This week’s dream
Soaring with falcons over the Arabian Desert
“I’ve always been leery of hot-air balloons,” said Joshua Hammer in The New York Times. But during a recent trip I made to Dubai, I suppressed my fears to sign up for a remarkable experience that combines hot-air ballooning with an introduction to falconry—the Arab world’s “most ancient and venerated sport.” The operation, I reassured myself, had an impressive enough pedigree: It had been launched in 2016 by Sheikh Butti Bin Juma al-Maktoum, brother-in-law of Dubai’s ruler. So at 3:30 one morning, I found myself being shuttled by van to Sheikh Butti’s sprawling property in the Arabian Desert. In the darkness, the balloon was being inflated; the propane-fueled flame filled the huge nylon sack with an eerie orange glow.
Just before dawn, I took to the air with 18 other passengers, two pilots, and a 17-month-old raptor named Bomber, a mix of gyrfalcon and saker falcon. Twenty miles to our east, the Hajar Mountains emerged from the darkness, and “I watched, rapt, as the sun peeked above the silhouetted limestone” and illuminated a sea of saltbushes, sweetgrass, and wind-rippled dunes. At 4,000 feet, when a handler removed Bomber’s hood, the bird “swiveled his white mottled head and took a measure of his surroundings.” Then he took off and circled the balloon three times, “dipping and rising on the desert thermals.” These falcons, I learned, can soar to 8,000 feet and plunge after prey at 150 miles per hour. Enticed by an offered chunk of quail, Bomber landed on the handler’s glove, spread his wings, and arched his body over the food—a display meant to protect his prize from other predators.
When Bomber finished his flight, we descended to a few hundred feet, clipping our carabiners to a safety line as we sailed toward a date palm plantation. Grinning, the pilot warned us that not all landings go as expected. Our gondola hit the dunes hard and bounced—“for one moment, I was terrified the basket would flip over.” It came to rest on its side instead, allowing us to scramble onto a dune. All was well: “A convoy of Land Rovers was parked nearby, ready to whisk us off to the sheikh’s desert compound for a breakfast of poached eggs, fruit, smoked salmon, toast, and Arabic coffee.”
Through Balloon Adventures Dubai (ballooning.ae), an hour-long ride with a falcon costs $325 a person.