Blyde River Canyon, Drakensburg Mountain - April 4, 2015
Ehlanzeni, South Africa
What a morning! We have been looking forward to this new adventure from the beginning of this vacation - especially me! I think Tessa and Stan were just a bit apprehensive having never ridden in a hot air balloon before. I, on the other hand, had the pleasure of taking one of these great rides many years ago in St. Louis. I could not wait to see their impression of it all.
Our adventure started early with the transportation pick-up, 4 am to be exact. We were happy to see that Mike was our driver once again! The drive to the balloon launching spot was 1 ½ hours away but we were kept alert driving along by watching for animals in the dark. Right away, we drove past a female lion sleeping on the warm, dry pavement. As we continued, we spotted two hyenas, zebra and a bunch of rabbits! Animals love to move about during the hours of early dawn.
It was still dark when we arrived at the Blyde River near Hoedspruit. The Sun Catchers Hot Air Ballooning crew was busy inflating two enormous balloons. As we were served coffee and hot chocolate on the field, we met our fellow adventurers with whom we'd be sharing the gondola. One family was on vacation from their work assignment in Saudi Arabia and the other family was on a business/holiday combo trip from the Channel Islands in the UK. The sun was just beginning to light up the sky.
Everything was still and quiet except for the blast of the burners filling the balloons with heated air. Soon the balloons were inflated and ready. We loaded up, 9 people plus the captain in the gondola. The captain gave us some brief but important safety instructions, and the crew began to give the ropes holding the balloon to the ground some slack. We all nervously jumped when heard the loud blasts of fire from the contraption that heats the balloon and then . . . lift off. The lift into the sky was gentle and slow. . . not exhilarating at all, just very easy. Soon we were over the tree tops. The view was amazing and surely like what birds see all the time. The sunrise was magical and the way its light touched the valley at the foot of the Drakensberg Escarpment (Dragon Mountain) was spectacular. Our balloon flew over citrus orchards, a beautiful tree-lined river and a lovely area containing fancy vacation homes sitting on pretty estate-size lots complete with spas and swimming pools. We understand that some of these weekend homes are owned by South Africans but most of them are owned by Scandinavians who vacation there. As we sailed by, our gondola brushed the tops of tall Australian pines planted by farmers to separate fields and provide wind blocks. Animals down below could be seen very easily as well. We saw giraffes, wildebeests, and more impala. From this vantage point, the impala were so adorable. They could hear us high above and stopped to turn their faces toward us as if trying to figure out what we might be.
Unlike the lands around our Simbavati Game Reserve in Timbavati where there has been no rain, this place has seen plenty of rain recently. Everything was fresh, lush and brilliant green. In fact, the young woman, Maritza, who captained our balloon, said that we were extremely lucky in that we actually got to fly today. Several flights have been cancelled in the past week due to rain and bad weather.
When the ride was over, we were met by Mike and the chase vehicle which was packed with sparkling apple cider and champagne for us to drink in celebration of the successful flight. But that was not all. We were driven to a lovely place set on a hill in the woods called Blythe Cottage. We had to a climb a rustic path and cross a rope suspension bridge to reach the cottage area where a wonderful breakfast was served to us under the trees. It was such a pleasant, pretty spot, the food was fantastic, and . . . there was a puppy to pet!!!!!
On our sleepy drive back to Simbavati camp, we came alive when we saw a herd of maybe 100 or more Cape Buffalo crossing a body of water just off the road. We have never seen that many buffalo in a single herd!
A sad note. While we were away on our balloon adventure, a young badly injured hippo had made its way to the lodge. We saw him resting in the shade next to the main building as we drove into the entrance of the lodge. After a rest, he gathered enough strength to graze a bit but he had deep scratches and cuts on his sides; one leg was badly wounded and he was losing blood. Apparently, he had been in a fight with a larger bull hippo during the night and early morning before we had left the camp. Lelani, the general manager of our lodge, told us she heard all the commotion that took place earlier in the night and knew some terrible fighting had taken place. All the guests were watching and wishing the little guy to get better. He looked sad but he did not act as if he was in pain and he did not cry. Still we knew he was in deep trouble.
Our South African family friends left our lodge today and moved on to a family holiday house on the coast near Cape Town to celebrate Easter with their grandmother and greater family. We will miss them. For our afternoon safari though we met our new game drive companions: a young couple from London with their three children all under the age 6. Yikes! The middle child, a little boy we'd later learn is called Edwardo, became sick and threw up over the side of the Land Rover before we had barely left camp. Yikes! Crying, whining, wiggling, barfing, squirming kids. Yikes!
First impressions, no matter how vivid and convincing, rarely hold water. As it was, the mom, Lettie, was terrific with the kids. She calmly settled them down, cleaned little Edwardo and soothingly explained to him why he was sick and made him feel better. She also was a first rate game spotter. She could see animals even before the tracker and guide could. This was definitely not her first safari. Thanks to her quick and sharp eyes, we saw elephants, giraffes, lots of impala, steenbok, water buck, and a glorious owl in a limb head-high so close it almost touched our faces. As our families grew more comfortable with each other, we found those three kiddos to be cute and lots of fun!!! Sometimes it was difficult for Tessa and me to look for animals because the kids were so much more entertaining!
When we returned to the lodge after the afternoon safari we found more bad news. The hippo was still bleeding. He was lying on the grass just at the door of the main area. Hyenas had begun to arrive and to circle the entrance to the lodge. While the philosophy of keepers of private game reserves and national parks rangers is to let nature take its course and to offer no interference, the lodge staff was concerned about having hyenas attacking the hippo so close to us human beings. Plus lions could possibly arrive to challenge the hyenas for right to the hippo as well. The staff simply could not risk the high level of danger the situation might pose to us all. They contacted local authorities to obtain advice as to what to do. After dinner, and just before falling asleep in our beds, we heard a single loud BOOM!
At that moment we realized what the decision had been. I am sure everyone in the camp said a silent prayer for the young hippo. This keen lesson in the ways of nature was sobering. Nature always leans toward what is best, but this story was also simply too sad for words.