Soaring Over The Serengeti In A Hot Air Balloon


This video shows two of my lifelong dreams: I’ve always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon and I’ve always wanted to take a balloon ride over the Serengeti.

Kym Elder has done both, and captured her experience in this beautiful video. She soars over zebra, giraffes, gazelles and many more animals. Flying over the herds on a near-silent balloon must be the best way to see them. You can get in close without bothering them or getting in any danger. There’s an especially nice shot of a herd of bathing hippos. When my wife and I spotted hippos on Lake Tana, Ethiopia, the boatman wouldn’t get in close for fear of getting capsized – a wise move.

Kym tells us that after the ride they sat down to a champagne breakfast in the bush. Nice!

Have you flown in a balloon over an awesome destination? Make me jealous by sharing your story in the comments section!

Civil War Ballooning Revived This Memorial Day Weekend

Civil War
During the Civil War, the clashing armies used many new technologies to try to gain an advantage.

One military innovation was the balloon. Although the first balloon ascent had taken place in France in 1783 and the French army had already used them in battle as early as 1794, military aviation was still in its infancy and the United States and Confederacy became the second and third countries to use it.

Balloons were handy for spying on enemy movements. Observers would send back information either with signal flags or via a telegraph wire leading to the ground. The more industrial North had an edge in ballooning, but the South used them effectively too. Despite their best efforts, neither side was able to shoot these daring aviators out of the sky.

Now these early experiments are being re-enacted in Virginia. On Saturday, May 26, there will be a Civil War Balloon Observation Exhibit at the Yorktown Battlefield. There will be presentations on how balloons were used by both sides. It’s part of a weekend of lectures and re-enactments.

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, at the Gloucester Main Street Center, there will be a Civil War re-enactment featuring a 45-foot diameter replica of the Union’s balloon Intrepid. Re-enactors will portray Union and Confederate balloonists. Those who prefer more recent military history can meet special guest Richard C. Kirkland, who flew 103 combat missions in World War II and whose 69 helicopter rescues in Korea inspired the movie and TV series “M*A*S*H.”

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Getting high at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

New England may be the standard-bearer for fall travel, but New Mexico is an equally spectacular destination to spend the season. And perhaps there is no better way to usher in autumn than with necks craned skyward, under a dawn Albuquerque sky slowly filling up with several hundred illuminated hot air balloons.

Now in its 40th year, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta kicks off on October 1 for 9 days of events. The largest ballooning gathering in the world, and one of the largest events in the state, over 100,000 people attend to watch more than 700 balloons inflate, launch, and float over northern New Mexico. Many of these people happily set their alarms extra early in order to observe these vibrantly decorated balloons rise with the sun for the 5:30 a.m. mass ascent.

All of the week’s events take place at a 365-acre, tailor-made balloon park in the north of Albuquerque, about 10 miles from the airport and city center. So the city makes a perfect base for exploring both the Fiesta and the region. And surprisingly, for an event that brings 100,000 visitors into the area, affordable hotel rooms are still readily available. The event’s planners are also providing bus transportation from various points throughout the city, so thankfully there is no need to worry about driving through traffic or fighting for a parking spot.

For all you procrastinating gas balloon pilots out there, registration is unfortunately closed and you will have to wait until 2012. But for all you procrastinating spectators, tickets are still available. And who knows, instead of gazing up you may end up gazing down – it’s not unheard of for pilots to offer friendly, curious tourists a lift.

[flickr image via Corvair Owner]

Queens Lane, Oxford: a thousand years of history in a single street

Oxford, Queens Lane, England
Most of the time when we travel (or write about travel) we look at the big picture, yet sometimes a single place can sum up the history and character of a city. Queens Lane in Oxford is one of those places. A quiet backstreet linking the two more popular thoroughfares of High Street and Catte Street, it’s overlooked by most visitors. I use it when walking to work at the Bodleian library as a way to avoid the noise and crush of the crowd.

