Years ago when I was travelling south towards Senegal for the first time, I was waiting in the queue at the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat when I heard English voices. An older British couple were approaching and stood behind me. We got chatting as strangers in a strange land are wont to do and I discovered they were travelling south in a large camper van. After filing our papers, they invited me upon “the Enterprise.” A four wheel drive Mercedes fully kitted out with bathroom, kitchen, solar power and all the trimmings. There was one additional item that I hadn’t expected though – a hot air balloon that they stored in a box on the back. After coffee and a good chat we bade farewell, thinking we’d probably catch up somewhere down the road. I hoped we would – the chance for a hot air balloon flight across the Sahara sounded impossibly romantic, but I never saw them again, on that trip at least.
Late last year, around November I received an interesting email. I receive a lot of interesting emails, but this one was really interesting.
“We are a couple from the Peak district who are travelling with our friend across West Africa to fly our hot air balloon in each country. Do you have any space at your guesthouse?”
Now, there can’t be that many hot air balloonists with an interest in West Africa so I enquired if they’d been in Mauritania six years ago and yes they had, came the reply. Another one of those great coincidences – they’d found my place on the net when researching places to stay and had no idea we’d previously met. A few weeks later, having read my book, they arrived late one night. Chris, Sue and their friend Paul looked exhausted after a long drive across the Gambia, but they soon settled in with a cold beer and buffet of Khady’s delicious food. Later we spread out maps and plotted potential launch sites. By this point I’d also arranged a support vehicle and been asked to join them on a tour through Guinea Bissau and the republic of Guinea. It’s a hard life, but someones got to do it.
The next day was put aside for preparation as well as a flight locally. I went with Paul to fill their gas tanks in Kafountine as well as to look for potential launch and landing sites.
Ultimately we decided the large open area with an old air strip, just to the north of Abene, would suffice given the wind directions.
Now, one of my concerns was how would the local authorities react. They explained that there’s two ways of going about things. Either apply for permission and all the necessary permits or just do it, then go explain yourself afterwards. Option one can take months of bureaucracy with no one really sure what you’re doing, which was thoroughly impractical for them so we just went for it.
I’ve never seen a hot air balloon up close before, let alone been in one. It was fascinating to see the launch process – building the basket, spreading out the “envelope” (I soon got the hang of the terminology), holding it open as a powerful motorised fan blows air in and then firing the gas, which was much louder than I expected.
Gulliver was sat on the back of the pick up watching, but ran scared as the flame roared. Then it was ready. Chris and Paul clambered in, heated the air further and then they were off, surreally just floating slowly away across the scrub.
We all jumped in the back of the pick up to follow them. They went up perhaps 50 metres, floated across dried paddies and then drifted back down again. We were about 100 metres away and they started shouting and beckoning me over.
They’d explained before that the purpose of their trip was for each of them to log a flight in each country. If there was time for a second flight, I may have a chance for a go – I’d hoped so, but knew it wasn’t guaranteed. Well, they’d been managing my expectations and the idea all along was for me to get a flight across Abene. I ran across the paddies, trying not to slip on the rough ridges and as Paul climbed out, I jumped in. Chris gave a brief safety demo and then we were off, rising swiftly to perhaps a couple of hundred metres.
It was glorious and one of those experiences I’ll never forget. As the sun was descending I had magnificent views and could see the river snaking between the Gambia and Senegal to the north, the village beneath us, the beach to the west and mangrove systems to the south east.
As we descended, I spied friends houses and by now we’d been spotted.
We floated over Mama Africa’s compound and the group were rehearsing. As we drifted over, I could hear the drum rhythm speeding up and a gradually increasing roar and squealing of kids who proceeded to chase us. On we drifted, across a football field, the market place and the mosque. Traffic was stopping, I could see people standing pointing their phone cameras and even cries of my name.
I never knew it was so green – from the ground I see so many trees being chopped I have the feeling they’re disappearing but from above Abene looks like a forest.
We drifted down through the evening gloaming, lower through trees and started looking for a landing spot.
“How about there?” I said to Chris pointing to a clearing in line with our trajectory. He carried on, then a few minutes later after we’d passed it replied “what was wrong with there, it looked perfect to me.” He’d misheard! I started feeling anxious as it just looked like forest for miles, but Chris didn’t seem bothered and he’s been doing this for years.
Eventually, we did see a good spot and came down, shielding our faces as we crashed through the branches of a tree, then landed with a light bump.
Within seconds the kids arrived, hundreds of them, screaming “Simon” and gleefully looking up. When the poking and prodding got too much, Chris fired up the gas burner and they scattered terrified. The support pick up arrived and the driver, held an excited looking Gulliver. I’d been worried he might freak out watching his Dad fly up in the sky, but he looked at me in awe and when I grinned broke out into an even bigger one.
We managed to get the balloon deflated and packed away, despite the excitement and a few locals helped out, literally fending the kids off with sticks. And then we were off, bouncing back home in the back of the pick up and euphoric with adrenaline.
The next day we headed off to Guinea Bissau and then Guinea Conakry to do it all again.