Helen Grange

I’ve flown in every kind of hair-raising contraption from a microlight to a helicopter. I’ve even been upside down in the Anaconda at Gold Reef City. But the thing I imagined to be the most benign – the hot air balloon – turns out to be the most devilishly frightening of them all.

Uninitiated, I thought the worst of it was having to wake up at 4.30am, which is the only time these colourful giants fly – and that’s only if there’s not a whisper of wind. Which of course is a good cause to wonder (and for some reason I never really have) about how beholden to the weather these things are.

So two of us scribes blithely clamber into the basket with four German tourists, just as the sun rises over the Magaliesburg mountains. It’s the smaller of two balloons, the other sardine-packed with fellow journalists on the Gauteng Tourism Authority’s launch of domestic tourism month at Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind. And off we set with a whoof of propane gas, gently lifting off and floating along with the valley airflow.

Light as a feather

This is the oldest form of flying – for humans anyway – and it’s just the best, I’m gayly thinking as I gaze down at the impressionist painting that the savannah becomes from this height. Like the lyric goes, ‘the world’s a nicer place, in my beautiful balloon’, even with the intermittent whoofs of fire to keep it afloat.

Then I notice we’re peeling off from the other merry crowd, who are drifting northwards while we sort of muddle around overlooking a hillbilly farm. We start drifting eastwards, the others out of sight, because by now they’ve landed. At lift-off somebody mentioned we’d be up here for 40minutes to an hour. Pilot Jan then announces, between two well-timed whoofs: “Erm, it looks like we’re on an extended flight ladies and gentlemen”.

Turns out we’re at the mercy of a side wind, which wants us to visit North-West at leisure. Twenty minutes later, his voice an almost imperceptible but definite pitch higher, Jan announces we’re going to land … in the middle of nowhere.  In a suikerbos field actually, scraping the top of a tree first. Somebody on the ground talks Jan into taking off again, because if we don’t, we’ll be sitting here in a basket for the rest of the day – like a bunch of oxygenating apples – waiting for our ground lift back to Maropeng.

So whoof, off we go again, sailing over a lot more savannah. I’ve got the measure of Jan by now, and I detect another slight elevation in his voice as he spots the tall pylon ahead.  Pilots have a patter, of course, and his is still intact. “Murphy’s law of ballooning says … whoof … that there is always the tallest object in the area … whoof … right in the line of sight …. whoof … of where you want to land.”

We miss it by a breath, and ahead is the Rhino and Lion Park, which is where we’re putting down no matter what – even if a low-flying, fast-moving bucket of humans would surely seem like Christmas x 10 for a pride of lions – because as Jan generously shares: “we have approximately … whoof …. three minutes worth of propane gas left.”

“Ok, get into your brace position now, because … whoof … this is going to be quite a fast landing. Stay in position because if we trail along rocky terrain… whoof … any injuries you may sustain will be minimized,” announces Jan to us brave aviators, pop-eyed and noticeably quieter. We’re on our haunches tucked inside the basket now, hanging onto the ropes for dear life. Touchdown is a bumpy, scrapey affair, followed by a gentle plop as we topple over. Great for just spilling out, which one fellow gets ready to do immediately. “No, no,” says Jan, in a shout this time. “You will upset the ballast.”

In other words, he’ll un-anchor the whole darned thing and off the rest of us will float again. “Give me lions any day,” I think as I eventually crawl out, legs wobbling and clutching onto good old terra firma. “At least the enemy is visible.”