SAFARI IN THE SKY
We fly to Sun City and check into the 5 star Palace of the Lost City Hotel. No other place in the world can compare with Sun City, an Imperial vacation oasis complex that glitters in the dusty desert.
We leave the gates of Sun City at 3:00A.M., and drive for an hour in chilly darkness to Pilanesburg National Park; we pass a giraffe enjoying an early breakfast.
If we’re lucky, and the wind is kind; our flight will not be cancelled. The anticipation of tracking the wild animals in a hot air balloon mounts as we approach an open field. It is a first for all, but the pilot. A deflated blue balloon lies on its side.
We wait in our vehicle until the balloon is inflated and prepped for flight; then climb into the wicker basket.
We rise slowly and begin to float. There is little motion. The heat is somewhat intense as Merwyn our pilot releases flames to lift us higher. I peer over the side of the basket, searching the passing landscape for signs of movement. We are only 200 feet from the ground, when I see two adults and a baby hippo frolicking in a morning bath. The rangers have named them George, Venus and Twiggy. Other hippos appear and waddle into the watering hole. We can actually smell them as we drift by. And as we climb, we pass over the the outstretched heads of two graceful giraffes nibbling on leaves at the top of a tree, a herd of elephants, and a zebra who is just hanging out.
The full moon continues to shine in the cobalt sky as sunrise flushes the sky with streaks of light. I can see for miles; my heart is racing, and I can hardly breathe. Merwyn tells us “the tricky part is landing in the park, near a road the rover and crew can reach. The wind will determine how high we soar and where we land. If the wind shifts, so will our direction.” The South African sun rises over the top of the mountain. We float over rocks being mined for diamonds. I look down; we are about 1,000 feet from the ground. The immensity of space and the close proximity to the animals below is emotionally overwhelming.
The wind picks-up, carrying our Blue Balloon out of the park and over a Township. Everyone on the ground starts waving, not sure if we are going to land in someone’s tiny backyard. Our pilot prepares to land in a field of trees and bushes. We crouch down, cushion our heads, and hold on to ropes inside the basket as we descend faster than expected. At the moment of impact, we realize we have crash-landed in a tree. The inhabitants of the township come running to greet us, as we climb down, brushing broken branches from our hair and clothes, and tears of laughter from our eyes. A jeep arrives with a bottle of champagne to toast our flight and landing.
At brunch in the park lodge, I receive a personalized certificate