Hot Air Ballooning Gains Popularity in South Africa

By: Celean Jacobson
By: Celean Jacobson

BETHLEHEM, South Africa (AP) -- Hovering in a hot air balloon above a restless pride of rare white lions was the defining moment of Chris Sanger-Davies' first trip to South Africa.

"It's the colors - they've got that African look. African sunsets are unique," the veteran British pilot said. And, he added: "You realize that you are flying over countryside that has the kind of wildlife in it, that if you landed there, you would be stuffed."

Sanger-Davies competed in this year's annual South African Hot Air Balloon Championships. While the sport still has a tiny following in South Africa, it is slowly growing in popularity.

The country only has about 80 registered balloons and 25 active pilots. But this year's championship, which is running Monday through Saturday, has attracted 14 competitors - triple the number that competed in 2000.

The competition has been held for the last two decades in Bethlehem, a town set amid open spaces that are a patchwork of farmland and wildlife reserves where lions, zebras and herds of buck roam.

Against the pale blue dawn sky, the giant balloons lift into the air, their rainbow colors glowing as they catch the rays of the rising sun.

Each thrust of burning propane takes them higher until they drift over the dusty autumn landscape, a sight that stops cars on country roads and leaves children spellbound.

The high cost of ballooning still puts the sport out of reach of most South Africans, especially black citizens still living in poverty a decade after the end of apartheid.

To be more inclusive, the competition held in South Africa's agricultural heartland includes a day when pilots take off from a school in the local black community. Black volunteers from an army engineering regiment based in Pretoria use advance surveying equipment to help track the path and performance of the balloons during the contest.

"I am wondering what it must look like from up there," said Cpl. Thamsanqa Theoha, 37, who was struck by the sight of the graceful giant balloons drifting over a landscape of vast golden plains.

"But I am not sure it is safe. You are controlled by the wind," he said.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy.

By CELEAN JACOBSON
Associated Press Writer

AP Photo/Jerome Delay

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BETHLEHEM, South Africa (AP) -- Hovering in a hot air balloon above a restless pride of rare white lions was the defining moment of Chris Sanger-Davies' first trip to South Africa.

"It's the colors - they've got that African look. African sunsets are unique," the veteran British pilot said. And, he added: "You realize that you are flying over countryside that has the kind of wildlife in it, that if you landed there, you would be stuffed."

Sanger-Davies competed in this year's annual South African Hot Air Balloon Championships. While the sport still has a tiny following in South Africa, it is slowly growing in popularity.

The country only has about 80 registered balloons and 25 active pilots. But this year's championship, which is running Monday through Saturday, has attracted 14 competitors - triple the number that competed in 2000.

The competition has been held for the last two decades in Bethlehem, a town set amid open spaces that are a patchwork of farmland and wildlife reserves where lions, zebras and herds of buck roam.

Against the pale blue dawn sky, the giant balloons lift into the air, their rainbow colors glowing as they catch the rays of the rising sun.

Each thrust of burning propane takes them higher until they drift over the dusty autumn landscape, a sight that stops cars on country roads and leaves children spellbound.

The high cost of ballooning still puts the sport out of reach of most South Africans, especially black citizens still living in poverty a decade after the end of apartheid.

To be more inclusive, the competition held in South Africa's agricultural heartland includes a day when pilots take off from a school in the local black community. Black volunteers from an army engineering regiment based in Pretoria use advance surveying equipment to help track the path and performance of the balloons during the contest.

"I am wondering what it must look like from up there," said Cpl. Thamsanqa Theoha, 37, who was struck by the sight of the graceful giant balloons drifting over a landscape of vast golden plains.

"But I am not sure it is safe. You are controlled by the wind," he said.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy.


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