Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?
Would you like to glide in my beautiful balloon?
It’s hard to keep that song out of your head when the word “ballooning” is mentioned. And it was stuck in my head a couple of weeks ago, as I drove along a dark country road in the early hours of the morning, bound for a ballooning adventure.
The title of the Jimmy Webb song, Up, Up and Away, which became a huge hit for The 5th Dimension in 1967, was also clearly in the head of the sub-editor who wrote the headline on my first bylined story in a newspaper seven years later. It was “Up, Up and Away” – and the story, of course, was about ballooning. That story was my first taste of the amazing experiences that being a journalist can bring.
I was a 16-year-old schoolgirl, doing work experience at my local newspaper, when I was sent out with a photographer to watch a hot air balloon undertaking a flight from a local sports ground. In those days, it was an unusual spectacle and thousands of people turned out to see the balloon be inflated and soar into the sky.
My instructions were simply to get enough information for a caption for the photo. But to my delight, pilot Jim Greig (a pioneer of ballooning in New Zealand) offered me the chance to go up in the balloon. It was a tethered flight, and as the newspaper clipping that I still have records, I reached the lofty height of 61 metres.
The balloon – a promotion for the Swiss sewing machine manufacturer Bernina – was 21.3 metres high, with a basket that held three people (a bit smaller than most commercial balloons today). Later, I wrote about it in a very matter-of-fact way, only letting a little of my enthusiasm creep in:
The up-turned smiling faces of the people below us was one of the nicest things. I felt a sense of elation that I was doing something I had always wanted to do and had never thought I actually would. I thought of all those people down there, wishing they were in my place.
Then, back on the ground, I watched the free flight take off, carrying a local radio announcer (who clearly had more clout than the work experience girl from the paper!). The balloon would rise to 285 metres and fly about 15km.
I envy them that free flight, because after a taste of what ballooning might be like as a sport, I know I would like to try it again, flying freely with no rope to restrict the heights to which it is possible to fly. I know now something of what Jim Greig and others feel while they are up in the sky in their beautiful balloon.
Little did I realise that I would go on to a career as a travel journalist, in which ballooning and I would become much closer acquaintances. Over the years, I’ve gone ballooning in Brisbane and Canberra, in the desert country around Alice Springs, and in the mountains of the Sunshine Coast hinterland. There’s a lovely pattern to these excursions, although the views are always dramatically different. The early start is not my favourite part of ballooning, but standing in the early morning as the ballooning crew readies for the flight, helping to hold open the sides of the balloon as it is filled with hot air, and slowly becomes upright, is great fun. Clambering into the strong wicker basket, the gentle lift-off, and the calm ascent…and when the burner is not operating, the quiet of the waking day. It’s magic.
Last year, I took to the skies again over the Lockyer Valley, west of Brisbane, with my fellow blogger The Global Goddess, in a balloon operated by Floating Images, with pilot Graeme Day in charge of the burner.
Australia’s Great Dividing Range, all early morning shades of grey, blue and green, was shrouded in mist, and below us the narrow ribbon of the Bremer River cut its way through Queensland’s oldest provincial city, Ipswich. The Goddess was nervous, but this is the region she grew up in, so she was also fascinated. As the wind carried us, we flew over farmland and vineyards, drinking in the landscape from 1800 feet (about 550 metres).
Another year, another balloon. A couple of weeks ago, I was borne aloft again, this time with photographer Richard “Tommy” Campion as my companion in the basket. Tommy was another first-timer, also a little bit nervous. The balloon this time was much bigger than any others I’d been in, with the basket carrying 12 people. We were flying courtesy of Hot Air, a Gold Coast-based outfit who picked us up in their mini-bus for the transfer to an open field near the country town of Canungra, where two balloons were ready for take-off. The second balloon allowed us to get some great shots of a balloon in flight.
While flying is a smooth affair, sailing along with the wind, landing is a different proposition. One of my balloon rides (not recently), ended rather abruptly after two foiled landing attempts result in a longer than expected flight, and a crash landing after running out of gas. It was a lesson in the true meaning of “soft adventure”, as I wrote at the time. But it wasn’t bad enough to put me off ever doing it again, as you can see.
On the recent trip, our Hot Air pilot, Ben, warned us that the landing would be a “layover” – that the basket would bump along the ground a bit and then tip over on its side. Taking up our braced landing position, we were ready…and there were lots of laughs as over we went! I was on the ground side of the basket, and it was odd to have the passengers “beside” me suddenly “on top”!
We all scrambled out, and then it was time to help pack and store the balloon ready for the support vehicle, which had been tracking our progress, to pick it – and us – up. All part of the experience!
And of course, as is traditional with commercial balloon flights, we then headed for a slap-up champagne breakfast. For Hot Air passengers on the Gold Coast, that means heading to the Canungra Valley Vineyards, where it is served at Killowen homestead, on the banks of the Canungra Creek.
So if you ever get the chance to go hot air ballooning, even if you are nervous about heights, my advice is to grab that chance with both hands. You won’t be sorry!