Sunday 4 October 2009 8:00 pm

Going on safari is even better when you do it by balloon

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E ARLY morning in Kenya, Kilimanjaro is on the horizon, and we were driving across the dusty plains past the red-robed herdsmen on our way to begin our dawn safari. But this was no ordinary game drive, as we’d swapped the safety of our safari truck for a wide wicker basket, and were about to experience the bush from a hot air balloon.

Rising high above the reserve, we spied giraffes at the watering hole and elephants walking tusk-to-tail a long way below us, while the light of the rising sun lit up the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro beside us, in a myriad of pinks, purples and oranges.

Once back on terra firma, we jumped back into the game truck, and, after a short off-road drive, emerged in a clearing only to find a full English breakfast laid out on a table beneath a tree – and a beaming chef holding up a bottle of champagne to welcome us. Not a bad start to our Kenyan adventure.

We were in the Amboseli National Park which, although it is not as famous as the Masai Mara reserve, is far from being a poor relative, not least because it can boast the highest mountain in Africa as a backdrop. The park is easily reached from Nairobi, and while you can fly here, we took the four-hour drive by road across the beautiful Athi Plains – which allows for game-viewing en-route.

Within an hour of getting into the park, we had already seen giraffes, zebras, elephants, buffaloes, hippos, hyenas wildebeests and warthogs – all at relatively close range – and even our calm and collected driver got excited when two cheetahs jumped out of the grass and ran across the road in front of our truck.

Amboseli is classic big game country, and offers some incredibly accessible and rewarding game viewing. While you can’t quite tick off all of the Big Five (there are no rhinos here) the remaining Big Four are  in abundance; in fact, Amboseli boasts the highest concentration of elephants of any reserve in Africa.

That said, lions are still relatively hard to find in the park, especially as you have to stick to the main roads, which means that even if you are lucky to spy one or two of the elusive big cats, they can only be viewed from a distance.

However, just outside the main park is what is known as the “Masai concession area”  – where a different set of rules applies, allowing visitors to go on guided game walks with a Masai guide, and vehicles to go off the beaten track.

On our second morning, we set off in our open-sided safari truck at around 5am across the vast, treeless plain – past the zebras and wildebeest that were grazing peaceably – in an attempt to get close to the lions.

And, just moments after our guides spotted fresh droppings and a barely visible footprint in the sand, we were parked up just metres away from three elegant lionesses lolling in the long grass;  quite the five-star viewing spot.

During our time at Amboseli, we stayed at Tortilis, a luxurious tented camp situated just outside the park which has 17 spacious en-suite tents, each pegged to a wooden deck and shaded by a thatched roof and separated from the bush by an electric fence.

The tents are thoughtfully appointed with large double or twin beds, and have en-suite bathrooms that are simple yet elegant; this is a whole new way of doing a safari under canvas.

There is a main lounge, bar and dining area, all built with natural materials, offering spectacular views down to the watering hole from where you can watch giraffes and ostriches stopping to drink.

The atmosphere at Tortilis is sociable and relaxed, and staff throughout the camp – 70 per cent of whom are Masai, trained in such non-traditional skills as waiters and watchmen – are chatty and keen to impart their inherited knowledge of the bush.

During your stay, you can take morning and evening game drives with one of the camp’s own guides in an open four-wheel drive truck, or go for a walk in the concession area with one of the camp’s expert Masai guides.

You can also pay a visit to the neighbouring Masai village and take a look inside the dung-plastered huts inside the simple thorn enclosure.

We were shown around by a young warrior wearing a bead-work choker and sandals made from old car tyres whose name was Ipitek – and who went to tremendous lengths to welcome us into his home and to share his way of life.

Back at the camp, we relaxed around the large swimming pool, and had our aching muscles pummelled by the very experienced camp masseuse – the perfect way to unwind after a long day in the reserve.

On our final night at Amboseli, we drove to the top of Kiritua Hill for a hilltop sundowner. And, as I gazed out over the timeless African savannah, watching the sky turning all shades of pink and blue behind the setting sun, pierced only by Kilimanjaro, I promised myself that I’d return here some time very very soon.

Kenya Airways ( flies daily from London Heathrow to Nairobi and prices start from £480 including tax.

Thomson Tailormade offers a seven-night break combining two nights at Tortilis Camp, Amboseli (, and five nights at Gazi Bay Tented Beach Retreat (,  South Mombasa, with prices from £1,749 per person.

The cost includes accommodation on a full-board basis at Tortilis and on an all-inclusive basis at Gazi Bay, as well as return flights from London Heathrow with Kenya Airways and transfers with Pollman’s Tours and Safaris.

For bookings and information visit or call 0871 664 0273.

A one-hour sunrise hot air balloon flight with Kilimanjaro Ballooning including champagne bush breakfast and transfers is $425 per person

For more information on safaris and beach holidays in Kenya go to or call the Kenya Tourist Board on 0207 367 0931.