Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 8

20 11 2008

“Okay now, everybody take a deep breath…then blow….”  (Sossussvlei, Namibia)

Some balloon flights are full of hot air.


We watched the enormous glowing beacon of colour take shape and slowly rise from the desert floor in the pre-dawn darkness. The balloon flight was to take us over the ancient Namib desert and the mighty Sossussvlei dunes that tower hundreds of metres into the arid sky.  We were to coast silently over the flowing sands and experience a new perspective of the dramatic landscape we had previously only explored on foot and by vehicle. Barring coastal fog, we might also see the Skeleton Coast and Atlantic Ocean beyond.


With the sun splintering along the horizon, we climbed into the enormous basket. The burner roared, the lines connecting us to terra firma were severed and we lifted into the still air. We soon reached our optimal altitude and, opening a flap in the canopy to release some of the hot air, we levelled off and sat silently well above the desert.


As far as our eyes could see stretched the ambers, ochres and tans of the Namib. There was little evidence of humanity beyond the few park service buildings, our campsite and a road or two all directly beneath us. Those apart, there was nothing but endless desert. The peaks of the mighty dunes we had struggled to climb the previous evening rose from the floor into a rolling tide of sand that seemed to threaten to engulf all in its path. I snapped a few shots and eagerly longed for us to drift directly over their majesty.


Alas, there was no drifting. In fact, there was no movement at all. The air was as perfectly still as the night had been a short while earlier. There wasn’t so much as a whisper of a breeze and consequently not so much as a sway of movement. The pilot leaned over the side of the basket as if to see if we were still anchored.


“Let’s climb and find a current” he said hopefully.  Donning his protective gloves he opened the burner, singeing our scalps and deafening us.  Up we rose in a perfectly vertical trajectory gaining not so much as an inch in any other direction.


“Not much wind today” he said unnecessarily as we all gazed at him desperately. “We’ll try descending.” With that, he opened one of the flaps and we slowly lost altitude, again perfectly vertically as if sliding down a pole.


The support vehicle that was to follow and collect us at the end of our flight was still parked directly below. The engine was turned off, the doors were open, the driver looked asleep.


The view was impressive, but gently rotating above a 4WD in a barren patch of sand when towering sand dunes were but a heavy-breath away was more than a little frustrating. Our cameras were by now idle. Once the basket had done its first 360-degree turn, there was not a lot left to capture. The sun was climbing higher in the sky and it was getting warmer and warmer. In the close confines of the basket the pilot attempted to avoid our glares.


Eventually, after the promised minimum flight time, we slid back down the pole to the ground beneath, significantly less exhilarated than any of us had anticipated.  We despondently stepped from the basket and strolled over to the luxury breakfast table that had been set up just to the side. The same breakfast table that should have been in the middle of nowhere, hidden amongst the dunes, accessible only by valiant 4WD and romantic balloon. Instead, we sat near the shade of a shower block and a few telegraph wires and watched the occasional vehicle drive past.


We cracked the champagne and half-heartedly cheered our pogo-flight while digging into our gourmet mini sausages and scrambled eggs.


“Hmmm”, the pilot muttered as the corner of his napkin fluttered, “…a breeze.”



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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