My new travel adventure memoir, Watch Out for Pirates, is available for pre-order now (and publishes on 24 May).
Want to win an advance copy? Just nip over to my Facebook page and comment on the pinned tweet – I’m giving away 10 FREE eBook copies on 6 May.
In the meantime, here’s a sample chapter – the time I braved the skies above Luxor in Egypt on a never-to-be-forgotten hot-air-balloon ride.
Call me old-fashioned, but you’d better have a good reason for planning on waking me up at four in the morning.
“The winds are calmest at dawn,” said the travel agent, tapping his nose, in the manner of a spy announcing his arrival at a secret location.
“And the balloon is less likely to have an accident then,” he added, which was not the clinching detail he thought it was.
But I did want to see the temples of Karnak and Luxor from the air, more than I feared being smeared across the ground in the Valley of the Kings, so I signed the various waivers and set my alarm clock. Four o’clock it was.
I’m no scientist, but this seemed dangerous
Hot-air ballooning in Luxor is a big attraction, but it doesn’t have the greatest safety record. Balloons in Egypt have crashed, caught fire and flown into things at reasonably regular intervals over the years, but then again, what does anyone expect? They are massive nylon globes with a wicker basket underneath, powered by combustible gas cylinders that emit a roaring flame. They don’t have brakes or a steering wheel and rely on wind currents for manoeuvring. I’m no scientist, but they don’t seem like a good bet for a trouble-free ride. It’s amazing any of them go up and come down again without incident. I should think you only need a one and a zero for the “Days without an accident” counter in your average hot-air-balloon office.
As it is, I don’t like flying at the best of times, which is not helpful for a travel writer. I used to be all right until the time they thought they had found a bomb on board a flight I was on, and we had to make an emergency landing in Iran. After that, funnily enough, I became less keen on the whole flying business. I usually apply copious amounts of alcohol, and work on the basis that any aircraft I’m on is bound to crash, so that I’m pleasantly surprised if terribly hungover when it doesn’t.
I take the train where I can. But if the promise outweighs the fear, I’ll go for it. To visit Australia again, I know I’ll have to fly – they just better keep that drinks trolley fully stocked. If, to see the Niagara Falls up close, I must get on a flimsy looking helicopter, so be it. Not that I saw the Niagara Falls up close, you understand, because as soon as the pilot put the helicopter into a deep dive “for a better look,” I shrank into my seat, whimpered uncontrollably, and didn’t open my eyes again until we landed twenty minutes later. Big waterfall, apparently, meant to be quite impressive.
I figured a balloon ride over Luxor, while inherently dangerous, would be – counter-intuitively – safer. No rotors, no moving parts, for a start. I have never been fully convinced that an aeroplane’s wings aren’t just screwed on to the fuselage with a three-quarter-inch metal thread, so the thick, knotted ropes attaching the balloon basket already seemed far more secure. And how high could a balloon possibly go? You could probably jump out and land in the Nile if you had to. I was entirely happy with this delusional risk assessment because I really, really wanted to see the Luxor temples from the air.
An open-air museum of extraordinary richness
I’d already seen them from the ground, along with everyone else, and because it was summer it had been the usual exhausting experience for anyone visiting the famed ancient capital of Upper Egypt. Once known as Thebes, the pharaohs’ capital, the ‘City of a Hundred Gates’, Luxor sits on the banks of the River Nile and is nothing so much as an open-air museum of extraordinary richness. Century upon century, layer upon layer. For sheer archaeological spectacle, there’s no place like it anywhere else on the planet. But touring the sights can be brutal.
In daytime temperatures approaching forty degrees Celsius, we had trailed around the Great Temple at Karnak and then skulked in the cool, labyrinthine tombs which puncture the barren hills of the Valley of the Kings. We’d crocodiled through countless chambers of vivid hieroglyphics, walked between towering stone columns, and listened to an endless litany of kings and dynasties that made less sense the longer the day went on. The scale and scope – thousands of years old, hundreds of feet high, built by countless, unnamed workers – was almost beyond comprehension. In addition, guides, touts, stallholders and itinerant sellers had all had a piece of us. Souvenirs had been thrust, threatened, waved, offered, proffered, brandished and even bought. We’d ‘done’ Luxor and Luxor had done us.
What I really needed was sleep, not a crack-of-dawn alarm call. But what I also wanted was a second go at Luxor, from the air, without the heat and hassle. So four o’clock it was, which – to be strictly accurate – is not the crack of dawn at all. Dawn implies the imminent promise of some sun. Let’s call it what it is and have done with it. If you want to go ballooning in Egypt, you need to get up in the middle of the night.
By four-thirty we were down by the Nile, where it was at least blessedly cool – the first time in days that I had been able to breathe properly outdoors. We were given a cup of tea and a croissant – they said breakfast, I thought midnight snack – and away we went. Crossing to the West Bank in an open launch, the shadows began to lift from Luxor’s buildings, and I could just about make out the reed-strewn banks on the other side. It was quiet apart from the chug of the engine and the occasional call of a bird that had got up too early.
Our pilot had the unlikely Arabic name of Kevin
At the launch site, we were introduced to our pilot, who had the unlikely Arabic name of Kevin and turned out to be Scottish. I liked Kevin immediately, mostly because he wore a crisp, white shirt with gold epaulettes and a peaked cap – clearly a man who knew a thing or two about reassuring jittery, sleep-deprived customers that they were in safe hands, despite the fact they were about to be herded into a crate hanging off a giant, flammable plastic bag.