Entering from High Street, you have The Queen’s College on your left. This college was founded in 1341 and is designed in the Italian style by Hawksmoor, one of England’s greatest architects. Like all Oxford colleges it has its own customs and peculiarities. During Christmastide celebrations a boar’s head is carried from the kitchens to the High Table in the dining hall while the college choir sings an old tune. Legend has it that a student of the college was walking in the forest reading Aristotle when he was attacked by a wild boar. He stuck his book in the boar’s mouth and choked the boar to death!

Walking down Queens Lane you can see a gate to another college, St. Edmund Hall, to your right and the church tower of St. Peter’s-in-the-East ahead. St. Edmund is older than The Queen’s College by a couple of generations but the exact date of its founding is a mystery. Go through to gate to see a couple of quiet, ivy-covered quads. St. Peter’s is worth a visit too. This 12th century Norman church is built atop an earlier Anglo-Saxon church. It now serves as the college library and there’s a display of finds from an archaeological excavation into the Anglo-Saxon foundations.

In the churchyard is the grave of James Sadler, a pioneering balloonist who soared into the air over Oxford in 1784, the first Englishman to try a balloon after it had been invented by the French Montgolfier brothers only the year before. Ballooning was dangerous in those early days. Sadler twice landed in the sea and his own son was killed in a ballooning accident. Another time his balloon hit the ground, dragged him for two miles before he was knocked off, and then sailed away again without him. Amazingly, Sadler lived to 75 and died a natural death.

%Gallery-132119%Continuing along Queens Lane you take a right and the path turns into New College Lane. Yes, I cheated with the title of this post. Sue me. New College doesn’t look like much from here, only a heavy oak door under a medieval vault. Go inside and you’ll see one of the five most beautiful colleges of Oxford. New College Lane is narrow and enclosed with high walls turned black from the acid rain caused by Victorian coal smoke and modern car exhaust. The stone used here is very absorbent and pollution is literally eating away at the university.

Another zigzag takes us within sight of Catte Street, the Bodleian Library, and the crowds. Before plunging into the throng, you’ll see an unassuming little house on the right that was once the home of Sir Edmund Halley, graduate of The Queen’s College and the astronomer who proved comets return regularly. He also loved to party, and went on epic pub crawls with Russian Czar Peter the Great when he visited London. Their landlord complained that they tore all the doors off their hinges and shot holes through all the paintings. The house is now a college residence and is famous for its parties. A little room attached to the roof served as Halley’s observatory and it’s rumored that heavenly bodies can still be seen there on Saturday nights.

If you don’t get invited to a private party in Halley’s old place, you can squeeze down a narrow alley and visit the Turf Tavern, a fine old pub. The oldest part of the building dates to the 17th century but there may have been an alehouse here centuries before that. The management claims that this was where Bill Clinton, then a student at Oxford, “didn’t inhale” marijuana. Yeah, sure you didn’t.

The exit of New College Lane takes you under the Bridge of Sighs, which connects two buildings of Hertford College. It’s said to be an imitation of a bridge in Venice of the same name. One local rumor says that when it was built in 1914, the building on one side still didn’t have plumbing while the other did. Since students weren’t allowed to leave their college after hours and usually had a quick pint or three before being locked in, it was a bad deal to be stuck all night in a building with no toilets. The Bridge of Sighs offered a way for students to hurry to the bathroom in the next building without breaking the rules, thus giving a whole other meaning to its name.

Outback Australia: Big Fun in Little Alice

It’s rare that a town with a population under 30,000 is known by everyone in a country as big as Australia. But Alice Springs is no ordinary town. It’s defined less by its size and more by its location and quirky nature. Known colloquially as just Alice, the town is considered the capital of Centralia (the efficient abbreviation for Central Australia). If you’re going to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), or anywhere else in the Red Center, odds are you will be starting or ending your journey in Alice Springs. How does a tiny outpost in the middle of the desert become known the world over? By doing everything the hard way and with a big smile.

