Why, exactly, is my alarm clock sounding at 0400? My sleepy brain takes a while to work it out but perks up significantly when it does: this morning I’m going on my first ever balloon flight!
Balloon Adventures promised a pick up from our hotel at 0430 and bang on time the minibus arrives and we are on our way out into the dark, quiet city streets to three other hotels to pick up further guests. Our driver/pilot/guide, Atila, was brusque and businesslike rather than warm and welcoming but it barely mattered. He had 29 years experience piloting balloons which was the important part.
With everybody on board we were soon zooming along the Al Ain Road to the launch site close to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). After a quick stop at a petrol station to rendezvous with the other vans, we were at the launch site well before sunrise. We were instructed to leave everything behind in the van except one camera per person – no sunglasses, no backpacks or handbags or anything else loose – however I would recommend bringing a baseball cap or similar as the burner is uncomfortably hot on the top of your head at times.
Two balloons would be flying this morning and we were divided into groups of twelve, one group in each side of a basket. After been giving harnesses and a safety briefing we stood near the burner which was noisily heating up the giant balloon, its hot blasts quite welcome in the slight pre-dawn chill.
Gradually, the balloon filled up with air and rose above the basket, which was tethered by ropes to the ground. We were given the signal and everybody clambered aboard. Nobody looks elegant doing this but your life will be made easier if you are wearing clothes you can move in easily and swing your leg in.
The ropes were untied, the burner burned, and gently we rose into the air. It was exciting to rise above the beautiful dunes around us. As we rose higher and higher Atila kept up posted on the altitude, comparing it with Burj Khalifa, and pointing out the sights. We could see camel farms, the DDCR, and roads and villages. But mostly we could see the beauty of this part of desert.
The one hour flight flew by and soon the pilot was heading to a landing site, radioing with his colleagues so they could pick us up. When the basket was a few hundred feet above the dunes we finally saw some wildlife: some gazelles that clearly were not as happy to see us as we were to see them and sped off away from the balloon as fast as they could.
We were instructed to get into the position we’d learned in the briefing and braced ourselves for the multiple bumps that make a normal landing. Safely back on solid ground the only things brighter than the morning sun were the smiles on the faces of all the passengers.
The flight had been videoed and was available for download for 150 dirhams but there was no hard sell . Everybody was ferried in relays by SUV back to the vans and headed back to Dubai with the same driver. The sight of him using his iPad (again) as we sped along brought gasps from the passengers and most would, I think, have preferred not to have that unnecessary adrenalin moment. Despite that, we were safely back at our hotel and eating breakfast by 0900, as promised.