IT WAS a heady way to bid a not so fond farewell to the year of Covid, floating high above the temples of ancient Egypt as the sun rose, painting the world in a wash of glorious gold. From 200ft and more up, we watched as Mother Nature put on a spectacular sunrise show.
These were the scenes on New Year’s Eve as local Luxor guide Lesley Hammam took to the skies in a balloon for the first time in 20 years, gliding over the Valley of the Nobles, looking down on temples and tombs, including that of Rameses II.
I was able to watch from the comfort of my armchair during a live streamed flight that attracted some 300 passengers. Rarely can the balloon’s basket have carried such a crew, with viewers signing in from all round the world via the heygo virtual travel platform.
After an hour navigating the red tape of the Egyptian aviation authorities, which required that the launch was pushed back a couple of times, the burners were finally lit on a small airfield on the west bank of the River Nile, just outside Luxor.
Once the balloon was fully inflated, our captain took to the controls, ready for lift off.
Then it was up, up and away, our flight among the first of many to take off, filling the sky with glowing globes, lit by their burners.
We climbed higher and higher, and it was a magical moment when the sun first peeked over the horizon.
Gradually the ground below began to change colour from a chill grey to an increasingly warm burnt umber. There was silence other than the occasional burst of the burner.
As day began to break, the mortuary tombs below, previously only glimpsed from the valley roadside, began to acquire sharp definition.
As we drifted across the landscape, we were followed by the shadow of our balloon on the Theban mountainsides.
The mountains began to appear, stretching into the distance, as we passed over a long snake of minibuses, which had brought passengers through the darkness for the flights.
A veritable fleet of gentle giants drifted over the Egyptian landscape, like a lantern launch.
Seen from the air, you begin to realise how extensive the mortuary tomb sites are in the Valley of the Nobles, where many prominent Egyptains were buried.
Some of these must have been magnificent in their original condition – but don’t bother searching for treasure. It has long since been removed.
Despite the extensive archaeological digs, however, it is thought that many more significant sites still lie under the sands, waiting to be discovered.
Guide Lesley, an ex-pat originally from Shropshire, has been a guide on the heygo platform, which offers live free-to-join trips, since the service launched a year ago.
All too soon, after 45 minutes or so, we were quite literally brought back down to earth, where our balloon was safely moored.
Our fellow passengers disembarked from the traditional wicker basket to whose humble confines we had entrusted our safety for the sunrise flight.
For Lesley, there was a reunion with husband Saffy, a fellow guide, who had been following the balloon in his car, and videoing from below.
And, of course, there was the obligatory certificate to share to show that we’ve been there, done it and got the tee-shirt, albeit virtually.
For those who couldn’t make it, here’s a video Lesley hosted on her own YouTube channel, offering highlights of a memorable New Year’s Eve.
And here’s where we went …
If you missed the trip, there’s good news. Lesley hopes to take to the air again on St Valentine’s Day. Set your alarm clock for 4am GMT on Monday February 14. You can check on Lesley and Saffy Hammam’s upcoming tours here.