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The Sun Rises On The Serengeti



I am a self-confessed safari enthusiast. I booked this trip over half a year ago for the sole purpose of the Great Migration. This hot air balloon is just an add-on activity as my family rarely travels with me to Africa. It isn’t my first hot air balloon, and it definitely isn’t my first safari, yet I was unsure of what to expect in this ungodly hour.

It was four in the morning, I’m half awake, battling fatigue and jet lag in a tent by the Serengeti. My family and I just arrived in East Africa a few days ago, and here we are in Tanzania. Drowsily, I got up, brushed my teeth, grabbed a quick bite, and waited to be fetched for the hot air balloon safari at dawn.

Seeing the balloons all set up at the launch site, I told to myself, this really isn’t anything different from other world-famous hot air balloon tours elsewhere. But, as the pilot gathered our group and briefed us for safety, he began by saying we would launch with everybody in the balloon in horizontal position, which got my mom more nervous, and that our binoculars would be useful. And so, attached to our safety belts, we climbed in to lie on our backs in the basket, held on to our cameras and binoculars, as if our dear lives depended on them, and took off.

It was a very smooth launch. I was on the far side, and didn’t realize how fast it took the pilot to put the balloon upright. The balloon ascended as the pilot navigated toward the wind’s direction. As the sun rose gracefully, my mom began to calm down, smiling at the view. “Two lionesses on the rock down there,” my dad gleefully shouted and pointed down below. How fortunate were we to start the day with lions in sight!


The landscape, viewed from up in the air, was breathtaking. It could have been in one of those Hollywood films shot by drones. I was blown away experiencing it in real life. So what made this special? The abundance of wildlife on a vast flat land—hands down.

They say the best time for safari is when the animals need to feed and bathe themselves first thing in the morning. More so, any safari isn’t complete without the lions. But the lionesses we spotted weren’t the highlight of our ride. In fact, they didn’t even come close to seeing all the hippos fighting in the river, giraffes stretching their long necks for breakfast by the trees, and the family of tiny gazelles running around the park. Sure, you would see them on the ground aboard your 4×4, but it’s different when you’re right on top of them in the sky. There is so much to be understood about the Serengeti ecosystem, and witnessing the wildlife just above the treetops lets you appreciate it more. Mother Nature has always been beautiful, after all.

An hour flew by quickly, and the next thing we knew, it was time for us to descend. Slowly, our balloon headed to a safe landing site. Before we knew it, we were in our vehicle on our way to breakfast, still somewhere in the middle of the Serengeti.

In hot air balloon tradition, we were greeted with a champagne toast, after which followed a very filling English breakfast. It was a unique safari experience. Though I would have wished to stay in the clouds longer, we had to leave for our full day game drive on land. With our bellies full, and our hearts content, I didn’t think Serengeti had anything more impressive to offer. I was wrong.

Safari is a game of chance. The weather and the guide both play into the safari experience. But, however good they are, a satisfactory game drive is still a matter of luck. I have missed witnessing a kill, a fight, or a mating several times in the previous years, but I’ve made it a point to manage my expectations in all the games I do.

It was the start of the peak season, and the Serengeti was getting busy. Initially I thought the vehicles would be crowding each and every track, but the Serengeti is massive—14,745 square kilometers massive, to be exact! It isn’t the biggest park in Africa, but it has the biggest concentration of cats, whether lions, leopards, or cheetahs.


True enough, we spotted a leopard on a tree, and brothers of cheetahs resting on the ground minutes into the game. As for the lions, there were very plenty of them scattered in the park. There are some inside the bushes, on the rocks, and on the tracks. I have never seen as many lions in a game. They’re not my favorite, but I am starting to love them as much as I love the elephants. Mommy-elephant-grooming-her-child.

It was a typical game drive with giraffes, elephants, zebras, hippos, wildebeests. By past noon, we thought we had seen enough. What else was there to see anyway? But our guide Willy was so diligent. He said that anything could happen in the Serengeti. From the south, he decided to head toward the center.

We were alone on the tracks on our way to the other side of the park when suddenly he brought the vehicle to a halt. He told us to stay quiet while pointing at a group of cheetahs. I took out my binoculars and looked around. There were a herd of gazelles 100 meters away. “It’s a mother with two cubs. Look at her stalking the gazelles. Stay silent. It looks like she’s hungry and needs to feed her cubs!” I was completely dumbfounded. I told Willy I wanted to witness a kill but he just crossed his fingers and reminded me to be patient. And patient I was.


Animals use their sense of smell to understand their current environment, and the wind was blowing toward us, not the gazelles. The antelopes couldn’t smell the cheetah, and was very much unaware of her presence. Although Willy never promised us anything, he had a huge gut feel that it would be a successful kill. Despite that, I didn’t want to get my hopes up as I had missed a kill twice—in Kenya with a lion and in Zambia with a leopard. In truth, there was nothing we could do but keep quiet and pray for it to be in favor of the predator.

As the cheetah was shortening her distance from the gazelles, more and more vehicles arrived in hopes for an action-packed show. In 10 minutes, the cheetah managed to shorten her distance to about 45 meters.

The gazelles finally sensed danger, but were unsure where the predator was. Anxiously wiggling their tails to alert each other, they started to run as fast as they could opposite us. And so, the cheetah chased the gazelles. She was very fast! Running at 75 kilometers per hour, it didn’t take long before she captured a gazelle. Then it got too dusty. But in a matter of seconds, the cheetah dramatically appeared on top of the plains munching over her prey—just like in the movies—but with her two cubs in her wake. It was epic. The vehicles around us departed one by one. It was a good show. An excellent safari day.

Anything can happen in the Serengeti.

Source: Manila Bulletin

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