Journal: Friday 26 April 2002
I felt like I had got up in the middle of the night! Well, it was, because the clocks went forward overnight so we lost an hour’s sleep and were up at 4.00am but I was so excited to be going on my first balloon flight that I didn’t feel tired. I have been wanting to do this flight for years.
Mary and I were collected from the Novotel at 4.30am in a minibus for our ride over to the West Bank where we would meet the Hod-Hod balloon. I was all wrapped up in trousers fleece and scarf, expecting it to be chilly up in the air at that time of the morning and was laughed at by the crew who said I would not be cold. Just past the Ramesseum, an enormous blue and yellow balloon was waiting for us, already half full of hot air, and we were quickly ushered into the fragile-looking basket. There were only six of us today so there was plenty of space. but we were told that sometimes there were as many as twelve passengers. Mary was a little apprehensive when she saw that there would only be a flimsy square of woven wicker basket beneath her feet, but I couldn’t wait to get going. Finally we were all aboard and ready for lift-off. The captain, Mahmoud, dressed in his smart pilot’s uniform, explained to us what would happen as he turned up the gas sending bright jets of flame up into the balloon. They were right, I wasn’t going to be cold and could already feel the heat scorching the side of my face as we gently hovered for a few seconds above the ground. With a jerk the land was suddenly dropping away from us and we were ascending quickly and drifting along in the direction of Dra Abu’ l-Naga.
In a hot-air balloon, we are at the mercy of the wind and the currents and although the balloon can be controlled to a certain extent we had to go where the breeze took us. While I had hoped we would drift south towards Medinet Habu, or even over the King’s Valley, we were off in the other direction and found ourselves high above the Qurna Temple of Seti I. What a spectacular view – the temple was laid out below like an architect’s model and we could see the layout of the whole monument within its enclosure walls. The thing that surprised me most – though it shouldn’t have – was that there was just not enough light yet to get any reasonable pictures. With a telephoto lens on my SLR and very long exposure times I expected disastrous results and was a bit disappointed. Mahmoud then took the balloon off towards the Nile and Luxor and in the east I could see the sun just beginning to appear, turning the long ribbon of river a hazy gold. In the distance I could make out the jumble of columns and roofs of Karnak Temple on the East Bank, massive on its 60 acres of land and then we were suddenly going back west again.
Captian Mahmoud likes to play – the balloon was one minute rising high and the next plummeting towards the ground to within a couple of metres, almost brushing the heads of early-morning farmers crouching in their fields and who I expect were quite used to his daily antics. At least one man who was picking onions looked up with a resolute scowl as we seemed to almost be landing on his head. As the sun rose the long softly-lit lit shadows played over the miniature fields giving us a view that can never be see from the ground – the neat little bundles of crops laid out in wonderful patterns in every shade of gold and green. We drifted along over the old village of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna where the occasional electric light still twinkled in the houses and then we were high over Hatshepsut’s magnificent temple nestled against the cliffs of Deir el-Bahri, again with a view of its proper context. Gliding along the monument road I could see all of the destroyed temples, laid out in squares in the sand, something else that cannot be easily see from ground level. I was in heaven.
All too soon we came down to our landing spot near the Ramesseum, where our wicker carriage touched town with a gentle bump and the flight was over. I just wanted to go straight back up again, but the huge balloon was already deflating. The ground crew had laid on a little ceremony with drumming and dancing and we were presented with a certificate each and a complimentary Hod-Hod T-shirt. As we were driven back to Luxor I could see a couple of other balloons still drifting high in the air and was envious, but by 7.30am we were safely back in the Novotel and ready for breakfast – a fantastic start to the day.