Up up and away…..an early morning balloon ride over the Cradle of Humankind.

A few weeks ago I wrote this post about how we didn’t quite make it up on a planned hot air balloon ride. Well, the good news is that yesterday we finally went – and it was fabulous. I don’t want to write too much as I prefer to let the photos do the talking – but needless to say it was everything you would imagine it to be. Exciting, yet peaceful. Exhilarating, yet calming. The early morning start (3.30am to be precise) was the hardest thing about the whole day – that and then having tired, grumpy kids to keep entertained once we got back to Pretoria. But otherwise everything went very smoothly and we couldn’t really have asked for more.

After the ungodly wake up, we arrived at the meeting place (Kloofzicht Lodge) just as dawn was starting to break over the veld:

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Luckily we were met with coffee and a friendly face, as the pilots and assistants from the ballooning company registered us and told us a bit about our flight. Apparently due to the possibility of strongish winds we would be flying from the “low reserves” rather than the “high reserves” – not that that meant anything to us. So long as we went up this time, we didn’t mind where we took off from!

Eventually everyone was gathered and we set off in a minibus to the launch site. Which turned out to be just in front of the hotel where we had met! We could actually have walked it but there again, it was pretty darned nippy. Temperatures in the daytime are getting up to the mid thirties here in South Africa at the moment. But before the sun rises it’s still very chilly – it was certainly a case of hats and gloves all round at that time of the day.

At the launch site, we were greeted with more coffee plus rusks – very welcome as it had been too early for any food before we left home. We were then able to observe first hand how the balloon was inflated, which was fascinating:

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Finally the balloons (there were three flying that morning) were up and we were ready to go. Getting into the baskets was never going to be the most dignified experience, but once we were in we had a little cozy space with high barriers which made you feel very safe. This was particularly important for our youngest daughter who was getting very nervous about going up by this stage. Luckily there were little peek holes in the basket at lower levels so she was able to see out through those if she wanted to crouch down. She also had the class “pet” Crunchie the Crocodile to keep her company. I bet Crunchie couldn’t believe his luck when he found out he was going up in a balloon!

So, with a short safety advisory (which mostly revolved around what position to get into for landing and what to do if we ended up with the basket on its side), a bit of pushig and pulling from the balloon crew….and we were off!

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The pilot skillfully navigated us through a gorge, the balloon so low at some points that we were practically skimming the trees. It was all done with wind direction and using the hot air blaster (I am sure there is a technical term for this…) but even when it looked like we were about to come crashing in to land she never blinked an eyelid. She was so calm throughout that I never felt anything but safe, which is strange when you think you are hundreds of feet up in the air with nothing but a bit of basket between you and the ground below…

Anyway once out of the gorge we soared over the land, spotting ostriches, zebras, cavorting wildebeest and even a surprised looking warthog below. It really was magical:

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Spot the teeny-tiny zebra...

Spot the teeny-tiny zebra…

Crunchie enjoying the flight....

Crunchie enjoying the flight….

After about 45 minutes or so, by which time the sun was up and we were peeling off layers, the balloon did a loop around the hill to get back to more or less where we had started from (apparently it doesn’t always end this neatly – although I am sure the skill of the pilot was involved as much as luck đŸ™‚ ). Drifting in towards the landing site we had a great view of the hotel where we started and the surrounding countryside:

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And then we were down, and clambered ungracefully out of the basket to waiting champagne (and orange juice for the kids!). What a fantastic morning – and it was still only about 7.30am! We followed the ballooning with a big breakfast back at the lodge, and then, as it was still so early, decided to hop over to the Maropeng museum where the homo neledi exhibition is still on for another couple of weeks – having been extended due to the massive interest. On the way we passed the cutest family of warthogs which I can never resist – there is just something about warthogs and their tails:

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Having already been to the museum at Maropeng (which you can read about in my earlier post about our previous failed attempt to go up in the balloon), we walked right past all the exhibits and straight to see homo neledi. For those that don’t know, this is the exhibition of the fossils that were discovered right here in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind a couple of years ago and announced last month to huge international interest. The fossils have yet to be dated but they are something very new to science and are thought to represent a new species related to humankind. If you want to find out more you can read about it here – but we felt incredibly privilidged to have visited the fossils in the very place they were found and, due to getting in to the exhibition so early, to have had them to ourselves for a few precious moments:

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So all in all a great morning and exactly the sort of reason why we chose to leave behind our safe and happy lives at home in the UK and come to South Africa. I truly believe in grabbing every opportunity you get in this life and enjoying it. Here’s to the next adventure!

 TingNewBlue

We should have been in a hot air balloon…..

This post was meant to be about our hot air balloon flight. The one I booked months and months ago for my husband’s “big” birthday. The one we had been looking forward to since arriving in South Africa in early August.

It was meant to be but it won’t be – because we didn’t go. So instead this post will be about how we learnt about Mrs Ples, Little Foot and their friends, ate a LOT of meat, and didn’t go in a hot air balloon ride.

A LOT of meat...

