I meet up with Kenya’s only female Hot Air Balloon Captain, Joyce “Smiles” Beckwith at her log cabin in the Mara. She sets up a sundowner with cocktails, guacamole, nachos and chilli, and we sit on her front porch which opens up to the savannah. Wildebeest mill out front, and she tells me that just yesterday, lions were spotted nearby and hippos came for a drink at the small waterhole just in front of her house. “This is the real Giraffe Manor!” she exclaims, adjusting her vibrant beaded Maasai necklace bought straight from the mamas in the nearby manyatta. Having been off work for the last few months, she’s currently getting ready to take to the skies again…
What made you want to become a hot air balloon pilot?
I got married into a ballooning family. My husband’s grandad was a balloonist, and my father-in-law and husband are both balloonists. It was just time. You wake up everyday with someone and go to work with them, and one day you’re just ready to fly by yourself. I’m a Hotel & Tourism Management graduate and came to Mara in 2007 as an intern, and to-date, I still run my own travel agency and do hospitality marketing so I never really left the job.
For how long did you have to study?
We had moved to Germany and were living there but decided to come back to Kenya in 2012 after my husband got a job here. I was flying with him a lot as a passenger whenever there was room for an extra person in the basket, and I loved it so much that I decided to go for it. First, I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to study both commercial and private flights for 5 months. There are no schools for ballooning in kenya.
So then you came back and got on the job straight away…
Not really, it was a struggle. Coming back to convert your foreign license into a kenyan one wasn’t instant. All companies here do commercial rides so it wasn’t easy. Last year, after knocking all the doors, one opened with Sun Africa’s Balloon Adventure based at Keekorok Lodge.
What’s your typical work day like?
I meet my guests the night before a flight then start the next day at 4:30am. I pick them up so we’re building a rapport as we drive to the site. I check the aircraft and make sure everything is all good, then ensure all the passengers are at ease. Flights are only in the morning and last 40 minutes to an hour…it’s great because tourists are always happy and excited to be flying, and the experience never disappoints. I have been on a hot air balloon anywhere between 600 and 700 times. I finish with the office stuff at about 11:30am to midday, and that’s a full workday for me…every day of the week. We’re in a tourism destination so no weekends. I do this for 10 months then go on holiday for two months.
So where do you travel to on your two months off-work?
We love cities, and have visited a few in Europe and America, etc. We also share a love for historic sites and will check out museums, monuments and the works… we have a list of places on our bucket list still. Rome and Scotland were both all round beautiful, but usually at the end of our travels, I still want to get back to my bush life.
How does a city girl adjust to life in the wild?
I just got used to it. When I came here as an intern in 2007, I was busy working and didn’t get to go out much to experience the Mara. Over time, though, I befriended the tour drivers and would go out on game drives with them or clients to unwind on my days off, and that’s how I fell in love with the bush. My husband also first came here in 1986 when he was about 6 years old and fell in love with Maasai Mara, so when we met, we both loved being out here. I have moments when I will run to Nairobi because I miss concerts for instance…I’m always looking out for the next Blankets & Wine or Koroga Festival. I wish we could have more of those in the Mara but it will never happen. Being a social butterfly, sometimes I struggle being out here so it’s fun to catch up with friends in the city. Plus I still get to meet people from all over the world so that’s one fun aspect of the job.
How would you entice someone in Nairobi to visit the Mara?
Driving into Narok town…it’s wheat season this time of the year so that’s beautiful to look at.The drive to the gates is very scenic because of the escarpment. Mara is now accessible with the new road and there are amazing places to stay depending on your budget, whether that’s a basic place with at least a pillow or something more luxurious. There is also the safari and other activities like ballooning and nature walks…