The view from above
Our third week in Luxor started with a bang (luckily not literally!) as I got to tick off an activity that's been on my bucket list for a long time, riding in a hot air balloon.
A few of the hub families had mentioned wanting to join a trip over the desert in Luxor and our wonderful hosts Abdel and Louise were happy to help us get in touch with the right people, book our spots (and even get a cheeky discount too).
So, Sunday morning, at 4:45 AM, way before the sun rose we joined a minibus convoy to the outskirts of Luxor. Although Kris came with us in the bus he did not join us up in the balloon. He has a real fear of heights, and although he pushes himself to try things every now and again he invariably doesn't enjoy the experience and I find myself unable to relax as I am worried about him. But he wanted to be part of the day and so was to stay with the ground crew after we took off.
There must have been at least 20 minibuses that set off that morning, packed with tourists, most of whom had come over from the East bank that morning as part of a two or three day visit to Luxor. It was a race between them and the sun as they hurried to get everyone to the launch fields before sunrise.
After 20 minutes or so we pulled into a bumpy field and as we got out of the bus we could make out the outlines of balloons, trailers and people in the dawn light, with the occasional burst of light and noise as the gas engines were tested.
We stood to the side, kids and adults alike completely transfixed with the site in front of us when our guide came over and ushered us through the field to where our balloon was being set up.
We stood in awe as the gas was lit and the balloon slowly inflated, rising high above us, lifting the basket from it's laid down position to sit upright awaiting it's passengers - us! We had a very quick safety brief, something along the lines of:
1) Don't move around too much in the basket
2) Don't lean over the edge of the basket
3) On landing you'll need to listen to the captain very carefully, you'll need to squat and brace but don't worry he'll tell you what to do.
Then we were in, the boys and I gave Kris a quick hug and kiss and, after helping Dexter up over the top of the basket, we were soon lifting up and away from him.
I am going to leave the flight just for a moment and stay with Kris on the ground, he said it was an odd feeling watching us float off into the sky but he soon found himself adopted by our guide and ground crew who showed him where he could get a hot black tea and offered him snacks while they packed up the gear they'd need for landing. Then it was time for them to begin following the balloons to be ready to meet us at the other end of the trip.
It's worth saying, and I'm a little glad I didn't know this in advance, but there is no real steering involved when it comes to air ballooning, the captains take note of the wind that day and, using just their experience, will float the balloon at a height they hope will mean they catch the relevant wind current to take them in the right direction. We hoped to head across Luxor's farmland with the Nile to our left and the Valley of the Kings to our right, but there was a chance we'd go over the Nile into the built up city or over the Valley into the desert and so the ground crew wait for us to get going, see what direction we've going in and then set off after us. Kris said it was exciting chasing us and he was very happy to be firmly on the ground.
So, back up in the balloon. We rose surprisingly quickly but I was unaware of our position in the air for a while as I was so overwhelmed with how loud the gas was. Huge, loud bursts of noise every couple of minutes as our captain expertly carried us up to catch the right currents. It was hot too, each burst bringing a wave of heat down into the basket. Everyone, all 24 passengers, chattered excitedly, pointing out things in the basket and balloon and checking in that everyone was comfy and OK.
After 5 minutes or so there was a lull in noise as we began coasting on the breeze and everyone settled down and it was at this moment I turned to look behind me and was completely in awe at what I saw. The sun, rising over the Nile, was tinting the sky in pinks and oranges as the darkness retreated away above us. To the other side, the valley of the kings emerged from the shadows of night, revealing all their grandeur while beneath us a patchwork of lush green farmland stood out in contrast, sandwiched between the dark blue grey of the river and the bright yellow orange of the desert.
Seeing Luxor from this vantage point was incredible. As I took in where we were I looked over at the boys, Jake chatting away to a friend as they tried to spot landmarks they recognised and Dexter, who had realised he could see through the square hole of the foot hold for a perfectly framed view down to the land below, was sat quietly taking it all in. I felt completely overwhelmed that we could give them this experience and very, very grateful for all the hard work and hard decisions that our past selves had worked through to get us here.
I don't really know how long we were in the air but I think it was about an hour from take off to landing, I could have stayed there all day. As we started to come a little lower we needed to get over a last swath of farmland to reach clear desert on the other side. Our captain informed us that sometimes, although never with such a good pilot as he, balloons would come down into the farmland itself and the passengers would often be confronted by an angry farmer or two! We did pass quite low over one farmer in particular, who stood, arms crossed with a deep scowl as the children laughed and waved to him!
As we got lower we could see the minibuses, racing through the bumpy country roads to meet us, the children started waving and shouting to them too, it was a very happy bunch of people.
Our captain then went through landing procedures, we'd need to stand with our backs to the centre of the basket, squat slightly and push against the outer wall with our hands, he warned us that it would be bumpy! "Positions" he shouted and we all dutifully did as he said, holding our breath. There was one bump, then a slight pause as the balloon rose again, then a second bump and we found ourselves being dragged a short way along the dusty floor. A third bump and that was it, we were down and the ground crew were ready and waiting to grab the anchor ropes and stop us from taking off again.
There were cheers and claps as we realised we were safely down and the crew sprang into action making everything safe and secure.
We were all asked to stand in the middle of the basket, and soon realised why as the heat was removed, the balloon guide ropes released and the balloon deflated over the top and edges of the basket, leaving us cocooned in the middle! Not for long though as, again the expert crew were quick to lift and fold one side giving us a way out.
We all carefully got out of the basket, thanking our captain and crew, and there was Kris ready and waiting for us, I'd really enjoyed the trip but it was nice to be reunited with him.
We made our way back to our buses and, this time in bright daylight, made our way back into Luxor and home.
It had been an early start to the day and the rest of the day was spent relaxing, eating, and definitely some napping too! I am so pleased we had the chance to balloon here. We got to do it with a wonderful bunch of people, in an incredible landscape and, hearing what other people have paid to do similar trips in other parts of the world, really affordable too (we paid about EGP £600, about GBP £27, or USD $33 per person with children being half price).
For us it was a real once in a lifetime event and if it's an experience on your bucket list too I'd highly recommend Luxor as a place to seek it out.