By Stef Terblanche
The first time we “reported for action” early one bright and crispy morning at a hot air balloon launching site in Namibia, all of those in our party did so with considerable trepidation. None of us had ever before gone up into the skies in a small wicker basket dangling underneath a giant balloon, driven along by an open flame. In fact, our hearts could be heard beating in our throats.
But our concerns were all for nothing. The moment we gently started rising upwards and drifting away, all our nervous reservations were forgotten. The only sounds up here were the gentle swooshing sound of moving through the air, the soft sound of the burner and our joyous cries of amazement. In front of our eyes opened a vista of the world below us reserved only for birds…and hot air balloon trippers.
Soaring like an eagle
As the basket swayed at a slight angle and we drifted further and higher, the world below became smaller in its detail but larger in its panoramic spread. The sculpted, patterned sea of sand and dunes that is the magnificent Namib Desert, revealed itself to us in ways we had never seen before.
The opening scene of that wonderful movie, The English Patient, came to mind; of Count László de Almásy gliding over the Egyptian desert in an open double-winged Tiger Moth, with the rippled desert silently passing below. Of course, the Count’s plane comes to a fiery end as it crashes, but that was no longer a concern of ours. Our basket and its balloon were safe and wonderful, our pilot knew exactly what he was doing, and any thought of crashing was now the furthest thing from our minds. Sheer awe and amazement had fully taken over.
For anyone wishing to discover the astounding beauty of South Africa in ways they could never have imagined, my recommendation is to do so with a hot air balloon ride. It’s dreamy and gentle, graceful and slow enough so as not to miss anything in the world below. Or around you and above. I imagine it must be the same as for an African martial eagle as it lazily soars and circles high up in the sky, drifting on the air streams and propelled by gentle breezes, its keen eyes missing nothing on the ground far below.
For those who would like to try this superb experience, there fortunately are quite a number of hot air balloon operators and agents across South Africa and in the neighbouring countries.
Many rides to choose from
Hot air balloon operators in South Africa offer aerial experiences of such splendid natural scenery as the golden sands of the Kalahari and its wild animal population; the towering splendour of the Maluti Mountain range, part of the Drakensberg system at Clarens in the Free State close to the Lesotho border; or the sheer beauty of the timeless, lonely Valley of Desolation with is dolomite columns that rise high and precariously from the valley floor.
Or you can join the birds above Gauteng’s Cradle of Humankind to take in the Africa from where we all originally came. Another hot air balloon trip elevates you high above the Vaal River and the small town of Parys, and drifts across the more than 2-million years old Vredefort Dome, site of the largest meteorite impact on earth.
Other popular hot air balloon rides include the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands with its forest-covered mountains, valleys and rolling hills; the magnificent Champagne Valley at the foot of the Drakensberg Mountains; the outlying areas around Durban; and the Panorama Route near Sabie, at the sheer edge of the Great Escarpment of the Drakensberg range.
If you are in Gauteng, you could try the popular balloon ride that will take you across several of the game reserves located within the Cradle of Humankind complex, which allows you to do game viewing, including the Big Five, safely from up in the air. Another popular ride here traverses the Magaliesberg area where you will drift alongside and above the mountains, across the Hartbeespoort Dam, and all along the beautiful Magalies River Valley. Both are about a 45 minutes’ drive from Johannesburg and Tshwane.
Yet another awesome game-viewing balloon ride can be enjoyed over the Pilanesberg National Park departing from Sun City, allowing for absolutely the best way to view the park and its many animals.
Winelands, mountains and oceans
If you happen to be in the Western Cape and the Winelands are still on your to-do list, what better way to do it than seeing it all from a hot air balloon? The ride will give you a panoramic view of many of the Cape’s famous and historic wine estates with their trademark whitewashed, thatched-roofed Cape Dutch manor homes, surrounded by rows of vineyards, oak trees and rose gardens.
As you drift across the wine-producing valleys the Drakenstein Mountains rise high on one side, the Hottentots Holland Mountains on the other, with Table Mountain in the distance. You’ll also be able to spot two oceans simultaneously – the Indian Ocean of False Bay and the Atlantic Ocean of Table Bay.
If you find yourself in the Northern Cape, don’t miss out on the balloon rides that will carry you across parts of the Kalahari Desert with its golden sands and wonderful animal and bird life. Here you can see South Africa’s longest river, the mighty Orange River, in all its splendour from above, following it as it snakes its way through an ever-changing landscape full of surprises. In the far distance the Namib Desert lies on the horizon. The trip will also give you the best possible view of the Augrabies Gorge and world-famous Augrabies Falls.
