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Up, Up and Away in a Magical Balloon

Hot Air Balloon in Cape Town

Hot Air Balloon in Cape Town

To soar up in the air, free, floating over the earth; to get one’s head in the clouds, literally, one’s soul liberated, that was next! So get up very early on the autumnal equinox and drive through the darkness to the Grande Roche in Paarl for a trip with Cape Wineland Ballooning.1 Udo and Carmen run the show. They meet us with smiles far too fresh for so early in the morning. I climb into their minibus with others who are also to experience the ballooning thrill for the first time themselves. A man hugging a woman tightly greets everyone warmly. Says he’s an acute acrophobe but is going on the trip for his wife’s sake, it is her birthday. He gets vertigo from merely standing on a brick, he says, but he loves his wife, and she had always wanted to go up, so he had to come. But he is nervous, nervous, he has to hold on to her, please excuse him.

1 Early Start

Hot Air Balloon in Cape Town – early morning burners

2 Setting up the Gondola 3 Packed balloon 4 Assembling burner

It’s still dark. We drive through the gloom to the launching site, a forlorn part of some farm. There we alight, drink coffee and eat rusks to clear the rheum from the eyes, and set about unpacking the giant balloon in the pre-dawn.2 We roll it out on the ground, vast and extensive. The gas burners are fired up and the balloon steadily inflates to 4000 times its packed size. The physics of balloon flight is simple. Air, blown into a balloon by powerful fans, is heated by fire from a gas burner. Hot air, being less dense than the surrounding colder air, rises, giving lift. There. But I prefer the magic; Udo’s burner is an Aladdin’s lamp out of which rises a huge genie; it rises twelve stories into the air, prominent, gleaming and beautiful. When told we climb into the gondola one by one. Udo steadies us, pumps the burners and we start lifting off the ground. We lift, lift, lift some more, and then rise resolutely above the Winelands as the sun comes up, almost weightless, like a bauble that gravity forgot.

10 Firing up the air

Hot Air Balloon in Cape Town – running the burners

5 Testing Testing 6 Ballon laid out 7 Starting up the fanning 8 Tent or balloon 9 Balloon lifting

We’re suspended in a basket in blue sky from a huge balloon. We spot game running around, little Springbuck scurry about, including a black one. They hop and prance around as we fly over. We see grain silos and rows of tilled land that look like a giant logs lain out on the earth. We drift over farms, mostly friendly but one or two hostile to ballooning, says Udo, yes, you get them. Little boys rush out of neat cottages and look up. They shout their greetings and wave all agog. We wave back but don’t shout back; it’s a clear sin to break the silence, only the gas burners are allowed that. The silence is eerie. In a balloon, there’s no barrier between you and nature, no glass, no goggles. You hardly feel the motion. The uxorious acrophobe holds on to his wife for dear life. A man celebrating his 80th is as excited as a six-year old. I’m calmly myself. It’s a perfect Friday morning. We float over a herd of buffalo being corralled into a shed to be milked. Believe it or not, the real mozzarella de buffalo is being produced here, says Udo, in the Cape, by Italians. How small those beasts look from here! Another blast from the burners.

11 Balloon shadow 12 Cape Vineyards 13 Winelands Balloon in the Air

We soar a little higher to catch a current. Currents occur in layers, says Udo. Inversions abound because of the mountains. Flying is perfect at this time of day. We approach the Brede River and float just above the tall trees on its banks. As we float over the river we spot our reflection in the water, that like a polished mirror shows us up as a fluted emerald in the sky. Then we see him, a magnificent fish eagle, flying towards us, circling around then veering away. He knows we’re here, but he is king of this terrain, says Udo, he is supreme, he rules the realm here. He knows no fear.

15 Breede River - Fish Eagle Territory

We glide past the Breede. Udo takes the balloon higher or lower depending on the wind speeds at various air layers which he somehow can see. The only control he has over the balloon is the approximate height at which it flies.3,4 He can also pivot the basket. In the early morning the winds are light, making for easier control of the balloon, and there are fewer thermals. Our oblong shadow follows us on the fields, getting shorter but more defined as the sun rises higher. The mountains of the Cape turn a less foreboding blue but for that no less magnificent. The vistas are grand, sweeping and vast. One or two birds glide around. We can see past the fields and the vineyards and the hills right up to West Coast Ocean. All is fine with the world. It’s a good space. We’re floating over hill and dale to our destination, which is not precise, neither can it be; one aims for a landing site in a region some miles downwind.

16 Buffaloes 17 Farm house roofs 18 Chase Vehicle 19 Landing Site

And then, in the midst of wonder, we have to descend, down to the familiar, to earth. Magic lasts only that long. Udo let’s out air from the giant balloon at steady pace. The vines come closer, become clearer, almost microscopically defined instead of the impressionistic blur they had seemed. We have to land in a fallow wheat field, which is why ballooning in these parts is a seasonal activity. Udo orders the men to crouch with their backs to the wickerwork for the landing, against the direction of motion. Women crouch with their backs against the men. Udo brings down the bubble, the basket bounces with two thuds on the ground, then hinges itself and tips over. But we are prepared, the women fall on the bodies of the men, nicely cushioned. We all end up in a heap. It’s edgy fun. We crawl out of the basket onto the field. Little farm boys run up to welcome us. They’re given sweets. The adventure is over, the enchantment not. We pack away the balloon and head off to the Grande Roche in lifted spirits for the traditional champagne. The toast? “To soft winds and gentle landings!”

20 It's all over



  1. Cape Wineland Ballooning is run by Carmen & Udo Mettendorf, who also fly in Germany, and operates out of Paarl, Western Cape, South Africa, 50km from Cape Town. They fly from November to April. Tel./Fax: +27 (0)21 863 3192, email at balloon@kapinfo.com, website http://www.kapinfo.com. [BTW, like skydivers, scuba divers, paragliders, horse riders, they also want to know your weight. So diet].
  2. Most hot air balloon launches are made during the cooler hours of the day, at dawn or two to three hours before sunset. At these times of day, the winds are typically light making for easier launch and landing of the balloon. Flying at these times also avoids thermals, which are vertical air currents caused by ground heating that make it more difficult to control the balloon. In the extreme, the downdrafts associated with strong thermals can exceed the ability of a balloon to climb and can thus force a balloon into the ground. [Source: Wikipedia]
  3. The direction of flight depends on the wind, but the altitude of the balloon can be controlled by changing the temperature of the air inside the envelope. The pilot may open one or more burner blast valves to increase the temperature inside the envelope, thereby increasing lift, and thus ascend or slow or stop a descent. The pilot may also open a vent, if the envelope is so equipped, to let hot air escape, decreasing the temperature inside the envelope, thereby decreasing lift, and thus descend or slow or stop an ascent. Unless the pilot intervenes, the air inside the envelope will slowly cool, by seepage or by contact with cooler outside air, and slowly provide less lift. [Source: Wikipedia]
  4. During the flight, the pilot’s only ability to steer the balloon is the ability to climb or descend into wind currents going different directions. Thus, it is important for the pilot to determine what direction the wind is blowing at altitudes other than the balloon’s altitude. To do this, the pilot uses a variety of techniques. For example, to determine wind directions beneath the balloon a pilot might simply spit or release a squirt of shaving cream and watch this indicator as it falls to determine where possible turns are (and their speed). Pilots are also looking for other visual clues such as flags on flagpoles, smoke coming from chimneys, etc. To determine wind directions above the balloon, the pilot will obtain a weather forecast prior to the flight which includes upper level wind forecasts. [Source: Wikipedia].