The Cape Winelands, not far from Cape Town in South Africa, are spectacular to see on foot, on horseback, in a jeep or from a plane – I’ve done them all, but by far the best chance I had to appreciate the geography of this early home of our species was from the vantage of a hot air balloon.
Why? You ask. Well, maybe since I’d seen a lot up close, this was the topping, literally, on the cake of tours. Also because the pace of a balloon matches the hot air of the African landscape, lolling, capricious and ephemeral, with no designed direction or speed. One feels, floating above the spacious and many-colored terrain, as though time truly has stopped and allowed you a secret view of the place’s beauty and lustre.
Time, Money & Friends
This adventure is not for the limp-walleted, but it’s not insane price-wise either, especially given what you’re doing, and where. Prices vary, but range around $250-400 USD per hour for an adult or $150-275 for a child (8-12 years of age). Some trips are only an hour long, others can be up to 4 or 5 hours, depending on the company you keep. Since I lost a bet I couldn’t choose, and I even had to pay for the first night lodging with my two travel pals.
Tasting the Scenery
We enjoyed an outstanding pre-flight array of wines at Cape Town’s hot-hap rooftop bar. South African wine bars, like its wines – amazingly fun, varied and richly textured. Our table was covered with glasses by the time we left, having sampled incredible Blackwater Blanc MMX, D’ Aria Blush Rose and three others…sharing with bystanders, of course.
Dinner at Balthazar Restaurant and Wine Bar filled any remaining space. I almost ordered the Karoo lamb chops a second time, but Malo pushed a chocolate and chilli beef medallion in front of me. I thought I’d perfected mixing sweets and savouries years before when working as a chef. Not so. Succulent and sublime was the agreed-upon descriptor.
The next morning, which wasn’t far off, we had an early wake up call to say: “We’re on, the weather’s OK, pick you up in one hour.” Our transfer to the Grand Roche Hotel in Paarl, under an hour’s drive away, took us through rolling hills leading up to Winelands country, with early morning mist gracing our travels. The Berg River Valley is lushly flocked with wine vines top to bottom, despite holding the world’s second largest granite rock outcropping.
On arrival at the launch pad, the crew-readied coffee was a perfect welcome gift. We’d already partaken a little caffeine to get conscious at the hotel, but my recently discovered obsession with taking mango muffins everywhere was much appreciated addition as a fast-break. Hot air ballooning is always done early in the morning to best control the balloons before the rising heat of thermals and reflected ground heat tosses air currents around. We were lucky that the stable breezes allowed us to get going, as risky winds or weather often means a cancellation We all helped with the ropes and rigging before launch; although it was a bit of fun more than required.
Up, Up, & Away
We all managed to get into the basket, which is definitely required. If you’re not fit, fearless or totally sober and cannot do that by yourself, you’re not allowed to take the flight. This seems a fair requirement for an activity that only requires you to be able to stand up for the duration of the flight, which you’ll want to do anyway to catch every moment. Oh, and do bring your camera and binoculars.
This was a short trip, as we’d planned more adventures for the afternoon and wanted only a mini-flight first off. A second flight was booked the next day for three hours, which quickly proved to be a wise choice because for that first hour, we were, well, in Heaven.
After the burners filled our balloon and buoyed us aloft, gentle breezes took us just above treetops, then the vines turned to display size as we keened upwards toward Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve and the misty peak at its centre.
Eyes on the Wine
We thought we spotted two lions in deep grasses, but weren’t sure. Then the bordering Nantesdam and Belthedam waters reflected the richly blue skies and shifting winds carried us over the Fairview Wine and Cheese grounds, where we were to visit on the ground later that day for a tasting.
After waving to no-one at the huge Val de Vie Winelands Lifestyle Estate, we coursed up into the verdant hills above, just seeing the deep woods of the Hawequas Mountain Catchment Area before another shift had us descending a little. Groenberg Provincial Nature Reserve was off our starboard side as we rounded our trip back towards the landing area. We could see African Fish Eagles above us, circling in the developing thermals; below us grabbing fish out of lake waters.
Down to Earth
Our landing was a bit more bracing than the easy take-off, as winds shoved us sideways upon touchdown. No one was hurt, and we actually rolled around laughing in a horizontal pile at the fun of it all. I would highly recommend trying this amazing experience to see Africa’s splendour from on high. Once it’s over you’ll want to do it again. In fact, you’ll want to go ballooning wherever you travel. Just like me.
Tips for the Top
Ballooning is generally a safe adventure but it is always best to make sure the company you choose is a professional one with experienced ballooners. Here are some “tips for the top”.
- Make sure the company you choose is reputable and fully certified to fly. This means, they must have three documents available, the first two should be visible on the operator’s premises, and if they don’t have these, don’t fly or ride with them: a) Valid CAA Air Service License; b) Valid CAA Air Service Operations Certificate; c) Vehicles Licensed with SATB for Paying Passengers.
- Go with a larger company and you will have more options for land tours, side trips, camping options, connections with accommodation, extra restaurant or park perks, and such.
- Many operators bundle safaris with balloon excursions, or include river trips and hikes. Accommodation can be at campsites or luxe lodges depending on your budget and tastes, as well as the type of trip and surroundings you prefer.
- Wear layers, with long cotton pants is ideal and a wind proof jacket for cool morning breezes. Closed shoes protect, yet should allow for an easy “in and out” of the basket. T-shirts underneath allow for a quick change in hot weather.
- Take time for a trip through the 200 km-long Garden Route Game Reserves, and you’ll be amazed at the many gigantic trees, stunningly hued birds and varied game you will see all around you.