High flyer heads for Suffolk skies

HOT air balloon pilot Conrad van Wyk is enjoying a change of scenery, after swapping the safari land of South Africa - for Suffolk.After flying over the famous game reserves of his homeland watching lions, giraffes and rhinos roaming below, TRACEY SPARLING reports how he's recently started flying from the Suffolk Showground in Ipswich, and Elmsett.

By Tracey Sparling

HOT air balloon pilot Conrad van Wyk is enjoying a change of scenery, after swapping the safari land of South Africa - for Suffolk.

After flying over the famous game reserves of his homeland watching lions, giraffes and rhinos roaming below, TRACEY SPARLING reports how he's recently started flying from the Suffolk Showground in Ipswich, and Elmsett.

THE giant balloon is on the way up, leaving the ground crew waving as it becomes part of the morning sky. The silence, the enchantment and the beauty of it all, are what the passengers will remember as their balloon drifts upwards, as if in the palm of a kindly giant.

Between the intermittent roar of the gas burners, they tip a dribble of bubbly over the side and watch it vapourise from tumbling golden beads into nothingness.

The elephants, giraffes and lions below shrink away - as balloon pilot Conrad van Wyk has today swapped the South African landscape for the countryside around Ipswich.

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He has just started taking off from launch sites at Suffolk Showground in Ipswich and Elmsett Aerodrome, and he and his red Virgin balloon will become a familiar sight in the skies this summer.

The 33-year-old, originally from Johannesburg, has flown all over the UK, Europe and Africa and recently spent several years as a chief pilot in Port Elizabeth on South Africa's east coast.

There, the notoriously windy weather wasn't the only problem facing the experienced pilot. “Flying out of a private game reserve, we would watch the 'big five' roam freely underneath us,” he said.

“Sometimes in the morning we would be chasing lions off the launch site with the Land Rover before we could launch the balloon, just as the sun came over the mountains.”

Conrad admitted a balloon flight over Suffolk was a different track from a South African safari, but he said it was still an airborne adventure.

“I'm not expecting to see any lions or rhinos, but Suffolk is a beautiful county, and Ipswich looks great from 1000ft up. So, I'm really enjoying flying here.”

Conrad can take ten passengers up for around an hour at a time in the basket under his balloon which is called a Lindstrand 210 because it takes a massive 210,000 cubic ft of air to fill it.

He learned his trade from his father Andre, who flies for Virgin Balloon Flights in Scotland, taking his first flight at just three years old. But it wasn't until after he'd done a year's military service and then suffered a major car accident while working as a courier that he decided he belonged in the air.

He said: “It opened my eyes. I quit my job and started my training about three weeks later. Three weeks after that I had my license in my hand. With just 20 hours on my logbook, I went to the national championships and got a fourth place overall.”

Since then he has flown in Hamburg in Germany, Cambridge and Kent, before returning home to South Africa where, after leaving Port Elizabeth, he set up a balloon manufacturing business and a successful training school in Johannesburg.

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To find out more or to book a flight with Conrad, see www.virginballoonflights.co.uk or call 0847 444 2768.

In South Africa: In Suffolk:

Lion Tabby cat

Leopard Labrador

Rhinoceros Dairy cow

Elephant Suffolk Punch

Python Grass snake

Antelope Muntjac deer

Buffalo Mouse

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