The first experience of the hot air balloon safari is exhilarating.
Your pick up arrives when it is still dark. The sun has not yet risen and the temperature continuum is from comfortable to really cold.
We have been fortunate to do Balloon safaris in 3 countries – Egypt, Turkey & most recently in Namibia.
Luxor in Egypt
This was the first time, we were riding a hot air balloon. This was the year 2007. We crossed the River Nile in a boat and then drove to the open desert. The balloon ride had taken us over the River Nile over Luxor and grand views of the Valley Of the Kings, Karnak Temple and the temple of Queen Hatshepsut Temple far away.This ride ends with Arabic tea or coffee accompanied by sweet Arabic concoctions.
Cappadocia in Turkey
Cappadocia Hot air Balloon Safari was our second experience.The rock formations or Fairy Chimneys in Cappadocia are one of its kind in the world. They are the result of erosion by wind and flood water. They have a conical shaped body and a hard cap boulder on top.The flood water has eroded the soft rock (volcanic ash) in the lower portions. The hard basalt is less eroded and sits like a cap on top
This surreal landscape makes Cappadocia Hot air Balloon Safari very popular. As the balloon rises, you see fairy chimneys, vividly colored rock formations and sweeping curves on the sides of the valleys. The ride takes you over Goreme.
Sossusvlei in Namibia
This has been the most recent experience just last year when we travelled to Namibia. The hot air balloon safaris in Sossusvlei are operated by Namib Sky Balloon Safaris. Here you can gaze at the vistas of rusted red sand dunes in the Namib Naukluft Desert. We had read and seen the images of herds of gemsbok darting across the dunes. Alas we did not get that photographic opportunity! But we did see the mysterious “Fairy Circles”. These are perfectly circular patches devoid of vegetation and are only found in this desert. Several explanations have been offered till date like termites or absence of moisture, but my favorite remains the Extra Terrestrial theory.
The Day Before
Ballooning is completely weather dependent. Rides are cancelled and rescheduled to the next day in case of windy weather. The ballooning team will keep you informed wither the previous evening or sometimes even on the day of the ride.
Inflating the Balloon
As your vehicle reaches the open vista or desert, you will see hordes of men and women tirelessly working to inflate the hot air balloons. The balloons once inflated are the size of a 10 to 12 storied building. Colossal, fiery bursts gradually inflate the brilliantly colored balloons. You will also see high-powered fans inflating the balloon. This requires very skillful hands. These are strung to oversized picnic like wicker baskets or Gondolas, divided into compartments. The entire process is a great photographic moment.
The sides of the basket has rungs for climbing in and for holding during the flight. The pilot instructs you to climb within the basket after the balloons have been inflated. He or she will give you all safety instructions and make you do a few crouching exercises. And soon you will realize that you are off the land floating into the air.
As the balloon takes off, you feel a sudden lurch. Lo and Behold, you are up in the air! You start seeing a bird’s-eye view as you float up. You will see the sun peeking over the horizon and then rising high across the sky. Depending on the wind’s condition, the balloon flits and soars at various heights. It is a great feeling when you see feel the slowly rotations with the early morning draughts.
The pilot is always connected with the ground staff and the other balloons during the entire ride. He or she then selects a seemingly perfect landing based on the wind direction, time of the day and surface conditions. In Egypt, the high tension electric transmission cables were crisscrossed and our pilot drifted to very far from the planned landing spot.
Types of Landing
If the weather is calm and no winds, the pilot will instruct you to remain standing. This is an easy one as the gondola comes to rest on the ground smoothly. Both our Egypt and Turkey landings were smooth.
In Namibia, the landing was an experience in itself. The weather had become windy already, so our pilot instructed us to brace for impact and crouch down with our knees in a bent position. This reduces the impact. Not just that, the balloon turned sideways and dragged a while. The pilot and the ground staff were pulling the balloon with all their might and we were lying sideways and holding on to the harness with all our strengths. Then, we all crawled out . It was really exhilarating and slightly scary.
In Turkey, our gondola dipped on a small pond and skimmed the surface.
A breakfast buffet is laid out with a champagne toasting. At the end, the pilot recites the “Balloonist’s Prayer” and you will get a flight certificate. Meanwhile the ground staff pack up the balloon for the next day’s ride. The vehicles drive you back to respective hotels.