Much further to the north of the country, at Hoedspruit, regular hot air balloon flights depart for one-hour long flights over the spectacular lowveld section of the Blyde River, where farms rub shoulders with private nature reserves and game estates.
Hot air balloon experiences are tailored to cater for a wide variety of events, from balloon safaris, to game viewing, adventure rides, scenic trips, romantic rides, and rides geared specifically for birthdays, anniversaries, engagements or other special events.
Most of the hot air balloon operators will throw in champagne or other liquid refreshments on board, with a champagne breakfast at the end of the flight, either in the veld where you have landed, or at a nearby hotel, lodge, game lodge or wine estate. Snacks are usually also available during the flight. Flights usually last about and hour, with some lasting up to about 3 hours, depending on the route, occasion and what terrain or sites are covered. Some offer packages that include overnight stays at game or other lodges.
You don’t have to be particularly fit to do this – if you can stand upright and climb into a basket, you’re ready to go. Because its such an incredibly gentle and tranquil experience, its also suitable for people of all ages, although children under the age of 12 are not allowed by some operators as they are too small to see over the sides of the basket.
Conditions and technology
Most flights require ideal weather conditions and, in some regions like for instance the Western Cape, flights do not take place during windy or rainy periods. The flights usually take off before sunrise when air temperature conditions are best suited to ballooning requirements. It’s all got to do with the air.
Essentially a hot air balloon is an aircraft that’s lighter than air. It consists of a balloon, also called a bag or envelope, which contains heated air. Suspended beneath the balloon is a gondola or wicker basket which carries the pilot, passengers and source of heat. The latter is a burner fixed to the top of the basket frame which has an open flame caused by burning liquid propane, and which is blasted into the balloon through an opening at its base. Many balloons will carry two of these for safety reasons.
The heated air inside the balloon causes it to become buoyant as it has a lower density than the colder air outside the balloon. Hence the early morning flights when the outside air is much cooler than the air inside the balloon.
Hot air balloon pilots can cause their aircraft to go higher or lower by increasing or decreasing the hot air being blasted into the balloon and can thus steer the craft. As the wind blows in different directions at different heights, they move the balloon up or down depending on the direction in which they wish to fly. The pilots have extensive knowledge of the prevailing winds and breezes, and the flow of the airstreams and their direction at different altitudes, and therefor are able to plot their routes accordingly.
So, how come the hot air does not escape out the hole at the bottom, causing the balloon to crumple and fold and send everybody crashing down to Mother Earth? Simple: the air inside the balloon near the hole at the bottom is at the same pressure as the surrounding air, so it serves almost like the cork of a bottle.
Ballooning is an extremely safe way of flying, and accidents are rare. Pilots and operators have to be trained and licenced and, in South Africa, are subject to regular checks from the Civil Aviation Authority. All hot air balloons operated for tourism in South Africa, make use of back-up equipment, have fire extinguishers, first-aid kits, a handling or drop line, and other safety equipment.
Hot air ballooning has a long history and tradition, and a hot air balloon was the first successful flight technology to carry human beings. The very first untethered manned hot air balloon flight was performed by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes on November 21, 1783, in Paris, France.
In South Africa, the use of hot air balloons dates back to the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 when they were used by the British forces for reconnaissance purposes. The first modern-day hot air balloon arrived in South Africa in 1969 and, because of its rapid popularity, by 1972 the Aero Club of South Africa founded a Balloon Section. Just four years later, 16 pilots took part in the first International Balloon Race from Johannesburg to Durban.
Today it is hugely popular with enthusiasts and tourists alike. Because there is such a demand and only a limited number of hot air balloons in operation, it is advisable to book a trip well in advance. Hot air ballooning is not always cheap, and prices vary considerably according to the duration and distance, type of event, extras thrown in and so forth, but can vary between R1,000 and up to about R8,000 per person, with discounted package deals for two persons or more (depending on how many the basket can take per trip). So it’s best to call a few operators and compare prices and what they offer.
Some local hot air balloon operators & agents:
Hot Air Ballooning SA – Info@hotairballooningsa.co.za; Tel: +27 11 802 4318;
Cell: +27 83 446 9423; website https://www.hotairballooningsa.co.za.
Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris – Tel +27 (0)11-705-3201; Cell +27 (0)83 443 2661/2662; web firstname.lastname@example.org.