It was cold there in the desert before dawn, our lips blue, noses pinched. But we didn’t mind. Wrapped in warm jackets and beanies, we were about to soar in a hot air balloon over Sossusvlei in Namibia in time to see the sun rise over the dunes.
It takes seven guys about 35 minutes to unpack, unfold and inflate the balloon with butane gas, so they’d already been at it while we were stomping our feet to warm them, our breath smoky in the cold morning air. The gas flame heats the air inside the balloon so it’s hotter than the air outside, and that’s what gives it lift.
We clambered aboard while a team of Namibians held the basket down, grinning broadly in the dawn chill. The sun wasn’t up yet but pink shards of light were fingering their way into the sky between the clouds and the dunes.
‘For the first I’ll just ask you to bend your knees to absorb the shock of the landing,’ he said. ‘For the second you need to squat down with your backs to the front of the balloon, brace against the padded cushions and hold onto the rope loops provided. Understand?’
We nodded and murmured assent. The shy British couple looked scared, almost as if they were rethinking their madness in being here at all. I was secretly hoping for a sports landing, which sounded far more exciting, an adventure to brag about back home.
Then without fanfare we were up and off the ground. There was no sense of lift-off, we just suddenly found ourselves looking down on the tops of the heads of the men who a moment before had been standing next to us and holding the balloon down.
It was like being inside a dream, flying above the land and seeing everything from above, no plane window or wing breaking your view.
The first joy was the light. Bright red, orange, yellow, pink and lavender romped among the clouds as the sun came up over the far mountains. It was a surprise to be surrounded by mountains in what you tend to think of as a flat desert country. On one side red dunes with a thin veneer of grass, on the other a stony black mountain rich in magnetite; faintly mauve flat-topped mountains in the distance, surrounding a golden plain below.
Theories about their origin vary from to soil poisoning by euphorbia plants, to fungi, meteor showers, burrowing animals and – perhaps most likely – a chemical shed by termites. Of course, if you’re a bit kooky you may say they’re evidence of UFO landings, but for my money there’s no better way of thinking of them than as ‘fairy’ circles. Hundreds of them of various sizes made the land look like the surface of the moon.
I’d never really understood why hot weather wasn’t good flying weather. But it’s simple: in hot weather it’s hard to maintain the temperature difference between outside the balloon and inside. Since that’s what gives you lift, you aren’t going anywhere but down when the external air gets too hot.
We’d only just got used to being suspended in the sky when the pilot was on the radio talking about where to land, what the wind conditions were like and where the ground crew should position themselves to run and catch the basket before it took off again. An hour was too short, just long enough to discover how heavenly it feels to have the whole world laid at your feet yet near enough to see details like little ostrich chicks.
But with only an extra 30 minutes of fuel for emergencies, I did understand why we started towards the dune that would be our landing point. As we came in we could see the ground team gathered to catch and anchor us, a breakfast table spread with goodies sheltering on the other side of the dune.
At first Denis thought it would be a textbook calm landing. But as we approached the ground a mischievous little wind picked up and he ordered us to brace for the sports landing. We did. It wasn’t too bad, not much more than a big bump.
Thinking it was all over, a few of the travellers started to get up, but Denis told us to stay down. We soon saw why. The huge balloon had collapsed forward and a gust of wind picked it up and dragged it, so the basket with us inside tipped over and we landed on our backs. That was a small thrill and a totally relaxing way to end our flight.
‘Welcome to the biggest restaurant in the world,’ said Denis. An almost 360-degree view of Sossusvlei dunes and not another soul in sight. Magic.
The food was good but if you’d given me a choice I’d happily have gone hungry and spent an extra half hour in the air instead.
A balloon this big costs ‘about as much as a brand new Mercedes’ and it will give only about 700 hours of flying time. It takes about 200 litres of butane per hour to fly and each balloon carries enough for 90 minutes, allowing an extra 30 minutes spare in case of emergency.
So it’s not a cheap pastime and the cost of a ticket to fly reflects that at around N$5950/ZAR5950 per person (May 2017 prices). Obviously it’s less of a big deal for anyone with US dollars (it converts to about US$450), pounds or euros, but a huge stretch for Namibians and South Africans.
You’ll take to the skies as the sun rises over the world’s oldest desert. You’ll float over a wind-swept sea of sand in one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. You’ll enjoy the play of early dawn light over the mountains, see fairy circles and wildlife. You’ll know dreams can come true. And you’ll never forget the majesty of Sossusvlei from a unique perspective.
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