Bill Harrop is a vivid personality in South Africa’s travel industry – quick to liven up a meeting with a witticism or quirky comment. Frivolities aside, he’s never been afraid to dream large, and is today synonymous with having introduced commercial hot air ballooning to the country some 34 years ago.
If we flash back to 1972, we’d find the England-born Harrop working in Bermuda as a hotel management trainee-cum troubadour. By day he’s learning the art of providing customer service to tourists, and by night he’s strumming his guitar in bars and clubs. One of his musical performances even draws a compliment from Diana Ross. On weekends, he slakes his thirst for adventure by sailing yachts and speed boats.
Fast forward to the mid-70s when the young Harrop, now married to Mary, stops in South Africa for a look-see, and never leaves. The couple sell penny stocks, then fire extinguishers and later carpet cleaning and flooring services as they establish themselves. Now residing in landlocked Gauteng, Harrop samples other activities to satisfy his adventurous side. He finds an attempt at fixed-wing aircraft training to be “the aerial equivalent of riding a battered Volkswagen.”
It all changes one day in 1976 when a hot air balloon flies over the Harrops’ Randburg home and lands nearby. Harrop literally chases after it – the pilot is Terry Adams, one of the world’s top balloonists, participating in the first balloon rally to be held in South Africa, which kicked off from the old airfield at Baragwaneth, Soweto. Adams then teaches Harrop to fly.
In no time, Harrop is hiring balloons from Adams and taking paying passengers on flights. Then comes a call from civil aviation authorities – Harrop remembers the date because it was April 1, no less – advising him that he needs to be licensed. As he waits out the licensing period, Harrop researches best locations for a commercial balloon flight operation.
He opted for the Magaliesberg River valley, which not only offers excellent weather conditions year-round, but scenic beauty. The ancient mountain range is also just a short drive from Johannesburg. Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris is born.
Ballooning has to be the most seductive form of sightseeing. At daybreak, when the air is stratified and before the earth heats up forming thermals, the motion is controlled and gentle, a weightless floating – if you closed your eyes you’d hardly discern any movement.
Soaring a kilometre above the earth, you fly at a level where landmarks can still be identified. Harrop’s flight terrain includes the Segwati Game Reserve, Hartbeespoort Dam and the Cradle of Humankind, giving guests sightings of game, water and an age-old landscape where modern humans first stood upright. The activity is the safest of all aviation pursuits too, and injuries are rare.
Harrop’s balloon experience begins at dawn – between 05:00 and 06:30 depending on the season. The launch site is at the company’s Skeerpoort base, 45km north-west of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. There’s freshly brewed coffee and just-baked muffins as passengers watch flight preparations from the patio of an Edwardian-style clubhouse. A ‘whoosh’ signals the lighting of propane gas burners which blow into billowing piles of rainbow-coloured cloth, shaping them into magnificent orbs.
Instruction on boarding and safety are given, and the flights last an hour or so. A bottomless glass of local bubbly is served in flight or on landing, which, according to the company literature, takes place “always in the shadow of the basket, wherever that may be.”
Passengers are returned to the clubhouse by vehicle for a slap-up breakfast, where a menu highlight is Harrop’s take on Northumbrian oatmeal porridge – “with a pinch (of salt), a sprinkle (of sugar), a dollop (of cream) and a dribble (of whiskey)”, he quips. Passengers leave with a citation marking their “courage and fortitude to ascend (as few other earthly mortals would dare) up in to the aether…in an aerostat floating on the gentle zephyrs over the vast continent of Africa.”
The experience is pricey, and as such a bucket list item. Many of Harrop’s customers book it as a celebratory activity, to mark a significant birthday or anniversary, or to ‘pop the question’. Ballooning is also widely used for corporate team building or incentive events. Mindful of budgetary constraints, Harrop markets the Bill Harrop Original Safaris as a five-star product, but also offers two other brands – Cloud 9 Balloon Rides, a four-star experience for “high flyers at down to earth prices”, and the no-frills Action Balloon Flights offering the best possible prices without compromising on safety.
All operations represent a sizeable investment in the South African travel industry. Harrop owns six balloons accommodating 3 – 20 passengers and costing between R1million and R2million. They must be transported by a fleet of vehicles and trailers, and each carries a hefty insurance ticket of up to R26million. Their maintenance warrants one-and-a-half engineering staff, while maintenance of aviation instruments is sub-contracted. The monthly order of propane gas amounts to over 10 tons. Permanent staff number 23, including three pilots selected for their safety records, people skills and company-mindedness. Some staff members have been afforded overseas training on Harrop’s account.
In coming weeks, Harrop will host his 100 000th passenger. The peer review website, TripAdvisor, has just conferred a Certificate of Excellence on Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris. The award recognises entities that consistently earn great reviews from travellers.
After three-and-a-half decades gliding around the Magaliesberg skies, Harrop plans to step back in years to come. For the moment, his eye is on perfecting systems and enhancing company culture, so that the business remains profitable and sustainable. He is also heading up an initiative by the adventure tourism industry to self-regulate, based on best practice scenarios from around the world. “But, I will never be out of touch with the coalface,” he promises.