Hop in a hot air balloon to soar over the stunning landscapes and abundant wildlife of Busanga Plains in Kafue National Park, Zambia. It’s a safari experience not to be missed.
Busanga Plains, in the northwest corner of Zambia’s Kafue National Park, is among the most remote, beautiful, and little-known safari spots in Africa. The area has just three lodges: Wilderness Safaris’ Shumba Camp, Busanga Bush Camp, and Mukambi’s Busanga Plains Camp, which only welcome guests in the dry season from June to October. Floodwaters submerge the region in the wetter months from November to May, preventing access. When the floods recede, Busanga is a mecca for wildlife and birds. Take to the sky in a hot air balloon for the most magical views of this wildlife wonderland.
Up Before the Sun
Expect an early wake-up call to travel from camp to the balloon launch site. The pilot considers the weather and wind direction before choosing a launch site to ensure a safe journey and interesting route. The balloon can only fly safely when there is little wind, which is most likely first thing in the morning before sunrise. If the wind is too strong, the pilot reschedules the flight for the following morning.
Preparing the Balloon
To prepare for launch, the crew spreads the balloon on the ground with the basket on its side. Generator-powered fans blow air into the balloon. As the balloon takes shape, the crew fires up the burners attached to the basket. Hot air in the balloon begins to rise and pulls the basket upright. The passengers and pilot board quickly while the ground crew holds the basket steady. They unclip the anchor, and the balloon takes flight.
Up, Up, and Away
Weightless—that’s how passengers feel as the balloon leaves the ground. The balloon moves at the same speed as the wind, so in between blasts from the burners, all is incredibly quiet, still, and peaceful. It’s perfect for enjoying a breathtaking sunrise. The basket is divided into sections for stability and to spread the load evenly. This basket accommodates eight passengers—two in each of the four corner compartments.
Piloting the Craft
The pilot and propane tanks occupy the center compartment. Firing the burner heats the air, allowing the balloon to rise. Pulling a cord attached to a flap on the balloon lets some hot air escape, causing the balloon to fall. Adding or removing hot air from the balloon are the only controls the pilot has, but he can take advantage of different wind speeds and directions at different altitudes to control speed and trajectory.
Wildlife of Busanga
The pilot uses the wind to route the balloon along the best course to watch wildlife. In the dry season in Busanga Plains, animals congregate around the remaining channels of water. The area is renowned for huge herds of red lechwe—a graceful, water-loving antelope. Puku, another antelope, are also very abundant. With so much prey comes the opportunity to see predators. Keep an eye out for the resident lions known as the Papyrus pride. Other animals to watch for include hippo, wildebeest, zebra, roan antelope, and the very shy sitatunga antelope.
In Busanga Plains, trees grow on small islands in a sea of grass crisscrossed by game paths. The tree-covered mounds don’t look much like islands in the dry season, but in the wet season, flooding rivers submerge these grassy plains. The islands are hotspots for birds and shy wildlife year-round. A keen eye might spot a leopard resting in the cover of the trees.
Sweeping the Treetops
When the winds at higher altitudes are too fast, the pilot keeps the balloon low where winds tend to be slower. The balloon can fly so low that it grazes the tips of the grass. With a quick burst from the burner, the balloon rises to sweep over treetop obstacles, past vulture and eagle nests and tweeting birds. The balloon’s route is at the mercy of the winds, so the landing spot is decided literally on the fly. The pilot keeps radio contact with the ground crew to help them navigate to the landing spot.
Coming in for a Landing
In very still conditions, the balloon can land on a trailer, but more often in Busanga, the landing is a controlled crash know as a sports landing. The passengers adopt a brace position, crouched down with their backs pressed against the front of the basket. When the basket touches down, the wind continues to drag it. The ground crew lunges onto the basket to slow it down, but it is likely to tip sideways with the force before the passengers crawl out. The balloon itself falls as hot air escapes.
Traditional Champagne Toast
It’s tradition to celebrate a successful flight with a champagne breakfast. As a toast, the pilot recites the balloonist prayer: “The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
The Ballooning Bug
After breakfast and packing up the balloon, it’s all smiles from passengers and the ground crew alike. In Busanga Plains, the balloons only fly in a short season from around August to October. When the crew is not ballooning, they conduct anti-poaching patrols to keep Busanga’s wildlife safe. The ballooning team’s main branch is in Sossusvlei, Namibia, where they fly over the jaw-dropping Namib Desert. Other popular ballooning safari destinations include wildlife-rich Masai Mara, Kenya, and the Serengeti, Tanzania. But once you’ve caught the ballooning bug, you’ll be looking to fly all over the world.