Augrabies is best known for the Augrabies waterfall in the Augrabies Fall National Park, but Augrabies also refers to a tiny settlement about 20 km from the park borders where a community mostly consisting of farmers and seasonal workers produces oranges, pecan nuts, grapes and raisins.
Kalahari Hot Air Ballooning
I went ballooning with Andrew Hockly form Balloonscape, what an amazing experience! One of those things you just have to do...
Have you ever been on a magic carpet ride? No, of course not. The closest you will come to a feeling of drifting by slowly and observing our planet from above like a ghost on a cloud or an Arabian spaceman, is if you are lucky enough to get into a hot air balloon and watch gravity weaken its hold without too much of a fight or unnecessary drama. It’s a gentle drifting on an ocean of air, and apart from the occasional gas burn, it’s quiet enough to experience how far and clear sound can travel when you are unattached to mother earth.
I don’t have too many fears, but I’m not overly fond of heights. I grew up in the Free State, and although my Father was a pilot in the air force; in the part of the Free State I come from things are generally not much higher than a Welkom mine dump. Strangely enough: as I listened to Andrew as he talked about the multidimensional space in which a hot air balloon pilot must learn to operate, I did not feel apprehensive or nervous at all. I got the feeling that everything was going to be fine and I based this notion on the fact that the man exudes confidence and a ‘fiery’ passion for what he does.
Andrew Hockly grew up in the Eastern Cape where surfing became his first big love. Not the competitive kind you see on the sport’s channel. No, the real deal. The type of surfing that has its roots in the human compulsion to search for, and experience pure joy. The term ‘soul surfer’ was coined in the 1960’s and refer to those individuals who surfs for the pure pleasure the activity bestows on its participants. In 1997 Andrew departed for much different waters when he came to Augrabies next to the Orange River where he started Kalahari Adventures, a company that specialized in river rafting. This he did for 10 years after which he decided to become a surfer of another kind; a soul surfer of the sky. Andrew took to this like a ‘fish in water’ and found himself to be a natural at navigating the sky, coming second in the 2013 South African Hot Air Balloon Championships. “I never cared for competitions,” Andrew muses somewhat philosophically, “I just wanted to show that I deserve to be here. Now I can get on with what I’m passionate about and not worry about what other’s in the industry think about me.”
Clearly I was in good hands. So what about the flight itself? I will describe it as a gentle thing. It’s not so much ‘flying’ as it is drifting. The earth slips away slowly and there is no desperate, noisy, steel creaking, exploding fuel in rocket furiously tearing you from the greedy arms of gravity into a hostile sky. None of that. This type of movement into the ether seems almost natural. Besides the occasional sound of the burners heating the air it is also quiet and it’s amazing how far noise can travel when you’re floating around in this manner. Being out in the open and not enclosed in a cockpit, the view from this vantage, is also uniquely spectacular. The vista is wide, far and detailed and at this pace you can even have a conversation with the odd earthbound spectator, a novel experience indeed. And then there are the wow moments, moving slowly above the earth, literally skimming the bushes, and then a short while later you are soaring high above the surface of our planet up to an elevation where you can almost make out the earth’s curvature. Likewise the landing is a soft and gentle thing as well and the champagne once you are back on mother earth is particularly refreshing when you are still slowly coming down from an adrenaline high.
I asked Andrew to tell me about any highlights that stood out for him over the 10 years that he has been doing it and he tells me about dipping into the Augrabies gorge once or twice before. At the moment this can’t be done commercially due to restrictions about entering the airspace above the national park, but Andrew reckons that if permission is given to fly the gorge, that it will elevate this ballooning adventure into a world class product that could easily compete with similar awesome places in the rest of the world like Cappadocia in Turkey or even the Grand Canyon.
The whole experience lasts about 4 hours, starting with a cup of coffee at the Augrabies Backpackers while the necessary indemnity forms are signed after which the balloon is inflated. The flight itself is an hour long. After landing the traditional bottle of champagne is on standby to sparkle your senses back to earth. The experience ends with a breakfast at the Augrabies Falls Lodge.
Should you do this? Absolutely! It is a truly unique and breath-taking experience, something worthy of any bucket list and a memory that is well worth the expense and effort. Many thanks to Balloonscape for this amazing treat.
Hot Air Ballooning Images
River Rafting with Kalahari Outventures
I spent a morning going down the Orange River with Kalahari Outventures and experienced a few rapids and amazing birdlife...