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Alice Springs is an Outback town, plain and simple. It’s 1,500km from Darwin and Adelaide and almost 2,500km from Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. It is in the middle of one humongous country. It has survived and thrived for decades, however, thanks to ingenuity, creativity and, in recent years, a tourism industry that has capitalized on those traits.

So, you’ve found yourself in the middle of Australia with a few days to kill. Now what? Well, expect plenty of fun, for one thing, and some of the most breathtaking views you’ve ever seen.

  • Palm Valley ToursA bumpy 130km drive to the southwest of Alice is an amazing natural wonder that will make you believe that your eyes are deceiving you. In the middle of Finke Gorge National Park, in what appears to be a wide expanse the barren Outback, is a valley filled with lush, healthy palm trees. Relying on underground water supplies and only minimal amounts of rainfall, these palms have flourished for thousands of years. The tour bus takes you along unsealed, rugged roads and through some of the most striking landscapes in the entire Territory.
  • Alice Springs School of the AirSince when is a school a tourist destinations? Since this became the first school to communicate with students in remote areas via peddle-powered radios. The Northern Territory was, and still is, a region built around cattle stations and massive, remote plots of land occupied by very few people. As such, children are often hundreds of kilometers from the nearest school. The Alice Springs School of the Air was the first school to connect students and teachers utilizing the technology of the day. They have since upgraded to computers, webcams and chatrooms to allow students to attend classes with their peers who are scattered throughout the Territory. The visitors center shares the fantastic history of the school’s growth, development and the many innovations that have allowed it to educate the youth of rural Australia for decades.
  • Royal Flying Doctor ServiceThink setting up education in an area as remote as as the Northern Territory is difficult, try providing medical service to those sequestered locations. What do you do if you’re injured on a farm that’s 1,000km from the nearest town or hospital. You call the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which was founded in Alice in 1928. The visitor center in Alice is also the dispatch office, where people with medical situations can call for a doctor to be flown out to treat anything from traumatic injuries to flu outbreaks to childbirths. You can see the history of the RFDS, as well as how calls are processed and proceeds from sales in the gift shop help keep this essential service operating.
  • Outback BallooningI’d always been curious about flying in a hot air balloon but turned off by the high price of the experience. Also, while I’m not afraid of heights, I am a firm believer that only fruit should be collected in a basket. People deserve a metal casing. But after watching the sunrise over the Outback on the outskirts of Alice while floating several hundred feet above the ground, I realized that ballooning is the only way to travel. Or, the only way to see the majesty of an amazingly desolate yet beautiful landscape seemingly in the middle of nowhere. And the champagne breakfast afterward is sure to settle the nerves of anyone who was left jelly-legged from the ride.
  • Anzac Hill – Apparently, every single destination in the Northern Territory has a “perfect” spot to watch the sunset. In Alice, there is no better place than Anzac Hill (partially because there is no other place – Alice is flat other than this one bump). Atop the hill sits a war memorial (ANZAC stands for Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) and a remarkable 360° view of the little town that could. Wrap up your trip to the Red Center by watching the sun sink behind the MacDonnell Ranges that lurk in the distance.

Alice is home to countless indigenous art galleries and plenty of pubs and restaurants serving bush tucker ranging from yams to wallaby. It’s also the only city in Centralia with an airport that hosts flights from virtually any other city in Australia that you may be coming from or going to.

You may have noticed that Uluru is noticeably absent from this list. The rock is nearly 500km from Alice and is by no means a day trip. While Alice is the closest city to Uluru, they are neighbors in the sense that anything within 1,000km is your closest neighbor when you’re in the Outback. If you’re planning a trip to Alice and Uluru, expect one of your days to be spent in transit from one to the other.

In a quirky country like Australia, it takes a lot for a small town to stand out. Alice Springs has done more than that. It has prospered and evolved from a tiny outpost in the bush to a popular tourist destination for people the world over. And there’s one event that draws the biggest crowds to this little hamlet. A regatta in the town’s dry river bed. Confused? Well, check back tomorrow to learn more.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.