A hot air balloon ride over the Cradle of Humankind

  • January 26, 2009

By Mitch Jago

As an Englishman on assignment in South Africa and based in Jo’burg, I was keen to explore something African and to find an alternative to the likes of the Kruger National Park and Cape Town.

An hour northwest of Johannesburg lies the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site and its official visitor centre, Maropeng. This exhibition centre offers a stunning display of rare hominid fossils extracted from our mother Earth, some dating back more than 3-million years. That’s not 3 000, but 3-million years!

If you’re having trouble appreciating these figures, you are not alone. Our minds cannot immediately digest this number. But Maropeng opens our eyes, offering visual, reader-friendly glimpses into how our planet developed and how life forms survived or perished along the way. The quality of what is on show is striking.

Sterkfontein Caves, located a few kilometres from the exhibition centre and hotel, showcases a history of dramatic palaeoanthropological discoveries. They offer a welcome opportunity to escape the heat of the day by meandering through the caves, enjoying the cool, damp atmosphere around you while listening to the fascinating narrative provided by one of the cheerful and trained guides.

The Maropeng Hotel is the perfect place to check in for the night. One can relax and unwind with a mojito on one’s private terrace, while gazing north across a game park and out towards the Magaliesberg mountains. The hotel offers serenity, beauty, peace and even a spot of local education. All this is a breath of fresh air – just a short drive from Johannesburg’s cosmopolitan and schedule-driven city life.

It was still dark when my alarm beeped at 03h00. I lay there and gathered my thoughts. Another 10 minutes maybe? No. I had to get cracking. I opened the curtains and doors to the terrace, enjoying the bracing night air before I hit the shower.

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At 05h00, eight of us, still wiping the sleep from our eyes, stepped aboard the tour bus taking us to the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, about 20 minutes’ drive from Maropeng. It was a short, bumpy run along a ribbed track through the darkness of the park, as the sun was starting to wake.

The driver stopped his vehicle and we all gazed out to the right. There lay the most wonderful sight: a monstrous, brightly coloured hot air balloon was being inflated in the cool dawn air.

And just ahead on the track was a table furnished with hot coffee, a choice of teas and even a drop of the local Amarula liqueur to kick-start the system after a late night out. All of this was on hand to make us feel welcome and boost our spirits at such an early hour of the day, including nice touches like a glass milk jug and a white table cloth. AirVentures was putting on quite a show for us.

Adam was our charismatic guide and experienced pilot for the next couple of hours. We climbed aboard under his supervision as his team of efficient assistants untethered us from terra firma.

While the coffee table being dismantled and the drivers prepared their convoy of vehicles and trailer, the huge red and yellow balloon above us took on another loud burst of hot air from the ignited gas to lift its basket and nine occupants gently off the damp grasses towards a dark sky, awaiting the sun’s energy for the day. Now was not the time to check the battery in the camera or remember you’d left your wife back in the hotel!

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As we gradually ascended, drifting north towards the Magaliesberg range, we picked out isolated gatherings of rhinoceros, water buck and zebra. The sun rose in the east as we looked down at farms, lodges, buffalo and ostrich and enjoyed sightings of rare sable – a valuable animal which might collect as much as R500,000 from an interested hunting party.

One beauty of hot air ballooning is that, apart from the noise of occasional bursts of heated gas from the cylinders, it is peaceful, quiet and evidently the oldest form of flight known to humankind. The quiet on the roads was broken occasionally by the convoy of AirVentures drivers scrambling to keep up with us, and clusters of racing cyclists enjoying the exercise while the occupants of the balloon smiled and relaxed, gazing down at them.

Our balloon continued its journey, travelling over protected breeding grounds for vultures, drifting high above electrical pylons and rows of power cables dog-legging their way across the luscious South African landscape. We saw more buck, including the lovely gemsbok which, with their white shins, look like they are gearing up for a game of rugby.

As the sun rose in the aquamarine sky, Adam brought us up close to 1,676m (5,500ft) above sea level and introduced us to a conversation with Lanseria Airport’s air traffic controllers. Even though we were approaching 213m (700ft) above the ground, Lanseria’s recreational light aircraft were beginning to take to the skies, where they maintain a circuit altitude of 300m (1,000ft) above the ground. A hot air balloon needs to be acknowledged by all traffic in the airspace.

Hot air balloons drift where the winds take them. The only method of control the pilot has is using the balloon’s altitude by proper use of the ignited gases. Two sets of ropes hang down in front of Adam, allowing him to tug one or another and change the orientation of the basket and balloon by rotating us in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. This is especially important when positioning the craft for a landing.

Slowly descending, the balloon drifted over provincial roads, cattle farms, fields of crops and grasslands, while Adam co-ordinated his approach for a perfect landing, maintaining radio contact with his team of drivers below us.

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As we touched down in a meadow of tall grasses, local children with beaming white smiles stared in awe at the huge bright balloon coming to a halt next to them. One child snapped photos on his cellphone, no doubt ready to transmit them across the valley to his classmates.

Within a minute or two of the giant balloon coming to rest, the van and trailer bumped its way onto the land and parked next to us. By design, the driver manoeuvred the trailer to a position slightly downwind of the basket. With Adam’s experience and airmanship, he once more gave the balloon a quick burst of hot air, thereby lifting us off the ground for the last time before using the gentle wind to deftly drop us into the trailer. The retained hot air is released quickly by remotely cracking open a separate hatch in the top of the balloon, and the giant textile dropped slowly to the ground.

As we climbed out onto the wet grasses, sharing the past hour and a half’s experience, the table and linen re-appeared along with chilled champagne and orange juice. We sipped the bubbly and laughed with the kids while the balloon settled and Adam’s supporting team loaded up the trailer.

Half an hour later, we were shuttled back to the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve. With some excellent timing, we were greeted by a nice chap, Jandrais, in a game drive vehicle that looked like it might’ve been built in 1936! Jandrais hit the tracks with the eight of us wedged onto elevated seating in the old, green jalopy. We were then treated to a game drive where we were up close and personal with red hartebeest, sable, warthog, water buck, a herd of enormous eland and a flock of ostrich.

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After our hearty breakfast at the Ngomo Safari Lodge and some welcome coffee, Jandrais continued his tour through the park. We spotted some blue wildebeest before entering a predator camp where a family coalition of cheetah, as it’s collectively known, were separated in the tall grasses. A few minutes later we stumbled across a pride of lions basking on the side of the road, in the warmth of the mid-morning sun. I was considering whether to ask our driver to slow down long enough for me to capture a few shots with my camera, but after one look around me at our rickety, exposed vehicle and its lack of doors and windows, I was happy that Jandrais chose to step on the pedal while passing the lazy beasts.

Another gate and we entered an area which is home to a group of rare white lions. Cream in colour, they were quite a spectacle and the pride did not care too much for us as we rolled on through the bush and back to our cars.

As the friendly group of folk bid goodbye to Jandrais and one another, I had an opportunity to savour the past four hours’ experience.
Tourist venues are not always about the big-ticket items. Sure, Kruger and Cape Town might be the meat and potatoes for a first-time visitor to South Africa, but there are stunning alternatives to these places that are often overlooked.

I have to say that the experiences that both Maropeng and AirVentures gave me are ones of quality and attention to detail which I shall remember for the rest of my days.

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