Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Tanzania, Africa - Day 8 - Hot Air Balloon ride, Hippos and more

Our 8th day in Africa started out totally different from the first seven, with us getting up especially early and heading out for a hot air ballon ride over the Serengeti. We were up and out by 5:45am and made the 30 minute drive out to the launch site. We had overcast skies, but I was just happy that it was not raining. The night before, it had poured rain, and I thought that this would wash out our balloon ride. So many of us were excited about this excursion, it would have been a let down if we could not go. And it was Matt's birthday, making the day even more special.

We ended up with nice calm winds, and the pilot said that we were good to go!

The crew started by laying out the balloon...

For those of you wondering what equipment I brought for this ride, I decided to bring two cameras. I brought the Canon 5D Mark III with the 16-35mm lens and the Canon 1Dx with the 100-400mm lens. This gave me the option of shooting both wide and long shots, without the need to change lenses in the basket.

...and then used large fans to blow the cool morning air into them.

Once the balloons were partially inflated, they crank up the hot air to give the balloons lift.

The basket gently tilted up and we were off and flying. Here is a photo of our captain, Moses, controlling the lift.

As you can see from this photo. we started off cruising at really low altitude. This was really cool, since the last balloon ride I was on, we took off and went straight up.

A couple of minutes into our flight, I turned and looked back to watch the other balloons coming up behind us. I saw this pond of water and hoped that the balloon would come over for a cool reflection shot. I had just enough time to prep the other photographers for this moment, before cranking out these shots.

These reflection shots were my favorite from the balloon ride.

We saw this Hippo cruising across the Serengeti and followed it for a little while. It was really amazing to see how fast these multi-ton animals can move.

The day before our balloon ride, we had checked into the company's office to get a briefing and sign waivers. At that time, I asked them if there would be more than one balloon launching. They told us that there would be three. I was really happy about that, knowing that this would give us the opportunity to photograph from one balloon to another. For this shot, I waited for the other pilot to crank up the heat and hit my shutter. The dark sky helped to accentuate the flame.

We were cruising along when I saw this cat. I thought that I was seeing a Cheetah, but Moses told me that this was a Serval Cat.

Towards the end of our flight, we flew low over a pool of Hippo, which let us get some overheard shots of these massive creatures.

I took this last photo of the two trailing balloons, using the line of trees to create a visual element to draw the viewer's eye from the bottom of the frame to the top.

And then we ended our flight with a really nice champaign toast and a fancy breakfast out in the middle of the Serengeti. This was the perfect ending to the morning. The crew even surprised Matt with a birthday song and dance. This made all of our days!

We took a little break back at our camp before starting our afternoon safari. We pulled up and I saw this Superb Starling in a nearby tree and got this photo showing the amazing colors of this bird.

Then it was time to get back into the Land Cruisers to visit a Hippo pool for the first time.

For those of you who do not know, the Hippopotamus kill more people in Africa than any other animal. Look at these teeth. I don't think anyone would want to get near those!

The weird thing is...this is one of the rare places where you can get out of the vehicle to take photos. They have areas where you can stand and watch the Hippo from along the edge of the water.

As you can see, there were a lot of Hippo in the pool. Although, due to the plentiful rainfall, there was a lot of water in the area, so the Hippo were actually more spread out than usual. Mike, our fearless leader, told me that this pool was usually filled with way more Hippo than what we saw. The rain did give us one really nice benefit here. The abundant water meant that there was a strong current running down the river and keeping the pool clean. I was told that, in normal conditions, this pool of water smells really bad!

It is not uncommon for the Hippo to raise their heads and open their mouths like this. This may look like a yawn, but it is actually a threat gesture. They are showing their massive teeth, which can crush a small boat with one bite.

The Hippo are very protective of their turf and their young.

They like to spar with each other.

Hippopotamus actually means "river horse". How about that?

After an hour and a half at the Hippo pool, it was time to head back to camp for the night. But...

The rain had done a number on the access road, and one of our vehicles got stuck. The drivers and I got out and started gathering rocks. Sam, my driver, was very smart and used the jack to lift the back of the Land Cruiser. This helped us shove the rocks under the back tire and we got the vehicle out. 

Once we got the first vehicle out of the mud, we then had to get the other two through the mud maze. I walked ahead and took photos of this challenge. 

After this long day, we enjoyed another amazing dinner at the camp and a birthday cake for Matt. He said that it was the best birthday that he has ever had. And I know why!

Stay tuned for the blog of Day 9 and more.

And, for those of you who missed this amazing opportunity, we are going to do this amazing safari again next year...check out the site HERE to sign up for the 2017 trip! We have a limit of 12 people.


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