As difficult as it was to leave the cosseted confines of the gorgeous Desert Palm, we only had three days to enjoy our girlie break in Dubai so after sailing across the city, scaling skyscrapers, hitting the shops and sampling the spa, we just had time for one last adventure – and as it was also BF’s birthday it had to be something special.
There really has to be a very good reason for setting your alarm clock for 3am whilst on holiday but the prospect of seeing the sun rise over the desert sands from the vantage point of a hot air balloon has got to be one of them – and I think you’d agree it makes a pretty good start to any birthday. So following a measly four hours sleep, we rose, put on some sensible shoes for the first time in two days and headed over to a Dubai car park for our early morning pick-up.
It’s wasn’t long before an A-Team style van pulled up and a stocky bearded man in a red jumpsuit leapt out and (with far more energy than four in the morning should afford anyone) introduced himself as Captain Attila – “like the Hun”, he added cheerfully. Suitably amused, we hopped in and joined the other dozen or so day-trippers who were seizing the opportunity to snooze on the hour long drive to the isolated sands just north of Al Ain.
It was still pitch black when we arrived, the only light cast coming from the two other vehicles that had joined us from Oman and Abu Dhabi. But as the sun started to break over the horizon tingeing the indigo star-filled sky with streaks of pink and peach, we could see in the distance a team of maybe a dozen or so men energetically pushing, pulling, unfolding and positioning the mass of material and large laundry basket that was soon to be our aircraft.
The realisation that we were about to glide across the desert suspended by what was essentially a flimsy layer of fabric and an oversized hamper started to dawn – was a terrifying plummet towards the dusty earth really the gift I wanted to give my pal for her birthday? Surely such a thing could end what had so far been a beautiful friendship? Thankfully though, Captain Attila inspired confidence, rounding up his twenty-two passengers from nine different nations while barking out a safety briefing and deftly overseeing the fiery inflation of our balloon. If the birthday girl was nervous she was hiding it well so I tried to do the same.
Moments later, as the cherry-red sun is started to burst across the distant dunes, the balloon’s magnificently rotund form filled our eyes and the basket tipped towards its upright position ready to go. Attila, who had clearly had some kettling training in the past, ordered us to climb aboard (climb being the operative word – a maxi dress is not suitable attire as one of the passengers soon learned) and before we knew it, we were off.
We were a cheerful bunch of passengers, made up of groups of friends, loved-up honeymooners and intrepid solo travellers. Everyone was happy and for the first few minutes the basket was full of excited chatter and the sound of camera shutters. There was no scary swaying or ominous lurches, instead we ascended dreamily, smoothly and surprisingly quickly. We soon passed a thousand feet, and then two thousand when suddenly everyone seemed to realise that our aircraft was made of wicker, and tried to take a step inwards. There was of course no where to go and as we swept upwards past the height of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, to our hovering altitude of three thousand feet, the friendly chatter that had previously filled the air was replaced by nervous smiles, lame jokes, yoga-like breathing exercises and then ultimately silence.
This was the scariest part of the ride. Everyone may well be smiling in this picture but believe me behind the mask there was nothing but butt-clenching fear. It was incredibly beautiful though, it wasn’t just the height that made my heart race, the sandy sea of burnt amber, coral and orange below was truly phenomenal.
My favourite part of the journey though was definitely the descent and landing, which turned out to be as close to a magic carpet ride as you can get. After drifting down to a less wee-inducing level, we swept across the endless undulating dunes passing the occasional Sheikh’s palace and Bedouin tribe, startling stray gazelles before one taking one final lunge across a huge herd of wild camels and coming into land with an almighty (and super-exciting) bump.
And as if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day, we soon realised that we had a celebrity in our midst, well certainly a future celebrity anyway. In the front left corner of the group balloon photo you can see a young guy called Lyrican. Turns out he lives just up the road from me in Manchester and is one of the UK’s up-and-coming rap stars, opening for the likes of Jay-Z , Eminem and 50 Cent on their UK arena tours. He was out in Abu Dhabi to film this music video -
So there we go, a birthday trip with Star Style from start to finish and one that had left us as exhausted as an eight-year-old after a day a Disney. We’d certainly packed in the delights of Dubai and now it was time for our next, and sure-to-be more relaxing stopover in the Maldives.
Arabian Adventures offers Hot Air Balloon Rides in Dubai from AED 995 per person (£175 per person). The operator can also arrange a host of other memorable experiences such as Dubai desert safaris. For further information and reservations visit www.arabian-adventures.com or call +971 4 303 4888 .