They were all moving approximately at the same speed, I would say according to the time and distance. About 300km/h, but that is just a guess. It seem to appear from the North and not the North horizon and it disappeared through the clouds to the south. There was a slight curve in the movement but no sudden direction changes. The shape stayed the same large, round and bright as in the photos. You could actually see that it is burning. There were no sound at all. The first one we saw was 22h00 and lasted for about 1min, from the time we noticed it. Five minutes later we saw another one and it also lasted for about a minute from the time we noticed it. Then we went outside and waited with the hope we saw another. About 10 min passed. Then two appeared and moved together for about 1min 30sec then they start to split , as they moved on another appeared. This one moved in the same pattern as the others but appeared bigger and you could see the burning and flames more clearly.
Luckily, he had the presence of mind to grab a camera and filmed the fireballs as they passed overhead. He has kindly made the footage available on YouTube.
Fireballs over Harrismith
So what is this? I was baffled at first – I’d never seen anything like it, and turned to the local astronomical community. Claire Flanagan of the Johannesburg Planetarium was the first to reply, suggesting that he might have seen Chinese Lanterns.
Chinese Lanterns have many names and come in many forms, but the type we’re concerned with are simple model hot air balloons. They are built with an envelope of some sort, open at the bottom, with a fire suspended beneath to heat the air and provide the light show. Some are made with large plastic bags, and a candle hanging from string, while others are crafted from paper and balsa wood, with oil burners on wooden platforms. They have a long history, having been used to communicate in wartime and to mark occasions like weddings and funerals. Today they are often promoted as a safe, pet-friendly alternative to fireworks. For people downwind who have never seen them before, like myself and Riaan, they can provide an astonishing spectacle, full of mystery and wonder.
Update: 18 November 2011