Hot-Air Ballooning in South Africa
It’s a painful 4:30am when I hear the alarm go off and I immediately forget where I am and what I am doing. Why am I waking up at this time?! Oh yeah, that’s right, I’d agreed to go hot-air ballooning!
I peel myself from the achingly comfortable double bed in the amazing Four Seasons on WestCliff, Johannesburg, and head down to reception to board the bus. We depart on the hour and a half journey to the ‘Cradle of Humankind’, so-called for its abundance of human fossils and remains, leading scientists to conclude that it must be where humankind as we know it began. I watch as the busyness of Jo’burg falls away and we’re met by a combination of lush green rolling hills and flat plains. Sometimes the landscapes are confused, with table-top summits appearing randomly on the plains; I later learn that this is where locals have been mining, digging for gold or platinum and then replacing the earth back on top again, forming strange flat-topped structures.
When we arrive, I’m met with a friendly smile and, in a South African accent, "Coffee?" I can't think of anything better at 6am, so gratefully accept! As I sip the coffee I hear the roars of the gas cylinders, pumping air into the balloon and slowly inflating it. I can’t help but wonder at the process and the idea of how this huge balloon is going to float 6,000 feet in the air, but nevertheless, soon it will be me in that wooden box, floating high above the ground.
From someone who isn’t that fond of heights, I’m slightly anxious, all for nothing however. Hot-air ballooning actually turned out to be a really surreal floating experience that was a beautiful way to move and more calming than anything I've done before.
Whilst graceful in the air, the balloon's landing arrangements are fast and furious. I’m informed by our guide that he actually has no control of direction, and he instead moves into wind currents to ‘influence’ where we are heading, with this being where the real control of the balloon lies. This is not something I want to hear while suspended 6,000 feet above the ground, but it's very impressive nonetheless. As we’re descending, the Land Rover is crashing through African bush to meet us, following the balloon's movements while radioing for guidance, ready to ferry us back to the lodge for a Champagne breakfast. After six trial lands to slow us down, we finally dismount, on the ground, and sideways.
In a whirlwind trip learning about the the amazing community of Soweto, seeing the sun set in the African bush with my very own eyes and fine dining on the Blue Train around Pretoria, there were quite a few moments that on any trip would have been hard to beat….but hot-air ballooning is definitely something I will never forget.
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