Science, art and, above all -- romance
Hot-air ballooning remains an icon of accessible adventure. A romantic anachronism, the hot-air balloon is also an aircraft capable of trans-continental flight, its use subject to aviation rules, and its operation a marriage of science and art. These days, pilots have an intimate knowledge of winds and weather patterns and make use of hi-tech instrumentation such as altimeters, vertical speed indicators, temperature guages , satellite positioning systems and two-way radios. Yet, reliant on the wind for directional flying, a degree of unpredictability is still at the heart of its appeal.
The first hot-air balloon to rise in South African skies went up in 1885 -- 102 years after the brothers Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier demonstrated in the French village of Annonay the "miracle" of aerostation with their unmanned, smoke-filled "envelope" carrying a duck, a rooster and a lamb. The sport only started gaining popularity here nearly a century later. The first locally-built balloon took off in 1977, which was also the year of the first ballooning championship in the country.
"Many pilots see themselves as upholding a tradition of daring and flamboyance. Ballooning's contemporary survival tales -- like the rainbow-blossom craft, the fraternal badges and the champagne -- are part of the sub-culture." -- Chris van der Merwe, South African adventure tour operator
Depending on conditions and pilot skill, balloons can take off and land almost anywhere -- from urbanised environments like Hartbeespoort Dam in the Magaliesberg near Johannesburg to the 50 000 Pilanesberg National Park next to Sun City.
Weather permitting -- and that's almost every day -- a balloon goes up at Skeerpoort in the central Magaliesberg. The early-morning flights take place in an area renowned for having some of the finest hot-air ballooning weather in the world, and some of the best scenery in peri-urban South Africa. During the flight, passengers see at a glance most of the 120 km-long spine of the Magaliesberg escarpment, 100 times older than Everest and with summits 100 m higher than the surrounding plains. Carried closer to the towering quartzite cliffs, they may may also briefly share a thermal updraft with Cape vulture, or other birds of prey. Flights last about 60 to 90 minutes; the total duration of a hot-air-and-chilled-champagne safari is six hours at the outside, including transfer time. Not far away, there are regular flights also over the Swartkops Mountain Gorge at the edge of the Magaliesberg. Balloonists typically pass over the local lion and rhino park.
"The rising sun creates some dazzling effects as it filters through the scattered clouds. We cast a clear shadow on one below us, and there's a rainbow aura around the basket" -- Derek Watts, co-presenter of the investigative South African TV programme, Carte Blanche
Scenic Mpumalange Province, with its Drakensberg Escarpment, Blyde River Canyon, perennial rivers, abundance of waterfalls, forests, dozens of conservation areas and picturesque historical towns is also prime ballooning country. Flights take off from various venues -- usually a charming guest house or lodge -- depending on the weather and client preferences.
The Western Cape also has the scenery and, at least for part of the year, the weather for ballooning. There the added attraction is the cultural-historical heritage: the wine, the traditional cuisine and lovingly restored old buildings used for tourism. A typical winelands ballooning excursion in the mountainous Wellington region, for instance, would combine all of that.
"I am naturally a coward... Then why go up in a balloon? (It's) to swing in the air far above petty jealousies and heart burnings, and small ambitions and vain parades -- and feel for once tranquil as a babe in a cot..." -- Henry Mayhew, 19th century British journalist.
Two major wildlife sanctuaries in North West Province are a hot-air balloonist's playground. Pilanesberg National Park covers an area of 50 000 ha. The aerial perspective allows passengers to see it clearly for what it is: a huge, extinct volcanic crater. Animals likely to be spotted during low-level flying are elephant, black and white rhino, buffalo, cheetah, giraffe and zebra. The excursion ends with a full lunch at Bakubung Lodge inside the park. The 75 000 ha Madikwe Game Reserve on the Botswana border has more recently also started to host balloonists. A range of wildlife comparable to Pilanesberg's can be seen there.
Ballooning can be an active sport, so guests should have a degree of agility, although operators report having taken up passengers ranging in age from three to 89 years old! Even people in a wheelchair can now share the gondola for the flight of their dreams, provided weather conditions are absolutely perfect.