The troublesome thing about hot-air balloons is they fly best in cool air.
This is why, in the pre-dawn gloom of a midsummer morning in South Africa, we were looking for a rugby field in the Crocodile River Valley, an hour's drive from Johannesburg.
Through the grayness we could just make out the white rugby posts. As we got within goal-scoring range, we saw the wicker basket that would carry us aloft. At first glimpse, it looked disconcertingly fragile, an oversized shopping basket, but closer inspection revealed the steel hawsers and bars that reinforced it.
Since balloons first flew in the 18th century, no one has improved on wickerwork for the strength, flexibility and lightness it offers. The waist-high basket was divided into three compartments, one for each of the two couples who would make the flight and one for the pilot, with four pressured propane tanks linked to the burners.
The basket's edges were padded for comfortable leaning and grasping; its inner walls were lined for us, to brace our backs against in case of a rough landing.
The balloon itself was still in its bag, rather like a sail before it is hoisted.
Within minutes, the dark blue nylon decorated with gold stars was unfolded, a long flat sausage that stretched 100 feet across the green grass.
A fan was used to start inflating it, and slowly it expanded, billowing and growing. The basket was turned onto its side so the burners could be fired horizontally into the balloon to finish the inflation. The roaring flame shot forward. Slowly, majestically, the blue balloon began to swell, then lift itself off the ground and into an upright position, its skin now taut, tilting the basket with it.
While all this was going on, tea, coffee and rusks were served by a white-coated waiter at a linen-covered table set up beneath the goal posts. The silver clouds were blushing with light pink as the sun rose slowly from beyond the hilly horizon.
It was time to take off. We put down our white china cups and clambered into the buoyant basket, now held down by two helpers. Already the pilot, Marty de Kock, was in his pen, hands on the burner controls above his head.
Marty has run his Airtrack Adventure Ballooning, one of three major balloon operations in the country, for 11 years. He now has five licensed pilots and has had 16,000 passengers, only one of whom was too frightened to actually fly, he says.
We needed to be up and away before the air became so warm it counteracted the lightness of the balloon. With a whoosh, the burners shot blue and white flames into the open neck of the balloon. We had, in the jargon of astronauts, liftoff.
Smoothly, gracefully, we inched upward. There would, said Marty, be no other movement. We would not swing or jolt, gyrate or suddenly drop. We were effectively at one with the air, moving at its pace, wherever it chose to take us. The balloon could be spun on its vertical axle by an adjustment of a small flap, but not directed, except by the wind, which was blowing in a direction exactly opposite the one that had been forecast.
Instead of heading over the nearby game park, we were on our way to the eyesore quarry. Such are the surprises of ballooning.
Behind us on a hilltop we glimpsed a herd of wildebeest, a disappointingly fleeting wildlife sighting.
The quiet was broken only by the regular roar of the burners, which sent hot air down on our heads and backs as well as up into the balloon. It was altogether surreal.
In the field below, we could track a hare on its early-morning run. On the dirt roads, the early African risers on their way to work waved to us as we drifted blithely overhead. Homeowners, coming out for the day's first breath of fresh air or to collect their newspapers, appeared surprised and delighted at our stately progress.
Marty popped open a bottle of champagne, and we toasted the delightful experience.
After an hour of bird's-eye viewing, Marty, who recently broke a South African altitude record with an ascent of 27,500 feet, decided to take us down for a touch landing and accelerated takeoff.
We dropped at 600 feet a minute, a little less than the normal descent speed of the parachute. As the ground grew larger, the burners were fired intermittently to slow us down. There were jagged rocks in the grass below, so we inched upward until the wind carried us to a flat piece of land. We bent our knees to brace for the impact; there was hardly any.
No sooner had the basket settled than Marty fired both burners simultaneously. In a fury of sound and fire we left earth again, this time springing rather than floating upward. Up we went to 2,000 feet, where the breeze was colder and swept us over the quarry and above posh thatched houses with swimming pools and tennis courts. Ducks looked like so many white petals on ponds. We flew over a flower garden, which, Marty told us, exported tulip bulbs to Amsterdam.
Following our course on the ground, as best possible, was Marty's wife, Diane, a ballet instructor when she isn't tailing the wind-borne. She was in a four-wheel-drive Toyota with a trailer that would take us and the balloon back to the starting point.
It was time for what to most passengers is the most frightening part of the flight - landing. Conditions on this day were calm, and there was no cause for concern. We glided down to a field, but the wind freshened at just the wrong moment and pushed us toward a barbed-wire fence and trees.
Marty aborted the landing and fired up the burners. We cleared the trees with inches to spare. Beyond was a soccer field. We headed - or rather were wafted - toward the goal posts. Again the breeze was less than helpful, shifting slightly to blow us toward more trees and another fence.
Marty decided to put us down quickly though gently. We braced our knees, but there was virtually no impact. We came to rest just feet away from the trees and yards from a group of amazed locals who studied us as though we had arrived from outer space.
It was time for manpower to take over from the wind. The two male passengers climbed out of the basket, holding onto it so that the loss of their weight would not allow it to float upward again.
The idea was to pull the balloon over the fence to the soccer field. Marty gave a brief burner burst, lifting the basket to shoulder height, and it was easy to guide it the 20 yards to the clear ground.
A few minutes later Diane arrived. Using the burner expertly, Marty floated the basket squarely onto the trailer. The balloon was then quickly deflated, folded into its bag and piled onto the trailer.
The next stop was a nearby country lodge for a full English breakfast. There, Marty handed each of us a certificate, affirming that we each "had the courage to defy the laws of gravity and explore the oldest form of flight known to man. Floating like a cloud and looking back at the earth as few ever have, this new discovery took place over Crocodile River Valley."
We accepted the accolades with a lot of pleasure and a little pride. The cost of the trip was $200 each - not cheap, but worth well it.
When you go
For Airtrack Adventure Ballooning, contact Lenore Griffiths. Phone 011-27-11-957-2322. Address: PO Box 630, Muldersdrift 1747, South Africa
Pub Date: 9/06/98