A hot-air balloon safari over the Okavango Delta in Botswana is a thrilling adventure. You’re suspended in a wicker basket above this marshy waterland with the sun peeping over the horizon and a waking wilderness below you. This is game viewing like you’ve never experienced it before.
Our Okavango Delta balloon safari began long before sunrise. My partner and I were woken in our luxurious safari tent by the first twitter of birds. We got up, dressed warmly and joined a group on the back of an open 4×4.
The vehicle wended its way through the bush to a launch site in the remote, northwestern corner of the delta. It was still quite dark and along the way we spotted plenty of nocturnal animals, including a magnificent genet cat slinking through the tall grass.
We came to a clearing, where a colourful balloon lay semi-inflated, and were introduced to our pilot, Moremi. I enjoyed a strong cup of coffee while the balloon was being rigged and inflated by an efficient ground crew, all dressed in matching khaki. Moremi gave us a thorough safety briefing and demonstrated how we should climb into the basket, as well as how to brace ourselves for landing.
Flames from the burners lit the dawn with eerie tongues of fire. The balloon was upright now, ready to take to the salmon-coloured sky. We clambered into the basket and, with a roar of hot air, lifted off just as the sun began to rise. It was a most intoxicating sensation. Our thrilling Okavango Delta balloon safari had begun.
‘These balloon flights are a little bit different,’ said Moremi. ‘We like to give the whole experience a safari feel. As you can see, the balloon itself is multi-coloured in reds, oranges and yellows: just like the African sunrise! The intricate pattern used for the balloon “envelope” also incorporates the geometric design of tribal artwork. Even our baskets are woven in the traditional manner.’
We floated along, suspended in the cool morning air above the Okavango floodplain. Our balloon drifted in whichever direction the wind decided, our speed determined by its strength. Even the pilot did not know where, exactly, we were heading … or where we might land.
The balloon offered us an opportunity to see the delta from a unique perspective. I noticed the many wildlife tracks made by generations of animals, impossible to see from the ground. The terrain was dotted with majestic leadwood, jackalberry and African mangosteen trees. We ghosted over acacia woodlands and a web of ancient riverbeds, now dried up and filled with a diversity of vegetation.
Next, we crossed a floodplain filled with red lechwe and a herd of elephant shoulder deep in the watery marsh. There were winding channels and islands dotted with palm trees, bobbing hippo blobs and the sinister, cigar shapes of basking crocodiles.
This might just be the most beautiful place in the world for a balloon flight, I thought. There were no power lines, no fences and hardly any roads: just wild African bush and marshland bathed in soft morning light and us ghosting along on a gentle breeze. It was utterly magical.
Now our pilot took us lower, almost scraping the treetops with our basket. Lower still. We were within a few metres of the ground, planing on an air cushion in a spell of silence. Then up again we soared, into a blue, blue sky.
Moremi was employing the burners to manipulate our height, using varying altitudes and layers of air to navigate the balloon. ‘Each day is different, some of the flight may be low, offering a close-up perspective and at other times we may climb to a 300m or more,’ said Moremi. ‘No two flights are ever the same.’
We continued for about 45 minutes, then our pilot started looking for a place to land. We descended slowly, kissing the earth a few times. The balloon and basket keeled over gracefully and our group climbed out. My partner and I were elated.
We were met by recovery vehicles, which had been tracking our journey. Moremi celebrated our return to terra firma with a traditional toast of sparkling wine and snacks. The cork made a pop that echoed across the veld: to a glorious flight and a soft landing!
Moremi presented us with commemorative ‘balloon-flight certificates’ – to prove that we’d really done it. Then it was back to camp for a hearty breakfast.
As we drove through the bush, I thought about the experience we’d just enjoyed and how it was had been the perfect climax to our Okavango safari. Whether it was treetop skimming or soaring at vulture height, the balloon had offered a silent, 360-degree viewing platform and a breathless air of intoxication. It had been a moment outside time, drifting above the watery wilderness in a bubble of blissful peace.