Michael Bundgaard '65

Michael Bundgaard '65 ventures into-- and above--Africa

As hot-air balloon pilot R. Michael Bundgaard '65 nears the south boundary of the Taita Hills Game Sanctuary on his final approach to a landing, a herd of about fifteen elephants, including several babies, begins to walk at a leisurely pace away from the balloon's path. Since there isn't a fence, the wildlife is free to roam in and out of the sanctuary, but Bundgaard is not as free as the animals, and he is not permitted fly onto the adjacent property. He lands the balloon and waits, giving the elephants plenty of room to move away, as they don't like anything to violate their space.

Then the balloon's chase vehicles, three Land Rovers, approach and park on the boundary road between the balloon and the elephants, agitating three of the biggest male elephants. The elephants quickly turn on their heels and charge toward the vehicles. As the vehicles scramble out of the elephants' path, suddenly the balloon and basket are the target. "Elephants will attack a vehicle like it is a toy and ram their tusks through the windows like they are tissue paper," says Bundgaard. "You can image what they'd do to us standing in this open basket!"

The balloon, its air now cooled off, is not even close to being buoyant.

"My passengers couldn't believe their eyes," Bundgaard continues. "They had unexpectedly, like it or not, become bit players in one of those TV wildlife shows. Then, suddenly, as if on cue, the three charging males stopped, lifted their trunks in unison, trumpeted very loudly, and returned to their cows and calves, who were quietly grazing on the other side of the road."

While it couldn't be called a typical day on Balloon Safari, it is certainly one that Bundgaard and his passengers will not forget.

With the crisis over, six members of the crew pack up equipment while the crew chief and an assistant set up a picnic-style breakfast in the bush. Champagne (in this case, sparkling wine from South Africa), a ballooning tradition everywhere, washes down the meal of bacon, croissants, sweet rolls, fruit and fruit salad, cold broiled chicken, hard-boiled eggs, cheese and crackers, and kachumbari, a condiment made from shredded cabbage, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers that is a staple of the Kenyan diet.

For twenty-five years, Bundgaard and his wife and "co-pilot-in-life," Joyce (known in Africa as Mama J), operated a hot-air balloon school in Denver, Colorado, while selling and repairing balloons and instructing classes that often included commercial airline pilots learning about micrometeorology and the nuances of weather (he was a physics major at Kenyon).

In August 1998, the Bundgaards sold their business to their chief pilot and launched themselves towards retirement. "As much as we enjoyed the career in hot air, we felt it was time to do something else," he says, "but we had nothing in mind except perhaps to volunteer for the Peace Corps."

After traveling to Japan and France, they returned to Colorado, where they retreated to a semi-rustic cabin in the Rocky Mountains near Buena Vista for the winter. Their enjoyment of the nearby national forests was interrupted in March by an e-mail message from a former balloon student. He advised them of a job opening in Kenya, flying for Balloon Safaris. "Having visited Kenya two years previously, we knew how wonderful life in the bush was, and we accepted the offer immediately," says Bundgaard. "The job seemed ideal for `older' balloon pilots because the physical work, lifting and man-handling the basket and balloon, would be done by a full-time professional crew."

Within two months, the Bundgaards sold all their "toys"--sailboat, RV, and balloon--and moved to Taita Hills, owned and operated by Hilton Hotels International.

In Africa, unlike many other parts of the world, conditions are suitable for flying balloons only once a day, early in the morning. Strong winds and very quick sunsets make late afternoon flights impossible.

Bundgaard's day typically begins at 4:30 a.m. with African music on a CD player (a small nod to civilization) Joyce purchased in Nairobi. After a breakfast of fresh fruit and juice, and a quick check of e-mail, he dons his uniform and, with Joyce, drives his Land Rover to one of the two lodges in the sanctuary. If they have passengers staying at both lodges, then the crew chief goes to the other lodge to retrieve them. They all meet the crew with the balloon equipment at the central launch site (there are seven different launch sites in the sanctuary).

Soon, they're airborne. "Even though the flying is some of the most `technical' I've done anywhere," says Bundgaard, "I sometimes enjoy the feeling that I'm in balloon heaven."

Confined to their living quarters after dark, the Bundgaards enjoy spending hours in the kitchen. Sometimes, entertainment comes in the form of a campfire near the verandah where they can watch the wildlife head for the pond for a drink. "Relative to the history of civiliza-tion, venturing out after dark is a very recent phenomenon," Michael Bundgaard observes.

The Bundgaards' initial expectation was that they would remain in Africa for two years. However, business at the preserve has been substantially less than anticipated, and their contract was not renewed for the second year. Now back home in Denver, they are trying to readjust to life beyond the confines of a verandah. Joyce will continue her efforts to raise money for the Mama J. Africa Fund, an enterprise she started last year to "help people one at a time," and they are still considering returning to Africa as Peace Corps volunteers.

"We don't need to work for a paycheck," Michael Bundgaard says. "We know what living in the Third World is like for the people there, and we would enjoy continuing our work with them."


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