Photo Essay: Taking off in Timna

The Arava puts hot air to good use.

Hot air balloons (photo credit: Itsik Marom)
Hot air balloons
(photo credit: Itsik Marom)
The desert winds of the Arava lose some of their heat by the end of summer. But during Hol Hamoed Succot, the hot air is a necessary commodity for those gathered in front of Solomon’s Pillars in Timna Park, as dozens of buses bring visitors from all over the country for the International Hot Air Balloon Festival.

At 5 a.m., as the first light appears over the horizon, 17 jeeps enter the designated flat area. The crews jump out, alert and motivated. Each crew takes out a giant blue tarp and spreads it on the ground.Next, they take down large baskets, burners, ventilators and the center pieces of long, wide, colorful fabric.The balloon crews work efficiently, each speaking their own language; they hail from a multitude of countries. They start blowing air into the fabric. Once there is enough, the burners are lit up and shoot two-meter- to 3-m.-long flames into the fabric, eventually raising it to a full-size hot-air balloon with a height equivalent to a seven- or eight story building.The crowd of visitors is fascinated with the entire process, hearing explanations about the crews, the mechanism of hot air balloon flight and the history of this magnificent area of Timna. An hour later, at 6 a.m., a long line of colorful giants hides the mighty Solomon’s Pillars behind it.There are many different shapes, including a smiling fox, a Smurf from Germany, a giant Action Man from Britain, a fresh-cut orange, and a brilliantly colorful mass made up of a thousand small balloons, inspired by the Disney movie Up. From Russia, a Sputnik spaceship celebrates the country’s space achievements on the moon. A blue Smurf from Belgium is poised to take off with its owners, Karen and Koan, who operate a hot-air balloon business in their home country.There are also twin balloons from Holland, one of them flying upside down, as it cannot operate without its companion. Its basket is deep inside the balloon, and the operator cannot navigate, as he is out of sight inside the balloon.One brave pilot flies a smaller balloon without the protection of a basket.Of course, there are also standard shaped balloons, each with its own colors and motto.At 6:30 a.m. the real action begins. The burners are shooting long sequences of yellow fire into the building-size balloons above them. The pilots are in their baskets, the spectators fall silent and magic unfolds.... Liftoff! One by one, the balloons rise up into the air, catch a gust and float silently with the desert wind.Becoming smaller as some reach as high as 500 meters, they finally land out of sight in the distance. For a brief few moments, the ancient skyline of Timna is transformed for everyone watching.