I was absolutely thrilled when Willie Bodenstein of Pilots Post phoned me one afternoon to ask me, “Do you really want to go on a hot air balloon ride”?

Willie has been supporting my newfound passion for aviation and writing by sharing my articles on Pilot’s Post, my favourite online aviation magazine. Pilot’s Post publishes weekly articles focussed on recreational aviation in South Africa. It is one of the best ways to share aviation news with anyone who may be passionate about aviation as Willie and his team join us at almost every event.

My love for travel combined with my competitive streak has resulted in a long aviation related bucket list. I initially compiled the list hoping for nothing more than to have some fun and learn as much as possible along the way. I want to experience as much as possible and write about each item as I make my way through the list, and as Amelia Earhart said, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it!”

Willie came across the Bucket List I have on my website, and when he saw, “Go for a ride in a hot air balloon,” he knew just who could help. Bill Harrop’s “Original” Balloon Safaris is one of the best known in the ballooning business and they were keen to offer their services. Bill Harrop’s is a family run business that has been operating as a balloon Air Transport Service since 1981. When Bill and Mary both sadly passed away during the Covid epidemic it seemed as if the fate of the operation was sealed. However, Dale de Klerk and the team from the original operation came aboard and have been successfully running it ever since.

I hung up the phone and started to do a happy dance around the house when I got the call to ask if we were free the next morning for our flight. Quite specific weather conditions are required for a pleasant balloon flight. These conditions are best at sunrise, when the air is cool, and the wind is light.

I immediately scoured my trusty weather app, which gave me bad news. The forecast for tomorrow doesn’t look good, but as all pilots know, if you don’t like the forecast, choose another app. I spend far too much time scouring every app that I can get my hands on but when they all agree, I decide the best course of action is to hope the weather gurus are wrong and go to bed early.   

At 3AM, I wake up to check my messages, but it is bad news. Our flight is cancelled. Darn, now we wait for the next opportunity.

A few weeks later, I get another call asking if we are available for a flight. All other plans are dropped like a hot potato as I set my alarm for 3AM again. I am typically a night owl but not today. The moment my alarm chirps, I leap out of bed, ready for what promises to be a gorgeous day. It is still hard to tell as it is pitch black outside, but the wind is calm and the forecast is good.

While it is still summer, there is a chill in the air as autumn is approaching. Iaan and I wrap up warmly in scarves, beanies, and gloves as we pile into the car. Bill Harrops is located in the Skeerpoort Valley, a farmland area just outside of bustling Pretoria, set in the foothills of the majestic Magaliesburg Mountains. Here the Skeerpoort and Magalies rivers join together and flow east into the Hartebeestpoort Dam.

The first rays of sun tinge the sky red as they start to fill the balloons

The mist is swirling around, creating a magical and mysterious atmosphere as we arrive. We walk down the path and are handed our boarding passes. As we gather around heaters with the other passengers, sipping coffee and eating muffins, we watch the team expertly start to fill the balloons that have been draped across the field in front of us.

Blasts of hot air are being directed into the balloons. It is fascinating to watch as each balloon has a team ensuring that all the various ropes are in place and that there are no twists in the material. It takes surprisingly long to fill the balloons and I am fascinated to see them walk straight inside as the material starts to form a balloon shape, still lying on its side on the ground.

Inflating the balloons is a team effort
We are ready to go

As the pink rays of first light tinge the horizon, the balloons start to rise into the air. It is a gorgeous sight, and I am snapping away with my camera, hoping to catch some of the magic in a photo or two.

It’s finally time. The pilots call us, and we gather around the balloon, waiting to get on board. The basket is surprisingly tall and as I start to wonder how we get in; they show us the foot holds directly in the basket that we will use to climb up the side. The pilot directs us to our spots. He decides who stands where to maintain the weight and balance of the basket. We take turns to clamber up and over the side of the basket into our spots. Once we are all aboard, we get a briefing on our take-off and landing procedures. What to do and where to hold throughout the flight and landing. It sounds like hot air balloons can be surprisingly sporty if the weather doesn’t play along. Fortunately, the weather gods are smiling down on us today and all looks calm.

The ground crew untie the tethers and the pilot starts to blast hot air into the balloon. The silence of the morning is shattered by the roar of fuel burning to create hot air. This will be our one and only flight control as the pilots use warm air to create lift. Then the pilots use their skills and knowledge of the area to expertly navigate the winds to blow us along the valley.

We take-off as the sun peeks over the horizon

The whooshing sound pauses for a moment and there is silence as we gently rise off the ground into a hover. We hover silently a few metres above the ground before a few more blasts of hot air take us up and away. The lift is so gentle that at first you don’t really notice that you are leaving the ground. We begin rising more and more but the only clue is the trees slowly shrinking below us. What an incredible and strange feeling, so unlike the flying that I have come to know so far.

The pilot explains that the local valley wind is what will cause us to fly east, down the Skeerpoort Valley and towards Hartebeestpoort Dam. These winds form because of a difference in temperature between the air in the valley and the air over the adjacent plain. The cool valley slopes cause the air to cool, sink and flow along the valley. I have always loved geography and aviation has been the best way to see some of the theory at work in real life.

Floating along in a leisurely race

Iaan and I excitedly start to point out roads, railways and farmhouses that we use as navigation points during rally flying. We have come to know this valley quite intimately during our training for the World Rally Flying Championships in the nearby town, Brits. This, however, is a totally different perspective. We are low and very slow and can look at each farmhouse in detail.

Our pilot gives us the history of the area, pointing out interesting features as we go. Flying regularly in this area means that they get to know each farm individually, as they have probably landed there a few times!

Low and slow over the farmhouses

Suddenly we spot the other balloon far below us. On this calm morning, there is only the lightest of breezes and each of the three balloons are rising and descending, hoping to find some wind to take us further down the valley. A very slow race ensues as we start to overtake the balloon below us. They start to climb up behind us hoping to catch the same breeze, but we have slowed down. We descend again as they start to catch a breeze along the tiniest of rivers.

The scenery is breathtaking. The other two balloons are framed by the majestic Magalies mountains and there is an absolute stillness. Everyone in the valley below is still fast asleep and time seems frozen as we float gently through the air. It feels like absolute magic as we glide along. I eagerly take as many photos as I can, but I know that even the best photographer will have difficulty capturing this fairy-tale.

Floating off into the sunrise

After an hour of very relaxed progress along the valley, the pilot starts to look for a field to land in. He reminds us of our landing procedures as we descend over the pecan trees. I could reach out and touch them we are so low! We seem to be aiming for the tiniest of open spaces between the pecan trees and a cabbage patch. I feel a moment of panic, but our pilot expertly navigates us directly into the tiny space with a gentle bump. The ground team arrives, and the passengers all hop out as they spread out champagne and orange juice to enjoy while they pack the balloon away. Dew is still thick across the cabbages as we gather around.

The pilot roars a few more blasts of hot air into the balloon and it rises just enough to land smoothly on top of the trailer. I am astonished and gobsmacked with the accuracy and precision. That is a true spot landing! Before long, the balloon is folded away and the champagne has vanished. We bundle into the waiting van, and it takes us back to our starting point. A sumptuous breakfast is laid out for us, and we tuck in, excitedly chatting to one another. What an amazing experience and a thrill to tick another item off my bucket list. This night owl votes it’s well worth a 3am start to experience the magic of a hot air balloon flight.

I can’t wait to see what I can tick off next!

Our hearts soar higher than the balloons