Hot-air balloon ride over Egypt's Valley of the Kings

Our Luxor morning is as gold as pharaohs' treasure. The Nile is molten, the mountains and desert gilded, the rising sun a sovereign's orb.

It's daybreak over Egypt's Valley of the Kings as we climb into the silent air, not without some trepidation, for Luxor has a chequered hot-air ballooning history.

A few on our Scenic Treasures of Egypt journey are keeping their feet firmly on the ground but most take this optional extra 50-minute flight that ascends with the sun and drifts like a Chinese lantern across a shape-shifting landscape.

Those creatures that fly possess the gift of majestic perspective, something we ground-creeping people lack. High in the sky, the true nature of the world unfurls – its folds and ripples, how the light plays across it, the erosive weather patterns.

So it is with our Valley of the Kings balloon flight. We glide across this Western Theban necropolis, which has yielded two-thirds of the ancient world's antiquities and, it's believed, still hides immense treasure.

The balloon pirouettes slowly to show us the Nile's gold ribbon as the sun rises over it, the pale disc of moon sinking – a timely reminder of the ancient Egyptian reverence of Ra, the sun god, swallowed every night by the sky goddess Nut, then reborn every morning. The moon, "the sun shining at night" is the left eye of the god Horus.

The aerial view shows the importance of the Nile as it is now, and was to the ancients. The cultivated green valley embraces the river before abruptly ending at the barren tract from which rises the limestone mountains of the Valley of the Kings, capped with their auspicious pyramid peak.

We will visit the Valleys of the Kings and Queens later on today, where 64 tombs so far have been discovered. The New Kingdom pharaohs, concerned about the looting that occurred in Giza's pyramids, chose this white-hot valley for their deep resting place. Down there we spot the mortuary temples of Queen Hatshepsut and Rameses II, as well as the two Colossi of Memnon (plus foxes trolling the desert).

To the east of the river, Luxor, once Thebes, capital of the ancient Egyptians, begins to glitter, while beyond the mountains stretches the Sahara's great Western Desert. Majestic perspective is something you briefly experience in the window seat of a plane, until altitude removes the vista. In a hot air balloon, the experience is magnified because altitude is regulated while silence elevates the experience.

Advertisement

Those who have glided across the plains of the Serengeti, or Utah's Monument Valley, or the fairy chimneys of Turkey's Cappadocia will appreciate the happy fusion of silent air and spectacular landscape.

Even a noisy helicopter enhances the geological magnificence of the zigzagging slices of Victoria Falls' Batoka Gorge, or the majestic chunk bitten from the earth at the Iguassu Falls.

This morning involves a cold, early-hours scramble from my Winter Palace bed, a 10-minute boat trip across the Nile (the boat's name is The Titanic), then a coach trip to the site. Excitement is tempered by my quick internet search of Luxor's hot air balloon accidents.

The deadliest was in 2013 when 19 tourists died after their balloon caught fire. Luxor authorities made safety changes – pilot retraining, air space limits and maximum numbers of 32 people in a balloon. Despite this, one person died and 12 were injured in January when their balloon crashed.

Our balloon pilot briefs us on the Nile crossing as we nibble a picnic breakfast. He wears huge, comical silver "pilot wings", which don't necessarily inspire confidence but our experienced Egyptian guide reassures us about the company and our pilot's flying hours.

Be prepared to abandon all dignity for an unedifying scramble into the gondola or basket. Miss the footholds and you will endure a backside hoik from ground crew. I'm in there like Flynn.

Deflated balloons lie across the take-off site but one by one, about 25 glowing cocoons rise into the morning air. A hat will protect you from the burner's heat.

Direction and duration are determined by winds and take-off time. Sometimes, you'll be closer to Luxor and the Nile, sometimes over the green valley or closer to the Valley of the Kings.

A fellow guest has eschewed the $US110 flight. She met a pile of elephant dung when her Serengeti balloon basket tipped over. Our foothills landing is bumpy but the 32-person basket remains upright as we take the brace position. Now we must survive the touts as we pick our rocky way to the bus.

Alison Stewart was a guest of Scenic but paid for her balloon flight.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/egypt

scenic.com.au

FLY

Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi and Egypt Air flies from Abu Dhabi to Cairo. See etihad.com

STAY

Scenic's 11-Day Treasures of Egypt journey from Cairo to Abu Simbel includes a four-night Nile cruise on Sanctuary Sun Boat III, four luxury hotel stays, Egyptologist tour director/guide, multiple temple, tomb and museum visits, internal flights, most meals, accommodation, tipping, complimentary wine with lunch and dinner. Prices from $9095 per person twin share, departing Giza (Cairo) on May 10, 2019. Phone 138 128, see scenic.com.au  . For the Sanctuary Sun Boat III, see sanctuaryretreats.com

Comments