Not just hot air

Dream flight: The balloon site in the setting sun. Photos by Sheila Castelino

“A traveller without observation is a bird without wings,” said Moslih Eddin Saadi, a medieval Persian poet. When I was in Luxor, Egypt, early this year with friends, we decided to take his words literally and signed up with an adventure company called Alaska Hot Air Balloons. A ride in a hot air balloon was the closest we could get to being birds.

We set out at 5 am the next day, crossing the Nile to reach the launch site on the west bank. We found the ground crew busy filling the balloon with air with the help of a fan. The balloon consists of a bag, or ‘envelope’, made of strong synthetic material like Dacron or ripstop nylon. Attached to it is a wicker basket, with compartments in the four corners for the passengers, and loops to hold on to, near the top of the basket.

The central compartment is for the pilot, and propane gas cylinders. Once inflated, the air in the balloon is warmed with the flame from the burners. The hot air, which is lighter than the cool air outside, lifts the balloon.  

While the preparations were on, we were briefed on the safety instructions for take off and landing. The main focus was on landing, to keep our face away from the landing direction, grab on the loops and squat. Finally, the balloon was ready for take off. Sixteen of us climbed into it. Ensuring we were all settled and ready, after one more round of safety instructions, and a practice squat position for landing, our pilot launched the balloon.

 In the beginning, I had a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. But this was soon overcome, as we rose higher. With the vast space around us, the feeling of being cooped up like chickens vanished. The green fields of wheat and sugarcane, the crisp early morning air, the rising sun and the clouds patterning the azure sky made us feel light hearted. Light headed, too. We were airborne! I asked the pilot at what height were we flying. With an enigmatic smile he whispered, “I’ll tell you on landing,”  adding aloud, “We are now flying over the ancient city of Luxor.”

Land of the Pharaohs
Luxor — from al Uqsur in Arabic meaning ‘fortified’ — has been called “world’s greatest open air museum.” Actually, Luxor is really three different areas. One consists of the City of Luxor on the east side of the Nile. Here is situated the famous Luxor temple. Then there is the town of Karnak, north of Luxor where you can find the Temple of Karnak.
And finally on the west side of the river Nile is Thebes, which was inhabited from around 3200 BC. Thebes is also referred to as the Necropolis (city of the dead). Located here are royal tombs.

As we flew over this ancient land so rich in history and culture, the pilot provided a running commentary. “There is the Valley of the Kings, where the Kings of the 18th and 19th dynasties were buried, totally hidden in the mountains. A change from the earlier Pharaohs who chose to build pyramids rising to great heights, visible from a long distance, as their burial place.    And see there right next to the Valley of the Kings is the Valley of the Queens. Even in death, they are near their beloved. Can you see the monument down there, with the three terraces and towering limestone walls behind?

That’s the Temple of Dier El-Bahri, built for the great Queen Hatshepsut. In this complex, you can see two other temples of Mentuhetep I, and Thotmose II. And a little further up, is the Ramesseum, a huge complex built by Ramesses II. It took 20 years to complete.”

Below, the river Nile snaked its way right through the land. Boats, feluccas and ships dotted its surface. On either side, fields in different hues of green, looked like a chequer board all set for a game. After a while we saw a lot of smoke rising from the fields. The pilot explained that after harvesting, the fields are prepared for the next crop by burning the remains. We could see farmers busy in the fields harvesting the crop, their chatter rising up to our ears. The donkeys and goats below, not to be left out, brayed and bleated.  

Soon we were flying over the east bank and had an aerial view of Karnak and Luxor Temples, the Avenue of the Sphinx, the obelix rising above, the minarets of the mosque in the Luxor temple complex, the ongoing restoration work. Our balloon floated above this timeless scene, rising and falling, swaying a little in the gentle breeze. Suddenly we flew so close to a date palm, I was sure our basket would get entangled. But, we only kissed the top of the palm tree and sailed on. 

We were promised a flight time between 35 to 55 minutes. But lady luck was on our side. The wind conditions were   such that the pilot could not reach the landing field and had to continue flying. We suddenly found ourselves flying over Luxor Airport, with a plane on the runway, taxiing and ready for take off. 

Exciting and scary. Then we flew over the desert finally with enough space for landing! The balloon landed, sliding across the desert, and came to a halt. We crawled out one by one. Holding him to his promise I asked the pilot, “how high?”, He replied softly, “1,150 Meters.” Wow! Henry Miller said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” After seeing Luxor from a hot air balloon, I second that.

Fact file
* Getting to Luxor: From Cairo or other major cities of Egypt, trains, buses and taxis are available. Domestic or international flights are also available. Another option is to take a felucca, or a cruise boat from Aswan, along the Nile.
 
* Distance from Cairo to Luxor 720 Kms.

* Transport in Luxor: Taxis, buses, air conditioned coaches, ‘caleches’ (horse-drawn carriages), feluccas, ferries.

* Currency: Egyptian Pounds. 1USD = approx 5.52 EGP

* Hot Air Balloon: Just after dawn or just before dusk is the best time to fly the balloon as there is generally less winds at these times.

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