South Africa’s first black hot air balloon pilot shakes up a once-exclusive sport

HARTBEESPOORT, South Africa, May 19 (Reuters) – Semakaleng Mathebula lights the burner, directs a giant blue-orange flame at a multicolored balloon and watches it fill with hot air and begin to lift off the ground.

The 27-year-old is South Africa’s first black hot air balloon pilot and one of the few women to take part in the niche sport, which has traditionally been the domain of white people and the privileged.

“Growing up, I had never seen a hot air balloon. My interests were cooking, accounting… but riding a hot air balloon was out of my reach,” said Mathebula, standing in a field in Hartbeespoort , a small town north of Johannesburg. .

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She got into the hot air balloon by accident. When she was struggling to find a job a few years ago, a recruiting agency helped her find a job as a marketing assistant at a hot air balloon travel agency.

“As soon as I stepped onto the pitch and saw eight balls, I fell completely in love. I haven’t looked back since,” she said.

Mathebula secured a scholarship to complete his pilot training from the Department of Sports and Recreation and the Balloon and Airship Federation of South Africa (BAFSA), and obtained his license last year.

She will take part in the South African Hot Air Balloon Championship for the first time in June.

In competitive hot air ballooning, pilots use wind and altitude to navigate to stationary targets, where they drop a weighted marker. They are rated according to their proximity.

“We really need new blood, younger blood in the sport because a lot of us are getting older and we need to bring in new people,” Mathebula coach Flip Steyn said.

“I think years ago ballooning was a very exclusive club, whereas now it’s becoming more open,” he said.

Mathebula also said she wants to be an ambassador for international sport and hopes to bring more youth and diversity.

“When you don’t have a benchmark, you always doubt your ability to achieve what you’re doing,” she said. “Once you feel like you belong, everything else comes naturally.”

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Reporting by Sisipho Skweyiya. Written by Nellie Peyton. Editing by Jane Merriman

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