Flying across the Namib Desert in a hot air balloon
Five years ago, when my wife and I were first wandering across Namibia or, more precisely, the Sossusvlei pan, its greatest landmark, two hot air balloons appeared in the morning sky. We said to ourselves that it would be cool to try, but we had no time for a balloon adventure back then. Well, this year we finally made our wish come true: flying over the Namib Desert is an unforgettable experience, which makes you see the desert in a completely different light. Amongst the dunes of the wide Sossusvlei Valley hide long-forgotten dried-up lakes, such as Hidden Vlei and Dead Vlei, created a long time ago by the Tschaub River travelling towards the Atlantic Ocean it would never reach. In and of itself, these places are incredibly picturesque: however, seeing them from a hot air balloon calmly gliding by gives them another dimension. Red sand lying over white and brown sand dunes is brought along by air streams and is deposited on dunes that surround these lost valleys. Some trees, with roots reaching up to 50 m in depth, are still able to reach the groundwater and can therefore survive for now; most of the trees in this dry, hot desert climate, however, have long since died, leaving their carbonised branches and tree trunks to decorate the lost world of this part of the Namib Desert. The aerial view reveals so much more than one can see while standing on the sand crunching under your feet.
Our flight took place in the early morning, a little while before sunrise: that’s the only time a calm atmosphere and favourable winds allow hot air balloons to fly. Due to pronounced thermals and strong winds, flying later would be too dangerous. It could happen that a hot air balloon finds itself having to land amongst the dunes: once there, it would be impossible for the passengers to return, at least through the usual means of transport. We were flying in one large and one small balloon: the small one was reserved for two newly married couples, while the large one accepted a crowd of around fifteen individuals who have been enduring the “punishment” of marriage for a while longer, accompanied by our South African pilot. As we rose to a height of about 1800 m, the smaller balloon, which flew slightly below us, provided a beautiful addition to the backdrop of the desert emerging on the horizon and uncovering itself below us. The dry beds of the rivers Aub (in the south) and Tschaub (in the north) meander through the Sossusvlei towards the west: as they seep into the sand, they never reach the Atlantic Ocean, even when the riverbeds are filled with water. For the Tschaub River, this last occurred for about two weeks in 2011; as far as the Aub River is concerned, nobody can remember the time when water was last flowing through its riverbed. Despite this, both riverbeds are surrounded by a surprisingly large number of living trees, mainly thorn acacias which have extremely deep roots and can also survive in an environment where it practically never rains. All water that sometimes reaches this remote corner of the world comes from a highland in Central Namibia during the rainy seasons. The other water source, which is probably even more important, is the fog, descending for a couple of hours every morning on the coastline and reaching up to 30 km towards the interior of the desert. This fog is a consequence of an extremely cold Benguela ocean current flowing from the south towards the north next to the Namibian coast. When it encounters warmer land air masses, a cloud of fog covers the desert. Numerous plants and animals populating the desert have adapted themselves to the water produced by this fog: without it, there would be no life in the Namib Desert. Our hot air balloon flight also uncovered some of the inhabitants of the desert: an oryx and its shadow, treading along a well-worn path, a water source with little paths leading towards the watering hole like sun beams, and a hole created by a bushpig, an unusual nocturnal animal which is practically impossible to be seen. We also saw numerous roads and cart tracks, a clear sign that this seemingly impassable desert is crisscrossed with many paths used by people and various means of transport. After about an hour, we were back on solid ground: our pilot landed exactly on the intended spot, nearly crushing the truck that later drove away with the basket and the balloon.
After landing, a glass of champagne and breakfast under one of the red dunes were awaiting us. This was a little too posh and unnecessary for my liking, but it came with the package. The hot air balloon flight, however expensive, was worth the money. It’s something you can afford “once in a lifetime”, but I’d be immediately ready to do it again. Well, maybe some other time, and at another location, even though I’m afraid there aren't many locations as picturesque as this one …
Dr. Tom Turk
Dr. Tom Turk is a professor of biochemistry at the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana. He is a biologist and an author of books about life in the Adriatic Sea and Mediterranean Sea, traveller and nature photographer who, every now and then, still dives below the sea surface and takes an underwater photograph or two. He is especially interested in nature protection and conservation of biodiversity. He’s also a member of the editorial board of the Slovenian edition of National Geographic.