Attending the annual Indaba Tourism exhibition in Durban is always rewarding. For the last two years, I have bumped into Bill Harrop and Dave Atherstone of Bill Harrop’s Balloon Safaris. Both times, I have been invited to fly with them.
The only problem is they operate from Skeerpoort in Gauteng and I am based in Durban. Finally, a month back, I decided to combine a trip to Johannesburg/Pretoria with a flight with Bill Harrop. I am very glad I did.Situated in the Magalies River Valley, Bill has a very slick operation. Being an aviation related company, the organisation is subject to the very strict Civil Aviation Authority regulations. The CAA does regular checks on the balloon company and Bill welcomes those checks. He believes strongly in safety rules and adheres to them.Tuesday 16 September saw a very early start for me. Up at 04:15am and on the road at 04:45 for a rendezvous at the clubhouse near Skeerpoort at 05:45 where a cup of coffee and muffins awaited us. I must admit, this was my first flight in a balloon and I was really looking forward to it.
There were two balloons being prepared for flight – a large one and a smaller one. The setting was amazing – the sun just coming over the horizon and two balloons with a huge flame shooting up into the balloon – it made for quite a slight! We were called to climb into the basket as soon as the balloons had stabilized. Our basket had eight people and the larger one had 18 people. Our pilot was Bill himself and the other balloon was being piloted by an Australian, Brad Smith. Of course, there was much banter between the two pilots while we were still within shouting distance. We took off first and for the first 100 feet nothing happened. Suddenly though, we started moving towards the west and were soon about 500m away from the clubhouse. Bill had other plans though. He wanted to go east. We climbed a little to try and find a different wind direction and ended up going down to 50 feet before the wind patterned changed. It blew us back towards the clubhouse. Amazing how the wind direction changes from one height to the next – and in very small height differences. Meantime, the second balloon had found a nice wind much higher and was being blown south-west. Bill decided to follow them and we were soon at about 5,000 feet and heading south west towards the Hartebeeshoek tracking station.
During the flight, Bill explained how they are subject to check by the CAA and the balloons themselves are subject to checks much like an aircraft would be. Some repairs (on the balloon) can be done by Bill’s own team of people and major repairs are done by the balloon manufacturers. Each person in his team knows his or her task and they even overlap sometimes, helping out with launches and other roles. They seemed to me to be one very happy team. Bill uses a variety of instruments while flying but I did notice an iPad for navigation purposes with an app designed specifically for ballooning. A nice touch was Bill sending us a file, which can be opened in Google Earth and one can see just where the wind and balloon took us.
Time flies (excuse the pun) when you are having fun and Bill was soon looking for a good landing spot.
The second balloon had already touched down near the R400 road and Bill wanted to stay reasonably close to the second balloon. The ground crews were already in place along the road and Bill expertly drifted down to land near the road so that the crew could have access to the balloon and basket. There is nothing worse than landing on top of a mountain and having no road access to the basket (which weighs a fair amount) and the passengers having to hike down the mountainside. Bill explained that it had happened to him once and he had to charter a Bell Jet Ranger to recover the passengers and the basket and balloon. We’d been coached for a rough landing – “bend your knees and hold onto the rope handles” – but none of that was needed as Bill brought the basket to within 4 feet of the trailer – or was it the other way round… A ground crew member then pushed us into place and Bill landed on the trailer. Perfect landing!
As the ground crew retrieved the balloon and folded it up, Bill opened a bottle of champagne and we toasted a safe flight. Everyone on the flight agreed that the flight was absolutely amazing. Words like “fantasties” and “wonderlik”, “brilliant” and “peaceful” were some that I heard. The eight people on our flight were literally blown away. But that is what it’s about isn’t it. The wind blowing you one way or another.
We were taken back to the clubhouse by bus and then presented with a citation of bravery by Bill and Brad. Then followed a superb breakfast, which was a full English (and some) breakfast.
I recommend you wear a hat as the flame that shoots up into the balloon can get very hot on ones head. Also, on those winter days, wear a jacket as it can get pretty cold up there. Floating around with no burn going, it is really peaceful. It is undoubtedly one of the better ways to fly. Such a shame it doesn’t last that long – an hour goes past in a flash. I could have floated around for hours taking in the view.
Bill Harrop’s Balloon Safaris is highly recommended, not only for the safety aspect but also for the hospitality shown and that superb breakfast.