FLOAT­ING ON GEN­TLE ZEPHYRS

OVER THE VAST CON­TI­NENT OF AFRICA

Nomad Africa Magazine - - Gallivant | Floating Zephyrs - Words & Pho­to­graphs: MICHELLE COL­MAN

Bal­loon flights are wish list items for many. Bill Har­rop, founder of South Africa’s first com­mer­cial bal­loon flight op­er­a­tion, has made them a real­ity for thou­sands of happy pas­sen­gers.

Bal­loon­ing has to be the most se­duc­tive form of sight­see­ing. At day­break, when the air is strat­i­fied and be­fore the earth heats up form­ing ther­mals, the mo­tion is con­trolled and gen­tle, a weight­less float­ing – if you closed your eyes you’d hardly dis­cern any move­ment.

Soar­ing a kilo­me­tre above the earth, you fly at a level where land­marks can still be iden­ti­fied. Har­rop’s flight ter­rain in­cludes the Seg­wati Game Re­serve, Hart­beespoort Dam and the Cra­dle of Hu­mankind, giv­ing guests sightings of game, wa­ter and an age-old land­scape where mod­ern hu­mans first stood up­right. The ac­tiv­ity is the safest of all aviation pur­suits too, and in­juries are rare.

Har­rop’s bal­loon ex­pe­ri­ence be­gins at dawn – be­tween 05:00 and 06:30 de­pend­ing on the sea­son. The launch site is at the com­pany’s Skeer­poort base, 45km north-west of Jo­han­nes­burg’s north­ern sub­urbs. There’s freshly brewed cof­fee and just­baked muffins as pas­sen­gers watch flight prepa­ra­tions from the pa­tio of an Ed­war­dian-style club­house. A ‘whoosh’ sig­nals the light­ing of propane gas burn­ers which blow into bil­low­ing piles of rain­bow-coloured cloth, shap­ing them into mag­nif­i­cent orbs. In­struc­tion on board­ing and safety are given, and the flights last an hour or so. A bot­tom­less glass of lo­cal bub­bly is served in flight or on land­ing, which, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany lit­er­a­ture, takes place “al­ways in the shadow of the bas­ket, wher­ever that may be.”

Pas­sen­gers are re­turned to the club­house by ve­hi­cle for a sla­pup break­fast, where a menu high­light is Har­rop’s take on Northum­brian oat­meal por­ridge - “with a pinch (of salt), a sprin­kle (of sugar), a dol­lop (of cream) and a drib­ble (of whiskey)”, he quips. Pas­sen­gers leave with a ci­ta­tion mark­ing their “courage and for­ti­tude to as­cend (as few other earthly mor­tals would dare) up in to the aether...in an aero­stat float­ing on the gen­tle zephyrs over the vast con­ti­nent of Africa.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence is pricey, and as such a bucket list item. Many of Har­rop’s cus­tomers book it as a cel­e­bra­tory ac­tiv­ity, to mark a sig­nif­i­cant birth­day or an­niver­sary, or to ‘pop the ques­tion’. Bal­loon­ing is also widely used for cor­po­rate team build­ing or in­cen­tive events. Mind­ful of bud­getary con­straints, Har­rop mar-

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