I’m not an early riser, in fact, before my trip to Dubai I could count the sunrises I’d seen on one hand. It takes something really special to get me out of bed at 4am, and on this particular day a hot air balloon ride over the Arabian Desert certainly qualified.
I imagine that a hot air balloon flight is probably a top three item on most peoples bucket lists, I don’t have an official list but it’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing if I ever had the opportunity. When I saw the option on our trip itinerary to fly with Balloon Adventures Emirates, I danced around like a silly woman.
The experience itself was not at all what I expected, it was delightfully and exhilaratingly different and I doubt I’ll do it the slightest bit of justice, but I will try.
The first challenge to my senses was the cold night air of the desert, I never imagined the desert to be a cold place. It was chilly.
But then the burners fired up and whoosh, every one was warm again in just one second.
Those burners are so powerful, even standing 10m away you could feel the intense heat, and so loud.
As the balloon was filling up, Captain Mike gave us a procedure and safety briefing and then it was time to go.
And when I say go, I mean GO! There was no casual dawdling, or elegant climbs into the basket, when Captain Mike says “Get in Now!” you better be ready or the balloon takes off without you. We all didn’t realise how serious he was and the balloon left the ground without us, so he let go of some air and gave us all a chance to pile in.
It was fast, and physical, and fun, and not what I imagined at all.
Then we were off, and everything was so quiet (apart from the gasps of my fellow passengers). The ground moved away from us without even the slightest feeling that we were moving at all, and the other balloon that was getting ready to take off was getting tinnier and tinnier.
And then magic happened, the sun peeked over the horizon, and the world seemed vast and the views infinite.
It was just about then that I stopped taking photos, I was spellbound by the view and the feeling of just being there suspended in the sky. It’s something that I couldn’t capture with a camera, so I didn’t even try. I think I tuned out of conversations too, there were 20 of us up there, and it was kind of squishy, but I really felt alone, in a good peaceful sort of way.
And all too quickly it was time to land, the wind was picking up and Captain Mike had to find a nice clear landing spot. Because you can’t steer a balloon, it’s all up to the wind currents, you need to take a landing opportunity when it presents itself (unless you want to end up in another country).
My focus changed from the sky to the ground, and the patterns on the sand dunes. On our descent we floated over corals with camels, horses (who were a bit spooked by the balloon) and some local dwellings. Amy called out an Arabic greeting to a man tending his goats, and to our delight he greeted us back.
Then it was cameras away and “Landing Positions!” and the ground was coming fast. No gentle landing like in the movies for us (which is quite rare in ballooning actually), it was ‘sporty’ all the way.
‘Sporty’ is the word balloon pilots use for a less than gentle landing – it’s now a word that has totally been redefined for me, I’ll never hear it again without recalling the exhilaration of hanging on in a giant basket being dragged 150m at about 40km an hour.
Some would call it a crash landing, but crash implies lack of control, and Captain Mike knew exactly what he was doing, he is very experienced. There was not one second that I felt scared or worried, it was actually kind of fun. I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie.
The passengers on the bottom of the basket bore the brunt of the landing as the basket filled with sand around them, it was a little more intense for them. I don’t think anyone imagined you could get so ‘sporty’ in a hot air balloon.
But out extreme landing was not the norm, mostly the basket just tips over without the dragging, it just depends on the wind conditions.
And finally I never thought the climb out of the basket would be even more inelegant than the scramble, but it was and I couldn’t stop laughing at the awkwardness of it all.
As the other balloon descended we were all still a little stunned by the whole experience, I don’t think we could all believe it really happened, so many emotions crammed into one basket. I’m still pinching myself.
Would I do it all over again? Yes, in a heartbeat.
You can watch a highlight video taken by a GoPro camera rigged to the balloon, one of my favorite moments happens at 4.37, can you spot the antelope?
Have you ever been on a hot air balloon? Was it like you imagined?