We met, today, the who should be the front runner to eventually be dubbed the most interesting man in the world. A South African gentleman, currently terming Zimbabwe his home base, whose once white skin has, through extensive exposure to equatorial sun, morphed into a pinkish-red, leathery hide not unlike those of the various breeds of game he spots from the central box of the hot air balloon he pilots on a daily basis. Faint traces of his former hue can be found in the folds of the crow’s feet wrinkles lining his eyes, where shadow and sunglass preserved his past. His sharp, slightly downwardly hooked nose formed the slightest shadow over his thin lips, pursed so as to conceal the largeness of his mouth. He wore binoculars around his neck and complained of technology, stating his GoPro camera “wasn’t worth a damn,” as he simultaneously bitched, navigated the balloon, and pointed out a leopard hidden in the shadows of tall grass with his bare eyes. So thoroughly does he embody a caricature of a South African hunter/poacher that far as anyone can be concerned there exists no top of his head, just a safari hat with wispy strands wildly violating the edges underneath the brim, periodically stroked back behind his ears, and a white ponytail jutting out the back; naturally such a creature of the plains possesses a tail. His accent, so classically and undeniably South African in it’s joviality and shorter, sharper hard “e” sounds relative to the maiden British, rang over the loud whoosh of the massive blowtorch providing lift to the canvas rag with a sense of joy and wonder and interest leaving one wondering how has it been 22 years? He took us through the reserve, discussing various types of game and what to expect to see over the course of the trip, as well as pointing out the eastern fireball as it rose at dawn, and cracking the occasional sexist joke (which, by his own admission, did not go over terribly well in a basket comprised mostly of women). The wind pushed us forward with uncharacteristic speed, leaving little time to spot and enjoy some of the rarer finds, i.e. the leopard, however with respite from natural propellant he began ascending in place, igniting the blowtorch — at this point in the morning and atmosphere each burst was a welcome warmth — and taking us higher and higher above the Maasai Mara. He showed us the spot-like shadows formed by isolated trees in the plains, the namesake, and the area approaching the horizon where Tanzania roughly begins. Once sufficiently ascendant, he caught the now reanimated wind and began navigating forward, or some unspecified direction. He spoke fondly of the 10 days over the 22 years where he managed to spot “The Big Five,” a quintet of savanna animals — rhinoceros, leopard, lion, buffalo, elephant — rarely all seen in any one given session. We saw four.

Balloon prep

We made an uncharacteristically rough landing, hitting at least one rock (apparently stones are rare here) on the slide in, in a random patch of tall grass out in the middle of the savanna, land cruisers in close tow to drive us to our next destination, breakfast under an acacia tree.

Landing spot

The locale was in no less a random patch of savanna, nothing in the horizon for miles, our table already set and champagne already poured. Our most interesting friend joined us for the eggs and mimosas, and relayed tales of safaris past. He told stories of seeing three leopards in one day, one of which in the context of mid-kill, a monkey riding a buffalo like a jockey, two rhinos in a day, big fives in consecutive days, with such gusto that we were forced to take his word that these were in fact very rare occurrences, and worthy of being told and re-told over countless post-balloon champagne breakfasts. He discussed the differences between people of various nationalities, and survival in various foreign cities. “In Kenya you can’t trust anyone, leave anything unattended for even a second and it’ll be gone, they have thievery in their blood.” “Italians are no good, they’ll try to steal anything.” “I once left my motorcycle unattended with the keys in while in Morocco but nobody took it because none of them could ride it! But rest assured they wanted to.” “Don’t even get me started on Mexico City, just remember not to wear a high quality chain that won’t break when pulled, otherwise they’ll pull your head off with it.” Needless to say, everyone steals. I chimed in, “I don’t think it’s so much about the people as a whole as much as it is about knowing how to navigate a city.” He asked where I’m from, and said that New Yorkers are smart enough to not do dumb things in foreign cities.

Power soon to go out, more later!