How hot air ballooning over Sossusvlei marked the start of Namibia’s desert tourism

Floating high over the sprawling dunes of the Namib sand sea on a crisp morning is not only a bucket list adventure. It also tells the story of desert tourism.
Written by Melanie van Zyl
11 May 2021

- -

Namib Sky Balloon Safaris is based just beside the iconic site of Sossusvlei. While you won’t necessarily float over the famous skeleton trees of Deadvlei itself, a gravity-defying sail high into the sky reveals the outrageous scale of this enormous desert. Held up by mere gas, flimsy material and a belly-deep basket, sand, gravel and jagged peaks carpet the views in every direction. It is not a place one would easily call home, but that’s precisely what one pioneering hot air balloon family saw.

Namib Desert Map Namibia

This is what it’s like to join a Namib Sky Balloon Safari.

Namib Sky Sossusvlei Balloon
The modern hot air balloon adventure begins… In the dark before dawn, guests are shuttled to the launch site, which varies each morning depending on wind and weather | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Namib Sky Hot Air Balloon Safari
Eric and Nancy Hesemans founded Namib Sky over 30 years ago and brought the first hot air balloon to Namibia in 1991. Here, their son Denis angles a fan to best fill up the balloon | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Company founder, Eric Hesemans, was a pioneer for tourism to this area. When they started flying over 30 years ago, the Sesriem campsite was the only accommodation option in the area | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Sossusvlei
The crew on the ground is just as important as the pilots in the sky on this balloon safari. They safely herded us into the basket, arranging us into the quadrants by weight, and were there to fetch us when it was time to land | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Denis Hesemans
Denis Hesemans, the son of the founder of Namib Sky Balloons, has been riding in balloons since the age of three – “but flying licensed since the age of 16”, he says. Today he pilots most of the balloons that soar above the Sossusvlei region | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Flames Hot Air Balloon
This is the view when you look up from the basket. A hot air balloon ride is marked by its silence. The vessel defies gravity with serene stillness, then punctured by bursts of gas flames that help the pilot steer across the scenery | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Pandemic Namibia Tourism
Pandemic-era ballooning. Namib Sky resumed operations a year ago, in May 2020, and all air passengers wore masks on the flight | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Hot Air Balloon Safari Namibia
During the flight, pilot Denis dished details about the area. “Ballooning was a pioneer of tourism to Sossusvlei. Back then, there was no one living here because there’s no water. My parents were some of the first to stay” | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

“Usually, we fly every single day,” Denis said between booming propane blasts and the soupy silence of the Namib Desert. “On busy days, as many as four balloons are going up in the morning.” With over two thousand flights Denis is the safety officer for Namib Sky as well as the Designated Examiner for Namibia | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Can you spot the ground crew? The cars are waiting beside a patch of Fairy Circles. Until recently, science could not explain why these grassland bald patches dotted the desert | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Fairy Circles Namibia
Researchers say the toxic Euphorbia plant is responsible for these bare circular patches in the ground | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Kulala Lodge
Once the airship was up and running, Namib Sky Balloon Safaris needed a steadier stream of guests and so they built Kulula Lodge. The lodge is now owned by Wilderness Safaris and there are over 30 stays sprinkled across the surrounding sands in the Sossusvlei region | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Why is a flight so expensive? There are several factors. The balloon itself costs as much as a brand new series Mercedes but only lasts a few hundred hours, drinks 200 litres of gas per hour and requires a staff crew to get it going. The location is also highly costly. This balloon company holds two concessions to fly over both the Namib Naukluft Park and the Namib Rand Nature Reserve | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Namibia Hot Air Balloon
We go wherever the wind blows. A hot air balloon pilot can’t really ‘steer’ the craft, only adjust the burners to desired altitude and seek out directional wind channels to move sideways. It is truly an aeronautical art | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Brown Hyena
The wind worked in our favour and we crisscrossed the desert sands beside the Namib Naukluft National Park. Just as we prepared to descend, a Brown hyena trotted into view | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Namibia
For the descent, the ground crew is essential. Landing can be sedate or sporty, depending on the winds. Ours was thankfully sedate and we easily plopped down onto the trailer thanks to these helping hands. A sporty landing often sees the basket toppling over and requires the passenger to brace and hang on tight – but it’s still safe! | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Hot Air Balloon Safari Namib Desert
Once landed, the balloon soon flops down and ropes need to be carefully sorted | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Hot Air Balloon Namibia
Then the vessel is gently folded up, releasing any trapped air | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Champagne Breakfast
The glorious morning then culminates in a champagne breakfast spread in true style | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Flying Sossuvlei Dunes
You’ll never forget that sensation of floating in silence across the Namibian sky | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Where to stay for a hot air balloon ride in Namibia?

