It’s the oldest form of flight. And perhaps its most graceful incarnation. Indeed, hot air ballooning could be described as the pinnacle of mankind’s sortie into the skies – the honest-to-goodness grandfather of modern flying.
One thing is for certain, it’s exhilarating, awe-inspiring and, curiously, amazingly tranquil. Floating gently a few hundred meters above some of the most beautiful scenery Gauteng has to offer there is, surprisingly, no wind.
“That’s because we are moving with the wind,” explains balloon pilot Adam Fillmore, whose company Air Ventures offers a range of hot air ballooning activities over the magnificent Cradle of Humankind in the heart of South Africa’s majestic Magalies mountains.
This particular aerial adventure starts way before dawn with a 4 am wake-up call ensuring prompt arrival at the meeting point for a pre-sunrise departure. The meeting point in this case is the beautiful Kloofzicht Lodge, although at 5.40 am the countryside is still shrouded in a cloak of darkness, so there’s not much of a view!
It’s here that Air Ventures’s luxury mini-buses collect the day’s aerial adventurers, ferrying them the short distance to the nearby Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve where, in the cleft of a beautiful valley, two enormous brightly coloured envelopes of material are slowly being filled with hot air from equally enormous burners, whose flames light up the pre-dawn horizon.
A table laden with piping hot coffee, tea, hot chocolate, muffins, biscuits and even some tempting Amarula (delicious in both coffee and hot chocolate I am told!) takes pride of place and is the pre-flight focal point for passengers. It’s a welcome respite from the chill winter morning air.
Once the balloons are almost inflated, Adam directs us on the easiest way to climb into the baskets which, for the next couple of hours, will be the only thing between us and terra firma.
And baskets they still are. In spite of the trend for “fake” whicker, it’s marvelous to see that what we are riding in resembles an old-fashioned bread basket, albeit slightly more sturdy and somewhat larger.
In this case, large enough for eight passengers and Adam, as pilot.
Before we “blast” off, so to speak, there are a few ground (or should that be “air”) rules from Adam, and a complete briefing on the next most important maneuvers after take-off/landing.
“You need to brace yourselves,” he explains, giving a demonstration of how we need to turn with our backs to our landing spot, wedge our backs against our whicker compartment, slightly bend our knees and tuck in our heads.
“A good landing is one where we don’t bounce,” he directs. “A bad one is where we bounce quite a bit!” Giggles and chortles subside and we prepare for our departure.
A few blasts from the burner tops up the hot air before the balloon begins its graceful ascent. And curiously all angst, born from anticipation no doubt, falls away as quickly as the ground does.
The burner keeps us warm as the views become steadily more breathtaking, with the sun slowly rising above the Cradle of Humankind, revealing pockets of mist between hills which shimmer like a secret ocean, only visible from above.
Slowly we drift over the game reserve, going where the wind takes us, gently shadowing the contours of the ground beneath us, watching as an array of wildlife is revealed to us from our position on high.
Kudu, eland, rhino… they all drift past beneath us, unaware of our presence. It’s a magical experience. And one which is definitely on top of the list of aerial pursuits offered in South Africa.
Ballooning is not an easy business to run, though, as Adam explains. “There are strict rules and regulations involved. In fact, we are registered with the Civil Aviation Authority and have to abide by the same rules and regulations which govern commercial airlines,” he says.
“We use the latest and safest equipment which has to be maintained to the highest safety standards and our pilots, myself included, are well qualified and experienced, ensuring a safe and memorable flight.”
Adam also explains that because a hot air balloon has no real directional control, it is up to the pilot to use the various wind directions, found at various altitudes, to direct the balloon to a safe landing area. Because of this, each flight is different and an adventure for everyone on board.
And because the balloon never lands at the same place from which it launched, a very important aspect of the balloon flight comes into play, which is the “retrieval team”.
As soon as the balloons become airborne, two vehicles – one a 4×4 with trailer from which the balloon was unloaded and the other one of Air Ventures’ luxury passenger buses, start to follow the balloon.
Throughout the flight the pilot stays in radio contact with the ground crew, giving them instructions on the best roads to take to follow the balloon.
“On landing, the retrieval vehicles will usually be moving onto the landing site and asking for permission from the landowner to pack up the balloon,” says Adam. “On very calm mornings, with much skill from one of our experienced pilots and the retrieval crew, the balloon will be landed onto the trailer!”
After landing comes the celebration. A certificate to commemorate the flight is handed to each passenger and a table decked with champagne and orange juice is laid up, so that all adventurers can toast their amazing experience while the crew pack the massive balloon into a bag that doesn’t look as though it could fit even half of the balloon into it!
The luxury bus then whisks everyone back to Kloofzicht Lodge where a superb five-star breakfast buffet awaits.
Flights take place every day at sunrise, weather permitting.
The passenger balloons accommodate between eight and 10 passengers per balloon, allowing each passenger one on one interaction with the pilot, giving the flight an intimate, exclusive feel to it.
Of course, this kind of aeronautic experience is perfect for romantic occasions, and so exclusive flights are offered to couples in a smaller, cosy balloon which, according to Adam, has seen its fair share of marriage proposals!
It’s certainly one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had, and is something I would definitely do again, in a heartbeat.