Seen from a distance, the bulging object gliding past looks like an inverted bulb. One can barely notice the basket-like extension at its base that serves as a pilot and passenger cabin.
From the carrier, better known as wicker basket or a gondola, passengers get to enjoy a panoramic view of the vast landscape hundreds of feet below them, which stretches across rolling swathes of virgin land reserved for wild game.
Welcome to Uganda’s hot air balloon experience, which offers guests a unique opportunity to observe wild animals in the famous Murchison Falls National Park from the sky.
According to Joseph Halim, the Managing Director of Dream Balloons, which runs the hot air balloon tours in Murchison Falls National Park that sits astride the great River Nile, the hot balloon tours cost $250 per head for Ugandans and $300 for foreigners.
“The $300 that each foreign visitor pays is less than a third of what is charged in Europe,” says Halim. “It is also a half of what is charged in Kenya and Tanzania.”
Like their name suggests, hot air balloons fly primarily by heating up the air in the conical-shaped nylon fabric known as the envelope, to a point where it is warmer than that of the outside environment.
As a result, the hot air rises to the top of the balloon and, in a bid to surge further up, hoists it to the sky. The pilot then controls the elevation of the balloon by moderating the hot air pumped into the balloon using the propane-fuelled gas burners.
In Uganda, the first company to offer the hot air balloon safari experience did so in 2014. Balloon Tours Uganda Ltd operated in Queen Elizabeth National Park. However, Balloon Tours closed shop in 2018, having run out of funds before it had built a large enough clientele to keep it afloat (no pun intended).
Two years before the collapse of Balloon Tours, another company, Dream Balloons, had started its own operations. Dream Balloons enjoyed relatively better fortunes on the same turf and, consequently, were able to break even at the tail-end of last year. To-date, Dream Balloons is the sole operator of hot air balloons in Uganda.
Halim says they chose to undertake the hot air balloon safari flights at Murchison Falls National Park because its vast land area, covering 3,893 square kilometres, provides the ideal conditions for the inflatables to fly unhindered for long stretches.
“The most important feature in Murchison Falls National Park is the plains. The Park has almost no obstacles at all apart from a few trees,” Halim explains. Besides, he adds, the sprawling savannah grasslands and diverse flora and fauna are arguably Uganda’s most popular tourist destination. They offer a stunning scenery for spectacular sights throughout the flight and fairly even surfaces for soft landing.
“Murchison has quite a number of animals to see but a lot of them are in areas that are inaccessible by car. There are few major roads there and yet cars are not allowed to go off-road, which leaves huge areas in the park that tourists can’t reach by road,” he asserts.
According to Halim, their pilots are under strict instructions not to fly over water because it has a pull impact and is therefore not safe. Whenever wind drives a balloon towards a water body, the pilots are required to navigate it to a layer of the atmosphere at which it changes course towards land surfaces. “We don’t cross the water bodies, which makes it safe for our guests,” he explains. “The water in general produces down pressure or pull pressure. That’s why we prefer to fly over land.”
Given the technicalities involved in flying hot air balloons, their pilots have to receive certification from the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority before they can take to the skies. The competitive advantage that Uganda has, according to Halim, is that it boasts one of the most inimitable flying experience by hot air, owing to the setting for the activity.
“It is a very unique activity in Uganda because, unlike most of the places around the world where passengers only go to sight-see, we are one of the [few] countries where they get to go for actual animal safaris,” he says.
Halim says the conditions in Uganda allow for flying at tree top level just about 300 feet, a vantage point that offers a low-flying bird’s-eye view of the different animals in the park. Having survived the teething troubles of creating a profitable business, Halim is now setting his sights on expanding the operations of Dream Balloons. He says they intend to start operations in two additional parks, Queen Elizabeth and Kidepo, both of whose terrain is the kind of flat grassland that is conducive for hot balloon safaris.
The First Hot –air balloon display was by two paper manufactures, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier from a small French town, Annonay. They flew their balloon in 1783 in Paris, triggering stiff competition from several other aeronauts who followed with spectacular displays.