A LOT of meat…

The weekend started in the usual fashion with long drawn out coffee drinking for the adults and Minecrafting for the kids. In other words, we didn’t have the usual scramble to get ready for the 6.45am school bus. Ah, don’t you love weekends? However, as nice as this was, the weather was putting a slight dampner on things – having had nothing but bright sparkly sun and clear blue skies from the moment we landed at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg just over a month ago, the weather gods had obviously decided we’d had enough perfect weather for now and sent some rain our way. And I don’t just mean “some” rain – I mean a HECK of a lot of rain. Non-stop downpour. Raining cats and dogs. You get the picture. As well as a huge thunder and lightning storm on Thursday night just to emphasise that they really did mean business.

However, I had been reassured by the Air Balloon company that everything would be calm and sunny again by (very) early Sunday morning and we would be able to fly. I figured they knew what they were talking about, they do this sort of thing every day, so we were still feeling fairly relaxed at this point.

After the coffee and the Minecrafting, we did a bit of packing and were finally on our way just before lunchtime – stopping by my husband’s office on the way out of town to pick up an umbrella (remember: our shipment of heavy baggage still hadn’t arrived at this point, so we didn’t have any of our own in the house).

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Our destination that morning was the Cradle of Humankind, a paleanothological goldmine of fossils and ancient finds that makes the area one of the most important in the entire world when it comes to working out how we evolved and whether there actually is a “missing link” between us and our possible-ancestors the Apes. [edited to say: since writing this paragraph, there has been worldwide news about the latest finds in the Cradle of Humankind, which is all very exciting!]. We headed first to the museum where, after a lunch looking out over the fairly non-descriptive “veld”  that dominates the area (think long, yellow grass) , we headed down a steep stairs and took a boat into the “mists of time”.

The grassy veld - walking over history in the Cradle of Humankind

The grassy veld – walking over history in the Cradle of Humankind

Okay, Disneyworld it was not but it was fun and the museum itself was full of interesting and interactive displays. Plus, we got to learn about how we are apparently all descended from the one type of humanoid ape that survived. Apparently there were others like us who didn’t make it. It’s really fascinating, especially when you are learning all about in the place where it all began. But eventully after the museum we headed off to a very nice hotel called Misty Hills, where we had a thatched roofed bathroom INSIDE our rooms! I kid you not.

Had the weather been good, the hotel would have been lovely – pools, play areas, lots of hanging plants, swinging seats and hidden little nooks. Not to mention hot chocoalate and marshmallows at check-in! However, the weather still WASN’T good and we ended up driving the 100 metres or so to the restaurant that evening because otherwise we would have turned up soaked to the skin. Even with the umbrella…

Anyway, the restaurant was worth the drive. It was a very special restaurant called Carnivore. You may have heard of it’s Kenyan sister, the original Carnivore – where a friend of mine tells me there was elephant on the menu! Well, there certainly was no elephant on this Carnivore’s menu, but there was zebra, giraffe, lots of antelopy things (kudu, springbok, gemsbok etc) and a lot of more normal meat like lamb, pork and beef. All brought to you on long skewers by waiters circling the restaurant, doling out their fare to every table with a flag still raised.

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The meat was all cooked on a central fire, delicious smells emanating…

My husband is a huge meat fan and was in his element. The rest of us did our best to keep up – some of the meat really was fabulous (my top three: lamb, gemsbok, spingbok samosa); some was more of a novelty (incuding the giraffe and zebra. I could only bring myself to try a tiny bit of the giraffe. I really like giraffes!).

Vegetarians, look away now...

Vegetarians, look away now…

Finally after a meal as well as all the mean also included some delicious freshly baked bread, a variety of small salads, baked potatoes, the Southern African speciality “pap” (a sort of maize porridge), a pudding apiece and a special Carnivore cocktail called Dawa, we admitted defeat and lowered our flag. I think we were finally all-meated out!

We made our way back to the room and knowing we had a very early start, headed to bed. Luckily the children were tired form the long day and all the meat-eating, so we were all soon asleep…..

…only to be woken what seemed like no time later by our alarms. Half past four am, we were up and half way into our clothes when I thought I had better check my phone. It seemed to have stopped raining but it was still too dark to see what the weather was actually doing outside. Good thing I did. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the balloon ride was cancelled! To say I was disappointed would be a massive understatement. I booked this special trip months ago, and the weather had been so perfect up until this weekend! We undressed, got back into bed and went back to sleep.

It turned out that the problem wasn’t so much the rain as the “moisture in the air”. In other words, it was foggy. I just wish they had thought to cancel the night before – they must have known it was unlikely to go ahead!

So the next morning instead of heading off to the balloon we headed off to a massive breakfast to compensate for our disppointment. And yes, we should have still been too full from the night before to eat much – but the food was very good!

The weekend ended with a visit to the Sterkfontein Caves, which was a fun and informative trip down underground where the children learned more about how and why fossilised remains are found in the caves, how stalagmites are formed and why it’s not wise to go cave-diving unless you REALLY know what you are doing! We really enjoyed the tour, the guide was friendly and funny and the children enjoyed crawling through some of the small tunnels. But it still wasn’t hot air ballooning.

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So since returning to Pretoria, we have rebooked the balloon for early October We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the weather will behave this time and we’ll finally be able to go up, up and away….in our beautiful balloon. And if it doesn’t work out this time I know we’ve really done something to madden the weather gods. Keep your fingers crossed for us!

TingNewBlue