Hot Air Ballooning – Nile Valley

Gliding majestically above the landscape is a lot of fun. Doing so in Luxor added an extra dimension, and offered a great deal more than just fun. Being in the company of an Egyptologist elevated this ballon trip to euphoric heights.

Emerging from the hotel in Luxor at around 5am, we were greeted by the beautiful sound of the Islamic call to prayer from the nearby mosques. The stage was set for a very memorable experience.

The boat trip across the Nile to the balloon airfields on the West Bank felt a little surreal. Strings of lights along both shores, illuminated ancient monuments and modern hotels and the early morning activities of people going about their daily lives on and around the Nile was like something from a dream.

Arriving on the West Bank was less than dream like. It was still dark. There were huge numbers of people swarming around the wharf. A hand came out to assist me down the gangplank. I did not need assistance, but thought it was one of the boat crew being helpful and that it would be rude to dismiss “the hand”. Turned out to be the hand of a young man on the wharf, looking to earn a little money. He would not let go of my wrist, and demanded money to do so. When I refused, he clamped his other hand round my wrist. My powers of persuasion convinced him to relinquish his grip, and he melted into the darkness.

Arriving at the airfield, we were greeted with a sea of colour in the darkness. Several colourful balloons were in process of being inflated by gas burners glowing yellow blue, green and red in the darkness.

Weather conditions were apparently perfect for our flight, so we scrambled into the basket, accompanied by the hiss of the gas jets blasting into the balloon. Our balloon was then untethered, and we soared into the heavens above. `

The landscape unfolding below us gave us a glimpse of of villages and people coming out to start work in the fields, with their donkeys. A patchwork of fields of crops, initially mostly maize, sugar cane and then date palms stretched out beyond the villages, and the Nile could be seen in the distance. A large number of the buildings were roofless, but the occupiers of buildings with a roof utilised the area to dry food.

The most exciting aspect of this balloon flight was the opportunity to view some of the ancient Egyptian sites from above. Slowly drifting past the Colossi of Memnon was a memorable moment. These monumental statues are 18 metres high, and are carved from blocks of sandstone. They were constructed as guardians of Amenhotep III mortuary complex. Amenhotep III (1386-1353BCE) ruled during the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. I had been overawed standing at the feet of the Colossi the day before. Viewing the Collossi from above with the remains of the mortuary temple stretching out behind them gave the whole site a different perspective.

We had visited the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple of Ramesses II the day before the balloon trip. Viewing it from above added an extra dimension to the experience. Ramesses II ruled for 67 years between 1279-1213BC. The Ramesseum contains the remains of a 20metre high statue. An inscription states “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works, ye Mighty and Despair.” This inspired Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, and as we silently slid past the Ramasseum, I was reciting (to myself) “I met a traveller from an ancient land”. Tacky, I agree.

After gliding over the Theban Necropolis, we drifted over the remains of what I had noted as “an outline of a palace”. I spent many hours trying to identify it, with no success. Thanks to the Egyptologist and one of her colleagues, the site was identified as the small temple of Kom es Samak, at Malkata South. Samak means “a mound of fish” – further reading identified that there was a lake full of fish on the site, and excavations identified a lot of fishbones. Further reading (thank you Egyptologist). The archaeologists decided that construction of what is now a “relic” had occurred in the reign of Amenhotep III, because they had discovered inscriptions on some of the bricks “Net-Mat-Re” the name that Amenhotep III adopted on ascending the throne.

Flying at such a low altitude provides an opportunity to look down on this ancient area and view the landscape and monuments from a totally different perspective. The narrow green strip of cultivated land along the Nile Valley merging abruptly into desert illustrates the stark contrast far more dramatically than viewing from the Nile, or driving along the edges of the cultivated land.

Cultivated land merging into the desert.

We also drifted over the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III, who ruled for 31 years (1184-1153BCE). Ramesses III was assassinated, possibly by more than one attacker. Finally we viewed the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, who ruled in her own right from 1473-58BCE). Hatshepsut was one of the few female Pharaohs, and attained exceptional power for a woman. She came to power in questionable circumstances, but so too have many rulers. It is said that at her request, she was depicted as a male in many images of her. Did she think that looking like a male gave her more authority? As we sailed past her Mortuary Temple I thought about the issues modern female political leaders face – would they fare better if they looked like a man.

The magical experience was coming to an end. The gas jets were silent and we were slowly descending down to land. There was quite an audience viewing our landing. Not only were the recovery teams standing by ready to fully deflate the balloons, and stow them in their vehicles, there were dozens of spectators.

Getting out of the basket was a challenge for me. I was only a head higher than the top of the basket, and there was no little stepladder to assist. Hauling myself up to the top of the basket, I more or less fell down the other side. Not the most elegant way to alight.

I will never forget the experience of hot air ballooning in the Nile Valley. It was fun. It was exciting. With an accompanying Egyptologist, it was also an opportunity to learn more of the history of this ancient land.

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