Ballooning over the Dunes

Soussusvlei  -  Travel day to Windhoek

The phone rings at 5:30am with our wakeup call and I think, oh no, it’s our last day in Soussusvlei and our last full day of holiday in Namibia and Africa. There’s no time to dwell on it though, as this morning we have our sunrise balloon flight over Soussusvlei, and we have to get moving and hussle down to the main lodge.

At the main lodge they have coffee and breakfast snacks ready for us and the driver from Balloon Safaris is waiting for us. We have a few minutes before we leave so we enjoy our breakfast before heading out to the van and the trip to the launch site. We are both very excited about this morning’s activity, I’ve only flown once before many years ago in the Napa Valley and this is Kelly’s first flight.

It’s a beautiful morning and quite still, thank heavens for that, as the balloons don’t fly if it’s too windy. We get back onto the same road we took to the Dunes yesterday but stop after about 12 kilometres at the Le Mirage Desert Lodge to pickup additional passengers on the morning flight. I must say the Desert Lodge is a pretty weird looking place, the lodge is a ‘faux’ castle, plonked down in the middle of nowhere.

The van quickly fills up with French and German speaking folk, so Kelly and I keep pretty much to ourselves as we pull back out onto the road. We approach the turnoff to the launch site and leave the main road for a pretty bumpy track that seems to go on forever. Finally in the distance we can see the two balloons being prepared and the bags slowly lifting off the ground. By the time we have arrived one balloon is almost ready to lift off and the other is still being filled.

We grab our gear and head for the larger of the two balloons. This morning there are 17 of us flying, including the pilot Dennis, so it’s a big balloon and a big basket! Dennis looks a bit like he’s just come off an adventure with Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Arc, he’s got his old hat on, a pony tail, a moustache and a gottee and he’s speaking mainly french.

Dennis, our balloon pilot

He gives a safety talk in French and then a quick one in English for Kelly and myself. By the time we are all onboard the smaller balloon is lifting off and what a sight. 

Lift off

Now it’s our turn and Dennis gives the burners a good long burn and we slowly start to lift off.

Dennis fires the burners

What an incredible feeling, there’s the roar of the burners and the heat from the flames quite noticeable, but everything else is so still. At about a hundred metres the sun breaks through over the distant mountains and everything glows in it’s light. 

We are climbing faster and soon we are up to about 800 metres and we can see for miles, in fact we can see the tallest mountain in Namibia, Brandberg Mountain, 300 miles away.

 Brandberg Mountain – the small mountain right in the centre

Dennis and the other pilot are in constant communication talking about the best altitude for the best wind direction and he’s making constant adjustments to the balloons height and rotation. We can clearly see the other balloon heading for the dunes and we are following it.

Ballooning over the Dunes

I’m really taken by the view straight down, especially when we cross the Tsauchab River, that we drove along side yesterday.

 Looking down on the Tsauchab River

We pass over Springbok and some Ostriches as we head closer to the dunes. The other balloon has made it’s descent and is just about to land and unfortunately I think our flight will be over soon, however we’ve been up for over an hour which is quite a good time given the vagaries of the weather and wind.

Small balloon landing

The “Flight Crew” as Dennis calls his ground crew are following closely behind us and start to get into position.

Flight Crew track our progress

Flight Crew track our progress

As we descend we can clearly see that it’s Dennis’s decision to land us firmly ontop of the trailer being hauled by the groundcrew, which I think is pretty damn cool. He gently manouvers the balloon into a position where the wind will help the manouver and the flight crew grab what they can of the basket and drag us toward the trailer. Dennis manages the rotation of the balloon to align the basket with the trailer and ever so gently we settle down in place. A large round of applause! Once we had landed, the burners were shut down, the crew collapsed the balloon... 

Packing up the balloon

...and Dennis checked off everything.

Final check

We were driven to a spot not far from our landing point, with a view out over the Tsauchab River valley, where a long table was set out with a huge range of breakfast foods, juices, coffee and champagne. Dennis did the honors of cracking the champagne with a machette and all of us tucked into the spread they’d set out.

Breakfast Balloon Safari style

After breakfast we hoped in the van with the young man who’d picked us up this morning and headed back to the Desert Lodge via the balloon launch site. On the way there was a bit of back and forward on the radio, apparently one of the german couples who’d come with us this morning, had decided to head off on their own and go look at dunes, and the team at Balloon Safari were naturally worried about where they had got to. So on the way we stopped off at the Balloon Safari headquarters so our driver could report on what he knew. When we arrived there Eric, Dennis's father, and owner of the business came out and said hi and asked about the germans, we wished him good luck in finding them and then headed back to the lodge.

