I first experienced a balloon ride with Bill Harrop’s “Original” Balloon Safaris back in the mid-80s and loved the feeling of weightless floating. So it was with great enthusiasm that I accepted another opportunity in early July, decades later (well, there was an occasion in Canberra where I was treated to a short balloon ride but all that remains etched in memory is that we landed in a tree!)
The company has certainly smoothed some rough edges since those early days, where everything happened out in the open veld. It now has a smart, Edwardian-style clubhouse at its Magalies River Valley base in the village of Skeerpoort where coffee is served before daybreak, as guests watch the theatre of the inflation of balloons, taking shape as propane gas fires into them.
The clubhouse is big enough to accommodate the large groups that book the experience, many of them corporates rewarding staff or undertaking team building. One of my fellow passengers was able to participate thanks to a gift voucher from her employer, a cell phone service provider. Thereafter she was off to spend the morning at a Magaliesberg spa, courtesy of the same employer!
As the sun began to rise, we were all aboard the balloon basket – 12 of us, although they can accommodate as many as 18 (and there’s a fleet of six). Taking off was effortless – hardly knew we’d left the ground. For the next hour we glided, taking in the serenity of an early country morning.
Landing comes with a bit more of a bump – prior to take-off our pilot, Tracy, had briefed us how to position ourselves. After two or three bounces, we were down. Some radio communication between Tracy and ‘ground control’ meant there was a vehicle waiting on hand with some bubbly and orange juice, before driving us back to the clubhouse for a big, big breakfast. Staff also made a bit of a fuss in presenting passengers with a citation honouring their ‘bravery’ in attempting the flight.
Taking the trip in winter has the advantage of stable weather; in summer there’s a chance rain can cause a cancellation. Also, you start a little later, so you don’t have to set your alarm as early. But driving (45 minutes or so from Johannesburg’s northern suburbs to Skeerport) took place in pitch darkness, which was a bit stressful but achieved with helpful instructions from the GPS. I’d imagine, however, that the view in summer is more scenic.