Strap yourself in, this is a long one.
My alarm blared loudly at me. It was 4am and I needed to drag myself out of bed so I could go hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. This had been something that previously only dreamed of. I’ve been hot air ballooning once before, so I could imagine what it was going to be like. In my mind we were going to climb into the giant basket and slowly drift up into the air before floating over the desert waves of sand. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go according to plan.
After waking and dressing in warm clothing (it was an early winter’s morning after all), I met the rest of my crew in the lobby of our hotel and awaited our tour guide to come and collect us. We had been told that we would be bused to a ferry that would take us across the Nile, then we would once again climb into a bus that would take us to the balloon launch site. The first part of the journey went smoothly, but as soon as I set foot on the ferry things started to take a turn for the worst. We were seated and given cups of tea to warm our fingers while the waiver was discussed and signed.
I started to feel sick to my stomach at some point during all of this, but I put it down to consuming too much gluten over the past week (I have coeliac disease) or that I was having some sort of sea sickness, so I did my best to ignore it. I even joked with my travel buddy that we were ‘signing our lives away.’ Just a note from good ol’ Murphy: don’t do that.
The ferry set off, and I swear the ride was only about 15 minutes at most, but I spent them in total misery sure that I was going to vomit. Once we arrived on the other side of the river we were herded into buses and I somehow ended up at the very back, which well and truly sucked because about 5 minutes into the ride I knew I was going to be sick, and I had no way to get to a window. Luckily one of the other people I was traveling with had a vomit bag handy.
Amazingly, after vomiting up my pride and dignity in the back of a bus in front of 20 people, I felt much better. In fact, I started to feel excited about the adventure ahead of me again.
Once we arrived at the balloon launch pad we were collected into small groups and given a safety briefing. I did not hear a word of the safety briefing. It was too loud. I already knew that when you land you are supposed to brace, but that’s about it, and the head of safety didn’t hang around to clarify any instructions, and I confess I didn’t actually ask him to. I just followed his lead and climbed into the balloon basket.
It didn’t take long before we took off, and I can honestly say that watching the sunrise over the Valley of the Kings was a truly breath taking experience. The stark contrast between the desert sands and the greenery flanking the Nile River was mind blowing. I just couldn’t believe how dry and stark the area was despite being so close to a river. I searched in vain for just a hint of an undiscovered tomb to no avail.
I laughed with my crew mates, posed for group photos and snapped selfies. I even took this photograph that makes it seem as though I was touching another balloon in the distance. This was such an amazing experience.
It was the landing that was the problem. And to be honest, I can feel my chest tightening at the thought of what I am about to write.
We started to descend and the captain called out to us to brace. We all braced in our respective basket compartments. I was half leaning on someone else in the basket since we had somehow ended up with one too many in our basket compartment. I couldn’t help but think to myself that we were going too fast for a landing. Then the bottom of the basket touched the ground and we rocked and were dragged along the ground, but we weren’t slowing down. I heard a friend who was afraid of heights let out a small scream.
The captain pulled on the gas and we once again lifted off the ground. “It’s not a good place to land” he said to us, and we carried on for a few more minutes, gazing around us in wonder. Even after this I was not concerned about landing. I knew that conditions had to be just right.
Once again the captain called for us to brace and we descended. The basket touched the ground and we were again dragged along the desert floor, swinging and swaying this way and that, but we weren’t stopping. “BRACE!” the captain yelled and we all doubled down, but before I did I looked over my shoulder and said a single word.
We were heading straight for a cliff face.
The cliff face was maybe 2-3 metres high? I can’t be sure. The captain once again pulled on the gas to lift us above the cliff, but he was unsuccessful. The bottom third of the basket slammed into the cliff face and thanks to inertia I slammed into the basket in front of me, left leg first. I felt a sharp pain in my left knee and ankle, but didn’t have any time to think about it as we were ascending once again. During the impact my friend afraid of heights screamed and I think I said something like “it’s Ok, we’ve got this.” As I said this I looked over my right shoulder and saw our captain slumped over. Oh shit, I thought. In no way was this good. In no way did we ‘have this.’
Suddenly, I saw a man latch onto the basket. He held on tight and tried to swing his leg up so he could get in. Another two men joined him soon after. Together, somehow, they helped slowed the basket down and we crashed into the ground. The deflating balloon dragged us along the ground another 10 metres or so before we came to a stop and…the basket fell over. Stunned, we all lay there on our backs. I held onto the rope handles in front of me and pulled myself up, aware that I was laying on my friend.
