South Africa: Hot Air Ballooning over the Magaliesberg

Published 30 March 2016

Dawn Jorgensen

Hitching a ride in a hot air balloon isn't far from the top of everyone's Bucketlist. The Incidental Tourist blogger, Dawn Jorgensen, was lucky enough to tick it off her list whilst soaring over one of South Africa's most beautiful landscapes, the Magaliesberg.

We gather before dawn, hot coffee in hand huddled around an open fire we ward off the chill, watching as the vehicles arrive to offload their precious cargo. The team acts without words, each knowing exactly what to do. Stretching out the patchwork orange onto the lawn, connecting rope to basket, preparing gas for flame as our excitement builds.

It’s a first for me, a long-standing dream come true. I’m about to take flight in a hot air balloon.

The very notion of hot air ballooning smacks of romance, of a bygone era. Spanning over centuries it includes many firsts, the first human flight, and first crossing of the English Channel, first flight in North America, and is actually considered the safest aviation sport in history.

In South Africa it was the legendary Bill Harrop who brought us Balloon Safaris. Bill started his company in 1981, a pioneer that was soon to be followed by others, something that prompted him to change his company’s name to Bill Harrop’s ‘Original’ Balloon Safaris in 1992. An icon of the South Africa’s tourism industry, the company is owner managed by Bill and his wife Mary in charming style and old school fashion.

Working out of the Skeerpoort Country Base in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site near Hartebeesport Dam, we are gathered near the Clubhouse Pavilion watching pilots and crew ready the three balloons on the flood lit field. Held at a precise and perfect angle, the flame loudly propels hot air into the void, causing the balloon to expand and lift. Slowly you see it rise, take pride of place and stretch far and ever wider into the sky.

Once ready the pilot invites us to climb aboard and offers a short briefing. Then with regular bursts of hot air that left my face glowing from the heat, we lift off.

The basket takes 18 people in four stands, holding on to cameras and recording gear we watch the ground below disappear, the buildings shrink to a toy town size and the other two balloons join us in flight. Just like in the days of intrepid aviator explorers, we were flying over the beautiful Magalies River Valley, an area that boasts some of the best ballooning weather in the world.

The quiet differentiates this from other flight experiences. Punctured only by the occasional discharge of the powerful burners to keep us at altitude, it’s the wind that carries us ever forward. There's something surreal about the experience, the limitless views, the landscape changing from farmland to unspoilt mountain terrain covered in Highveld trees. A quilt of diversity seen from a bird’s eye view as the world awakens.

There we were, flying under an array of rich African colours; the bronze, red and orange flapping in the wind, the South African flag holding pride of place as we drifted lazily to the changing hues of sunrise.

Game could be spotted in the nearby game reserve, giraffes and antelope as well as playful warthog oblivious to our presence

Mostly, nobody speaks. Silenced by the beauty, matching the mood in awe of the moment, embracing the romance of this form of flight, trying not to drop phone or camera into the abyss that holds the world.

Sun up, after 60 minutes that pass far too quickly, we brace for landing in the shadow of the balloon, exactly where the wind has placed us. Met by a vehicle and trailer the basket is maneuvered onto the back and as we climb out and watch the crew pack up the vast colours, we‘re handed glasses of celebratory sparkling wine to enjoy before being driven back to the Pavilion for breakfast.

There’s a thrilled pitch to the voices as we share our personal highlights of the experience over a relaxed and abundant breakfast. For many of us, we’ve just live a long standing dream.

Armed with my ‘Citation for Bravery’, which Bill has presented with due ceremony, I float rather than walk back to the car for my onward journey, holding on just a little longer to the adventure of flight that has just had me soaring through the air.

Practical Advice:

Consider staying nearby the night before or arrange a transfer from your hotel. You don’t really want to be driving at such an early hour. Pack a camera, GoPro, binoculars, the views are incredible and you’ll want to capture the memories. You do need a basic level of fitness to be able to climb in and out of the basket. You stand for the duration of the flight and there can be a bit of a bounce on some of the landing. Dress warm, whatever time of year, it’s cold at sunrise.

Whatever you do, put hot air ballooning on your experience wish list.

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