Robben Island Balloon Run

On Saturday 6th April, Matt Silver-Vallance, dubbed Balloon Bloke, attempted to fly across the ocean from Robben Island to Blouberg using only helium-filled party balloons, a culmination of four years of planning, and all for one reason, to raise money for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg.

We wrote about the Balloon Run earlier in the year, and so we were extremely excited when the CometoCapeTown team, along with several other media representatives, were invited on board the SAS Umhloti Navy vessel, to follow Matt from Robben Island to the coast and capture the flight.  Our ‘woman on the scene’, Dom was there to capture all the adventure, challenges and action…

The Balloon Run Adventure Begins!

The initial flight was scheduled for between the 1st and the 27th April, as the weather conditions had to be just right. In order to take off, Matt needed North Westerly winds of between 16 and 18km/h. Due to the exact nature of the conditions needed, it was very difficult to know in advance when it was going to happen, and at what time of day. So when it was decided that Saturday was the day, all we knew was that Matt was going to fly sometime between 9am and 2pm.

Photo by Tristan Sandwith

When the navy vessel left the harbour at 7am, it was slightly foggy and damp, however, Cape Town’s weather can be deceiving and we thought it would clear up quickly. By the time we were out in the bay, the fog had thickened and we couldn’t see anything besides the ship underneath us. Slowly, after several hours of circling Robben Island, the fog started to burn off.

Matt and his team had begun filling the balloons at 3am on Saturday morning with the goal of filling 200 larger-than-normal party balloons with helium.

In the end, they filled only 160 as their test pilot confirmed that Matt would get lift off. And lift off was what he got!

Suddenly out of the mist we saw a glimpse of a cluster of colourful balloons. He climbed higher and higher as we watched, flying way higher than was expected. In his own words, Matt tells us: “I shot up way too fast; I shot up to 500-600 metres in 2 minutes.”

Photo by Tristan Sandwith

Afterwards, we found out that he had climbed to the height of Table Mountain (just over 1000m), and at that point, he was very scared! The plan was for Matt to spear the closer balloons and then shoot the further balloons with a BB gun.

As it happened though, the BB bullets just slid right off the balloons making it impossible for him to descend. Matt was thinking, “Madagascar here I come!”

It was at that point that he started pulling at the balloons one by one, only to find the balloons were all tangled and therefore a lot heavier than expected.

He started to panic and grabbed one balloon at a time to spear it and then the next and the next, until finally, he started to descend.

When he had stabilised slightly, he could relax and take in the scenery, flying above the fog he could see the mountains and the hills of the Cape.

“Up there it was fantastic. And I could see all the little ships so I calmed down.”

Suddenly the wind changed direction from NW to due S and the atmospheric conditions were less than satisfactory.

When he had taken off, he was given the all clear from Robben Island to Eden on the Bay, but soon after lift off, the fog closed in again and visibility was extremely low.

Matt spent most of the flight oscillating up and down, trying to manage the balloons and keep his altitude stable. He became weary and for fear of not being able to get down again, he stayed at sea level until he saw the shoreline coming

Finally with land in sight, the crew following Matt in boats, made contact with him and were able to help him to release the balloons and pull him into the boat.

Photo by Tristan Sandwith

Once on dry land we asked Matt a few questions:

What is your overriding feeling after all of this?

“It’s always about raising funds for the Nelson Mandela Children’s hospital. I think everybody is very happy to give money to the Nelson Mandela Children’s hospital, its just about stopping people to say this is important, just spend five minutes on a laptop to make a donation or 30 seconds on a text message.”

Photo by Tristan Sandwith

What was the total cost of the Balloon Run?

“The total cost of Balloon Run ran high because so many people contributed their skills and time, whether it was advertising, PR, web design or the technical equipment. The helium was R70 000 and that was donated by Afrox, balloons and harnesses were donated etc. After it is all added up, the estimated cost will be about R750 000.”

Do you think you will raise the 1 million Pounds you were hoping for?

“The balloon run was roughly based on David Walliam’s swim [down the Thames, in which the British comedian raised over 1 million Pounds for charity.] I am hoping that in the same way people gave money after the swim, the amount of money raised for the Balloon Run will increase in the week following the stunt.”

Would you do it again?

“No, you can’t ask me that right now. (laughs) We have another plan that is maybe more fun because other people can participate and in some ways it is more spectacular, so we’re really looking forward to that.”

Thank you to Positive Dialogue for inviting us to join the media crew and for looking after us on the day. We look forward to Matt’s next stunt and hopefully getting involved once again. Most importantly, if you would like to contribute to Matt’s success, please visit or SMS “balloon” to 40301 to donate R20 to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital

About The Author: Dominique

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