For a moment, I’m too scared to look down. We – 20 people, including a group of media persons, the pilot, a falconer and I – are in what can best be described as a large basket, floating 1,200m above the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.
It’s early on a foggy Thursday morning and I’ve signed up to enjoy a hot air balloon ride and experience something that is truly close to Emirati culture and heritage – falconry.
To set the record straight, I’m not a very adventurous person. Peeking down from the top of an escalator is enough to make me go jelly-kneed. In fact, mild acrophobia has been something I’ve been fighting to get over ever since I can remember.
So when my editor asked if I’d like to check out the newly launched hot air balloon ride with falconry, I quickly volunteered. After all, I reasoned, the best way to get over a fear is to face it.
Signing up for the experience with My Land Falconry, I was told to be ready at 5.45am for the trip. The idea behind the hot air balloon and falconry experience is to offer visitors from around the world a truly novel experience.
The Patron of this project, Shaikh Butti Bin Juma Al Maktoum, in a video posted on the website, emphasises that he is keen to showcase the Emirati tradition of falconry combined with the hot air ballooning to create a unique experience for visitors.
The promotional video traces the journey of the falcons, which began in February this year in Scotland. Apparently, the cold Scottish climate is ideal for strengthening the falcons’ muscles to fly.
The training began with a process called imprinting – where the falcons were hand-fed from the moment they were hatched by a particular falconer to build a strong bond with the bird.
The falcons then travelled over three days from Scotland to Umbria in Italy where they were trained in hot air balloons way up high in the sky.
When the falcons turned six months old, they were brought to Dubai and trained to adapt to the hot climate to perform the first ever hot air balloon experience in the UAE.
Peter Bergh, director of Royal Shaheen and a falcon flyer, gives us an overview of what to expect. ‘This project began five months ago in the Scottish Highlands where falcons are bred especially for this project,’ he says. The falcons then travelled to Italy where hot air ballooning was happening. ‘Why Italy? Because the other Peter [Peter Kollar], the balloon pilot, is from there,’ explains the falcon flyer, with a laugh.
‘There the falcons were trained and learned to fly and acclimatise to the inside of the balloon as part of their surroundings.’
Back in Dubai, the balloon is first filled with cold air, then the burners are turned on and the balloons begin to slowly rise. We are then helped into the basket.
Peter Kollar, managing director of Balloon Adventures and the hot air balloon pilot, gives us a few tips on how to stay safe in the basket. ‘Keep the seat belt on at all times, hold the basket with both hands and keep your knees bent during take off and landing,’ he advises.
There are ten people on each side to balance the basket.
Peter, the falcon flyer, is next to me. ‘You have the best seat in the house,’ he says.
The falcon in our balloon is called Bomber and it is her first time flying publicly, so her handler seems a bit nervous.
‘What if she gets stage fright’? I ask.
‘Let’s hope that doesn’t happen,’ he says.
Falcons, he explains, fly to catch prey just once a day. ‘Bomber was fed 24 hours earlier, and must now be hungry. So she will surely fly to nab her prey,’ Peter says.
I try not to look out as a fear begins to come over me. To take my mind off it, I ask if I can stroke Bomber. ‘Sure,’ says Peter, thrusting the bird, whose eyes are covered with a sort of mask, towards me.
Gently brushing my hand over Bomber’s furry head is strangely soothing and before I know it we are up in the air.
‘Are you sure that you are scared of heights?’ Peter chuckles. ‘Remind me to thank Bomber later for distracting me,’ I reply. Within seconds we begin soaring in the air and soon all that I can see are the beautiful golden sand dunes rippling far and wide below us.
Viewing the desert from up close is one thing. But enjoying the fabulous vista of sands and dunes from over 1,200m is a completely different experience, and easily one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed.
The fear that I had a moment ago is quickly replaced by an overwhelming sense of calmness, peace and serenity.
Wrapped in my thoughts and enjoying every moment in the air, I suddenly hear Peter shout out ‘This is it Bomber, this is your moment!’
He gently takes off her eye cover – which is used to keep her calm and is only removed when she is ready to fly – and like a bullet she is off.
Flying smoothly to a second balloon, she then returns to Peter to be rewarded with her prey in about 30 seconds: a quail, which she greedily gobbles down.
‘Well done Bomber,’ says Peter, smiling gleefully, extremely proud of his falcon. Clearly, the months of training were not in vain.
The balloon continues to float above the clouds and over the desert for about half an hour before the pilot informs us that we are to prepare for descent.
The burners are adjusted and the balloon begins to descend, landing smoothly without even a bump.
After some high fiving and cheering, we hop off the basket and are quickly whisked off by the organisers to the camp set up in the desert, where a breakfast of poached eggs, halloumi cheese and Arabic bread with a platter of fruit, among other local delicacies, await us.
The one-hour experience of falconry and hot air ballooning is breathtaking. And, oh yes, I must admit – I seem to have gotten over my fear of heights.
The My Land Falconry experience including pick-up, drop-off, hot-air balloon ride, falconry demonstration and breakfast costs Dh1,100 per person. For booking, visit the Balloon Adventures website www.ballooning.ae or telephone 04 388 4044