1. Little Kulala Lodge

Little Kulala
Recently revamped, Little Kulala design is inspired by Dead Vlei. There are 11 climate-controlled, thatched suites, each with a private plunge pool, merging seamlessly into the timeless desert setting | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Little Kulala and its sister camp Kulala Desert Lodge (currently closed) were the pioneering places that put Sossusvlei on the map and rest closest to the world-renowned Sossusvlei site. Before opening in the early 1990s, the other option was roughing it at the parks board campsite. 

 

Wilderness Safaris Little Kulala
The room’s shaded sala has a roll-out bed for siestas during the day or for sleep-outs under the stars | Source: Melanie van Zyl

The Namib Sky Balloon Safari base perches right next door to this stay.

 

2. Kwessi Dune Lodge

After the Hesemans established Kulala Lodge, they moved out here to the NamibRand. Operated by safari outfitter Natural Selections (of Shipwreck Lodge fame) this camp rightly celebrates the sky. The newest addition to Namibia’s largest private reserve (and one of just 16 International Dark Sky Reserves globally) is Kwessi Dune Lodge.

Kwessi Dunes Lodge
The view from Kwessi Dunes lodge is spectacular and the glass windows and doors at the main area look out onto the undulating sand that only ends when it meets the mountains, far in the distance | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Creams and elegant stripes wallpaper the solar-powered tents, while leather edging and brass studs bejewel both vintage-style writing desks and wooden four-poster beds. A refined compilation, but the piece de resistance lay after inspecting the bathroom: an outdoor bed primped for stargazing come nightfall. 

Come morning, the hot air balloon comes to you as Namib Sky has a launchpad right in front of the camp.

 

Namibia sure is a destination for big skies. An early morning hot air balloon ride compliments perfectly with a stargazing safari. Africa is home to just two Dark Sky Places. This area boasts the continent’s first registered Dark Sky Reserve. Get in touch with us and we’ll plan your unusual African adventure.

Book your next trip with us

South Africa Namibia Morocco Kenya Ethiopia Madagascar Rwanda Mozambique

Share this African wonder with your friends

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on reddit
Share on whatsapp

If you liked this story, then you will love...

A first for large African mammals: DNA used to count Gabon’s endangered forest elephants
A first for large African mammals: DNA used to count Gabon’s endangered forest elephants
Why Lamu is one of the Indian Ocean’s best-kept secrets
Why Lamu is one of the Indian Ocean’s best-kept secrets
Hike up (then sleep beside) the world’s largest lava lake
Hike up (then sleep beside) the world’s largest lava lake
What the heck is a carbon-neutral safari anyway?
What the heck is a carbon-neutral safari anyway?
Senegal is decolonising its heritage, and in the process reclaiming its future
Senegal is decolonising its heritage, and in the process reclaiming its future

A first for large African mammals: DNA used to count Gabon’s endangered forest elephants

Across the African continent the populations of both species of African elephants – forest and savanna – have been declining due to habitat loss, poaching and human-wildlife conflict. Maybe a key to their salvation lies in their dung?

4 weeks ago

Why Lamu is one of the Indian Ocean’s best-kept secrets

Lamu soared to fame after Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, and his then-wife Jerry Hall, visited in the 1970s. Yet this Kenyan island has been continuously inhabited since the 13th century and offers more than just an idyllic getaway.

1 month ago

Hike up (then sleep beside) the world’s largest lava lake

Adventure awaits those willing to trek the Democratic Republic of Congo's volatile Mount Nyiragongo.

2 months ago

What the heck is a carbon-neutral safari anyway?

Emboo River Camp is seriously sustainable and we're obsessed.

3 months ago

Senegal is decolonising its heritage, and in the process reclaiming its future

On the morning of 5 September 2017, the inhabitants of Saint-Louis, a regional capital on Senegal’s northwest coast, woke to a strange scene. The statue of Louis Faidherbe that had formed the focal point of the Square Faidherbe since 1887 had fallen.

3 months ago

Rwanda’s passionate female conservationist on Kigali’s best

Conservation and Community Program Manager at Singita’s lodges in Rwanda, Claudine Tuyishime, shares where to walk, rest and grab a bite in the capital.

3 months ago