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South Africa: Head and Shoulders Above a Giraffe
By Vivienne Chapleo and Jill Hoelting
“May the wind welcome you with softness
May the sun bless you with its warm hands
May you fly so high and so well that your God joins in your laughter
And may he set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth”
As the Pilot and his assistants softly murmured the Balloonists Prayer, twelve adventurous souls waiting quietly and patiently in the early morning light, silently said their own prayer that the hot air balloon flight would actually occur.
The shrill ring of the phone in our cottage awoke us. It was 5:00 AM and Nico, our ranger at Ivory Tree Lodge in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa, sleepily told us to make haste and meet him in the lobby where our safari jeep waited to whisk us off to the launch site.
Within 5 minutes, we were out the door and running toward the lobby to meet Arno, the guide from Airtrackers Balloon Safaris, who would escort us on the 45-minute drive across Pilanesberg to the launch site for our very first flight. Arno drove slowly and carefully in the pitch-black darkness, occasionally stopping to allow a tortoise to cross and avoid running into any of the Big 5.
It was still dark when we arrived at Mankwe Dam (a large lake in the center of the park) and heard the piercing hiss of propane inflating the five story high balloon. Meanwhile, the team worked quickly and carefully, doing their best to keep the cumbersome balloon in-check from the wind that had flared up.
Six AM and we should already be in the air. The fully inflated balloon hovers to a vertical position. However, the wind is still fast and each released helium test balloon quickly disappears. This is not a good sign! The pilot decides to wait another 15 minutes in hope the wind dissipates – otherwise there will be no flight today.
In that short amount of time the wind subsides. Quickly, we all clamber into the wicker basket and the tethers are released. Just as quickly, the balloon starts its ascension and the beauty that is all around overcomes us.
The sun rises over the crater of the long extinct volcano that is the setting for Pilanesberg. The view is magical as a journey of giraffe, herds of rhino and zebra a hundred feet below run to escape the looming, hissing monster above.
An exhilarating hour later, we are safely back on terra firma after soaring to 1700 feet. A glass of sparkling wine in hand, we toast to a perfect flight with our fellow early morning adventurers.
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