Up, Up & Away . . .
Soaring across the savannah, sometimes so close to the ground that you swear you could reach out and touch the trees and animals below, a balloon safari is the ultimate predawn adrenaline rush. Floating over the plains and above the forest that straddles the Mara River, you get an entirely unexpected perspective on this animal-rich world, particularly enchanting during the Great Migration, when sightings of lion, hyena, and other predators are all but guaranteed. Taking off as the sun starts to rise, check-in time is 5:30am, and that means making a very early start -- particularly if you're traveling from a faraway lodge or camp. Based at Little Governors', Governors' Balloon Safaris (tel. 020/273-4000; www.governorscamp.com) offer the finest balloon trip. Flight time is usually 1 hour, culminating with a champagne breakfast in the open grassland, complete with Maasai chefs preparing pancakes to order. The all-inclusive cost (with transfers that include a game drive en route back to your lodge) is between $394 and $435 (highest during the Migration and Christmas/New Year period) per person; kids under 12 pay $207 to $218.
Note: Be warned that, during the Migration, you should reserve your place when you book your accommodations because demand frequently outstrips availability -- in 2007, when a record 10,000 people were flown above the Mara River, the company turned away hundreds of disappointed would-be passengers.
The Mara from the Saddle
With a reputation as one of Kenya's top safari operators, Tristan Voorspuy, once a rider with the British Cavalry, runs expeditions for riders keen to encounter African wildlife on horseback. With action-packed 10-day itineraries that include more than a week in the Mara, these are highly recommended, but only for saddle-fit, relatively experienced riders. The journey includes morning and evening rides, and one marathon day in which you travel 50km (31 miles) on approach to the Mara ecosystem. Accommodations are in different mobile tented camps, some of them on the banks of the Mara, and the journey ends with 2 nights at Deloraine, the Voorspuy's posh colonial mansion where royalty were once entertained and where their 80-or-so horses are stabled. While there, you can take a day-trip to see rhino and flamingoes at Lake Nakuru or to see the steaming geysers at Lake Bogoria, and cap off the day with more horseback exploration. Come prepared for a backside-challenging adventure -- but know that the discomfort is offset by the prospect of galloping among herds of zebra, eyeball-to-eyeball encounters with giraffe, and the epic vistas as you reach the top of the escarpments. Add to that a couple of optional game drives -- for better views of elephant, buffalo, lion, and other predators best not encountered at close quarters on horseback -- and you have the makings of an unforgettable wilderness experience (certainly, your butt and thighs won't forget). A 10-day Mara safari, which includes 8 days in the Mara and 2 nights at Deloraine, as well as transfers at either end of your trip, costs £3,600; there are just nine departures per year (Jan-Oct), so it's worth signing up as early as possible. Or, if you'd prefer to go your own way, you can organize a customized horse safari, and there are a handful of trips that cover other animal-rich parts of Kenya. To book, contact Offbeat Safaris (P.O. Box 1146, Nanyuki 10400; tel. 054/623-1081; www.offbeatsafaris.com).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.