Capt. Moses Msuya was quite confident as the sun began slinking up over the horizon.
“It’s gonna be a good day for flying,” Msuya announced in a booming captain voice.
The safari balloons rise with the sun. (Jo Piazza for Yahoo)
The sky was starting to blush as Msuya prepared to load 16 passengers into his green-and-tan-striped hot air balloon for a 19-kilometer flight over the plains and rolling green hills of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
There are plenty of perfect ways to see the Serengeti. You can camp, glamp, walk, or Jeep, but few things are more magical than floating leisurely over the savannah in a balloon. Simply put, it’s the best.
The idea was first put in my head by Martin Cody, the lodge manager of the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti, where I was staying for a few days.
“I’d show you my pictures,” he said, “but they’re just too good. I don’t want you to get jealous.”
Our safari Jeep from the Four Seasons took us to the balloon launch site at 4 a.m. On the way, we encountered the rare mama hippo and her calf out of the water for a predawn stroll. (Jo Piazza for Yahoo)
The word Serengeti is derived from the Maasai word siringet, which loosely translates to “Land that runs on forever.” From a Jeep, the park’s bumpy dirt roads do seem to stretch into infinity, but the true scope of the place is best seen from the air.
All safaris depend on serendipity to spot things people pay thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles to see — the lions, the elephants, the buffalo — but the hot air safari depends even more on chance than the ones on the ground, since the wind, not the driver, determines where you will float.
It’s that anticipation of the unexpected that heightens the intensity of a hot air safari. You’re forced into the present moment, scouting the ground the way an eagle would when searching for its prey, and in fact, an eagle may swoop just below your balloon basket doing exactly that.
It takes about 25 minutes to inflate the balloon. (Jo Piazza for Yahoo)
Balloons need to fly early in the morning before the African air heats up. The ones operated by Serengeti Balloon Safaris are quite large and can fit up to 16 people. The loading process was equal parts hilarious and clumsy as the basket started out on its side, forcing passengers to climb into the cozy compartments as though they were bunk beds.
While the majority of the ride is magical and romantic, the loading process is not. (Jo Piazza for Yahoo)
It was mere minutes before we were up in the air, beating the sun over the ridges.
“Up here we go where the vehicles can’t go. We’re off the beaten path; we can get to places where only the animals ever walk,” Msuya said as he fired more gas into the balloon to lift us higher still.
During the annual game migration, balloons can pass over thousands of wildebeests in just an hour. (Serengeti Balloon Safari)
The winds whisked us westward and over a hill where a line of zebras climbed below us, their stripes stark against the green grass when viewed from above.
A lone large buffalo waited just a few football fields away.
“He’s probably not a very nice guy if he is waiting there all by himself,” Msuya remarked, which made me feel good that we were far out of his reach.
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Minutes later we floated directly over a young lioness, her nose raised into the air as she searched for prey.
Floating feels a little like spying as you move above the animals. (Photo: Serengeti Balloon Safaris)
An electric excitement rippled through the basket as we collectively willed the wind to keep us on the lion’s path. But Mother Nature had other ideas, and we were soon looking down on a new scene, a family of three elephants, a female and two juveniles marching in a triangle over a ridge. Farther along was a fourth elephant, who had been left behind by its family. It barreled through the forest to try to catch up without any concern for the trees taken out in its path. If we’d been in a Jeep, we’d have been crushed like the acacias.
This elephant is determined to reach its pack. (Jo Piazza for Yahoo)
We followed a set of muddy hippo tracks for a while before giving up hope that we would spot one of the enormous beasts out of the water.
“This is the hippo highway,” Msuya said. “They’ll walk up to 10 kilometers at night to graze and then sleep in the water all day.”
The sun had now completely risen, which meant they were already covered in cool mud in the river.
The giraffes smiled hello to us as they popped their heads over the tree line, curious at the sound of the gas being released into the balloon.
Just taking a balloon safari selfie. (Jo Piazza for Yahoo)
Pay attention or you will miss something incredible. (Jo Piazza for Yahoo)
Hot air balloon shadow selfie. (Jo Piazza for Yahoo)
Hot air balloon captain in Africa isn’t one of those majors that you sign up for when you begin college. Msuya was studying engineering in Canada when he entered the world of hot air ballooning by accident and turned it into a career. He’s been a commercial pilot for 18 years now, nine in Kenya and Tanzania.
“I go up almost every day. There could be worse jobs in the world for sure,” he said with a laugh.
Our touchdown was flawless — none of that bumping against the ground that you hear so much about. We glided in over the bush and hit the dirt with a single dainty bounce.
Msuya popped open a bottle of champagne just after we landed, surprising a nearby warthog that apparently wasn’t used to that kind of celebration. The crew topped off our glasses with mango juice — their take on the traditional mimosa, a Serengeti sunrise, replacing orange juice with mango.
The morning concluded with a full English breakfast smack in the middle of the bush in the shade of the trees, a few impalas watching us curiously from a few meters away.
“It was a good day to fly, wasn’t it,” Msuya said to me, stabbing a fork into his scrambled eggs.
I laughed. “Much better than good.”