Ballooning at dawn. The quiet of ballooning allows for reflection and meditation. Ballooning Pictures: Arja Salafranca
Ballooning at dawn. The quiet of ballooning allows for reflection and meditation. Ballooning Pictures: Arja Salafranca
The stone reception house at De Hoek.
The stone reception house at De Hoek.

Johannesburg - Stone benches dot the lawns at De Hoek at regular intervals. There’s something about stone, and the whole of the hotel is built of this timeless material, echoing the garden benches. There’s also something about the curlicued edges that evokes a time gone past, and reminds you of the need to let go of the hectic pace of living, to while away hours reading a book, or talking while listening to the babble of water in a stream, or simply daydreaming, watching the clouds form into shapes that remind you of continents and birds.

There’s a discreet charm to De Hoek Country Hotel. Something quietens as you sip a late afternoon cup of tea on a balcony overlooking a lawn, a stone bench, massive sweeping trees, catching up on the week’s news, reconnecting.

Thunder rolled, the skies looked a little dark, but neither of us said anything about the weather. We’d come away to go hot air ballooning on a Saturday morning, and it seemed like tempting the fates to mention that it was all weather-dependent.

Instead we unfurled an umbrella to walk to the dining area as the rain dripped musically and we wandered through to the main reception house, built with stone quarried in Lesotho. The wood beams in the main hall are from the original Crown Mines headgear. The dado rails come from the old Fever Hospital in Braamfontein. The window sills and the door lintels are from the original Sir Herbert Baker-designed Durban Station. The floor of the mezzanine gallery was constructed from wood that had been the benches in the old Wanderers cricket ground.

The genteel aspect of the hotel permeates the main building. I liked the extra touches: glass bowls of pink and white marshmallows ready for the taking, nibbles of truffles, raisins, nuts. The fact that you could reach out and nosh as if you were at home lent a warm homely atmosphere to the place. There are also comfortable seating areas on the upper level of the main reception, and a library to dip into.

The dining room was discreetly charming, soft music filtering, the gentle charm of waiters moving quietly through, as though we’d stepped back in time. De Hoek offers fine dining and owner Michael Holenstein is also the head chef, with the hotel being owned jointly with his wife Michelle.

That night I tried a starter of a trio of seafood with the rare treat of scallops added to the prawn and calamari. My ostrich steak hit the spot while my companion tried the lamb chops with an unusual touch of curly sweet potatoes. Desserts included a chocolate fondant oozing melted chocolate, while the trio of brûlées caught my eye, caramel and chocolate competed with the unusual orange crème brûlée. Supper the next night included prawn salad with tempura prawns, and fettucine Alfredo. My main of duck breast fillet with sweet and sour noodles left an impression, as did dessert: panna cotta, a tart citrus fruit jelly, and Bavarian cream.

Despite all the country charm, we were more than a little anxious about ballooning with Bill Harrop’s “Original” Balloon Safaris the next morning. It wasn’t the up, up and away that provoked the twitches, rather the fact that we had to be up at 3.30am to make the airfield for lift-off at 5am. I’ve heard of adventure travellers waking up at 1am or something to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, and I comforted myself slightly with the thought that 3.30am was a little kinder than that.

Talk about a shock to the system, rising in the dark and gliding along noiseless country roads to our assignation with a bucket list.

Lift-off is at 5am to make the most of the sunrise, although there are winter balloon trips that take off in the afternoon and are timed to end with dusk and sunset, for those less brave.

On arrival at Skeerpoort Balloon Field in the Magalies River Valley airfield you’re handed a ticket to ride, literally an old-fashioned air ticket – I loved that touch too, as though you’re catching a plane – and yes, you are flying… although it’s a far cry from modern jets, of course.

It was yet another way of ushering us into the past: into a time when flying with the winds in a hot air balloon was the only way of getting a bird’s-eye view of the world.

There was a palpable undertone of excitement among the fairly large group of people booked for the balloon rides – we watched as the balloons were offloaded from the trucks and hot air filled the colourful interiors. They rose, almost phoenix-like, becoming the majestic mounds you see in photos. Clamber in then, for the gentlest take-off I have experienced.

We had Harrop as our pilot. He started the company in 1981 and still does a regular roster of piloting each month. Complete with Geordie accent and white beard, his looks do not belie the fact that he sailed for many years, as home on a yacht as he obviously was in the balloon.

We moved into the air, watching the other balloons taking off into the hills, shadowing and reflecting our own progress. The golden sun slanted provided a sweet light, that gentle soft light of dusk so favoured by photographers.

I’d expected something more rough and tumble, less this gentle drift into the sunrise, the quiet among us punctuated by the roar and rush of the gas burners as Harrop turned them on to lift us when the balloon drifted off the currents. Steering is via the pockets of air the balloon drifts into.

It’s meditative and quiet up in the air: you snap photographs, one after the other, as it’s picturesque in the literal and physical senses of the word. Each photo seems as beautiful as the rest as you glide. Touching each other gently, sharing the experience with a beloved seems the ultimate way to go.

We drifted close to the ground, skimming a thorn tree, the earth seeming to loom perilously close. We passed over a tree lush with leaves and reached out a hand to pluck a few; it seemed magical somehow to pick from the top of a tree. And then, coming to a gentle glide, we landed in a field seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Ballooning isn’t an exact science, and there’s no way of deciding where you will be landing. The pilot then calls the ground staff who locate the landed balloon, entering the fields of the various farms to come and ferry us back to the terminal.

