Stephen Tompkinson’s African Balloon Adventure

Sunday, 7 June 2009, 8:00PM – 9:00PM

In this new three-part documentary series for ITV1, Stephen Tompkinson embarks on the journey of a lifetime across the African continent with a hot air balloon. His first hand experiences provide viewers with a colourful perspective on the amazing abundance and diversity of wildlife, but also the scarcity of some species, as he explores the relationship between Africa’s animals and its people.

Stephen has grown to love Africa during his four years filming the popular ITV drama Wild at Heart, and for him this is one of the most challenging and inspiring place on earth. His journey gives him the chance to discover more about this fascinating continent.

Inspired by Jules Verne’s first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, the documentary series follows Stephen as he travels coast to coast visiting Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia.

Stephen’s route takes him and his hot air balloon through the Serengeti, past Victoria Falls, and over the Okavango Delta before finishing his journey on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

But the nature of ballooning means he goes where the wind takes him, so the unexpected forms part of the adventure.

Stephen experiences everything from crash landings and close encounters of a dangerous kind to crocodile hunting and tracking wild elephants, all amid the spectacular scenery across the continent.

Stephen meets some Rwandan orphans, and visits a stately home deep in the African bush, gets close to mountain gorillas and gives some of the locals, including a Masai warrior a chance to see their land from the sky.

Stephen is accompanied on his journey by pilot Robin Batchelor, who has flown in 30 different countries and is an expert at ballooning in African skies.

Stephen’s African Balloon Adventure begins in Tanzania on the East Coast high above the Ngorongoro Crater, where one of the world’s densest concentrations of game [see above] inhabits an enormous extinct volcanic crater. They fly over the Layani forest and Stephen spots a herd of elephants below them. They can hear the splintering of trees as they elephants travel through the thick undergrowth. The cries of the mother elephants echo through the forest. Stephen is entranced by the sight of these magnificent beasts and says: “We would never have got so close to them on the ground.”

However in all the excitement of finding the elephants Stephen and Robin haven’t noticed that they have been blown seriously off course.

The only landing area seems to be the Ngorongoro Crater which is a strict government no fly zone – if they land there the balloon could be confiscated. There is forest below them and they are quickly running out of time. Robin spots the only possible landing area, a clearing which is not perfect due to the number of bushes and thorn trees surrounding it, but they have no choice and crash land in the bushes.

However they are about to have some luck – a group of Masai locals have seen the balloon landing and come to the rescue. They help Stephen and Robin carry all the equipment to the nearest road where the retrieval team meet them.

At the end of an eventful first day Stephen describes his feelings: “It almost felt like a perfect day – the Masai arrived en masse and it was a privilege to meet them all – the first of many memories I hope I’ll never forget,”

On the second day Stephen hopes to put what he describes as his ‘rudimentary veterinary skills’ that he has acquired over four years on Wild at Heart to the test. He joins the vets that look after the wildlife in the Serengeti National park, which is home to about four million animals.

Stephen and the chief vet are tracking a herd of zebra to take blood samples – a dangerous procedure as it means leaving the protection of the vehicles in order to take the samples – in an area where big cats abound. Once the blood sample is taken the anaesthetised zebra is given an antidote and quickly recovers – a little too quickly for Stephen as it heads towards him and he narrowly avoids getting trampled.

Most people come to Africa to get a glimpse of the ‘big five’- lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo and rhino – but Stephen meets up with a much smaller creature who may not look as magnificent but which has saved countless lives.

The African giant pouched rat has been trained to sniff out explosives and help locate landmines – one of Africa’s biggest problems.

Because they are so light they don’t set off the explosive charge so are in no danger – unlike Stephen who suffers a nasty bite when handling a rat called Survival.

The rats have not only helped locate landmines – they also use their sensitive sense of smell to sniff out diseases and are used in laboratories to indicate which sputum samples are TB positive.

Back in the Serengeti, Stephen wants to see more of the park’s famous wildlife but private balloon flights are not allowed so they take a commercial flight, with Mohammed, Tanzania’s first qualified balloon pilot. Stephen spots hippo and elephant from the balloon and they narrowly miss landing in amongst a herd of one hundred migrating buffalo.

Sharing the Serengeti plains with the animals are the Masai. This semi-nomadic tribe has already saved Stephen after the crash landing of the first balloon flight so in return he takes a local chief, Parakapurni, up in the balloon so he can see his land and cattle from the air. A mixture of fear and wonder is displayed on Parakapurni’s face who, on landing, thanks Stephen and Robin with a tribal dance inside the deflating balloon envelope.

Parakapurni tells the programme that he thought that it would be his last day on earth but once he had been on the balloon and landed safely everything was “superfine”. He had a “nice superfine experience”.

Finally on this week’s journey, Stephen continues further west, trekking high into the dense forests of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in search of one of earth’s most awe-inspiring animals – the mountain gorilla.

Gorillas are very reclusive but if anyone can find some it is the gorilla tracker .he has been studying the way gorillas communicate and teaches Stephen some basic gorilla sounds that will help them judge their mood.

Highly endangered, the gorillas are making a comeback with the help of the local community but, as Stephen discovers, if you get too close to the group the mighty Silverback will be sure remind you whose mountain you are on.

At then end of the first leg of the trip Stephen says: “My encounter with the mountain gorillas has been the perfect end to the first leg of my African balloon adventure.”

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