africa, and the twilight air breezing at your back is grippingly chilled and pristinely fresh. The morning grass is sprinkled with dew drops—or at least that’s what you remember seeing just minutes ago, as the drooped blades slowly shrunk from your view. In the moments since, you’ve been focused on the blushing glow of the sun at the horizon, somehow seeming to grow closer and yet more distant with each passing instant as you rise higher and higher into the yawning sky.

Now, firmly gripping the edge of your woven gondola, you look down—500 feet down, to see brilliant birds suspended in flying formation beneath you, and another 500 feet further down to the distant, dappled landscape splayed out in all directions below. From this 1,000-foot height, afloat in the basket of a hot air balloon, you watch as the sun bursts over the far ridgeline, streaking golden corridors across the slumbering plains, painting the countryside into being. Gazing some forty miles in any given direction, you see wildebeest stirring into strings and tiny herds, breakfasting elephants grouping like gray freckles around sparkling lakes, and lumbering giraffes throwing dances of shadows in the morning light. 

There are worse ways to start your day.

Maasai Mara sunrise safari with wildebeest and balloons
Maasai Mara sunrise safari with wildebeest and balloons

We love the intimacy of wandering into the bush on foot for a walking safari, and we’re always ready to roll out in Rovers to see what an afternoon game drive has in store—but for true, perspective-changing splendor and unmatched vistas, nothing quite compares to the experience of a hot air balloon safari.

The whole adventure of a hot air balloon flight is somewhat capricious by nature—for something that must be planned well in advance, a certain fortunate accordance of conditions is required for lift-off to be given the green light. When it all comes together, though… the end result is, despite all the prose we’re throwing at it here, nearly indescribable. 

Aerial view of hot air balloon flying over a herd of wildebeests in the Maasai Mara, Kenya
Aerial view of hot air balloon flying over a herd of wildebeests in the Maasai Mara, Kenya

What does a hot air balloon safari entail?

It all starts with an early morning, even by safari standards. Lift off is typically around 6:00 a.m., and there may be a small journey to get out to the launch site—keep your eyes peeled for nocturnal critters ending their sunless shifts! As you pull up to your colorful craft, you’ll find a flight crew finishing up final preparations, and waiting for you and your party to board the basket. If conditions remain calm and clear, the burners are fired, ties are freed, ballasts hoisted—and you’re lifted gracefully into the air. 

For the next hour or so, your balloon will climb through the sky and drift gracefully with the winds, giving you unparalleled views of the countryside at sunrise, and a chance to witness the universal beauty and wider workings of the vast ecosystems you’ve seen on the ground. As you float towards your landing zone, a gentle descent—followed by an occasionally bumpy landing—marks the end of your exhilarating aerial excursion. But worry not! We put champagne on ice the moment you lifted off, and a full fancy breakfast waits only steps away to let you finish your morning adventure in sumptuous style.

Hot air balloon about to take off
Hot air balloon about to take off

Are hot air balloon rides safe? How do hot air balloons work?

Aside from the aesthetic allure of soaring at sunrise, the reason for the morning time slot comes down to the physics of the hot air balloon’s flight and its need for cooler air temperatures. Essentially, the enormous balloon floats through the air for the same reason your tiny rubber ducky floats in the bath: buoyancy. That adorable little duck, lightweight and full of air, is less dense than the water around it; and so, the water supports it, lifting it up. 

To achieve the same effect on a larger scale, the design of the balloon relies on a simple principle: hot air is less dense than cold air. Once the envelope of the balloon is filled with hot air, the chillier and denser morning air around it works to lift the balloon up against gravity—like the water lifting up the ducky. 

The hotter the air inside the balloon is, the less dense it is, and the more the colder atmosphere will squeeze it up. If the buoyant force is stronger than gravity, the balloon rises; if less, it sinks; and if the two are equalized, the balloon maintains its elevation. And thus, the altitude of the balloon is adjusted by venting or heating the air within it—by way of a silent flap at the tippy top of the envelope or a surprisingly loud propane burner just above the gondola. (It’s *mostly* graceful.)

Hot air balloon with huge flame in foreground
Hot air balloon with huge flame in foreground

Once aloft, the balloon cannot maneuver horizontally—it is at the mercy of the winds. But as currents in the air can flow in various directions at different altitudes, a skilled pilot can change elevation to catch an opportunistic breeze, thus maintaining some control over the flight path.

This is another reason for early-morning flights: ideal weather conditions for balloon flight. On top of the colder air providing buoyancy, cooler mornings are more reliable for calmer winds (it’s too meteorological to get into here, but in extremely brief terms, the sun’s heating of the earth is what causes wind). And cooler, calmer mornings are less storm-prone—an obvious obstacle to avoid when you’re floating at the whim of the wind. 

Does it matter where and when you schedule your hot air balloon safari?

In short, absolutely. Geography can play a factor in flight as well, as certain areas are better known for providing those perfect flying conditions—and especially spectacular scenery—on a predictable basis. The Serengeti National Park is one of our favorite places for a hot air balloon safari, but there is some flexibility around geography for those looking for more customized experiences.

Maasai Mara landscape during sunrise with hot air balloon in the distance
Maasai Mara landscape during sunrise with hot air balloon in the distance

In Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, options abound for your hot air balloon safari adventure. Along the park’s middle axis, camps at Namiri Plains and Dunia offer a chance to see the Great Migration in its northern transit phase, giving flyers a bird’s-eye view of millions of wildebeest and their newly born calves on the move. Further north, balloon flights cover more varied terrain—grasslands, rockier fields, and rivers like the Mara and the Grumeti. Lift off from Sayari Camp or Olakira, or the migration-tracking Kimondo and Ubuntu camps if you’re flying around the months of July to October.

In Kenya, the verdant grasslands of the Maasai Mara make a mesmerizing backdrop for hot air balloon safaris—flights from camps at Encounter Mara and Naboisho can help you collect airborne sightings of the Big Five while the sun comes up over the plains. 

Ready to start planning your hot air balloon safari in Africa?

For any of these flight plans, planning ahead is key, as these bookings tend to fill up well in advance. If you’re eager to take the skies, just let your trip planner at Penwell know—we’ll take you under our wing and sort out all the details for you. Let’s write your safari story together. Contact us at Penwell today to book your hot air balloon safari in Africa!

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