“Can you breathe?” I called out to her. I was worried that she had been winded during the accident and if she had my weight on her front she would be unable to breathe. She responded, but I’m not sure what she said. To my ears it sounded like she was saying no, so I pulled my self even higher, feeling the energy quickly dissipate from my arms. I tried to use by feet to help me pull myself off of here even more but I just couldn’t. My left leg just wasn’t co-operating. Eventually my arms gave out and I just collapsed onto my friend. I was still so sure she had said she couldn’t breathe so I sprang into action and wriggled out of the basket as quickly as I could. I then tried to get up so I could make room for everyone else to get out, but I couldn’t stand.
A man came over and helped me get to my feet then went in for my friend. I tried to move away and managed about two steps before I collapsed again. My leg was in total agony and I thought for the first time that I’d broken my leg. I called out for help and a second man approached and helped me stand, swinging my arm over his shoulders he helped me to walk away, my travel buddy soon joining us. I was moving too slowly so he eventually picked me up and ran me towards the mini buses that were supposed to take us back to our hotel. The man ran me over the deflating balloon and I freaked. Then he tripped and we both went down. I kept expecting a sharp pain to shoot up my leg but nothing changed. Maybe it was because I thought I was somehow going to be swallowed by the balloon and drown. Crazy, I know, but that’s where my brain went.
I was eventually deposited into one of the mini buses with my travel buddy who I didn’t realise had been running after me. She seemed panicked and she and the man began rummaging around my shoulder bag and pulled out some tissues. They started rubbing at my face and I couldn’t understand why. I just kept saying “I think my leg is broken. I don’t want a broken leg here. What am I going to do?” It wasn’t until much later that I found out my face had been covered in blood from the people in the basket compartment that had landed on top of mine.
We then endured around 20 minutes of confusion as we awaited the arrival of the ambulances. One of the mini buses with most of my friends in it actually dove off, leaving six of us (all girls) behind. Eventually an ambulance arrived for us and we were transported to the West Bank Hospital. I was loaded into a wheel chair and my travel buddy wheeled me into the hospital, and I took one look around before thinking to myself: “I’ve just survived a hot air balloon accident only to get HIV.”
The hospital was in tatters. Ceiling panels were missing, lights were hanging from their wires, and it was so dark and dingy. We spent about 10 minutes hanging around in the lobby, checking in on each other and wondering what the hell was actually going on, before we were told we were being taken to another hospital – The East Bank Luxor International Hospital. Thank Goddess.
This time I was put on a stretcher before being placed into the back of the ambulance with my travel buddy seated beside me. Some monitor was clipped onto my thumb and…that was it. I wasn’t strapped in, I didn’t have a blanket put on me. We just drove out, and it was truly terrifying.
I couldn’t help but think to myself “I’ve just survived a hot air balloon accident and narrowly avoided getting HIV only to die in a single vehicle roll over.”
I had visions of being thrown all around the ambulance as we rolled down the side of a hill. I was freezing and close to tears when we arrived at the international hospital. What followed my arrival there was five hours of being shuffled from one room to another, x-rays and making police statements with police officers and government officials.
No-one would tell us what was going on, we had to rely on Facebook and news sites. It was a surreal feeling to be contacted by various news networks asking for statements and to see my name and photograph on news programs that were being aired back in Australia in real time. The news programs actually knew more than we did. My parents actually found out about the accident before I got the chance to tell them. My grandma had been watching TV and saw a short news clip on a hot air balloon accident in Egypt, and not knowing that I was actually partaking in this activity, called my mum in a total panic with a gut feeling that I was in the accident. Mum lucked out when she called me and I answered on the first ring since I’d given my bag with my phone to a friend when I went in for an x-ray a little earlier.
The hospital couldn’t tell me what was wrong with my leg besides the fact that it was not broken. It wasn’t until I arrived back in Australia about a week later after cutting my holiday short that I discovered that I had torn my ACL. This injury slowed me down but I thankfully didn’t need surgery.
This was a terrifying experience, but I can only praise Top Deck (the tour company I went with) and their response to this incident. I thank you for letting me process it here on my blog, almost 12 months later.
Have you been in an accident while overseas? This was a terrifying experience, and I thank you for letting me process it here on my blog, 12 months later.
How did you handle it?