We climb higher and higher in time with the rising sun. In a soft floaty bounce we drift up and down through the early morning air in search of a breeze. On this quiet, tranquil morning the soft hues of daybreak put on the most arresting exposition: stunning desert scenery as far as the eye can see.
Denis, my pilot on this new adventure, guides us through the skies, chatting away with charm and an easy familiarity. He speaks fluent French to the visiting couple in the basket compartment across from mine. They have been on this flight before, albeit with Denis’ father Eric at the helm more than two decades ago. That is how long the Hesemans have been floating over the Namib. What started with one balloon catering to a handful of guests in the early 90s is now a major operation. With at least three balloons in the sky each morning (weather permitting) and four permanent pilots on staff, Namib Sky has created a wonderful, immersive and spectacular vantage point from which guests of the plentiful lodges and establishments in the area can view the wonders of Sossusvlei and its surrounds.
For an hour, cameras snap away at the horizon. At the dunes in the distance, at the other balloon floating along east of us and at the gemsbok wandering on the ground some 100 metres below. As we near our landing destination we are treated to a close-up view of the dunes dramatically curved in texture, shape and shadows. In the smoothest manoeuvre I’ve ever seen a balloon pilot make (do take into account that this was my first ever balloon flight), Denis delicately puts the balloon basket down on the back of the waiting trailer… Aided, of course, by his ground crew who did most of the delicate manoeuvring.
Though the crew in the sky is obviously incredibly important (they have decades of experience between them), without their ground crew, Eric, Denis, Mike and Lenny would not be the successful skippers they are. The ‘Sky Boys’ (the moniker they’ve given to themselves) play an integral role in the operations at Namib Sky. They do a lot of the hard work. The heavy lifting. Packing up a balloon weighing several hundred kilograms, manoeuvring the giant baskets and the clean-up ‘brooming’ that takes place in the desert sands to keep it pristine after each landing are no easy tasks. The ‘Sky Girls’ prepare the delicious champagne breakfast you enjoy after setting down in a remote desert location, complete with home baked pastries and other treats.
In my dreams tonight and in memories for years to come I will remember this morning. How we sailed down the Tsauchab Valley. The dunes on both sides glowing in their iconic red tinge. They have been slowly rusting over millennia. Frank Sinatra gently croons in my head… Come fly with me, let’s fly, fly away…
As we near the wooden door with a sign that reads “Little Bugs” we hear the laughter. A soccer ball comes flying over the low wall. Once inside we realise that its origin points to the lively game being played on a lawn within those walls.
Classrooms. A play area. A dining hall and kitchen. Right here in the middle of the desert. Not really something one would expect to find, yet here it is. The Little Bugs Early Development Programme was started by Namib Sky a few years ago. Here, children from families living and working at lodges in the area are given the opportunity to receive education close to home, instead of having to be sent some 2 to 3 hours away to the nearest town. A bus makes the trek each morning, picking up kids in the vicinity for a day of fun and learning, breakfasts, snacks and lunches served, before taking them home again each day. In their well-appointed classrooms with doting teachers and caregivers at the helm, the Little Bugs are tutored from pre-school to early primary school. In 2018 the school had 25 pupils. Andreia Hesemans notes that they expect to have 30 next year.
In an adjoining room at the centre, sewing machines and all manner of materials and necessities have been set up as part of another community project for ladies from the area. They create lovely arts and crafts with vibrant African print fabrics. Namib Sky provides the equipment, facilities and materials needed and then, once the handiwork is complete, buys the crafts from the ladies and sells them to lodges across Namibia which put them up for sale in their curio shops. Each item has a tag with the crafter’s name “Made with Love by…”. With a brightly coloured stuffed rhino toy under my arm (made with love by Diana) I wave goodbye to a chorus of singing children as my journey continues onward into the desert.
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