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Floating on hot air above the Kenya plains: ballooning for tourists

The first thing you notice is the silence, stunning after the gas burner's surging roar. You gently drift with the morning breeze. Then, suddenly, you comprehend the abundance of nature unfolding on the plains below. Hot-air ballooning for tourists is relatively new in Kenya. It developed out of the work of wildlife filmmaker Alan Root, who used balloons during the preparation of several films. In 1976, Mr. Root established a company that now operates two balloons making regularly scheduled balloon flights from Keekorok Lodge in Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve. Another company provides flights from Mara Serena Lodge on the opposite side of the Reserve.

Although reservations for the ride are advised (each balloon carries only five passengers plus the pilot), my husband and I arrived at Keekorok without them and had no problem securing space. We had been warned that the balloons do not take off during high winds or rain, so we set aside two mornings for the flight. Apart from some awkward climbing in and out of the passenger basket, the ride is not strenuous and is suitable for every age group.

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Each evening the balloon pilots make their way through the dining room to meet prospective passengers. They speak in quiet, serious tones, these professional safari guides of the air, conveying a touch of awe and romance about their jobs. All are licensed balloon pilots who have logged commercial flight time in Europe.

Our pilots, Messrs. Webley and Chignall, briefed us on balloon procedures and told us what to bring: hats to protect from both the sun and the heat of the intermittent gas flame, sweaters for the early morning chill, binoculars, and, of course, cameras and film. The flight would be followed by breakfast in the bush and a game-viewing ride back to the Lodge.

We had been assigned to Chignall's balloon, and he came by to hurry us along -- the wind was up and he was eager to get going. We drove by jeep to a nearby clearing. The orange- and yellow-striped balloon was spread out on the grass, and the three-man ground crew worked with a flaming gas jet and fan to fill it with hot air.

The balloons used at Keekorok are made of nonflammable rip-stop nylon. They stand as high as a 10-story building and have a volume of 140,000 cubic feet. The passenger baskets, produced at the Royal Workshops for the Blind in Bristol, England, are made of woven cane and willow.

As the balloon filled, it appeared transformed into a massive living creature heaving against restraining ropes. Chignall entered its belly to make a safety check and seemed consumed by billowing fabric. The crew made adjustments and slowly the balloon rose upright. We clambered into the basket and then -- in a jumble of action, shouts in Swahili, unleashing of ropes -- we were in the air, already above the trees.

A vast perspective opened ever wider beneath us. Wildebeest and zebra were revealed in sweeping herds the size of which could only have been guessed at from the ground. Gazelle and impala leaped at our shadow. Elephants shook their heads at us and roared.

Soon the other balloon rose over the plains. Webley and Chignall communicated via walky-talky and traded information on wind patterns and animal sightings. Webley spotted two cheetah hovering over a kill and gave a precise description of the site, but try as he might, Chignall could not find the winds to take us there.

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Instead, we floated above an almost dry riverbed, a curving ribbon of abstract patterns: pools of dark water, rippling sands, the imprint of myriad hooves in a mystical cross-stitch on the sand. We spied a pride of lion reposing in a sunlit copse, and we glided down for a closer look. They stretched and gazed up at us unblinkingly as we skimmed the treetops. And just when we seemed almost able to touch the trees, Chignall switched on the gas burner; with a gush of heat and flame we soared upward, reaching 1,000 feet in seconds.

Wherever the wind took us, the ground crew followed by jeep. After about an hour, our guides chose a landing spot. Chignall brought our balloon gracefully down and we hit with a dull thud. Soon, breakfast was served. The cost of this ride through the morning is approximately $210. Yes, it's outrageously expensive. But the flight provides something you can only guess at from the ground: a gripping realization of the boundless profusion of life on the African plains. Ballooning gives to humans the perspective of the gods -- and above the Masai Mara, even the gods would be awed.

Reservations for balloon rides in the Masai Mara Game Reserve can be made through any travel agent in America or Kenya. Or, for flights from Keekorok Lodge, you can write directly to Balloon Safaris Ltd., Box 47557, Nairobi, Kenya.

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