Up Up and Away – ballooning over the Serengeti
by Jean Campbell
The day of our balloon safari started very early from the wonderful &Beyond Under Canvas camp, and due to a last minute (weather/wind related) change of venue it took us an hour or so to get to the “lift off” point, but it was an entertaining drive nonetheless. After the balloon ride it was about a 45 minute drive through the Serengeti to get to the breakfast spot (no stopping and loitering on this drive). Upon arrival we were greeted by a hand washing attendant, as well as “facility” with a view. Breakfast was a yummy and enjoyable occasion, followed by the opportunity to visit the “gift shop” before heading back to camp.
From our horizontal boarding to our smooth upright landing we were able to enjoy sunrise, zebra, cheetah, wildebeest, hyena, bat eared fox, and the never ending plains of the Serengeti; all from an altitude ranging from 1600 feet, down to 1 foot (my perspective wasn’t off) with our pilot Frank narrating along the way.
Loosely translated, the history of ballooning, as told to us, takes shape in 1783 in France. The idea of the balloon came about when two brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier (paper manufacturers) watched ash rising when paper burned. In September of that year a scientist, Pilatre de Rozier, launched a balloon carrying a sheep, a duck and a rooster; the idea was to record the reactions of each when flying at altitude. The balloon stayed up for about 15 minutes before crash landing; we were told all of the “passengers” lived. This made way for the first human flight two months later. The honor of flying it was initially going to be imposed on convicted prisoners however the thought was if it was successful then they would be heroes. Instead Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis Francois d’Arlandes petitioned for the role and piloted the flight, which was successful (staying up for about 20 minutes) before coming down in a farmer’s field.
These balloons were very crudely designed at the time; there was an fire built on a grill attached to the bottom of the balloon making the balloons very susceptible to catching fire. Of less concern, but as it turned out almost as dangerous, was the fact that anyone in the balloon got completely covered in soot from the fire. Upon landing the inhabitants of this first balloon (completely blackened by the soot) were mistaken for demons, and almost killed by the farmer whose field they landed in. Consequently on future flights the pilots were given a bottle of Champagne. The idea being; when they landed (blackened) they would be able to present the farmer with the Champagne, thereby proving that no matter how they looked, they were in fact bonified Frenchmen and not demons. So was born the idea of the champagne breakfast served to us at the end of our wonderful balloon safari over the Serengeti.
(Note: This type of balloon was called the Montgolfiere balloon after the two brothers. Later the hydrogen balloon was introduced; and following that, in the 60’s, the army created the style known today. As I mentioned, this is the loose translation of the first manned balloon flight, any inaccuracies can be completed blamed on the champagne served at breakfast.)