Things A Canadian Loves About South Africa: Unbeatable Balloon Safaris

In keeping with my promise to post 10 things I love about South Africa before I’m allowed to complain again, here’s number 5… writes Phil Maloney from Maple and Marula. One thing I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid was to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground, thus eliminating the possibility of plummeting to my untimely demise.

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This is what balls a.m. looks like. The balloons haven’t woken up yet, either.

For most of my life, I’ve managed to succeed in this endeavour, with the exception of a few (several) plane trips. But when my wife decided to have a birthday (AGAIN), I decided to strap on some adult diapers and book a hot air balloon trip with Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris out by Hartbeespoort Dam.

To be fair, I didn’t do it because I love my wife and wanted her to have a memorable birthday. I did it because I thought it would make a dope blog post.

Mostly, though, I just wanted a few hours away from my kids. The Kraken wanted to go, but she was too young. The Potato is old enough, but he’s saner than we are and took a hard pass on the offer. Shame.

The thing about hot air balloons is that they can be terrible at keeping people alive if there are strong winds, but there is virtually no wind first thing in the morning, so we had to be at the clubhouse at approximately balls a.m. to catch our ride into the ether.

We were greeted by none other than Bill Harrop himself, who joked and laughed like only a true psychopath would at that time in the morning.

After we got our boarding tickets, we were invited to grab some coffee, hot chocolate, tea, or our chance to flee while we still could.

We ended up not fleeing:

I guess I really didn’t know what I expected, but the basket was quite cosy. Although Bill has several different balloons of varying sizes, we were in one that had room for 16 people, plus the pilot.

There are no bad spots, and you don’t have to jostle for position – 4 people fit into each compartment, and each person has their own spot along the railing.

This is perfect if you want to puke.

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Not ready to induce vomiting yet.

I have to admit that I was surprised at how well organised the whole thing was because, you know, South Africa.

We were fortunate enough to have THE Bill Harrop as our pilot that day, which apparently isn’t as common as it used to be. As best as I could tell, Bill’s entire life has been devoted to 2 things: ballooning and accumulating a vast repertoire of jokes, which were hilarious to us, but based on the fact I heard 2 repeats in 3 hours, were well-recycled. It didn’t matter though – his enthusiasm was contagious, and I almost forgot about the fact I’m deathly afraid of heights.

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If I kept looking up, I couldn’t look down.

As I waited with my everything clenched in terror, one of the crew members walked up and said, “If I told you, you were floating right now, would you believe me?”

And so we were.

Lift off was so incredibly gentle and smooth that I didn’t even notice when we started hovering a few inches off the ground.

And just like that, we were off.

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The view looking down at the clubhouse and restaurant.

Have you ever wondered how they steer hot air balloons? They don’t. Not really, anyway. There’s no rudder or motor or anything else that might make sense. Air currents flow in different directions at different heights, so hot air balloon pilots go up or down depending on which direction they want to travel. If that seems kinda sketchy, that’s because it totally is.

But statistically, you run a higher risk of being chased by a shark riding an elephant through a crowded city street than dying in a balloon accident. Or something like that. The point is, it’s one of the safest things to do in the sky.

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What could possibly go wrong?

When you’re floating in a hot air balloon, you don’t hear anything other than Bill’s jokes and the occasional blast of fire required to ascend. It’s incredibly peaceful, even if you take into account my sobs of terror.

I really had to resist the urge to pee over the edge at this point.

Another thing you notice quite quickly is that you feel no breeze. None. Which makes sense, because you’re floating with the wind, not fighting against it.

Bill took us low, just barely skimming over some treetops. And Bill took us high, too.

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I barely even screamed like a little girl.

We drifted down the Magaliesburg Valley, and as you can probably imagine, the views were stunning.

Almost as stunning as my mirror.
OK, maybe just a LITTLE more stunning than my mirror.

We could see Johannesburg and Pretoria off in the distance and the Magaliesberg Mountains on either side of us. The view was absolutely breathtaking.

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Or maybe I was just hyperventilating. Tough to tell, really.

We were the lead balloon, and another pilot was behind us with another group. We got stuck in a current and overshot our landing, forcing Bill to go back up to find another spot. The second pilot saw that we weren’t able to land where we wanted and tried a different approach, which worked out well for us because we got to watch them land.

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Like this.

There was a ground crew waiting with a pickup truck (or bakkie) to catch and load the balloon and a van to transport the passengers back to the clubhouse. It was incredible to watch how skillfully the pilot brought his balloon down and how effortlessly it seemed the ground crew guided the balloon safely onto the trailer.

As the second balloon was being unloaded, we drifted into a nearby field where our own ground crew was waiting.

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The crew pulled the thingamajig, opening the hoo-haw and letting the hot air escape from the top of the balloon.
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The ground crew doing their thing

After waiting a few minutes for the balloon to deflate, we all climbed out onto the field, where champagne was ready to celebrate our flight (and orange juice for those who wanted to ruin their perfectly good champagne).

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She ruined her perfectly good champagne
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I didn’t

While we relaxed, the crew quickly packed up the balloon and loaded it all into the trailer.

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I almost offered to help, but it looked like a lot of work
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At this point, I was still not helping

We all piled into the van and drove back to the clubhouse, where breakfast was waiting. I anticipated some toast and a few sad eggs. But just like everything else on this adventure, our expectations were blown away once again.

There was a huge spread of eggs, sausages, bacon, potato thingies, pancakes, cheese, crackers, more champagne, porridge with whiskey (you read that right), and my personal favourite, salmon with cream cheese and capers. Bill doesn’t half-ass anything.

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This is a man who full-asses everything

As we were finishing breakfast, Bill and his team gave a lively speech and presented us with our certificates of bravery for our morning adventure. It was a nice touch to cap off the day.

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You can choose from several different packages, including flights over a nearby game reserve or private flights. The one we chose was R2050 per person, and while it wasn’t cheap, it was certainly worth every penny. If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I would highly recommend contacting Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris.

hot air balloon

*all opinions in this review are totally my own. Mostly because I never get offered free crap, and I pay full pop for everything I do. (And SAPeople isn’t getting paid either!)

By Phil Maloney

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