Escape the hustle and bustle of the city and go for a hot air balloon ride in Dubai amidst beautiful views of the Arabian Desert.
Dubai is a land of many experiences. You can bump your way over the desert in a 4X4, shop in the luxury of vast malls or sail around the spectacular coastline. But few things are more memorable than a hot air balloon ride in Dubai over the sprawling and majestic Arabian Desert.
Gliding above the dry, arid wilderness might seem like a distant fantasy, especially when complete with idyllic vistas washed in the orange bask of the sunrise. That’s why taking to the Dubai air for a hot air balloon ride is a must try when you’re in the Emirate.
Hot Air Ballooning in Dubai: An Early Start
A little grumpy and tired from the early rise (we have to meet at 4.45am), I can’t help but feel a thrill of excitement as I climb onto the minibus with the other passengers ready for Dubai balloon ride. Gradually rousing from my sleepy reverie, I feel no small amount of anticipation.
Our pilot-to-be, Captain Mike is no less excited than we are. Even though he’s piloted hundreds of hot air balloon rides over Dubai and the desert, his eyes still light up as he describes the sun rising over the mountains and radiating onto the scenery below.
“You’ll absolutely love it, and the weather is perfect today too,” he enthuses as we wind our way along the emirate’s highways.
“The winds in the desert pick up with the sunrise,” he adds, explaining the need for the early start, “and they can get quite strong throughout the day, lasting well into the night.” So, it’s best to combine the beauty of the rising sun with weaker winds and pleasantly warm weather.
The minibus journey is taken up by a few formalities and questions from eager trippers. There’s also a form on which we must state our weight in kilograms. “This is so that we can make sure we balance the balloon properly and that there’s enough load to weigh down the basket,” Mike explains. No fibs on that then.
The First Glimpse of the Hot Air Balloon
The first glimpse of the balloon is no disappointment. Even lying on its side our carrier for the morning is a bright kaleidoscope of colour in the dusky light. Although I had been expecting something big, I hadn’t foreseen anything on such a large scale.
Even partially inflated and on its side, the envelope (tech-y term for the bag in which the hot air is contained) is a sight to behold.
We’re talked through the landing position and safety procedures before a quick count reveals there are 16 passengers, in addition to the three pilots who’ll be joining us for the flight. The basket, though spacious, hardly seems big enough to fit all of us in, but Captain Mike assures us there is more than enough room.
For a few minutes, it’s all a rush as he transforms the partially inflated balloon into a vertical masterpiece that’s a little more recognisable as a mode of transport. Jumping into the centre of the basket, he expertly aims blasts of propane fire into the cold-inflated balloon, causing the air inside to expand and slowly lift the vessel into a standing position.
Jetting off on the Hot Air Balloon Ride Over Dubai
In what seems like a matter of seconds, we are ready for takeoff, scrambling into the basket in a bid to get airborne in time for sunrise over the desert. The balloon gradually rises as the captain fires up again and again. First a few centimetres, then a few metres then ascending at a rapidly increasing pace until it’s clear that any chance of escape is gone and we’re in it for the long haul.
The excitement of take-off over, I’m looking forward to a peaceful flight over the parched landscape, surveying the dunes from above. But I’m not banking on Captain Mike’s alternative plans for a spot of ‘contour flying’. “This is where you follow the shape of the land with the balloon as close to the ground as possible without actually crashing,” he laughs pointing to the looming red dunes ahead.
A few smiles in the basket fade when we realise just how close to the contours of the huge dune ahead of us the captain intends to get. Metre by metre, we skim the climbing slope, almost, but never touching the sandy incline. Although assured of our safety, I can’t help a glimmer of adrenalin and fear when I see just how close we are.
Sunrise over the Desert
Moments later, we peacefully sail past the summit of the dune and continue to ascend until the beauty of the desert is laid out in front of us, bordered on one side by the rocky Hajjar Mountains. The baked precipices and craggy depths of the rocks that had loomed over us but a moment before, grow smaller and smaller as we rise to a height of 1,000 metres.
