My eyes shot open.
As someone who has worked closely with lions, I knew that familiar sound. It was the unmistakable sound of lions roaring. I reached under my pillow for my iPhone and noticed it was 4:45am. My ride was going to be picking me up at 5:20am – so I decided to just get up and pack my bag (which I would be leaving with Giancarlo to pack in the Serengeti Experience LandCruiser while I was off crossing off a BIG bucket list item). On this fourth day of my East Africa tour with Nomad Adventure Tours I was going to be going for a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti at sunrise.
As I made my way to the ablutions and then to the parking lot – where I waited to be picked up by Serengeti Balloon Safaris- I couldn’t help but nervously look around, looking for those lions that had woken me from my slumber.
After waiting for a good 10minutes, a LandCruiser with the Serengeti Balloon Safaris logo on the door, pulled up. I jumped in and introduced myself to the Australian man sitting in the front passenger seat, and to the French family of four who piled into the vehicle right after me. We took off down the dark, dusty roads – the sky glowed orange thanks to a massive bushfire in the distance.
When the LandCruisers pulled up to the balloon launch area the skies were already starting to lighten, revealing 5 massive hot air balloons in the process of being inflated. The yellow and green balloons were on their sides, as were the large wicker-looking baskets. I looked around and noticed at least 50 people standing by the various balloons – with even more LandCruisers full of even more clients waiting their morning ride over the Serengeti.
Our balloon pilot, Johnny, gave us a rundown as to what we should expect, as well as a quick lesson on how to get into and out of the basket. Without too much further hesitation we were being told to get into our assigned spaces in the basket. The Australian man and myself were directed to jump into an upper basket and buckle up.
Before I knew it, we were soaring up high into the skies above the Serengeti. The balloon floated along as we brushed along the treetops of the thorny acacia trees, I looked down and watched the frightened gazelle below gallop across the burnt grasslands.
A male lion that was relaxing after a large meal looked up at us as if to say, “you’re disturbing my peace and quiet.” A hippo that had been lounging by the riverbank got up and scurried through the bushes and into the safe refuge of the river.
Johnny soon started to make our descent and before long we were taking our ‘brace positions’ and landing on the hard ground. Once all 5 balloons had landed we celebrated our safe journey across the Serengeti and toasted with a glass of champagne. Then we all piled into LandCruisers and were taken to the breakfast location – where we would feast on a full hot English breakfast and fruit.
This is also where I encountered the best toilet in all of my African national park visits. The loo-with-a-view!
We returned back to the main Serengeti Balloons office shortly after 10:00am, and I rejoined the rest of my Nomad Adventure Tours crew. All we had left on our itinerary for the day was a little bit of a game drive as we made our way to departure from the Serengeti and making our way to the Ngorongoro Crater, where we would have the opportunity to camp out on the edge of the crater.
With our faithful and safe driver, Abraham, behind the wheel we navigated our way through the Serengeti. As always I was on the lookout for a ‘chui’ (leopard), ‘simba’ (lion) or ‘duma’ (cheetah), with my Nikon D600 firmly in my grasp. We were fortunate enough to see a few lions and a lot of antelope and gazelle – however, that seemed to be the extent of our luck for the day.
We had a quick lunch stop as we made our way to the exit of the park – another boxed lunch, similar to the one we had on our second day of the East Africa tour, as we drove into the Serengeti. We lounged under a large sausage tree eating the cold fried chicken, grey-yolked hard-boiled eggs, and stale bread. After a good 45minute stop, we all piled back into our respective vehicles and continued on.
The LandCruisers eventually passed through the entrance gates to the Serengeti and we sped along down the road. That was… until we didn’t. Speed along, that is. The LandCruiser I was in started making funny noises, so Abraham immediately pulled over, honking to the other trucks so that they too would pull over. He got out and lifted the hood. After a few minutes of inspecting the contents under the hood, he went over to Ibrham and Kosta, then returned to us.
“You will have to take your stuff and join the other trucks.” He told us.
“Huh!? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know; I suspect a problem with the fuel injector. The others will get you to camp, and I will be there when the truck is fixed. It could be a while.”
So with that we collected our belongings and joined the other 2 LandCruisers. Michel and myself joined Kosta’s LandCruiser – “team Schmetterling” as we liked to call the all-German crew in jest, while the others joined Ibraham in the other LandCruiser. It was a tight squeeze, but we made it work.
And off we went.
Kosta was definitely a faster driver than Abraham. There were definitely moments where I squeezed my eyes shut as we careened around the corners on dusty dirt roads. The afternoon just dragged on and on as we drove back along the same roads – this time at a much faster pace.
When it started to feel as though we’d been in the vehicle for the entire day, we finally turned off the main ‘road’, through a small entrance gate and found ourselves in a campground. There was a massive ‘tent city’ – with no fewer than 75 tents scattered in the large open area. I scanned the campground and saw to the left of the tents there was a small mess hall, and to the very far right of the property, an ablution block. Straight ahead, through the trees, you could see below to East Africa’s gem – the Ngorongoro Crater.
Somehow Ibraham’s LandCruiser had made it there before us and they were already unpacking their truck. We followed suit and were directed to a small cluster of about 8 tents that had been put up by the Serengeti Experience people on site.
Giancarlo and I unloaded our belongings and set up our tent exactly as we had in the past few days. I then took off in search of a power outlet. It had been nearly 3 full days since we had power and my iPhone – which had been sparingly used- was on it’s last 3 percent. My camera batteries were nearly empty. Luckily for me – there were a few empty outlets in the mess hall. So I made myself comfortable and found myself chatting with tourgoers from other overland tour companies.
Daylight faded into night, and dinner was served around 7:30pm – a delicious, yet simple, spaghetti Bolognese. I devoured my share and even went for seconds. It felt as though our lunch under the sausage tree had been a lifetime ago. After a fruit platter was put out for dessert, I made my way through the tent city and across the campgrounds to the ablution block. Only- I encountered a small blockade. A herd of zebra had found their way into the camp, and were grazing outside the entrance to the female side of the block. I was astonished at how close I was able to get to the wild zebra – they seemed to ignore me completely as I walked within 5 feet of them to get past them and into the washrooms.
I returned to the mess hall and shared my story with the others- who were planning our ‘party’ for the evening. In an effort to help keep warm – as we were now on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, and it was COLD- 9 of us huddled together into one tent. We played some music, sang along and enjoyed whatever alcoholic beverages we had left. We did this until we started hearing people from surrounding tents complain – and then finally parted ways and went to our respective tents.
I cozied up into my sleeping bag, thankful for remembering my thermal layers and my knit hat to keep the heat in. Giancarlo followed suit in the sleeping bag next to mine, and after a few minutes of reminiscing about the day – we were out cold – excited for the next morning’s adventure.
Start reading about my experience on the East Africa tour from the beginning! Click HERE for Day 1
**DISCLAIMER: While Nomad Adventure Tours asked me to partake in this tour and did provide me with a discounted tour price, all expressed thoughts, opinions and experiences remain my own.**
**If you would like more information about Nomad Adventure Tours and their products – contact me!**