By the time we’d got back it was evident that I’d passed on my virus to Kelly and she was starting to feel much like I had a few days earlier. She thanked me for giving it to her but I said that she’d taken it from me without permission. I hope she will be okay for the flight back. I told her that I’d do the driving today and she could take some of my strange cold tabs and hopefully they would knock her out.

We’d packed everything up so we both took showers got dressed for the road and went back to the lodge to settle up and take a last look around. For anyone that loves beautiful isolated locations this is one of the best.

Looking South, our lodge is second from the end

Looking North toward the mountains

 Looking West to the dunes

The lounge at the main lodge 

The lounge at the main lodge 

Looking toward the dunes from the lounge

Looking toward the dunes from the lounge

The Pool

The Pool

We had a bit of trouble with American Express and our departure was delayed a bit while we tried to sort it out but finally we were on our way again retracing our steps from day # 22. Kelly had been wanting to get a photo of the huge birds nests we had seen on most of our travels through Namibia, so I pulled over when I saw a great example right near the road. These nests are made by the Socialable Weaver and are constructed on trees and other tall objects like telegraph poles.

Tree with nest

They are the largest built by any birds and are large enough to house over a hundred birds. From underneath the nest you can see all of the entry holes, but you don't want to stay there too long as the ground directly underneath is covered with bird poop.

Looking straight up into the nest

We went back up through Solitare, where we gassed up again, and then headed up the C14 for about 15 kilometres until we turned off to the right and headed for the Spreetshoogte Pass.

This route was going to be a little longer than alternative routes but apparently the pass is really steep, caravans etc are not allowed, and we like a challenge. The road to the pass was a pretty standard Namibian gravel road, much better than the outback ones we get, and it didn’t take us long to get to the foot of the pass, me I don’t think I’d take a truck up there.

Gradient sign at the base of the pass

Gradient sign at the base of the pass

That was an amazing drive up, talk about steep, at strategic points they had this tar sections that were in pretty bad shape, the rest of the road up was really corrugated so there was a lot of shaking going on. Fortunately the X-Trail held together and we had the most amazing view from the top, you can see the road off to the left snaking down the mountain and onto the plain.

Panoramic view from the top of Spreetshoogte Pass

Panoramic view from the top of Spreetshoogte Pass

There was a rest stop so we took a few minutes, drank some of our water and stretched our legs, we found this cross and wondered why and what had happened to make it end up here?

 Wooden Cross

We took off again and I was sure there was going to be a “down” version of what we had just come up but after a few kilometres I began to realise that there wasn’t going to be any “down”. I remembered reading that Windhoek is built on a plateau and I figured out that by coming up the pass we were now driving along the plateau.

From the pass it was a pretty straight forward drive, we passed a very small town called Nauchos, which we pronounced Nachos, and then to Rehoboth at the junction of the B1 which would take us straight into Windhoek.

Now in our 12 days in Namibia, driving in all sorts of road conditions, we had only had 1 flat tyre and I was really happy that nothing else had happened. So much for that, about 5 minutes before we hit the tar road, someone came racing up behind me and overtook me, rocks were hitting the X-Trail everywhere and one smashed into the windscreen gouging a nice little indent in it. Can you belive that after thousands of kilometers literally in the last 10 kilometers this happens. Oh well, what can you do.

It was luxury to be on the tar again but a bit strange to be driving in traffic once more, we arrived in Windhoek late afternoon and were glad to pull into the parking lot of the Olive Grove again.

We settled in both of us not feeling on top of the world and later on headed out to Joes Beer Garden for dinner. I wish we were feeling better because Joes was a bizzare place with bars everywhere, heaps of old bits and pieces piled here and there, lots of people, noise, big plates of food and me I forgot to take my camera. But here’s a link for a panorama taken by someone smart enough to go there with a camera. 

After trying, unsuccessfully, to eat the biggest plate of pork selections I’d ever seen we headed back to the Olive Grove. Kelly hit the sack as she wasn’t feeling very well at all and I tried to pack as much as I could that night so I could help her in the morning.

Tomorrow was going to be a big day, 4 airports, 3 countries, hours of flying.