Surprise Birthday Bash In A Hot Air Balloon

Trip Start Sep 29, 2007
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Trip End Dec 20, 2010


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Flag of Morocco  ,
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The first passengers in a hot air balloon flight were a sheep, a duck and a rooster, launched by the brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier in 1783. The last passenger was our monkey, Mono Loco.

Today we took our first ever hot air balloon flight over the desert plains near Marrakech. When i was a child, well, when i was a younger child than i am now i made a hot air balloon from paper mache and half a Gold Coast Dairy milk carton. Around this same time there was a television advertisement frequenting the TV where a moustached french guy in a costume floats a hot air balloon over a village and throws a tub of Yoplait yoghurt to a young lady whilst saying Bon Jour! Then he says Yoplait, it's French for Yum! Ever since then i have wanted to fly in a hot air balloon and what better occasion to do so than for Nadine's alcohol-free, Ramadan Holy month, 39th birthday in Morocco.

Nadine woke in the dark at 4am with no clue as to what was happening in the day. All she knew was that we were celebrating her birthday today instead of on  the official birth date last week when we were in the desert. A suspicious looking driver guy wearing a matching stonewashed denim jacket and jeans ensemble rocks up to pick us up in a 4WD vehicle. He begins to ralk about the balloon in French and i throw him a sshhhhh! finger to the lips signal. The driver doesn't talk for the rest of the journey and i put the ipod headphones in Nadine's ears in case other passengers talked. The quiet, hour long drive added to the anticipation and curiosity of where we were going. At first i told Nadine we were going for Moroccan cooking classes with a Berber family where she would learn to kill, skin and cook a lamb from scratch then make felt hats with the wool. Next i tell her they are doing a re-make of the film Casablanca and that she would be an extra in the production. This second explanation was believable because we were driving off-road passed abandoned buildings and there were a few random people around.

So we turned up at the launch site and the penny dropped for Nadine when the balloon and gondola basket arrived on a trailer. Nadine got a little starstruck when we met the classy pilot Mr Morris who was a friendly, proper French chap and i thought, a little eccentric. He looked a little bit like Anthony Hopkins and i couldn' get lines like "i ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti" out of my head. We watched the rig be put together by the crew and the balloon part unfolded out of what looked like a giant sleeping bag cover. The pilot blew air into the balloon with a giant fan and it quickly inflated into full size. If we were to use helium for this it would be inflated much more slowly. The whole preparation process only took about ten minutes. Next Mr Morris opened the blast valve and the flame cannisters were fired up into the balloon. We were invited into the gondola along with seven other passengers making us a party of ten plus a monkey.

We cast off and rose upwards quite quickly over secluded Berber villages made from mud bricks and terraced, irrigated fields lit by the new sun of the day. The view was a little misty today but we could still see the Western Atlas mountains and Marrakech city in the distance. Desert was all around. The gondola was made from woven wicker and leather with a hard floor however you couldn't help but wonder just how strong the basket was when it is the only thing between you and a freefall to your death. On the other hand, it did feel like you were in an old school airship just floating around in a basket. We used the air currents steer and move calmly and gracefully over the ground for about an hour. In free air flights, the sensation of vertigo doesn't exist. It was as if we were suspended in the wind, with the heavens as our reference point. A surreal feeling. It was very quiet in the sky. Peace is found there.

We floated directly over one very basic adobe property where there appeared to be lots of children of all ages. They all came running out of the house shouting and waving for us to wave back. The households chickens scattered in all directions as the children ran through the property chasing the balloon until we were gone.

We were followed by two chase vehicles in radio communication with the pilot and whose crew establish the day's most suitable landing site. Today's site was a tricky one because we nearly landed on the road. The pilot never really knows where he is going to hit the ground exactly. This time we headed towards the road and nearly into the lone person driving a motorbike on the road. Close call for the Berber on a bike although he was not shaken at all but waved a cheery good morning to us instead, just as though a hot air balloon lands on top of him everyday. The crew collapsed and stored the balloon even quicker than it had gone up.

We drove past some trees with goats in them. They climb the trees because they are hungry for green foliage and there is absolutely nothing else to eat in the desert here. We also shared mint tea and fresh bread dipped in olive oil and honey, in the home of one of the Berber inhabitants whilst Mr Morris told us stories about ballooning, Richard Branson and about what happened when he gave some of the local desert people flights in the balloon.

Nadine was blown away by the experience. Bahhahahahaha!!!

We had a rest in the hotel CTM before putting on some make-up for the first time in a long time and stepping out to find a birthday drink for Nadine's Marrakech birthday. We went to a beautiful, swish bar in the medina called Cafe Arabe and had some drinks on the rooftop terrace. This is a very naughty act during Ramadan which is probably why the mojitos and beers were astronomically priced. The bar was well designed for relaxing being decorated as a Moroccan saloon with a modern twist and playing Buddha Bar chill out and world music tunes. We could have stayed all night but i had made reservations for us at Restaurant Diaffa which is housed in a 16th century former riad in the medina and boasts "topmost Moroccan gastronomy" and "three luxury forks". The restaurant is apparently the best in Marrakech and that's a big call because there are some fabulous restaurants. I had some problems trying to book a table which is interesting because there was not many diners there, they must keep it exclusive. First we had to pay a young boy to lead us out of the labyrinth of the souq area and back to the main street.

We were certainly not disappointed by the restaurant and stuffed ourselves like silly sultans in the luxurious palace. The building was amazing, the cuisine excellent and the setting created an ambiance that recalls the Orient at the height of its magic and glory. We were met at the door by a friendly doorman wearing a red Fes hat. Once inside we found that we had the whole palace to ourselves and a musician was playing beautiful Arabic music on a stringed instrument. We settled in to our table which was low to the ground and surrounded by beautiful cushions in red and gold fabrics. The lights were dimmed in the Morocaan pendant lanterns. We had a view across the interior courtyard and of a central fountain where two sculptures of storks waded near the water. Next a whole table of very wealthy women arrived to ruin the serenity by talking loudly drowing out the musician. We battled with the menu which was written in French and took a guess in selecting our menu. We ate ridiculous amounts of  Moroccan salads and beef tajine with couscous and vegetables plus a giant fruit platter arrived then a tray of petit fours and glasses of mint tea to finish. To check out a virtual tour of the restaurant click HERE. Nadia had a wonderful day in Marrakech.
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