Heights don’t agree with me. Or, more accurately, I don’t agree with heights. I’m tall enough as it is, so I make a point of staying at sea level whenever possible. Today, however, I’m about to go higher than I’ve ever been before without the aid of an aeroplane, which explains why I’m a tad apprehensive.
I’m sat in a minibus alongside eight other intrepid travellers, bumping our way down a dark desert road to Nahe, a Bedouin village between Al Ain and Dubai. Here, we’ll board a hot-air balloon to see what the desert looks like from 4,000ft. I’m fine with flying in planes – there are seats, meals and in-flight entertainment. Balloons don’t have any of these things, plus I’m concerned about the open basket, which can only mean the chances of me falling out are considerably higher.
My daydreams of disaster are interrupted when the minibus skids to a halt, the door slides open and we’re greeted by a loud, cheery German accent. It’s Peter Kollar, our pilot for the day. His jovial, slightly crazy demeanour relaxes me. Surely this isn’t a man who witnesses people falling to their deaths every day?
Peter is a seasoned pilot who founded the first commercial ballooning company in New Zealand 10 years ago. He’s since relocated to the UAE and, while he admits the arid desert is a change from flying over lush Kiwi landscapes, it’s not a move he regrets. ‘It’s amazing for people who’ve never seen the desert to see it from a bird’s eye view. Yes, the landscape is barren, but this gives it a particular beauty, which makes it very different from any other country I’ve flown in, and I’ve flown in many countries.’
It’s not just the views Peter enjoys, but also the practicality of flying here. ‘The weather is very reliable. In New Zealand, we often cancelled every second day,’ he says. ‘We all know why New Zealand is so green – is because it bl**** rains there all the time!’
To my mild disappointment, he’s right – the conditions this morning are perfect and he sets about firing up the balloon, which slowly begins to inflate, lifting from its side to an upright position. ‘Jump in!’ he cries, over the roar of the burner.
We’ve all been briefed and manage to clamber into the basket without falling over. We’re wearing harnesses, but we’re told that these are only used in the event of turbulent weather; as it is, the only thing separating me from the ground is the basket’s walls and floor. But there’s no time to have second thoughts – the balloon has already risen silently into the sky. The minibus in which we arrived has shrunk to the size of a toy car and Peter’s ground assistants appear no bigger than ants.
I’ve never really appreciated that balloons are totally at the mercy of wind direction. But this, according to Peter, is the attraction of ballooning. ‘I’ve got friends who fly commercial airliners [as well as balloons], and they’d give that up any day because it’s like flying a big bus. But they’ll never give up ballooning, because ballooning is real flying. Ballooning is where you’re really flying with the weather – you’re as close to Mother Nature as you can be.’
Speaking of Mother Nature, the advantage of recreational ballooning in the UAE is that it has a comparatively minimal environmental impact compared with sports such as dune bashing or quad biking. Peter points out this is why ballooning is allowed in areas such as the Masai Mara in Africa. He adds that since he started ballooning in the UAE, he’s had to change location several times because parts of the desert over which he’s flown have been ruined by irresponsible tourism.
Happily for us, the desert below is spotless – an endless expanse of rippling sand dunes. As the sun rises, my apprehension disperses. I’ve never been one for heights, but even I could appreciate that some things are worth seeing from a different perspective.
A hot-air balloon experience costs Dhs950; Dhs800 for kids aged five to 12. www.ballooning.ae (04 285 4949).
Going up in the world
Ballooning isn’t the only way to get a bird’s eye view of the region. Seaplane company Seawings provides sightseeing flights over some of Dubai’s man-made wonders (The Palm, Burj Al Arab, Khalifa), costing Dhs1,225 per person for 40 minutes. A snip, we’re sure you agree.
For more details, call 04 883 2999.
Alternatively, you can see The Palm from up high by chucking yourself out of a plane. Don’t worry, you’ll live to tell the tale – you’re attached to a skydiving instructor, who in turn is attached to a parachute, so all’s well that ends well. A skydive with Skydive Dubai costs Dhs1,700.
Finally, if you’re far too rock and roll to fly in a plane, try hovering in a helicopter. Heli Dubai charters choppers for Dhs15,000 for a 90-minute round trip.
Call 04 224 4033 for info.