I write this article for Aeronotes on my lap top, sitting in front of my pilot’s house at Fig Tree Camp in August 2014, Maasai Mara Kenya.
This is my third season here and the lure of flying over the Savanah and escaping a Melbourne/Yarra Valley winter finds me here again. The flying is spectacular and to see the enormity of the large herds of wildebeest and zebra that migrate here from the Serengeti when aloft is fabulous. However, what really makes this experience worthwhile for me are the African people; I have more friends here than I do in Australia. We have a crew of six to eight on each balloon most days, who assemble it before sunrise, then chase and pack away the balloon. Then there are the camp chefs, waiters, barmen, room stewards, drivers, administration, security, maintenance and the list goes on, all with a warm smile on their face. I must know over a hundred names.
As Fig Tree is outside the park, walking is permitted and so most evenings I go for a walk and it’s not uncommon to see wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and impala as well as many Maasai cows, goats, sheep and their herders. The local Maasai all wave with a smile and a friendly call of “Jambo” or “Sopa”.
It can at times be frustrating working here if you begin to get involved with the day to day running of things. Vehicles breaking down, mix ups with passenger logistics and just the laid back attitude to everything can soon do your head in. But all of this aside, as a balloon pilot you should try to experience this special place.
During the peak tourist season (when the wildebeest migration is in full swing) it also happens to be the windy season. The winds blow from east to west every morning, usually with very little steerage. Where I am based at Fig Tree we have a launch site cleared amongst the bush for up to 8 balloons, 6 are Cameron 415s and 2 are Cameron 315s. No smart vents here, all balloons are fitted with velcro rip tops which tend to be able to remain closed during our regular 10 to 15 knot inflations.
We pre-load passengers most days. The baskets have high sides with a foam seat for the passengers to sit on when in their landing positions.
No weather forecasts are available - just do your routine checks, brief your passengers, pre-load, inflate your balloon and go. Well this is the scenario most days however on rare occasions it is just too windy to stand the balloon up. The balloons are quick released to large concrete blocks in-bedded in the ground. No rolling take offs because downwind of the launch site is bush, then the camp itself and further on is the Talek River. But once airborne and clear of the river the Barrangut Plain opens up ahead of you. We often fly over or near giraffe, buffalo, elephants and occasionally lions. Most days you tend to fly down towards the Mara River, as you do this the wind speed usually backs off for a stand up landing at the end. Then the crew arrive, the pilot shuts down the fuel system and leaves the balloon with the crew to be packed away. The pilot accompanies the passengers to breakfast which is set up under an Acacia Tree about half way back to the camp.
Life in the camp seems to evolve around meals or when the generator is running. Some pilots subscribe to TV, have their own cookers and like to cook for themselves. Because I am not over here for that long (just a few months at a time) I don’t tend to get tired of the camp food, which has a wide variety of Asian and western foods. There is also a swimming pool and a number of pilots have trail bikes which is a great way to fill time, exploring far and wide.
There are a number of companies operating throughout the Maasai Mara and many Australian pilots are here each season, some now on a full time basis. The pilots often get together for social events which also helps pass the time when you are not flying. I have again enjoyed my time in the Mara and no doubt will be back there again.
by Brian Garth