The balloon lifted off the ground at dawn, the peaceful silence interrupted intermittently by a blast of noise and a wave of heat from the gas jets filling the huge tear drop above us. We were headed for the Valley of the Kings.
We didn't get there. We had signed up for a balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings, where tombs of the pharoahs and other nobles are buried. But on the day of our adventure, the wind had other ideas. And none of the best-laid plans of ours were going to change that.
It was a glorious experience nonetheless. We glided over the monumental and the ordinary. Over the Temple of Hatshepsut and over little villages. Other balloons rose and floated along with us. We soared over little domed mosques and cemeteries that looked like archaeological digs.
I was reminded of this after coming across an MSNBC article from last June on the "coolest, most exotic" balloon adventures.
Occasionally in the past, I'd been tempted to try ballooning. I had read about excursions in nearby Virginia, but never felt motivated to spend the money. At the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was awed by the array of balloons in the air at sunrise. But that was thrilling enough. The sights were available from the ground.
In Egypt, however, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. And, being in a group provided ease--just sign up on a sheet of paper--and a bit of peer pressure. (What if everyone ended up talking about their fantastic adventure and I hadn't gone?)
Having done ballooning for the first time over amazing, unique sights, I realize the view is as important as the ballooning itself. If I were to do it again, it wouldn't be for the floating, which was lovely, but for a chance to see something I couldn't see any other way. Or, something that was worth seeing from every angle.
For instance, Serendipity Adventures, mentioned in the MSNBC piece, takes you over an area where monkeys, sloths and toucans cavort. Or perch. The area can't be accessed on foot so ballooning is the ticket in.
Buddy Bombard's Europe puts guests up at chateaus and afternoon balloon rides take them over castles and vineyards.
As for the ride itself, I was expecting a basket like the one that held Dorothy and Toto. I'd seen small ones like that in Albuquerque. But ours held, get this, 24 people. In four compartments. I was glad I was with people I'd gotten to know for a few days. Because we were crammed in as tight as rush-hour train riders.
The "captain" did a great job of slowly turning the balloon 360 degrees over and over so everyone could see everything on all sides. I held tight to my camera and snapped away. (Although I DID drop a pen cap and had visions of an Egyptian kid finding it on his roof, a la the Coke bottle in "The Gods Must Be Crazy.")
When it was time to land, we had to get into the landing position we'd been taught, which consisted of holding onto handles on the side of the basket and squatting low. Again, I was glad the woman I was pretty much sitting on at that point was no longer a stranger.
The Egyptian captain yukked it up for us Americans, saying that an American landing would be a bit bumpy, touching the ground a couple of times like on camel humps before stopping. A British landing would be harsh, the basket hitting the ground hard.
But lucky us, we got a perfectly smooth, gentle touch down. Yes, a nice, "Egyptian" landing. So our captain, Mohamed, decreed.
Photos: Ellen Perlman