Egyptian Adventure: Flying with Pharaohs and Crashing Like Commoners

Our trip to Egypt had already exceeded expectations. The courtesy of the Egyptian people, the knowledge and professionalism of our tour guides, the food, the culture, and the stark beauty of this ancient land all made for a legendary anniversary trip. There was only one part of the adventure left before we would begin our journey back to the States. We would fly in a hot air balloon over the Valley of the Kings.

The morning began at 4:00 AM. With the rest of the cruise ship still soundly asleep, we made our bleary way down to the lobby where only a handful of guests waited to begin the hot air balloon excursion. This was an optional package ($110 each) that we added on to our base trip, but the opportunity was too unique to pass up.

We crossed the Nile in darkness, and I marveled at the quiet, cool Egyptian morning, with the pre-dawn glow just beginning to separate the black hills from the black sky, a broken line of liquid silver tracing the rocky edges.

Arriving at the departure zone, the field was full of half-inflated balloons and groups of tourists clustered along the perimeter. We watched the process as each balloon was inflated, righted, filled with passengers, and launched. A beautiful ballet of fire, color and silhouette.

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The three of us piled into our balloon basket along with our Canadian friends Keith and Marj and 30 new acquaintances, made up almost entirely of a Japanese tour group. It was close quarters, with barely enough room to turn around in place. But we secured a spot along the outside edge and were able to take turns admiring the view.

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For a long moment, everyone was silent, taking in the beauty of the scene and watching the rising sun turn the dry hills into mounds of copper and gold, a verdant green checkerboard of wheat and sugarcane bounding the Nile on both banks and keeping the desert at bay.

It was magical and worth every penny. One of those moments that, even while in the midst of the experience, you say to yourself, “This is something I will always remember.”

The pilot elevated our balloon above all of the others and periodically brought us down to skim the tops of the sugarcane stalks, the bottom of the basket gliding only a few feet off the ground and parting the plants like a rich green sea. “It’s the easiest way to slow us down,” he told his passengers, some of whom had grown aware that this wasn’t simply part of the adventure. And I watched his masked concern as he eyed the high-tension power lines that loomed in front of us and downwind.

He radioed to the ground crew, barking orders in Arabic too quickly for me to make out anything other than, “Besora’a! Besora’a!” Telling them to hurry up. We dipped even further down into the tall grass and lurched to a stop, the basket tilting precariously, and waited as members of the ground crew slogged through the flooded field, visible to us only as trailing movements through the sugarcane.

Then they appeared from nowhere and surrounded the balloon, finding handholds to push and pull us through the field as the pilot added hot air once again to give us lift and make the task a bit easier. For a moment, the wind gusted and the basket knocked over a crewman on the forward edge. He went into the water and mud face first, the basket barely gliding over him.

But he popped up on the other side and hurried back to help his coworkers, grabbing a wicker rung right next to us. “Mafish mushkila?” I asked as he brushed leaves out of his hair with a free hand. None the worse for wear, both the crewman and the pilot turned at hearing my broken Arabic and began laughing. “Mafish mushkila!” they agreed. No problem.

This sort of thing must happen all the time.