What goes on behind the scenes to create the perfect air-borne safari experience? We caught up with the pioneers of the field and the very man who has written the book on balloon safaris in the Serengeti. Managing Director of Serengeti Balloon Safaris, John Corse.
Since the company was founded in 1989 to offer something out of the ordinary for the discerning traveller, over a quarter of a million visitors to Africa have had the privilege of seeing the sunrise over the wild savannah from the air. Serengeti Balloon Safaris have always been ahead, and above, the curve when it comes to providing truly unforgettable memories and experiences to visitors to the wilds of Africa.
If asked to describe the Serengeti, you probably would be able to. Even if you’ve never actually been there. Having watched a nature documentary about it, or a live action Disney film featuring your favourite big cat, the savannah of Africa’s heartland is quite familiar to most of us. But there is a difference between knowing something and experiencing it. Great travel, really great travel- the kind that inspires and educates, engages and changes you, is as much about the how you do it, as the where.
And when the how involves seeing the sunrise over the African horizon from a balloon floating happily above a waking savannah. It is definitely worth it.
So, let’s talk about what goes on behind the scenes. While guests gaze wide eyed at the distant horizon, or at the behemoth form of Kilimanjaro, or shriek with excitement when they spot wildlife they may not have seen in a jeep- what is happening on the ground to make sure that everything goes smoothly?
“After all,” says John Corse, “A balloon adventure is, by nature, unpredictable but will still have to keep to a schedule for the guests to enjoy.”
John heads up one of the most consistently active ballooning companies in the world, has worked in many remote conditions and faced many interesting challenges during his time in the industry. He believes that the key to getting through anything is having the best equipment and making sure that you look after it.
With this in mind, Serengeti Balloon Safaris work with the top balloon manufacturers to develop their equipment to thrive in tough conditions. This forms a continual process of improvement and development where their flight operations team regularly discuss needs and preferences with manufacturers. Small adjustments can make all the difference, not only for the pilot but ultimately the guest experience.
Additionally, John explains they have a strict inspection and retirement scheme for all of their equipment. This is actually significantly more rigorous than what the manufacturers and regulators require. For example, their balloons undergo their 100-hour inspections every 50 hours and are retired at 850 hours, regardless of the life left in them.
“Safety is absolutely paramount,” he says, “And our principle is to be proactive about it. We don’t take any chances.”
UNDERSTANDING YOUR CUSTOMERS
After thirty years of leading the safari industry, John is able to offer a unique insight into what makes a great safari. For him, research is paramount and enables his team to understand their industry thoroughly. It is crucial that they are not only offering the best tours but the best experience and knowledge too. And are always realistic with themselves. Then knowing how to ensure that your safaris meet your customer’s expectations.
“As hot air ballooning is such a specialised activity, the company made a conscious decision to concentrate only on this,” he reveals, “There are many ways to see wildlife and engage guests’ curiosity. But the balloon tour is our signature for a reason. It gives a unique bird’s perspective from the air that allows you to see the contours and spaces on the ground that are impossible to reach via jeep. In these hidden spots, interesting sights and hidden treasures can be seen.”
PREPARATION AND PLANNING
At Serengeti Balloon Safaris staff stay on, in fact many of the crew have worked with them since the early days when the business was pioneering a method of safari tour that had never been tried before. All these years later, they are still the go-to operator for balloon experiences in the Serengeti and the institutional expertise and knowledge they offer is huge.
“We’re always developing and improving our operations as it is a logistical challenge,” says John, “Regularly, we send up to twenty eight vehicles off in different directions in the middle of the night. These are to make sure that our guests are met and driven to our launch sites on time, so they get to see the best sights. But this all happens in the dark. That this works so smoothly and offers such a wonderful and out-of-the-ordinary experience is a credit to the team.”
Adventure is a part of a safari and having a touch of unpredictability is an amazing galvaniser to turn a good experience into a great one. One of the magical aspects of going in a balloon is that while the pilots have the experience to follow the nuances of the weather conditions, they can’t steer it. The pilot can control the altitude, and using this to splendid affect, to some degree control the overall direction but there is a certain amount of random-chance-adventure.
Guests often remark on how effortlessly ballooning above the Serengeti feels and how smooth the transition is from one mode of transport to another. However, John explains that it is a bit of an undertaking to create this impression and that the ground crew work tirelessly to achieve it every day.
“The team are up early to prepare the balloon for launch and as soon as it is airborne, they then help set up the breakfast,” he describes, “This can be tricky as we don’t know where the breakfast is going to be until the balloons are in the air. The lead pilot only decides the location once he has established his direction for the day, then he tells us.”
What follows is best described as a chase, as the ground crew follow the balloon to be available for guests as soon as it lands. Then backing up the balloons needs to be done quickly, efficiently and with great care to ensure no damage. During this period, the guests enjoy a scrumptious breakfast with their feet on the ground and then continue onto a ground-based safari, immersing them into the same African wilds they have just seen from the air.
“For most of our guests this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says John, “So we try to make sure we squeeze every drop from the experience.”
And, while the guests are enthralled with their adventure, the team is busy sorting things out. Not only do the individual breakfast sites need to be completely cleared up, but also in preparation for the following day, the equipment is cleaned, polished, inspected and where necessary, repaired. It is all engines go, even if the balloon doesn’t technically have one.
“We have a well-oiled machine,” says John, “And I am very proud that we have carried more passengers than any other in our field. Our green and gold balloon has become as recognizable upon the horizon as Mount Kilimanjaro herself.”
PRICE: per person/night $530-$599
TELEPHONE NUMBER: +255753353760