Milestone Birthday: Celebrating My 50th With a Hot Air Balloon Safari in Namibia

by | Feb 24, 2023

Aerial view from a Hot Air Balloon in the Sossusvlei area of the Namib-Naukluft Desert in Namibia

Last updated on March 1st, 2023

Featured image: A hot air balloon safari over the Namib Desert, Namibia | Photo by SteveAllenPhoto999 on Envato

Is a hot air balloon safari in your future?

By Maria Kamau, Guest Writer

When I decide to celebrate my milestone birthday with an early morning hot air balloon safari in Namibia, I never imagine it will end in a safe crash landing followed by champagne. Gliding along in the air, I marvel at the beauty of endless light brown sand spread across level plains, before transforming into ruggedly formed deep orange desert dunes decorating the landscape, seamlessly merging with the blue of the Atlantic Ocean. But then, as we prepare for landing, I feel the speed of the balloon has subtly increased. 

Planning my milestone birthday

Earlier that week, I travel from Nairobi to Windhoek (the Capital City), to join my resident sister to celebrate my 50th birthday (woo-hoo!). Since she’s lived there for over 20 years, we’ve done all the standard tours on many prior visits, such as a safari in the exotic Etosha National Park, Hiking Dune 7, Skydiving, dolphin cruise, multi-city tours, etc. 

It was hard to figure out what to do that was new or different to mark my milestone birthday occasion. Our friends from Kenya who’d visited her earlier in the year had done the hot air balloon safari, but she wasn’t keen and had happily stayed behind. However, when I hear about it, I am decided. I drag my reluctant sibling into the plan…

Find endless things to do in Namibia here!

An early start in Namibia

The morning of the hot air balloon safari, I join other passengers at 5:15 am for the ride to the take-off site. It feels a bit eerie at this cold and dusky time of morning. We are following the crew in a 4-door pickup truck ahead of us, which is towing a small trailer with the equipment. I feel the car slow down to a complete stop at a random point on the main road.

“They need to do some checks, just to be sure all is well with the weather,” the driver explains. We watch in silence as two people step out of the vehicle ahead, cross over to the other side of the road. One by one, each bends to pick up a handful of desert sand, throws it straight up into the air slightly ahead of them, then observes keenly at how it falls. They do this a couple of times before they cross back and enter their vehicle. 

This is in Walvis Bay, along the west coast of Namibia (bordering South Africa), on our way to set up for an early morning balloon ride. From the moment I confirmed our wish to the owner-operators of the hot air balloon safaris, we’ve been warned and reminded repeatedly that they cannot guarantee the ride will happen until the very last minute, as it depends entirely on the weather conditions at the time. Several checks and precautions have to be done as safety measures, the wind direction and strength being one of the most sensitive to monitor, as well as the extent of visibility.

So far, everything has to be re-confirmed as ‘good to go’. The air is calm, the skies are clear and temperatures cool, with predictions that it will remain so, long enough for us to move ahead with the hot air balloon safari. 

Into the Namib desert we go 

We drive on for a bit then turn off the main road and squarely onto to the edge of the Namib desert, heading further inward towards the take-off spot about 10 km away.

Once we arrive, the crew of five men and two women get to work setting the balloon up. The five passengers, including my sister and me, an American woman, her Namibian husband, and their young son who just turned 12 (a birthday treat too!), stand by watching with excitement as they go about their business. To keep warm, we do jump shots near the scenery, while the family huddles closely together a short distance away.

Maria Kamau prepares for her hot air balloon safari in Namibia

Maria gets ready for her hot air balloon safari ride / Photo by Maria Kamau

A balloon getting filled with air to prepare for take off on a hot air balloon safari in Namibia

The balloon getting ready for take off / Photo by Maria Kamau

Using the headlights of the truck on full blast mode, the crew sets about laying the huge, deflated balloon flat on the ground and attaches it to the open side of the gondola (passenger basket). 

Next, they position the mobile generator towards the open side of the balloon and proceed to pump in loads of air needed to inflate it, the loud drone of the engine disrupting the desert tranquillity once it is turned on. Gradually, it starts to fill up, the material flailing lightly upward in the shape of a small, smooth hill. 

