I went HOT AIR BALLOONING!
For me, I choose something similar to flying – ballooning!! I was really looking forward to it as I rang the ballooning centre to book a specific date.
But then, the details started to emerge. And it started to seem like a secret military operation.
Firstly, ballooning happens in Northam, which is 1.5 hours drive away from the city. And I had to be at Northam airfield at 4.30 AM. Yes, that’s 4.30 in the morning, which is still the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT as far as I am concerned. And then the lady I was talking to on the phone asked me how much I weighed. Weird. Why would they need to know that?
The day arrived, and this is what Northam airfield looks like at 4.30am in the morning.
It was insanely spooky (for me, a city girl) to drive in complete darkness, with no lights anywhere, except from our car. It was like a scene from a horror movie.
We found the Windward Ballooning Centre and met 30 other bleary-eyed, nervous looking people. We made out way into the briefing room, and all had a wake-up cup of coffee or tea.
Then we were introduced to our balloon ground crew, and had a little briefing. Basically, all I remember of the briefing was that:
a. The walls of the briefing room were covered with beautiful pictures of balloons, and…
b. The guy giving the briefing said THREE TIMES that there were no bathroom facilities for the next two hours, and I suddenly wished I hadn’t drunk the big cup of coffee. Oh crap!
Then we were led onto a bus, and headed out into the big, black darkness where, somewhere, our balloon was waiting for us. Exciting!
Now at this point – I have to say that I knew NOTHING about ballooning. I assumed that the balloon would be already inflated, gently tugging on its ropes, and that we were simply going to step gracefully into a basket and fly off, with the cabin crew saying “Welcome aboard Madam, would you care for a glass of champagne”. Just like in the movies, yeah?
But when we arrived at the launch point, in the first light, and still well before dawn, the balloon was still IN A BAG when we arrived. We watched the ground crew unroll the balloon, like a giant sleeping bag, and lay it out flat on the grass. Great. I was going flying in an aircraft that hadn’t been assembled yet. But the crew took only minutes to get things happening.
If you look carefully in the photo above, you might be able to see that the passenger basket was tipped over on it’s side and the balloon was fastened to the basket. Then the crew pointed some high powered fans and pushed air into the open mouth of the balloon. The noise of the petrol engines driving the fans was DEAFENING. And once the balloon was partly inflated, the pilot used the gas burner to pump hot air into it. This sounded like an explosion, and threw off an eerie blue light. The balloon got bigger and bigger, and started to rise up. It was HUUUUUUUGE!!!!
The pilot explained that each person’s position in the basket was determined by how much they had told the lady on the phone that they weighed – because it would keep the basket balanced for safety. I suddenly hoped nobody else had lied about their weight as much as I had .
So the next step required us to CRAWL into the tipped-over basket and LIE DOWN in our designated position. That’s right! I had to crawl – like an animal – into my position, then lie on my back – like a DEAD animal – while holding on to some handles on the side of the basket.
However, while I was crawling into position, I almost freaked out… because my hair was untied, I had my sunglasses perched on my head, my scarf was flapping around, I had 1 camera around my neck and one small one around my wrist and I had to crawl right past the high powered fan. I was an accident waiting to happen!
There were 15 of us lying on our backs, crouching into something that looked like a massive picnic hamper. It was a very strange experience so far, and it redefined my sense of personal space. Imagine a very crowded lift – but much more crowded. And the lift is on its side. And on fire. Can you see me in the photo above going “WHAT THE HELL?”
The pilot was really working the gas burner with long blasts, and I was getting hot from the heat it was radiating. I was seriously scared that the product in my hair would catch fire from this giant hair drier. But then our balloon reached a certain point of fullness, and then suddenly, the whole basket was lifted UPRIGHT and PHEW – I survived.
Look at me. Big, brave smile!!
As awkward as it was (the crawling-like-an-animal bit), I realized I was enjoying the adrenalin rush!! And it was pretty impressive to see the smoothness with which the crew were working.
Check out that beautiful blue flame against the dusky morning sky. The burner was very loud, but when it stopped, there was no sound at all. Total silence.
A few more short, precise blasts of hot air and the balloon lifted off the ground. But we did not go straight up.
Our pilot deliberately flew the balloon and basket so low over the field of long grass that the ends of the grass tickled the bottom of the basket with a gorgeous, gentle SSSHHHHHHHHHHH sound – oh my, it was magical.
We rose higher and drifted gently over trees and fields.
Have you ever dreamed that you were flying? Flying like a superhero, without any jets or wings, just your body, floating high up over cities and fields?
Well this was exactly what it felt like. Just like in my dreams.
I felt weightless. Rising up slowly, then gliding, leisurely and silently over the whole world. It felt so natural. It was smooth and gentle. I felt like I could reach out and pluck the leaves from the trees.
It was AMAZING!!!
There were 2 balloons going out that morning. We had 15 people in our balloon, and I think there were 10 people in the other one.
We flew side by side and sometimes going up and over each other. It was so pretty and peaceful and serene.
The sun slowly rose. The colours of the world below started to emerge from all the different shades of grey. I loved watching the sun rise. The pilot told us all about ballooning.
We were in the Avon Valley, which is shaped like a big bowl in the landscape. The bowl traps the cold, still night air, which creates perfect weather conditions for ballooning in the early morning. The pilot steers the balloon just by going up and down into slightly different directions of wind.
Our whole flight was guided by just occasional blasts of hot air. Usually a balloon flight takes about 45 – 60 minutes. But we were in the air for about 80 minutes. And I will admit, by that time, I was regretting the big cup of coffee.
We touched down gently, smoothly and precisely, landing only a few meters from the ground crew’s vehicles. We all climbed out of the basket with no gracefulness at all, and then watched the balloon slowly deflate like a big, friendly giant lying down to sleep.
Everyone had to help roll up the balloon and stuff it back into its bag.
Embarrassingly, I was too busy taking photos of the whole process and I felt a little bad that I wasn’t helping with the hard work. Everyone must’ve thought I was some ditzy, princess tourist who was too over the top with all her camera gear (which is obviously pretty much true!).
And then we were back in the bus, and finished the experience with a champagne breakfast at a local restaurant.
I was so hungry that I ate several plates of fruit, pastries and scones, before discovering that there was also a hot breakfast. This was my plate and I ate ALL of it. I am a pig.
The whole ballooning experience certainly took me out of my daily routine. It was grand, spectacular and quite romantic.
A big thank you to Damien from Windward Ballooning for the excellent piloting.
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