Meanwhile, the sun is rising quickly, bursting over the mountains in a moment – its orange disk illuminates the hitherto dusky desert landscape. Although the vista is still a little hazy, I am now able to appreciate the full scope of the vast landscape below. One glance alone shows a smattering of Bedouin villages, camel enclosures and a few wadis (dried river beds).
“You see why this is such a great place to go for a hot air ballon ride in Dubai,” Captain Mike says gesticulating at the scenery around us. “There are so many different things to see, plus the awesome beauty of the desert, which is very difficult to see from the ground.”
After a quick check with air-traffic control (the balloon cruises below one of the flight paths for Dubai airport), Captain Mike sets about guiding us in the right direction and increasing the balloon’s altitude.
An Unforgettable Experience
As he focuses on the job in hand, we’re left to admire the scenery from the edge of the basket, and I’m delighted to see two herds of racing camels being put through their paces over the sandy tracks way below. Dressed in blue jackets, the ships of the desert cut a striking figure as they trot along the path at the behest of their trainers.
In the intermissions between blasts from the propane, a calm silence descends on the balloon. Everyone has been drawn into the majestic peace of the scene and there’s not a sound to be heard.
Soon, I notice a large grey rock, a jagged scar on the sandy scenery. Mike informs us this is Fossil Rock, or Jebel Malaiha as the locals call it. Though I’ve seen it from the ground, I’d never realised quite how big the rock actually is – a visual laceration through the smooth face of the desert.
As it comes and passes in a matter of minutes, I begin to get an inkling of how quickly we are actually moving. We had reached a speed of 34km per hour, a testament to the captain’s expert guidance and the firm breeze blowing us along.
Further ahead, the terrain splits into two very different desert landscapes visible to the naked eye. To our left, sand dunes made of very soft, fine sand are heaped one after another, almost as far as the eye can see. To the right we spy harder, rockier desert, similar to that of Sub-Saharan Africa, which Mike explains is where we need to land. “Land in the soft sand, and you’ll find yourself in a spot of trouble,” he warns “it’s very difficult to get yourself out again.”
The wind generally dictates where the balloon goes. Today, it seems we are set for a tour over the desert rather than over the mountains and close to the border of Oman as is sometimes the case.
We catch sight of a few early risers who wave enthusiastically and can faintly make out their welcoming tidings of ‘as-salaam alaykom’ floating up from locals on the ground far below. Many are tending to their camels in the outdoor enclosures, the calm creatures barely paying attention to the noise of the burner as it fires up and the stares of the balloon’s passengers, entranced by their grace and their beauty.
Depending on the wind, the balloon is sometimes blown over the nearby camel racetrack, giving passengers a glimpse of a race if lucky, Mike explains. This is not to be today, but we do get a glimpse of several more herds being put through their paces.
Descending into the Arabian Desert
The time to start our descent comes around quicker than I thought possible. The haze makes it difficult to ascertain the precise location of our desired landing point – a bridge over a wadi a few miles on. So Mike puts in a bit of guesswork and steers us to the left where the harder sand is perfect for landing.
A few short radio messages to let the ground crew know where we are going to touch down, Mike indicates it is now time for us to adopt the landing positions he’d taught us earlier in the flight.
Strangely enough, I’ve been a little worried about this. Gliding hundreds of metres above the ground had felt completely safe, but now we are descending rapidly, I have a few qualms about a very undignified exit.
My fears are ungrounded, however, as we touch down with nothing more than a small jolt and a couple of shakes to either side before the basket settles firmly on the ground. And with that, the flight is over and we are back on terra firma. One short scamper over the wicker frame and I am free to watch in awe as they open the top of the envelope and it slowly deflates as all the hot air seeps out before resting on the ground.
Cold refreshments and breakfast are hurriedly laid out on a table – a welcome sight to all as we recognise how thirsty and hungry we all are.
Sipping my drink, I suddenly realise that I’ve had a wonderful experience and it isn’t 8am yet, a rare achievement. After a short hiatus, we all troop back onto the minibus and set off back to Dubai, sleepy but exhilarated by the morning’s excitement.
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