Faces lit by flames then disappearing into the night, appearing again in a great whoosh of air and fire – worried faces or full of wonder, disappearing again as I’m hurried into place. “Lie down, quickly!”
In the flashes of firelight I see a large basket tipped on its side, and this is where the people lay, two to a compartment. “Hurry, we have to leave now!” I slide into the basket, lie on my back, but my wife is shaking her head, frightened. “I can’t do it!” “You can,” says our guide, pushing her forward. She looks at me, and I’m smiling within the fiery chaos as if to say ‘what the hell are we doing?! And she smiles, too, and slides in beside me as flames reach out and silk billows and air gushes and the silk stretches and moves along the ground, dragging the basket, dragging all of us by heavy ropes as we grip the edge of the basket, and it is dragged and dragged and then begins to lift.
We feel ourselves leave the ground, but are we lying or standing now? We each rise to full height, eight passengers and a pilot, as the balloon lifts above us just as dawn bleeds into the sky. The pilot is laughing. “We got off just in time! The wind is perfect!”
When we look over the rim of the basket, we see we are gliding fifty feet above the earth. Whenever a rush of heated air is released, we hear the great whoosh, but mostly it is quiet, the earth, the sky, the dawn, and each of us passengers, stilled by the sight and the feeling that we’re in a flying dream, or we’re birds, or this is some magic.
We speed toward a hilltop and miss the grasses there by only ten feet. The dawn light is spreading, and as we top the hill we all gasp as we see them, thousands of them.
We are flying above the great migration of animals across the planes of East Africa, just fifty feet above the tens of thousands of moving or grazing wildebeests and zebras, mingled with herds of elephants, with giraffes, and every kind of sleek, darting antelope.
We take some photos, but it’s futile. We want to simply breathe it in, all of it, all of the wild life moving beneath us as we move above it. We notice that our shadow, when it glides over a group of elephants, frightens them and makes them run. The wildebeests and antelope and zebra scatter when the pilot pulls the lever and the animals hear the heated air rushing into the balloon.
It’s amazing what we can see, the thousands and the individual, the old and the young, some lumbering water buffalo now, and even the sparse, scattered trees -- to see a tree from above it, to glide over it’s top branches and see, at the very top, a nest, and in that nest, an egg, to see the multitudes and the single bits of life.
We’re above the surging thousands as they cross streams, sometimes forming long lines at the shallows, and there are predators far off, watching for the strays, the sick, old, or very young.
We pass above a kill. A lion has downed a wildebeest and is feeding on the carcass. As we approach, the lion looks up. It looks right at us. There is nothing in this great passage above the migration that will linger in my mind like the look on the face of that lion. She cares nothing for our shadow or bursts of air. She dares us. Her look, her eyes, dare us to come to her, to try to take her kill from her -– and the stare seems to range beyond this kill and this feeding. She, the lion, dares us, we humans, in our great, birdlike ship, to land, to confront her where she lives, where she hunts. There is a deep challenge in her look. I am the lion she says to me with her eyes, come and show me who you are. She is proud. Her stare is fierce. She is ready.
We sail over her, and she watches us go. We take more pictures of the endless migration. We settle in a field where they wait for us with sandwiches and a bottle of champagne for a toast.
We speak excitedly and smiles stretch our faces and we shake hands or embrace and pose together for photos, but deep inside I am saving and protecting this memory, the lion, the lion’s eyes. I saw the wild there.