Up in the Air

Up in the Air


The cold air hit me as I stepped out of the vehicle with my friends, banishing any trace of sleepiness. We had awoken at an ungodly hour for the ride that took us from the lights of still slumbering glitzy Dubai to the inky vastness of the desert.

At the site, the crew was busy prepping their equipment. It was dark and cold – the temperature at that time reaching only 10c. I shivered in my light clothing, mentally kicking myself for not being better prepared. We mingled with other patrons and watched from a distance as the men fired up the propane tanks. Soon the burners were roaring, brightening the area with their molten lava glow. The massive fabric balloons that had lain flat on the sand started to fill out and the baskets tethered to them were now standing upright, held down by long ropes pegged into the ground. We climbed into the baskets, about 10 passengers in each, with a pilot manning the controls in the centre. Under the roar of the propane fire, the pilot welcomed our group and went through safety drills including how to brace ourselves for landing. It was heartening to hear he had many years of hot air balloon and commercial aircraft flying experience under his belt.

Once the rope ends were released from the pegs, we floated gently up to about 200 feet and stayed mostly suspended in one spot. The pilot checked the wind speed and direction, and was in constant contact with the ground crew. He told us interesting facts about the history of the area and its people.

Soon the sun emerged from the dark horizon, brightening the cloudless sky and dissipating the chill. Sand dunes that had been shrouded in darkness now revealed their mesmerizing beauty, flowing in endless waves of rose-gold tinted brown. It was surprising to see shrubs growing in random spots, also swathes of green indicating farmland. We were told by the pilot that Bedouins, traditionally nomads, had been given land and were now into farming and livestock rearing. At one point, we espied a small herd of deer bounding across the sand dunes and quickly disappearing into the landscape. It was a magical sight!

Towards the end of our balloon ride, we sailed over a Sheikh’s private oasis verdant with palm and other native trees. On the lush lawn, we saw some men in robes each holding a falcon in his gloved hand. Apparently, the falcons were being trained. Falconry is a traditional sport of the country.

Soon it was time for us to descend. The propane tank was turned off and the roaring flame extinguished. The sand dunes rushed towards us. We grabbed the loops that were hanging from the inside of the basket and as it landed on its side, we lay on our backs. The deflating balloon dragged the basket across the undulating sand. The ground crew ran towards us and held on to the ropes, finally bringing us to a complete stop. It was a pretty bumpy landing and we were glad to scramble out of the basket, a bit dishevelled but thankfully unscathed.

Shortly after, we were driven to another area in the desert that had been set up as a Bedouin camp. At the entrance, we were greeted by a local in traditional attire who offered us black tea and dates. With the sun now blazing upon us, we settled down on cushions placed in the cool of canopies and enjoyed a delicious breakfast topped off with flutes of sparkling champagne.  

📑Pema Hou

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