In our experience, Sossusvlei was the most grandiose of the celebrations. The ground staff and the owners of Namib Sky Balloon Safaris lay out an unimaginably sumptuous breakfast buffet spread with unlimited bottles of Champagne and Mimosas. Jerome (our Pilot) corked open the first bottle with toast to celebrate the flight’s completion and wishes for a honeymooner couple amongst us.
A few tips for the first timer
The first experience of the hot air balloon is exhilarating. In the thrill and anticipation, your mind may skip a few obvious details.
Wear only comfortable closed footwear like sneakers or boots with socks. Never wear heels or open toed sandals. The wind may take the balloon to an unfamiliar terrain (muddy or sandy or even wet fields) where you would land. Always be prepared for a surprise! My account will reveal more.
You need to wear comfortable clothing, preferably shorts or capris or tracks. You will need to climb in and out of the balloon basket and may need to also crawl out in some cases (like we had to do in Sossusvlei). As the balloon ascends to higher altitudes, it becomes a little colder other than in Egypt. I suggest wear layers, you can shed them off later. In case you are in warmer climes like Egypt, do remember to wear sunscreen. Full sleeved shirts and full trousers help especially with insects if you are riding in forest areas (Eg: Kenya)
Please do carry a cap or a hat. Firstly, the burner is on top of your head and blows out gusts of hot air. It does feel good on cold days like in Sossusvlei. Secondly, the sun will be up soon as the day progresses.
You can wear a pair of well fitted shades. Make sure your glasses (prescription or shades) are well fitting. If they are loose, well you will never see them again as gravity takes them plummeting down to the ground.
A full frame DSLR with a wide angle lens will give very good results. For crop sensor DSLR, a similar wide angle lens suited for a crop sensor will help (e.g. Canon 7D with a 10-18mm zoom lens). A 50mm f1.4 / f1.8 lens will also suit the conditions. It will be dark initially and you will be witnessing the sunrise from the balloon. So a lens that supports lower f number will be helpful.
For more experimental individuals, a fish eye lens on a crop sensor DSLR can produce interesting results. Depending on your area of interest, if you want to capture the odd Oryx wandering in the desert, you might use a telephoto zoom lens. The minimum telephoto zoom required for a reasonable picture from that height will be a 400mm lens.
Use the Restroom at the launch site or your hotel. Once the balloon takes off, there will be no rest areas!
You have to be moderately fit for this experience. There are 4 – 6 compartments in a Gondola or balloon basket . 4 adults fit in a compartment. During Takeoff and / or landing, you would need to crouch down in an extremely small space. You will be standing for the entire flight. Depending on where the wind takes you, you may have to land and walk out in an open field. Or you may have to crawl out of your basket (we did that in Sossusvlei).
I would not recommend this ride for anyone with Hip, Back or Knee Problems or Ear problems or who have undergone surgery recently.
Children at 4.35 feet and above are allowed for this ride , basically above the height of the basket .
How long does it take?
A Balloon Safari takes approximately 3 – 4 hours. The balloon ride is for 45 minutes to an hour. Almost always, the experience ends with an exclusive Champagne Breakfast. The best spread we had of course was in Sossusvlei.
How much does it cost?
A Balloon Safari is always expensive. There is always a huge crew involved in the ground not just the pilot. The pilots are very experienced with hundreds of hours of flying experience. The ground staff vehicles keep following the balloon. And the Champagne breakfast spread is huge.
These were our costs in the 3 locations:
Luxor balloon price in Egypt – 70 US Dollars (in 2007) now this has gone to about 100 Dollars
Cappadocia Hot Air Balloon Price in Turkey – 125 Euros (in 2009) now this has gone to about 150 – 160 Euros
Hot Air Balloon Sossusvlei Cost in Namibia – 4950 Namibian Dollars in July 2017 , this year it is 6500 Namibian Dollars
We did not ride the Hot air balloon in Kenya.
If you have never been on a Hot Air Balloon Safari, I recommend this as a must inclusion in your next travel. It will remain stamped in your memory for ages. For honeymooners, I can promise you that it is one of the most romantic trysts with your partner. This is a truly unforgettable voyage with superb photographic opportunities and lasting memories.