For someone who’s only experience with balloons to date has been the sort you get at a party, the idea of entrusting yourself to the vagaries of one very large one [and a little wicker basket] may be slightly intimidating.

Let me start by assuring you the basket isn’t so little after all, and ‘balloon’ hardly begins to describe the apparatus or the experience you will have as a guest of Bill Harrop’s “Original” Balloon Safaris. The Bill Harrop’s team were foolish enough to invite two clumsy ex-Irish dancers to view life from the topside. Here’s what happened-don’t worry, no one was seriously injured. I’ll even give you a spoiler- it gets very romantic very quickly.

Let’s start at the beginning, however. The beginning of any balloon safari is very early- you’re chasing the sunrise, after all- and given it was the depths of winter it was also very, very chilly. Driving the dark, winding roads near Maropeng and up to the launch site without even a GPS to guide our way [yes, we were being brave for a pair of girls who get lost in their own hometown], you may forgive my comrade in flight for opting to cocoon herself in a blanket despite being out in public. Fortunately, the route is well signposted, so we weren’t left to a bitter fate in the middle of the Cradle of Humankind. Finally turning in to see the warm, welcoming glow of a lit brazier in the parking lot was the first indication of good things- very good things- to come.

Even more enticingly, the Bill Harrop’s “Original” Balloon Safari team know how to get intrepid souls revved up to conquer the skies. Coffee, and then some more coffee, with a little extra coffee to finish. Admittedly, there was also tea and a delectable range of hot beverages to choose from, and friendly faces to greet us- but I say again, there was coffee. When you’d been startled from a sound sleep at 4am-we live in a town best described as far away and boring, for the record- by a frantic cell phone call because your alarm failed you, just to fling yourself at the skies come dawn, coffee is all you need.

There was also the balloon.

As we sipped our drink of choice on the toasty warm veranda of the Clubhouse, the team were very busy indeed. Ever so slowly below us, what unrolled as a colourful collection of fabric grew to a majestic balloon- just a little over twelve stories tall and delightfully bright in the quiet pre-dawn.

Then, it was time.

Getting into a hot air balloon isn’t, perhaps, as glamorous as you may have been led to believe. I, personally, was glad of it- the higher the sides, the less chance of my clumsy feet sending me tipping over them. Plus, who can say no to a helping hand from a handsome young man? The inside was decidedly cosy- well padded, and with a very unexpected touch of luxury, a comfortable seat. Marc, our pilot for the day, somewhat ruined the glamorous atmosphere when he pointed out it was there in case of a bumpy landing.

There was one more surprise before we took to the skies, however- an engagement! With the pale winter sun putting in a timid appearance, the gorgeous Clubhouse behind them, and the soft roar of our jolly aircraft ahead, what better time? She said “Yes”, by the way.

Sigh.

Meanwhile here I was, with only my blanket-adorned best friend for moral support, as my own romantic conquest was lurking at home, in bed, citing a morbid fear of heights as his excuse for missing the experience of a lifetime. Do note- I’m equally afraid of heights. Just not enough to miss out on this!
Romance aside, it was time for the safety talk. Do listen up here- although the hot air balloons are immensely safe, it’s still critical you know what to do on take-off and landing for your own comfort. With the burner occasionally roaring to life above you as you prepare for take-off, you’ll feel your own adrenaline rising to match.

As we started to softly rise, I have to admit I was slightly perturbed to note we were still heavily anchored to a nearby land rover. Were we about to make an impromptu spectacle of ourselves? Fortunately, the answer was no. We did clip a hay bale on the way up, however- it’s a badge of honour for the pilots to see how many they can tip in one flight. Just over my shoulder, the sun was finally rising, as were we. And it was breathtaking.

There’s a lot more to ballooning then just getting up in the air, however. Learn more about the adventure that is hot air ballooning in South Africa with Bill Harrop’s “Original” Balloon Safaris in the next instalment of this adventure. Be sure to get your own experience booked soon too, because believe me- it’s well worth it!