(Story & Pics Gareth Calitz) – Hot air ballooning has always been a bucket list item for me and finally I was given the chance to experience the oldest form of flight known to man. Dale de Klerk, the CEO of Bill Harrop’s “Original” Balloon Safaris, invited SA Flyer for a flight, and I jumped at the offer.

Awakening a sleepy giant.

HUMAN BEINGS HAVE FOREVER longed to join the birds in the vast open skies. French scientist, Pilatre De Rozier, could no longer resist the calling of the sky and so began work on the first hot air balloon.

On 19 September 1783 De Rozier launched his ‘Aerostat Reveillon’. However, he did not attempt the flight himself. Instead, he decided to test his balloon with some unwilling passengers: a sheep, a duck and a rooster made history as the first hot air balloon flight occupants. They stayed aloft for 15 minutes before crashing back to the ground.

The first manned attempt came just two months later on 21 November, with a balloon built by French brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. The balloon was launched from the centre of Paris and flew for 20 minutes.

‘The oldest form of flying known to man’

Hot air ballooning has a very limited daily flight window. Generally, in warmer areas, such as South Africa, the balloons are limited to around an hour’s flight at dawn, which means a very early start to the day.

My morning started at 4:30 am when I left home to make my way to the Hartbeespoort valley in the Skeerpoort area of the North West province. Despite the terrible condition of the roads, it was relatively easy to find Bill Harrops’ as it is clearly sign-posted from all the major routes in the area.

On arrival, everyone was warmly welcomed by the pilots and crew and offered a steaming cup of coffee or hot chocolate, accompanied by freshly baked muffins. In a large floodlit field we could see the crews busy preparing the four balloons that would be used for the day.

At 05:30 Chief Pilot Tracy Robb gave the order to begin the cold inflation of the envelopes. This is accomplished by blowing cool morning air into the balloons with two large fans placed on either side of the upturned basket. Once the balloon is partially inflated the huge gas burner mounted on the basket is lit and the balloon envelope then slowly starts to inflate enough to rise into the cool air.

Soon, all four balloons were fully inflated and ready to go. The passengers were boarded according to the strictly controlled manifest to ensure even weight distribution in the basket. Once the passengers were all aboard, the pilot gave a short briefing on the landing procedures. Landing can be quite a rough and tumble affair if the wind picks up. On our flight, however, there was barely a breath of wind.

Felicity Clegg, our pilot, coaxed the basket into the air with a few long bursts of the burners above her head. The balloon gracefully started to climb into the crisp morning air, moving with the light breeze towards Hartbeespoort Dam. Climbing a bit further we found a stream of air moving in the opposite direction and the balloon slowly changed direction and drifted down the valley in an easterly direction. The other three balloons remained relatively close to us; the perfect photo opportunity. Crossing the many rivers in the area was especially entertaining as the reflection of the balloon was visible in the calm water below.

We climbed to the 6500ft cloud base in search of wind blowing in the direction needed to take us to the landing site. The shadow of the balloon on the cloud below was interesting as a rainbow formed around the basket.

‘a rainbow formed around the basket’

The landing was as gentle as the rest of the flight with the basket slowly touching down and then lifting off for a few seconds before finally coming to rest. Once we were back on the ground, some of the passengers were requested to disembark as the huge mass of the still inflated huge balloon and basket, (with a mass of around 1000 kg but with almost no weight), were manhandled onto a waiting trailer. The rest of the passengers climbed out of the basket once it was safely tied to the trailer. I had to check my watch as I could not believe it had been an hour since we left the ground.

The crew started to pack the balloons up for the short drive back to base, but not before setting up the traditional champers and orange juice for the passengers. The passengers then boarded a minibus for a short ferry back to the restaurant for a scrumptious breakfast and the issuing of certificates of bravery for displaying ‘Courage and Fortitude in ascending where few other mortals would dare’.

Experiencing the purest form of flight was a great honour and experiencing it with the professional team of Bill Harrops’ ‘Original Balloon Safaris’ made it even more of a pleasure. The founder, Bill Harrop and his lovely wife Mary sadly succumbed to Covid-19 last year, but their legacy will no doubt continue to thrive under the direction of new owner and CEO, Dale de Klerk, and Chief Pilot, Tracy Robb.

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