Visitors to Dubai can partake in almost any activity – there is, famously, an indoor ski-slope welcoming guests to the snow, the tallest building in the world and a giant, man-made palm tree sticking out into the ocean. There are sprawling malls, pristine beaches, fine-dining and even world-class nightclubs. All of this is soon to be joined by the largest Ferris wheel in the world, Ain Dubai. But what the city offers very little of is silence, of peace, relaxation and calm. This is a place always on the go, striving for the next big thing, the next experience and the coming spectacle. Those in search of solitude, serenity and solace can struggle to find space in the frenetic city.
Luckily, Balloon Adventures Dubai has an antidote. The longest operating hot air balloon organisation in Dubai, the company offers trips out over the desert, across the sprawling sands that encircle the city in all directions. Since 2005 they have flown hundreds of thousands of guests, letting each of them float 4,000 feet above the ground below, at one with nature.
After a long business trip in the city, I was primed to sample a taste of freedom, to get away from the traffic, the hotels and the bright lights and to see something different. Tours begin at 03:30-04:00 and my guide promptly collected me from the foyer of my hotel. It was surreal to be leaving the property as guests were still straggling in from the night before, but we had places to go. Just over an hour later we arrived at what would glamorously be described as an airfield, but what was in fact just a dusty patch of ground on the outskirts of town. It turns out hot air balloons can really take off from anywhere. Following a brief safety talk and a rather unexpected drone display – with dozens of flickering lights aligning into various shapes – we were ready to fly.
Around 20 guests are welcomed to each balloon, but the basket is relatively spacious, with a little room to move around and take pictures. With the pilot firing flames into the yawning canopy above, lift-off is slow and precise, with the balloon rising a few feet before swaying gently into the wind. After that, there is no going back. Six balloons take off in a choreographed order, each rising and departing as the next is prepared, spiralling up into the sky. Withing a few minutes a voice crackles over the radio informing us we have reached 3,000 feet – and after a brief moment of apprehension about being suspended above the earth by a wicker floor, it is time to drink in the views.
The desert is far from featureless. Sand dunes roll toward the horizon, showing the immense power of nature, while the small stands made by mankind, roads, buildings and cars, are mere dots. Nature lovers can keep an eye out for oryx, the national animal of the United Arab Emirates, or there are also a large number of camels, farmed for racing and meat. The experience lasts around an hour, with a chance to take some pictures against the rising sun. The pace is leisurely, with the balloon drifting on the whim of the wind and a new landing spot decided each time by the pilots.
Touching down, our vehicles speed over the surrounding dunes to collect us, before we are hurried on to a gourmet breakfast served in an authentic desert setting. The final leg of the journey is made in museum-quality vintage Land Rovers. With four to a car, we bump over the dirt road to our meal. The whole experience, from the early pick-up to being dropped off back at the hotel, takes around six hours, so there is still plenty of time left in the day to explore those ski-slopes, nightclubs and the Palm Jumeirah.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and bucket list activity in Dubai.
Find out more on the official website.