The day starts early. Night hangs heavily over the plains and only the stars are visible. As your land rover bumps and bounces along a potholed road, you catch the gleam of eyes from nocturnal hunters as they slink back into the whispering grass and warily watch your progress. You regret having that last Tusker last night and that extra coffee this morning; your stomach feels heavy and bitter. It’s not nerves you tell yourself, it’s just a combination of jet-lag, alcohol and getting out of bed in the middle of the night. Next to you, cloaked in dark, a beautiful woman smiles enigmatically and gives your hand a squeeze. You square your shoulders, stiffen your lip and try to make some glib comments whilst your insides squirm.
The launch site is a frenzy of activity. Balloons are laid out on the grass and look gossamer-fragile. Crew in woolly hats and orange jump suits are scurrying to and from with hawsers, lines and an eclectic mix of pig iron. You lean back on the land rover to appraise the situation and hope the ice in your stomach isn’t going to cause permanent damage. You try, desperately hard, to forget how scared of heights you are and pass off your surliness with comments about lack of sleep, too much coffee. The beautiful woman, with saucer eyes, soaks up the frantic activity and strobes the night with her camera.
Tethers are being hammered into the ground and the eastern sky is just begging to blush into life. The balloons, still laid out on the grass look like slumbering giants and their size is only gauged by the sheer number of people that swarm around them fiddling with ropes, pulling lines and running their hands, somewhat lovingly, over pleated canvas.
You are lulled into an almost soporific sense of calm. The soft banter of the crew, the excited chatter of the French tourist that have just arrived, the beautiful woman still strobing and the whisper of canvas that simply wants to be airborne. For a few seconds you forget your fear and an exquisite shudder of excitement unfolds in your stomach. A blast of fire, scalding the night and burning tear tracks across your vision snaps you back to reality. The great canvas beast slowly begins to rise from the veldt and a host of muscular arms strain to keep it down.
And then you are rushing across the field, in hot pursuit of the beautiful woman, and throwing yourself into a wicker basket next to her, trying to squeeze her arm, mainly to reassure yourself, whilst attempting to secure your grip and mould yourself into the basket weave. A blast of superheated air, colouring the horizon shades of red and crimson, shoots above you and a tension shudders through the basket. Acres of canvas tower majestically above you and your horizon is slowly shifting. You screw your eyes shut, mutter a prayer and then gravity seems to fail.
Silence falls. I can hear the breath slowly escaping from my lungs; the beat of my heart and the hiss of superheated air as the pilot feeds the growing envelope. The burners are now giving a throaty growl and the beautiful woman gently rubs your hand, tells you to open your eyes and stand up. Not being able to refuse her a single thing, you conquer your fear and do as she asks.
A thousand feet below you the vast lands of Africa roll inextricably on. Towards the east the first shades of a new day are slowly painting the darkness; you drift slowly towards the border. You feel such peace and serenity at that moment; you forget your fears and drink in the sunrise. Indigo turns to red and flecks of orange, gold and crimson rush along the veldt whilst the sun begins its slow ascent. Everything is new and unique; the colours never seen before and the air so clear that your vanishing point seems to be not in this world.
Another throaty growl from the burners and you are floating above a herd of elephants. They slowly change from black silhouettes to beautiful grey statues as the dawn breaks. You can hear them chewing the grass and hear the flick of their trunks as they perform their morning ablutions. It’s such a powerful and emotive sound you realise the morning is made of great truths. You will carry these thoughts forever with you. Perhaps nothing can ever be the same after this.
Below now are a herd of zebra. They stand, slightly aloof, as if they know how dignified they look. They scorn the sunrise. They scoff their heads, turn towards the west and sigh. Their shadows lengthen as you pass above them. You are close enough to smell their scent, to see the serration of their hooves. It is like looking at a map of the world in its becoming.
The sky is fully coloured; its warmth causes you to peel off layers. You slowly rotate through one complete turn and try to encapsulate the moment. The writer in you is struggling for adverbs and objectives whilst the romantic keeps casting fleeting glances towards the beautiful woman who is leaning perilously out of the basket and pointing out monkeys are they scamper from bough to bough a few feet below us.
Later you glide over a playa which is smooth and unbroken by any track. Africa in all its glory floats beneath you. Through three hundred and sixty degrees, the veldt stretches away, a circumference of beauty. You lean on the edge of the basket, take the beautiful woman’s hand in yours and give it a small squeeze which means let’s spend our life together. She squeezes your hand back and smiles.
Soon the ground is rushing to meet you; a herd of zebra are scattering, hither and thither. You grip the basket weave with a deep sadness. You do not want this to end, but a small part of you smiles as it knows that you will never be cured of this sentiment, that between the wish and the desire, Africa will always be waiting.