At some point, on its journey to ballooning into shape (so to speak), the crew starts to press the burner to produce the hot air needed for lift-off. Those holding the balloon open turn their heads away from the direct blast of the bright flame blazing noisily each time the burner is ignited, to avoid the glare of brilliant light and direct heat.

While this activity looks rather dangerous, by contrast, the backdrop morphs beautifully into a magnificent morning sky. The rising sun peeps through the low clouds above the horizon and spreads light across the now visible vastness of desert plains all around us. By then, we can differentiate the pale brown colour of the balloon from the sand on which it lies, and admire the pretty blue clouds distributed across it for colour, decorating it as if it is in the sky.

It takes barely 30 minutes for the entire operation, from offloading the truck to watching in awe as the adequately filled balloon starts to rise towards the sky. Expertly guided by the crew, the rising balloon starts to lift the basket off its side into the correct sitting position for us to climb in. 

Time to lift off on our hot air balloon safari!

While the one group works on the rounded end of the balloon, we are invited with urgency to get into the basket while the crew holds it down, else it will lift off and away without us!

We climb in quickly with some help, as the height of the basket is at chest level. The lady pilot does a quick assessment and declares we are one person short for the ideal weight balance. Those in the basket shouldn’t be too many, else it mightn’t lift off, and shouldn’t be too few else once airborne, we might not be able to descend back to safety. We need to be at least eight. With five passengers and two pilots (one in training), this comes to 6.5 people considering the young boy’s weight. The only other female amongst the crew happily obliges and jumps in for the free ride (turns out she gets lucky every so often). The rest set about unhooking the safety ropes attached to the ground and vehicles, while our pilot flares up the burner repeatedly for lift off.

A group of passengers and crew enjoy a hot air balloon ride above the Namib desert

Happy passengers and crew on the balloon ride / Photo by Maria Kamau

By then, I am brimming with excitement, the moment is finally here! Fascinated by the whole drama in its entirety and too busy trying to film the dazzling flame in motion as it blows more hot air into the now fully inflated balloon, I miss the moment of ascent. As I tear my eyes away from gawking upward to take a last look around, I am shocked to see diminishing shapes of the working crew, putting away their equipment and loading the vehicles, as we float up-up and away fast! The air is so calm and quiet, the little basket ascending lightly but quickly. It is hard to tell we are moving at all, save for the perspective of the tiny people becoming smaller and smaller and the vehicles looking like toy cars in the vast desert land.

Sunrise brings serenity

By then, the sun is above horizon, shining its gentle warmth and light on the world around us. It is like being in a movie that began about exploring the Namib desert on one side and the Atlantic Ocean a little far off on the other. 

Click here to find other things to do in the Namib Desert.

For a moment we are all quiet, absorbing the serenity and splendour of it all, the silence broken only by the whispers of training between the pilot trainer and trainee, and periodic blasts of blazing hot air blowing into the balloon to maintain its rise towards about 1000 feet above ground. The air starts to get too warm, and I shed my jacket to enjoy the cool breeze.

A hot balloon gets filled with hot air in the Namib desert

Getting filled with hot air for takeoff / Photo by Maria Kamau

Floating above the desert 

With no bumps or tilts or sudden movements whatsoever, and no engine sounds to boot, it can only be described as floating, reminding me of Walt Disney movies where characters magically fly noiselessly on carpets across the air. 

As we glide along, I marvel at the beauty of endless light brown sand spread across level plains, before suddenly turning into ruggedly formed deep orange desert dunes decorating the landscape all the way towards the beach, seamlessly merging with the blue of the Atlantic Ocean, which then disappear under a low-lying white layer of fog. One can barely make out the grey of the highway, appearing like a pencil-thin line drawn across the sand, with a teeny-tiny trailer crawling along. Further away on the ocean, a pair of miniature toy-looking ships appears far out at sea.  

As passengers, we are quiet, while the crew chats in low tones. The reigning peace is disrupted periodically by the blasts of hot air every so often (which shock me a little each time).

Sand dunes seen from above in the Namib desert

Desert dunes and views of the Atlantic Ocean / Photo by Maria Kamau

The real adventure begins 

After about 50 minutes into our dreamy adventure, the crew starts to prepare for landing, pointing out the ground crew far below who has followed us towards the landing site.  

