by Ron Swilling
The early-morning mist in Swakopmund hovers over the town, desert and sea in a thick white embrace. The massive coloured balloon fires up in a blast of heat that can reach over 100 centigrade at the apex and boil an egg, and surreally floats into a new and lofty world.
Then it is silent. We drift effortlessly over the tawny gravel plains, streaks of mist flowing through valleys between granite koppies and dissipating, the desert etched with character like the back of an old lioness. We stay low, entering the soft mist, and rise with hot bursts up into the sky. The desert merges with the slivers of mist, creating the breathtaking moment.
Deciding when he was a young man that he wanted a different kind of life, one that meant never being stuck in traffic jams, Louw Potgieter chose a career that was full of excitement. He balances the balloon-flying adventure with over twelve years of balloon experience, level-headedness and years of flying in the Rhodesian airforce. When Louw received his first 160 000-cubic-foot balloon, he carried sandbags instead of passengers for the first six months, as he learnt and relearnt the weather and the wind, ‘until even the sandbags complained’.
He had never been in a balloon when he first set his heart on owning and flying one, inspired by his wheelchair-bound friend who envisaged the freedom of a balloon. Louw, predictably, fell in love with it straight away. “It is something you fall in love with the first time you do it,” he says, blue eyes sparkling. Louw was happily following in the footsteps of the Chinese who watched their airborne lanterns rise into the air and the two Montgolfier brothers who constructed the first balloon to be manned in 1783. He was enchanted.
With a balloon you don’t feel the motion; the ‘magic carpet’ allows you to drift one metre off the ground watching snakes and scorpions below or lift up to a thousand feet. It is a gentle journey.
Flying through the renowned Swakopmund mist bank, there is limited visibility and Louw uses his GPS until the balloon pops out above the mist. Everything revolves around safety, from gauging the wind, conditions and cloud base to monthly overhauls and services, and communication with the ground crew. Louw and his wife Marianne make a good team. With her knowledge of repairing balloons and organising the ground crew and his mechanical know-how, they are fully qualified and equipped to carry out their own repairs. The couple met in Kenya, Marianne teaching there ‘for the adventure of it’, finding the perfect partner to take her on the adventure of life. Louw worked as a commercial diver and has become more familiar than most with the world above and below the middle realms where most humans reside.
He mentions flippantly that maybe now as he gets older African Adventure Balloons will be his last adventure sport, but then in the same breath describes the zip line (foefie slide) he built on Rössing Mountain and how he ‘zips’ down it at 140 km an hour.
For the tamer folk, the balloon is the perfect vehicle to feel the unique environment of desert meets the sea and the celebration of mist in between. Louw flies at sunrise and sunset, flying at the most beautiful and colourful times of the day, the sunset flights generally flying to the north, hugging the coast to enjoy the sunset reflected in the sky and the ocean, the flight ending with champagne and sundowners. The morning flight ends with a light breakfast in the desert served on the back of Louw’s trailer, and champagne, ‘a flying tradition’, drunk to celebrate the flight, desert expanse and day.
At different times of the year and with the huge expanse of land from the ocean inland, there are various balloon flying options for the one-hour flight. In the winter the east winds push the fog out over the ocean and the sky is clear for a high flight over the dunes, with a view of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, and miles into the sea. Louw drops down into the dunes to appreciate their height and to savour the sensuous contours of the sand. On foggy mornings there are magical misty dune flights or the option of driving inland until a clearer place is reached. There are some rare days, and they can be any time of the year, in winter or during the rainy season, when there is a visibility of over 300 km and you can see all the way to the Spitzkoppe and Brandberg mountains.
It is the huge character of the desert coastline that you meet when you rise up to shake its hand in the heavens – the gravel plains, the desert dunes, the mountains, the river valley, the rocks and stones, the hardy bushes, the wild ocean and the embracing mist, the life-giving force of the Namib Desert.
For the sensation of drifting on clouds, of gliding through a silent world with desert magnificence spread below, a balloon journey provides the wings that you may always have been searching for, far far from traffic.
High up in the early morning skies, the mist and the sun meet, and for brief moments compete for utmost beauty as heaven and earth merge in a silent union.
This article appeared in the Dec ‘09/Jan ‘10 edition of Travel News Namibia.