Kevin came with a ground crew, who jumped out of a pick-up truck and started laying out the balloon and connecting the basket and fuel cylinders. To say they were a cheery bunch would be an understatement. It was like being in a scene from Madagascar: as the sun finally began to rise, they all began to sing loudly, banging out a rhythm on the sides of the truck. Kevin, meanwhile, stood some distance away, checking the winds, which seemed to the layman to consist of looking at his watch and sticking a finger in the air. But the man had epaulettes and a pilot’s cap, so we left him to it while the crew liked to move it, move it.
By about six a.m. the balloon was ready, swaying above the ground, with the basket tethered to the truck to stop it lifting off prematurely. Unless the truck was coming too, always a possibility.
The balloon basket had high sides and four or five compartments inside. Kevin did a bit of professional sizing-up and distributed us around the basket, either according to weight or dependent on who he thought was most likely to panic – get the whimperers in the middle, that would be my guess.
It was all done very calmly and unobtrusively, which I can tell you from experience is a far better method than that used when I went on a sightseeing light-aircraft flight over Canyonlands in Utah. To be fair to that pilot, he’d already bristled when we asked him where his dad was when he walked up to the plane. Pro pilot tip, if you look that young, you should probably go for a false moustache or something. Then he reached into his bag, pulled out a set of bathroom scales and weighed every passenger before seating us in strict order. Knowing that the aircraft tolerances are that wafer-thin does not fill you full of confidence, especially when you’re in the hands of a pilot who might want his mummy at any minute.
Kevin, though, was a man in command. He took up a position in the middle, had a quick look around, reached into his pocket for a two-way radio and requested clearance from Luxor airport.
Nice one, Kev, we thought. Good joke: pilot’s uniform and a radio.
But after a short silence came a squawk and the rasping voice of an air-traffic controller giving us permission to ascend to eight hundred feet, so that showed us.
Up we went
Up we went. Not in a roaring rush of wind, as you might expect, but slowly, in gently bobbing rises, until the singing, waving ground crew was out of earshot. You barely felt the balloon lift. One minute, ground; next minute, sky; and no real way to determine how high we were, with just a featureless plain below. With short blasts from the gas cylinders, Kevin positioned us in an airstream and then switched off.
Eight hundred feet up, hands gripping the waist-high basket sides, everyone peered down onto a timeless Egyptian landscape. It was utterly silent in the dawn light. Below, was the Valley of the Kings, now ochre-red as the morning sun rose; then the rock-cut mortuary temple of Hatshepsut; and the sandstone figures of the Colossi of Memnon, all laid out like markers on a desert map. Overwhelming from the ground, from up high they were suddenly human in scale – Shelley’s mighty works in ‘Ozymandias’, reduced by Kevin and his balloon to a scene “where the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The line between parched desert and cultivated land was abrupt – on one side grey and red, the other green. We drifted towards the Nile across chequered, irrigated fields, watching birds wheeling hundreds of feet below us. Occasionally, the balloon would rise or fall as Kevin looked for a new air current to change the direction of flight, and he followed the river to put us directly above the Karnak and Luxor temple complexes, two hours before the day’s tourists arrived to trudge around. The searing sun of yesterday, the heavy-footed walk, the tired minds overloaded with facts – all forgotten as we floated serenely by.
On the outskirts of town, we dropped down far enough to make out individual flat-roofed houses, whose enclosed yards contained chicken runs and chained dogs that were asleep in the dirt. Just below us, almost close enough to touch, a household woke up. From a line of beds on the roof there were stirrings under white cotton sheets and then an entire family in night-shirts was waving as we drifted over their house. Did they do this every day? Were they on the balloon company’s payroll? Anything is possible I suppose, but I like to think that there’s a middle-aged man in Luxor who still remembers the time his dad woke him up when a hot-air balloon flew over their house.
Landing was a Keystone Cops-style chase across the fields
The flight finally ended in the fields beyond, but not before an exciting segment where the ground crew suddenly reappeared in the pick-up and chased us as we descended. They were still singing, but we’d now gone from Madagascar to the Keystone Cops, as they careered through sugar cane fields, trying to anticipate the landing zone. At some point, we picked up a gaggle of shrieking children too, which added to the hilarity as the balloon skimmed along horizontally, ten feet above the ground. I must have missed the bit where Kevin requested permission to land from the control tower, though to be fair to the Luxor airport authorities they were probably more concerned with keeping an eye on their runways rather than random farmers’ fields.
Everyone hauled on the guy ropes at the given signal, the basket bounded a couple of times in the crops, and at last we were all bundled out on to firm ground. Turns out there are brakes, after all, though you’re a bit more personally involved in landing the craft than is strictly encouraging for a nervous flyer. Can’t quite imagine the Qantas pilot letting everyone from rows one through twelve have a go with the joystick, but Kevin was nothing if not inclusive and I am now officially allowed to say that I have landed a hot-air balloon. There were handshakes all round as we got in the vehicle to take us back to town. I’m not sure, but Kevin may even have saluted.
After all that excitement, it was only seven a.m. Still not getting-up time, but nonetheless, Luxor had redeemed itself from on high – a good enough reason after all to set the alarm for the middle of the night.
Image credit: Balloons over Luxor, Marcus Leal, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0