Magaliesburg weekend – Ballooning and De Hoek

Balloon view

The world below seems a much more orderly place when you are 2100 feet in the air, floating above it all in a wicker basket, with the only sounds the occasional roar of the propane flame that sends the balloon higher still. It’s a feeling similar to the one you get when you lie on your back in a swimming pool, allowing yourself to be carried upward, momentarily weightless, your gaze scanning the sky as if it’s all that exists.

Although from 2100ft it’s the ground that is captivating. It looks neat and orderly. There is no sense of chaos, or disruption, just the beautiful geometry of agriculture, homes that look like dollhouses, the shadow cast by a sheep or a horse in a field, myriad shapes and shades of green. From that height over the Magaliesburg Valley, there is a clear view all the way to Joburg’s city centre, to the glistening waterways of Hartbeespoort and to the Cradle of Humankind. As the sun rises (arrival time at the Hekpoort airfield – about a 60 minute drive from Johannesburg – is a sharp 6:00AM) the silver-flecked fields below take on greener hues, while above you, looking into the balloon, is a patchwork sea of wild colour.

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It’s a lesson in being – there no way to ‘steer’ the balloon, rather the pilot must make sure it goes with the flows. The wind steers the balloon. In what seemed liked the calmest morning, we were moving along at 20km/h, sailing across the sky.

Bill Harrop’s company, started in 1981 – a family business – has established a ballooning gold standard in Magaliesburg. If you have the pleasure of meeting Harrop you’ll be prone to imagine that this dapper, charismatic and impish gentleman, was born to captain a fleet of balloons, fuelled by nothing more than his ‘Original’ Northumbrian Porridge – cooked oats ‘best served with a pinch of salt, a sprinkle of sugar, a dollop of cream and a dribble o’whisky stirred once and enjoyed immediately’.

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The porridge is part of the breakfast menu served after you have earned your Citation confirming that you had the “courage and fortitude to join the daring company of intrepid aeronaut explorers”. To prove your mettle I suggest two helpings with an added dash of syrup, and instead of cream, a plop of butter.

Bill Harrop's Balloon Safaris

As early as 1783 a French scientist sent up the first balloon for a 15-minute flight experienced by an unusual clutch of passengers – a sheep, a duck and a rooster. The landing was not as successful as the take-off and it took another two months before the first successful hot air balloon flight was recorded on November 21 of that year by two French brothers. Many years later the landing is made even smoother with a glass of French champagne that awaits you amid the tall grass of a Magaliesburg field.

The trip lasts about an hour and is followed by a generous breakfast back at the airfield. By 09:30AM you will have experienced one of the most genteel, romantic and refined ways to travel above the earth. Not a bad start to any day. And even better when you have a plan to stay over in the Magaliesburg area.

We headed from Hekpoort to De Hoek Country Hotel (a 20-minute drive) where we were booked in overnight. A 5-Star boutique hotel De Hoek is a study in elegance, from the hotel’s charming staff to its sandstone architecture and contemporary garden suites that look out over a sprawling lawn edged by trees and bordered on one side by the Magalies River and on another by a field of golden mielie plants, of course all in the shadow of the mountains. When you drive across the stone bridge over the river you say goodbye to the cares of the world beyond the door and if your budget allows, you could even forgo that time on the road as De Hoek has a helipad.

De Hoek bedroom

The suites are spacious and tastefully furnished with comfort in mind. A sunny window seat perfect for reclining looks out over the lawns, and we had a private terrace from which to enjoy afternoon tea, along with the rusks and butter biscuits provided in the room. From your terrace you might hear the chatter emanating from a large troupe of mostly shy vervet monkeys who enjoy roaming the lawn. You are advised to keep the biscuit jar sealed though as they are occasionally drawn to sweet treats, and might visit in search of them when you are out.

De Hoek gardens_5894

At night the stars shine brighter than any sky you will see in the city, and the air is country crisp. The food at De Hoek is cause for celebration and designed for fine dining fans by Swiss-trained chef Michael Holenstein. We had dinner at The Conservatory, five courses that included a starter of scotch salmon and petit pois risotto, and a main course of a superior cut of beef fillet. We ordered our dessert to be delivered to our quarters after deciding that a short walk back would be the best way to prepare to eat another course. Coffee and an irresistable apple crumble tart with vanilla creme brûlée was our nightcap. Back in the suite De Hoek’s helpers had been and gone, leaving a trail of rose petals across the bathroom floor and a recently drawn bath full of bubbles.

We had grand plans for the morning – but decided the grandest plans would be to not attempt very much. A vegetarian breakfast of mushrooms, creamed spinach and potato rosti along with a few continental accompaniments was a perfect start to the day. Outside ducks waddled across the lawn to the pond and autumn leaves fluttered. While it’s a short trip from De Hoek to horse riding trails and the Pilansberg National Park, to seven golf courses or to the Maropeng visitor centre we were more inclined to prolong an adventure designed as an antidote to the bustle of city life and the rush of adrenalin, by not moving very fast. Bliss.

* I was an invited guest as Editor and Publisher of Johannesburg In Your Pocket City Guide

For more information on Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris – 60 minute flights start at R2150 (2015).

For more information on De Hoek Country House

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