Their chat begins to sound rather animated. I feel the speed of the balloon has subtly increased. While it has remained stable, the basket is floating along much faster than before.

‘Ladies and gents,” the pilot announces informally but with authority, “as you may have realized by now, the wind speed has suddenly increased, and we’re being carried away a bit too fast. Listen carefully and follow instructions because our landing may not be smooth.”

Preparing for a crash landing 

We are told to crouch down on our butts, with our backs to the basket walls and hold on securely to the safety ropes until we land. She will tell us when to get down. Meanwhile, the ground crew goes off-road into the desert plans, and keeps the balloon in sight, following us to wherever we land.

As the balloon descends fast, it gets blown in an easterly direction further into the desert. The ground approaches, and on the pilot’s orders, we get down and grab tightly onto the rope handles. We bump into the ground once, are dragged a bit, bump twice, and are dragged less. With a final thud, we come to a stop. Phew!

While the crash landing isn’t as bad as it sounds, with the basket lying on its side, my sis and I find ourselves awkwardly on our backs lying on the desert, with the basket wall acting as a carpet in between. The family is above us on the dividing wall which makes it easier for them to disembark. We look at each other and burst out laughing with relief as we roll out untidily but unhurt. Woohoo! It is a moment of exhilarated fulfilment. We did it! 

As soon as the crew ensures all were safe and no one injured (apart from the dustiness of untidy disembarking), the crew members set about arranging the now deflating balloon for re-packing, while we wait for the vehicles to arrive.  

Celebrating with champagne 

A short while later, the vehicles arrive. Out comes the champagne for the adults, juice for the pre-teen and wine glasses for everyone. What follows is ‘pop’, tinkle of glasses in a toast and a good swig of the cool bubbly, to celebrate the successful and enjoyable adventure for all – Cheers!

As a tradition carried over decades, a balloon safari always ends with breakfast including champagne as an integral part of it. We dig in as we recounted the experience, the unexpected end and the affirmation that it was well worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list experience.

A group of people toast champagne after their hot air balloon safari experience in the Namib Desert

A champagne toast after the hot air balloon safari experience / Photo by Maria Kamau

A group of people enjoy breakfast after their hot air balloon safari experience in the Namib Desert

Enjoying breakfast in the Namib Desert / Photo by Maria Kamau

Two ladies enjoy breakfast next to a pickup truck after their hot air balloon safari experience in the Namib Desert

Coffee after the hot air balloon safari / Photo by Maria Kamau

Once all have their fill, we pack everything up including litter to ensure we leave the desert exactly as we found it. We clamber back into the vehicles to head back from our 5-10 km off-course landing spot back to the highway and into the town to complete the payment (done only after the trip happens).

Where to stay: Find the perfect place to stay in Namibia by clicking here
Packing up the balloon after a hot air balloon safari in the Namib Desert, Namibia

Packing up the balloon and leaving the desert exactly how we found it / Photo by Maria Kamau

Should you go on a hot air balloon safari? 

If a hot air balloon safari is on your bucket list, I’d say go for it! Unless you have intense height phobia, it’s not scary and is generally low risk because of all the safety measures and assessments done beforehand. It usually takes about an hour (or about two if you include pre and post-preps, take-off and landing site locations, and champagne breakfast).

The excursion is managed by the operators located in Walvis Bay town, Namibia and pick-up can be arranged from Swakopmund or elsewhere if reasonably close by. 

More Adventure Travel to Inspire You


We always strive to use real photos from our own adventures, provided by the guest writer or from our personal travels. However, in some cases, due to photo quality, we must use stock photography. If you have any questions about the photography please let us know.

Disclaimer: We are so happy that you are checking out this page right now! We only recommend things that are suggested by our community, or through our own experience, that we believe will be helpful and practical for you. Some of our pages contain links, which means we’re part of an affiliate program for the product being mentioned. Should you decide to purchase a product using a link from on our site, JourneyWoman may earn a small commission from the retailer, which helps us maintain our beautiful website. JourneyWoman is an Amazon Associate and earns from qualifying purchases. Thank you!

We want to hear what you think about this article, and we welcome any updates or changes to improve it. You can comment below, or send an email to us at

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend