If you have never been in a hot air balloon, you are seriously missing out on the most amazing experience. Even if you are scared of heights (which I am) or if you suffer from motion illness (which I generally am okay with), or you are an A-type personality who wants to be in control (which I am) and the thought of being at the mercy of the wind on the day leaves too much out of your control – you HAVE to try the balloon over the Busanga Plains if nothing else!
So this is how it works. The plains are flat and beautiful and you can land anytime you like. They are spacious and the sky is vast. The miombo woodlands on the periphery of the plains are out of bounds – naturally. Okay, so now we know the rules of the game: plains in, woodlands out. Eric and his wife Nancy run the balloon experience in the Busanga Plains. They also run balloon experiences in Namibia too. But now the season brings them here to the Busanga Plains. You have to get up early around 05h00 because Eric usually only really knows which way the wind is going to blow and makes his decision as to where the take-off is going to be at the last minute. That means you need to give enough time to be able to drive further to get to the launch site if needed. We were intending taking off and flying low over hippo pools…but the wind had a different agenda.
There was a delicate early morning mist that hung gently above the plains as we approached the launch site where Eric was already in the basket and firing up the gas burners to fill the huge multi-coloured balloon. After a quick safety briefing that basically covers the two possible options for landing (one is a landing and the other is a sports landing!) we lifted gently off the ground. It is such a gentle feeling that you don’t realize that you are actually up in the air! The stillness is only interrupted with the blasts of the gas burner that Eric opens from time to time to manage the hot air which drives the balloon.
Ballooning is not really an exact science. That is owing to the fact that you are dependent on the strength and direction of the winds. Winds are layered so blow one way close to the ground and then other ways in various strata as you go up. At one stage we were high and the wind speed was 50km per hour. That is a lot faster than we wanted to go, so Eric brought the balloon down lower and our speed dropped. He can bring the basket down so low that you can actually feel the grass tickle the wicker! There are some flights where they just skim above hippo in the water and are also able to follow buffalo, lechwe and even lions very closely and quietly.
We were treated to wonderful sights: we flew with birds, we floated over water, we watched two huge herds of elephant cross the plains to get to the woodland, we spied an impressive herd of buffalo in the distance, but we were not able to reach them sadly. Owing to the fact that we had a very fast start to our balloon safari, the tree-line approached much quicker than we realized and very soon we were preparing for our landing. All the while we were flying, the ground crew were following us so they could be there at the landing site to hold down the balloon ties once we actually touched down.
We had a semi-sports landing. That is to say that the basket didn’t fall over completely and drag along the ground. I have had one of those experiences before on my first ever balloon flight and naturally thought that was quite normal. We just floated gently down and then there was one bump and we lifted up again and then another bump and a tilt over slightly and then we regained our upright position safely landed on the ground and that was that! All very gentle but so spectacular. So, if you are planning to be in Busanga Plains, and you get all the way there, make sure you have at least one balloon ride. You won’t regret it for sure! Make sure you take your binoculars and your camera and your video camera because you are going to need them all. Just make sure too though that you also take a moment to take it all in with a mental photograph and not just from behind a lens.
Cover image and balloon shadow by by Martin Benadie