“If we have to wake up at 4.30 AM, it better be good!” That was the thought in my mind when the hot air balloon operator told Kai and I that we would be picked up at 5 AM the next day and transported from our comfortable city apartment to the middle of the UAE to view the sun rising over the desert (1,000 metres above the ground).
The next day, our hot air balloon adventure started off in a most unremarkable and sleep-deprived fashion. It was one of those mornings where we barely crawled out of the bed, with hardly any time to wash up. We duly washed ourselves that morning with a perfunctory rinse of cold water in the shower. We did not even have time for coffee — the great cure of early morning tiredness — as we hastily rushed to pack all the things we would need for the hot air balloon. Neither of us had any previous experience on what to expect and so our nerves were on edge in anticipation of being suspended a thousand metres in the air in a wicker basket, held up by only the force of hot air.
When the time came, the tour company van picked us up to transport us from Dubai. Before reaching our destination — somewhere midway between Dubai and Al Ain – we were already in the clouds before ever stepping foot in the basket. Pea soup thick fog is a common phenomenon during the winter months and that morning the fog was so severe that when the dark of the night gave way to the morning it seemed like a transition from the darkness of a cave into a billowy cumulonimbus cloud.
Just minutes before the scheduled arrival at the site of the balloon launch we pulled up at a petrol station, the driver was unable to navigate the roads any more due to the lack of visibility. Indeed, the fog was so thick that the balloon operators had radioed news to the driver telling us that they could not fly the balloon and that we would have to wait for the fog to give way before they could operate. So we waited at the petrol station. And waited. And waited. Already sleep deprived the uncomfortable van seats made us even more cranky. We rose early for what? As the delay continued we realised that not only would we be missing the comfort of sleeping in our bed, we would also miss the aerial view of the sunrise as now it was already 8 AM and the sun — though not yet visible — had already been out in the sky for the past 2 hours.
Inside the van we grumbled and spoke with the other depressed adventure seekers. Of note was a couple from Mexico, both of whom live in Saudi Arabia. And in true Saudi form, they live in a compound for expats and had come to Dubai to escape the ennui of the Saudi kingdom. Luckily we had the company of this couple to help us bide our time as we exchanged stories of living in the Middle East as expatriates.
Finally, some time around 9 AM we got the good news from the driver. The balloon operators had called to notify that the conditions were now okay to launch the balloon. The fog at the petrol station was still thick, but now we could see the silhouette of the sun through the fog. Delighted at the idea of finally being able to experience the hot air balloon, we were already feeling a bit down at the thought of having missed the sunrise. Nevertheless, as we boarded the baskets under the direction of the balloon captain, we felt a tinge of excitement as we readied ourselves to be elevated above the fog to float above the desert.
What we at first thought was a curse turned out to be a blessing. As our basket ascended into the air we were treated to one of the most beautiful sights either of us had ever seen: thick patches of fog scattered over the red desert sand lit in full view by the Middle East sun. The fog looked to us like wisp clouds from our vantage point, giving us a sense that we were even higher than we actually were. It also helped that we were treated to the most Middle East of all sights while floating high in the desert air — herds of camels passing under us was as common as pigeons in the city of London. At the apex we were cruising over 1,000 metres above the ground. As we leaned over the side of the basket we felt an awe for the natural beauty of the desert, which was surprisingly green on account of the agriculture supported by ground water irrigation.
As our basket returned to the ground an hour after take off, it also gave us another perspective on life in the Middle East. Our landing site was next to the residence of a local (Emirati) family. We saw the locals — dressed in their traditional clothes — in their ATVs with smiles on their faces as they watched us land the balloon near a herd of camels.
In the end, it was worth the early morning wake up and we learned that life often brings gifts in disguise.
If you are thinking of similar adventure in the UAE please check our tour provider: Balloon Adventures Emirates