By Santiago Legarre

An invitation from Ol Tukai Lodge made my latest visit to Amboseli National Park possible. In a forthcoming contribution to the October issue of Swara magazine, I will write about my experiences and the services on offer at Ol Tukai in detail. In this short column, however, I would just like to highlight one unique feature of my visit. You could call it the “Kilimanjaro Safari.”

Courtesy of Safarilink Aviation, it took me less time to get from Wilson Airport in Nairobi to Amboseli than it had taken me to order and sip a delicious cappuccino at the airport’s Spring Valley Coffee. When we were up in the air, some few minutes prior to landing and before the pilot announced to the passengers an extraordinary sight — right ahead — Kilimanjaro — Africa’s highest mountain. I was stunned. I did not think you get to see it that way from an aeroplane. I did not expect that my Safarilink experience could be crowned by this amazing bonus.

But my aerial view of Kilimanjaro had not finished. There was more in store, though I could not foresee it when I accepted an invitation from Kilimanjaro Balloon Safaris to fly with them. I left Ol Tukai very early on a cold Sunday morning with my newfound Italian friends, Fabio and Riccardo. At the departing lounge, it was so nice to reconnect with Gina, a pilot from the Ukraine who I had met a couple of years earlier in Masai Mara, together with his wife and son, who joined us in the air this time.

The sky over Amboseli National Park

I had already flown the hot air balloon five times — always in the Mara. That had been a wondrous experience. But the balloon treat in Amboseli is an altogether different experience. Whenever you fly over a national park or conservancy, the hot air balloon is mostly about spotting this or that animal. With Kilimanjaro Balloon Safaris, however, it was mostly about spotting… the mountain!

But you see, like the animals, the mountain too tends to be elusive. You normally only see clouds from the ground, especially in the overcast sky in chilly weather. So the balloon needs to go up, up, and up (sometimes reaching 3,000 meters in altitude). Then you go over the roof of clouds, shiver in the chill (the temperature dropped around 10 degrees Celsius in less than one minute), get a bit wet until … there is a sunrise and then you behold – Kilimanjaro!

This is the closest to heaven I have ever gotten. I guess these words and the two telling pictures that accompany them serve as a summary of the Kilimanjaro safari experience!

Santiago Legarre is a visiting professor at Strathmore University, Nairobi