Meanwhile the balloon unfurled behind the basket as we waited in an unknown field. Harrop was jovially cracking open bottles of Champagne. The farmer herself came to greet us, having noticed us coming down on her land. There was something delightfully quaint and old-fashioned about our landing in the middle of nowhere, destination unknown, and unplanned, the 10 of us in a balloon, with Harrop as pilot the 11th passenger. Two of the couples in our balloon were celebrating wedding anniversaries.

The ride was followed by breakfast back at the pavilion, a spread of the usual fare, complete with Harrop at the head of the table, talking about his travels and adventures and the years the business has been operating, now joined by other members of his family. On completion of the ride you receive a bravery medal for having taken part, a fun touch that, one to add to the degrees, perhaps?

I’m not ashamed to say that we collapsed into exhaustion after returning to the hotel and slept some of the remaining morning away. In retrospect I’d really prefer to do an afternoon sunset trip – but then I’ve never been called a morning person. I’d say take the pulse of what suits your own comfort levels and book a ride that suits your genes.

We woke in time for lunch – which that Saturday was a picnic in the gardens at De Hoek. It was a case of choose one of the many beautiful spots around the grounds. We picnicked beside the pool, beneath the shade of enormous trees, watching birds swoop through the branches. The food was lovely: marinated mushrooms, sweet potato and peppers, cheese and crackers, as well as rolls, cold fried fish, chicken drumsticks, salad, choc cake with cream, as well as drinks of wine or sparking juice and water. It’s special to eat with the grass spread before you, birds flying and trilling in the trees.

We had no energy for some of the other activities on offer: archery, crocquet or boules, for example. But as afternoon dipped into dusk we took a brief walk – there’s a longer hike of two-and-a-half hours, but, energy levels falling, we sat beside the babbling Magalies River instead. We watched as the forest-like foliage grew dark, commenting that night had already begun deep in the plants before us, as the weeping willows dipped and shaded us from the last of the day’s glare. We walked back across the vast sloping field in front of Stonebridge House, as night came to greet us, the past gently folding back into the dips of memory.

l Arja Salafranca was a guest of De Hoek Country Hotel and Bill Harrop’s “Original”Balloon Safaris

Several options can be booked.

l Five-star premium, valid for flights until November 30:

Regular rate per person: R2 520

Group of six or more pp: R2 310

Children under 12: 50 percent

Rates include the following:

A cup of tea, coffee and biscuits, served from the clubhouse pavilion before your flight at sunrise. The flight of about one hour over the Magalies River Valley. A glass of sparkling wine on landing while the crew pack up the balloons. A breakfast served on the patios of the fully licensed clubhouse pavilion, which has views of the Magalies Mountains, and a “citation for bravery”.

l Cloud 9 Balloon Rides: four-star experience. Meet at one of four selected launchsites in the Magaliesburg and Cradle of Humankind. Valid for flights until November 30

Regular rate per person: R1 939

Group of six or more pp: R1 764. Children under 12: 50 percent. Rates are reduced for groups. These rates include the following: a quick cup of tea, coffee and biscuits, served once you arrive at your selected launch site

The flight of about one hour. A glass of sparkling wine on landing while the crew pack up the balloons. Transfers back to your vehicles as well as a “citation for bravery”.

l Action Balloon Flights

This is the three-star brand. Meet at Van Gaalen Cheese Farm in Skeerpoort. Regular rate per person: R1 995. Current seasonal rate pp R1 600. Meet at Whispering Pines in Magaliesburg. Regular rate per person: R2 080. Current seasonal rate pp: R1 685. These rates include the following: Meeting at sunrise at your selected launch site.

Travel by minibus to a launch site selected by your pilot for the best possible flight. Fly for about an hour. If you wish, participate in the fun of packing up before boarding transport back to your meeting point. Tour duration: two to two-and-a-half hours in total.

l Sunday Indepedent Travel Club members get a 10 percent discount on the five-star premium rides (first option) until the end of 2013.

Bill Harrop’s “Original” Balloon Safaris

De Hoek Country Hotel is offering a romantic, secluded, indulgent Valentine’s weekend in the heart of the Magaliesburg.

Guests taking up this offer – which runs on the weekend of February 15 and 16 – will enjoy a weekend of sheer spoiling including:

l Five-star accommodation in superior suites;

l A romantic Friday night turndown (including a bubble bath and two glasses of bubbly);

l Five-course candle-lit dinners on both nights; and

l A picnic basket with wine on Saturday afternoon – allowing you to wander the grounds and find your own special, sweet spot.

l R7 995 a couple

In-between the fine wining and dining, there are country walks, craft shopping in the area, nearby cultural attractions, archery, boules and an opportunity to just enjoy the tranquil surroundings – away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

If you can’t set the weekend aside, make the 14th a night to remember and join owner-chef Michael Holenstein and his culinary team as they present a spectacular night of fine dining, with their special Valentine’s dinner menu at R380 a person.

To book a stay or take part in the Valentine’s weekend, e-mail: [email protected] Tel: 014 577 9600 or visit - Sunday Independent