A luxury Namibian safari is incomplete without going up in a hot-air balloon, over the Namib Desert. This once-in-a-lifetime adventure see you suspended in a wicker basket above this waterless realm, with the sun peeping over the horizon and the dunes painted red by its light. This is a wilderness experience unlike any other.
Our Namib desert balloon safari began long before sunrise. My partner and I were woken in our luxurious chalet. Outside, the desert stretched away, bathed in the ghostly, opalescent light of dawn. We got up, dressed warmly and joined a group on the back of an open 4×4.
The vehicle drove through a stark, treeless landscape. We came to the launch site in the northern part of NamibRand Nature Reserve, where a colourful balloon lay semi inflated. We clambered off the vehicle and were introduced to our pilot, Eric.
I enjoyed a cup of coffee while the balloon was being rigged and inflated by an efficient ground crew. Eric gave us a thorough safety briefing and demonstrated how we should climb into the basket, as well as how to brace ourselves for landing.
‘Most of our landings are on a trailer,’ he said. ‘But if the wind is a bit stronger, you’ll experience a “sport landing”. As we touch down, the basket will tip over and drag for a few metres before coming to a stop lying on its side. It’s perfectly safe and actually a lot of fun. Safety is our number one priority. In fact, this is the safest possible environment for ballooning. Just look around you: no trees, no power lines, no obstacles. We can go wherever we please!’
Flames from the burners lit the sky with eerie tongues of fire. The balloon was upright now, ready to take to the air. We clambered into the basket and, with a roar from the burners, lifted off just as the sun began to rise. Our thrilling Namibian balloon safari had begun.
We floated along, suspended in the cool morning air above the Namib Desert. Our balloon drifted in whichever direction the wind decided, our speed determined by its strength. Even the pilot didn’t know where, exactly, we were heading … or where we might land.
‘Depending on the wind, we cover an average of 15km, but you never can tell,’ said Eric. ‘That’s what makes it so exciting. We hold a concession to fly over both the Namib-Naukluft National Park and the NamibRand Nature Reserve. This gives us a very wide area to play in.’
The balloon offered us an opportunity to see the world’s oldest desert from a unique perspective. Below us, spreading to the horizon, was a landscape of white plains with patches of blond grass and hills that looked like burnt croissants. I spotted a line of gemsbok with their rapier-like horns, plodding through the deep sand. Soon we were soaring above the Sossusvlei dunes, painted scarlet by the low sunlight. It was utterly mesmerising.
‘The Namib is a very sensitive environment and we make sure that our team is schooled in eco-friendly behaviour,’ said Eric. ‘Our environmental impact is kept as minimal as possible. The retrieving vehicles only drive on existing tracks and, before returning to the base, we even sweep our footprints with brooms.’
This had to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet for a balloon flight, I thought, as we drifted over a landscape free of power lines, roads and fences. Just wild, elemental Africa, bathed in soft morning light and us ghosting along on a gentle breeze.
Now Eric took us lower, almost scraping the dune crests with our basket. 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 cobalt-blue sky. Eric was employing the burners to manipulate our height, using varying altitudes and layers of air to navigate the balloon.
We continued for about an hour, then our pilot started looking around for a good 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 that had been tracking our journey. Eric celebrated the return to terra firma with a traditional toast of sparkling wine. The cork made a loud pop that echoed across the plain.
Next, we were treated to an Out of Africa style breakfast set up in the middle of nowhere. Tables, chairs, starched linen and a feast laid on for our band of happy ballooners. Eric presented us with commemorative ‘flight certificates’ – to prove that we’d really ballooned across the Namib.
Then it was back to the lodge. As we drove through the desert, I thought about our experience and how it had been the perfect climax to our luxury Namibian safari. The balloon had offered a silent, lofty viewing platform and a breathless air of intoxication. It had been a moment outside time, drifting above the desert wilderness in a bubble of blissful peace.