Luxor is the jewel in Egypt’s tourism crown. There are many ways to see it’s famous tombs and temples. The most exhausting being a traditional tour, on foot. The most magical, taking to the skies in one of Magic Horizon’s Hot Air Balloons!
Too excited to sleep, I was awake before my 03:30 alarm even went off. Mr Fluskey had once been up in a hot air balloon but (despite being a Flying Fluskey) I had not.
We got ready and stumbled down the stairs for our 04:20 pick up. The waiting minibus drove us two minutes up the road to a small dock, right opposite Luxor Temple. The whole group was gathered by 04:40. This seems to mean, the further from the temple you are staying, the earlier your pick up will be.
We made our way carefully down the dark gangplank and onto the boat just as the morning’s first call to prayer rang out across the city. Laid out on the table was a selection of tea, coffee and fresh mint with a pot of hot water. Each passenger also had an XL Twinkie.
Never in a million years would I have guessed that I would be given a Twinkie in Egypt! The Australian guy next to us had never tried one, and it was a beautiful moment to share his first time. He popped a bite of the oily, sickly sweet snack cake in his mouth and chewed contemplatively. “Well I couldn’t eat a whole one” he grimaced.
Our captain for the day, Bob, embarked and began his safety speech. Half the group was Chinese and I don’t know how much or little they understood of the talk. He explained the landing position, which was very important, and told us about how he expected the morning to go.
We all had to fill out a form with our name, hotel name and weight in kilos. At this point, you may be tempted to lie, but it is vital that you are honest or they may not have enough fuel for the flight.
The boat chugged across the Nile in the darkness and two minutes later we were back off and into another minibus.
Magic Horizons Balloons
There are lots of companies flying their balloons over Luxor, it’s pretty big business. I wanted to make sure we chose a company with a great safety record and an equally sturdy reputation. During my research I came across Magic Horizons and this became my number one choice. Bob, the pilot not only has a hot air balloon license but pilot licenses in Egypt, the UK and the USA. (Turns out he lived just up the road from where I used to live in Sussex).
All the balloons that Magic Horizons own are made in Bristol, UK to the highest standard. They also own the largest basket in the world. It holds a whopping 28 people, and it was in this basket that we were to head skywards.
With sunrise fast approaching we arrived at the launch site. Four huge balloons were already semi-inflated and the jets of flame lit them up like huge Chinese lanterns.
Watching the balloons fill, feeling the heat radiate and hearing the burners roar from some distance away was exhilarating.
Around the base of each balloon, the ground crew dashed. Baskets were brought on flat bed trucks and attached. Men shouted instructions at one another in between the burners bursts and as each balloon prepared to leave, they descended upon the basket yelling and straining to take the strain until it was ready to ascend.
Taking Our Turn
The first balloons rose away from the launch site and were quickly replaced by the next four, including ours.
We lined up in front of the basket and prepared to clamber in. There are little foot holes to help you but you have to be pretty sprightly when getting into the basket. It is about a metre deep and divided into nine sections. The outer four take four people each and the central section holds the pilot and the fuel canisters.
The burners are scorching! Every time they blow you feel a rush of heat above you. Obviously, if you are in one of the outer sections you won’t be as toasty.
The Take Off
The ground crew waved us a cheery goodbye before we slowly bumped up into the sky. The balloons are held down by trucks and the crews have to time when to let it go. It all seems like a tussle, hot and noisy until, seconds later, you are floating away. As the world drops away beneath you, all the madness seems to drip from the basket and serenity takes over.
As some of the other balloons had left, the occupants could be heard screaming at the height but our fellow passengers seemed to be made of stronger stuff.
Up In The Air
One thing about hot air balloons that both makes complete sense, and yet I find baffling, is there is no wind. Well, there is, but as the balloon is guided by it, the basket feels very little air movement. It is incredibly strange to be high up in the air without a breeze whipping your hair into a frenzy. In fact, the whole experience of floating along is fantastically relaxing. The noise is little to none…until the burners make you jump and you remember that fire is what is keeping you up.
Doing a tour of the West Bank of Luxor the previous day gave us a good idea of what it was we were looking at. I think it real bonus to know what you can see.
Behind the next set of balloons lies the Valley of the Kings, resting place for the Pharaohs, and Valley of the Nobles. You can also make out the Temple of Hatshepsut, a famous female Pharaoh. It looks like its built into the rock, but it’s just an optical illusion.
The Angry Man
The balloon began to descend slowly and we were all a bit giggly and nervous. We floated down at around 30 metres. The guy next to us piped up, “What are we doing?”
The pilot explained that he was taking us lower so we weren’t blown east too quickly, losing nice photos of the West Banks sights.
The angry man shouted that there must be something wrong with the balloon!
And so back into the sky we rose and began to drift east towards the Nile.
Well what can I say. The views from 300m were spectacular. The River Nile, that slices through Luxor, glistened in the rising sun. The minaret towers of numerous mosques pointed skywards. The whole scene was gorgeous. I thought it made a nice change from walking along the tout heavy street level.
As we came down lower, the wind had noticeably picked up. Where as before, we had been 30 metres off the ground the lazily drifting sideways, now we were swimming along at some speed.
The pilots tried to find a landing spot for quite some time and finally the flying team shouted “LANDING POSITION”. We crouched down, noticing that our section of basket seemed much smaller as we all jostled for knee space. Each of us clung on to the handles in front of us, anticipating a bumpy landing. Peeking out of the foot holes, used for climbing in and out of the basket, we saw the ground crew running full pelt to try and keep up with the balloon.
Turning the World Right Side Up
It was quite a bumpy landing, and honestly more intense than I was expecting. I found out later that we landed at 15 knots, way above the normal speed of around 2 or 3. The basket had dragged along the desert floor and then tipped over. We were fine but a little sandy. It was a stark contrast to the blissful peace of the flight. We clambered out into the sun-baked surroundings and dusted off.
When everyone had composed themselves, angry man kicked off again, and so the pilots gave us a quick explanation. If there is no wind, you cannot fly at all. At the time we took off, the winds were light and favourable. Whilst in the air an unusual gust had started up below us. At that point, you just have to get on and land. Angry man looked like his whole day had been ruined but it was just 10 seconds out of a very enjoyable hour and so I was pretty relaxed about the whole thing.
After a quick snap with our certificates, we were all assigned a minibus. How they made it to the landing site in time baffles me. The ground crew really earn their gratuities. We had a little doze and before we knew it, we were back at our hostel, and just in time for breakfast!
Thinking of booking with Magic Horizons Hot Air Balloons? Here are my top tips:
- You can book your experience before you leave home through Magic Horizon’s website.
- Get a good night’s sleep. I was very over-excited and so I didn’t sleep all that well. It is a very early start.
- If you are planning to take a camera or video camera, make sure it has a wrist strap or similar. It would be heart-breaking (not to mention dangerous) to drop anything over the edge of the basket.
- We flew in summer but it can be chilly if you are doing so in the winter months Nov – Feb. Take a scarf or an extra layer.
- Don’t be like angry man. If you don’t understand what is going on, just ask the pilot, they have a wealth of knowledge.
- Magic Horizons has insurance for its passengers so you don’t need to worry about a thing.
This trip was sponsored by Magic Horizons Hot Air Balloons but all opinions are entirely my own