5h40 is indeed early, but try not to think about that too much. Think about the North African sunrise, think about the Atlas mountains, think about the glorious photos you’ll post on Instagram.
Ciel d’Afrique – Morocco’s oldest hot air balloon* tour company and recipient of Trip Advisor’s ‘Certificate of Excellence’ 3 years running – recently began offering a post-flight camel transfer from your balloon’s landing site to the berber breakfast tent. Mustapha and I suggest you ask for Isham – a professional, charming pilot with some well-rehearsed hot air balloon humor.
Here’s how it’ll all go down:
The hot air balloon people will pick you up from your hotel or riad** at an unGodly hour and drive you to the launch site. Yes, it’s unfortunate, but hot air ballooning is a sunrise activity (for fancy aerological reasons). You’ll see Marrakech waking up during your 20-minute drive to the outskirts of town. You’ll see the agriculturally inclined Moroccans coming out of their mud huts to pick vegetables and hang out with their goats.
You’ll arrive at the launch site in time to watch the pilot and his crew prepare the balloon for flight; it takes shape as the pilot squeezes a lever that throws loud fire (and, by extension, hot air) into the balloon. You’ll hop into the basket and then – for a few minutes during your ascent – you’ll get a voyeur’s aerial view into some of Marrakech’s open-air residences. But the details on the ground will quickly blur and you’ll shift your gaze over to the Berber-populated Atlas Mountains because the sun is rising up alongside them and you don’t plan on getting up this early again for a long, long time.
About 50 minutes later your pilot will instruct you to brace yourself for touchdown by holding on to the basket’s handles. You’ll be nervous about the landing and curse yourself for not googling ‘hot air balloon accidents in Morocco’ before you left.
Upon landing, the balloon will drag the basket across the rocky terrain for a few seconds until its momentum is depleted. You’ll try to reconcile this experience with what you remember from your 10th grade physics class.
Then the dromedaries (one-humped camels***) will mosey over to scoop and carry you back to Ciel d’Afrique’s launch site where you’ll install yourself under a large Berber tent. Then you’ll be brought 3 varieties of Moroccan pancakes that you’ll dip into honey and olive oil.
After that and for reasons that are unclear, Isham will present you with a certificate stating that you:
a) flew in a hot air balloon. And that you did so
b) before an admiring crowd (remember the Moroccan farmers from earlier?).
You’ll pay the crew 2,050 dirhams (which is about $220 or 190 euros) in cash and they’ll take you back to your hotel.
The addition of 3 dromedaries to Ciel d’Afrique’s team presents a viable alternative for those of us who’d only briefly entertain the relatively impractical option of driving 7 hours to ride camels in the dunes of Moroccan Sahara. Now we can synthesize our camel and hot air balloon ride into one morning’s excursion, leaving the afternoon free to get lost in Marrakech’s souks and haggle for a carpet.
$220 per person for an hour long hot air balloon flight, which includes the post-flight camel ride to the breakfast tent, breakfast, and round trip hotel transfer in a scrappy 4×4. (011 212 52 443 2843, cieldafrique.info/accueil_fr.php).
* Linguistic sidebar: our French-speaking Moroccan friends call them ‘mongolfs,’ short for montgolfières.
** Mustapha defines a riad as ‘a house with a garden in the middle.’
**You’d be hard pressed to locate a two-humped camel in these parts, but don’t worry – one hump is more than sufficient.