There are many ways to spot wildlife on safari, from game drives to canoeing and walking safaris. But one of the most exciting ways to see lions, buffalo and wildebeest from above is from above with a hot air balloon. Kenya’s game-rich Masai Mara National Reserve offers hot air balloon safaris through companies like Balloon Adventure Keekorok, which was one of the first hot air balloon operators in the park in 1976. However, this is also where Kenya’s first female black hot air balloon pilot, Captain Joyce Beckwith, is based.
Beckwith always knew she wanted a career in transportation. Her parents owned a trucking business that mainly transported corn from Kenya to neighboring Uganda, and she grew up in the garage with her father on Sundays. “My dad wanted me to be a rally driver, so he taught me how gears work and laid me on his lap so I could ‘drive’,” she says. “[But] Those rally racing dreams came to an end when we crashed the car I was training in. “
Joyce Beckwith, Kenya’s first female black hot air balloon pilot
Instead, Beckwith turned to a career in hospitality and tourism – and a 2007 internship trip to Masai Mara was her first time seeing a hot air balloon. She later returned to the Mara, where her husband Dan worked as a hot air balloon pilot. Soon after their wedding, they took their father over the reservation in a balloon. “My father told me to ask my husband to teach me to fly a balloon because I can handle my hands well – especially mechanical work – and learn quickly, but I didn’t take him seriously at the time.” Says Beckwith.
Although she accompanied Dan on countless hot air balloon safaris, she had never taken the helm. “My interests were completely different,” she says. “I’m a wildlife photographer too, so I chose a photographic eye. But after a few hundred times in the balloon, I felt the urge to fly [for myself]. ”
Due to the shortage of hot air balloon schools in Kenya and Africa as a whole, Beckwith enrolled at the Airborne Heat Balloon Flying School in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2018. She was one of two Kenyans who participated in the program and the only Black African woman in her cohort. “The industry is similar to most of them in that it is male dominated,” she says. “I had to work twice as hard to get noticed and respected by my colleagues, but … the hot air balloon community around the world is very welcoming.”
Her first flight as a certified pilot on the Masai Mara was equally exciting and nerve-wracking. “I had the African world star Yemi Alade with me [who] I went to Masai Mara to shoot the music video of their hit single ‘Shekere’ with Angelique Kidjo, ”says Beckwith. “Once I was in flight mode, it was magical and I couldn’t have asked for better flight conditions. It was perfect.”
Beckwith is more likely to take guests on safari than musicians recording music videos, and says travelers will ask them to sign their travel certificates if they discover she is Kenya’s first female hot air balloon pilot.
A hot air balloon over the Masai Mara