I've always wanted to fly in a hot-air balloon. I trace this back to my experiences at the Champlain Valley Balloon Festival, which was held at the local fairgrounds every year when I was a kid. Thirty to forty balloons launched over the space of two or three days. I was always captivated by the way they smoothly sailed through the sky, held up by nothing more than hot air. I'd spot tons of them in the morning on the way to school, and I would wonder how much the passengers could see up there, with nothing between them and the scenery.
I finally got my chance last week. After we returned from the Great Barrier Reef, we had a free day, whereby "free" I mean pick any one or two expensive, death-defying activities such as skydiving, white-water rafting, hot-air ballooning, or bungee jumping. I took the safe route, going with a sunrise hot-air balloon ride and an afternoon white-water rafting trip.
It may have been the safe choice, but it certainly wasn't the easy choice. Wake up call for the hot-air balloon trip was 4am. In fact, I woke up just as one of my roommates was coming in from a night of revelry in Cairns. It was a bit surreal. We did our best to sleep on the bus as it picked up tourists from other hotels and headed to Mareeba, where there is a lot of flat farmland and thus it is a good place for ballooning.
We didn't quite make sunrise, because we had to wait for some fog to clear before we could launch. But as you can see by the pictures, it was still quite beautiful outside. To be honest, I was expecting this to be a pretty small affair, maybe four or five people packed into a tiny basket. In fact, our balloon took up 18 people, including the pilot! I think it was the company's second-biggest balloon size. We stood around and watched and took pictures as the crew set the balloon up, then climbed in and handed our boarding passes to the pilot (I'm not joking about that part). After some last minute instruction about the proper landing position (more on that later) we were off the ground and climbing rapidly.
I thought that the ride would be completely relaxing. Indeed, the scenery was beautiful, and it was a quiet morning when the pilot wasn't firing the burners. But there was definitely an element of weirdness to the whole experience. I kept asking myself what I was doing -- three thousand feet off the ground, standing in a basket attached to a balloon, with nothing to keep me from falling out. The other strange thing about hot-air ballooning is that the pilot has very little control over where the balloon goes. He can only bring it up and down trying to find different wind currents. It was amazing how just moving up a few hundred feet would cause us to fly in a totally different direction. I reckon that this is the reason that they can't fly nearer to the ocean; you wouldn't really want to drift out to sea.
As soon as we got up there, it seemed like it was time to land. This is probably because I was standing right next to the pilot, and I listened to him make all of the preparations over the radio. It's a lot to organize; he had to find a flat, clear spot where the wind would take him that wasn't too close so we had time to get to it, and it needed to be accessible by the ground crew.
On the way down, we were nearing the ground, and the pilot said, "We're going to hit a tree soon, don't worry about it, I'm just using it to put on the brakes a bit." The tail end of this sentence was delivered as we crashed through a tree, sending branches flying and leaving me gripping the handholds of the basket. Very soon after, another warning came: "Get in the landing position! We're coming down pretty fast, so there's going to be a big bump..." Landing position was crouched inside the basket, camera protected and weight braced against the back of the balloon. We hit the ground quite hard; it was definitely the most exciting part of the flight. But it wasn't over yet. We were dragged across the ground because the balloon still had a lot of lift. Once we stopped again, the crew helped to tip the basket over backward so that the extra friction would keep it on the ground. Definitely an exhilarating ending!
Unfortunately, we all had to help pack up the balloon when we were done, but we were rewarded afterwards with champagne and breakfast, which tasted amazing after five hours with no food or drink. Later that afternoon, we went white-water rafting. I don't have any pictures from the trip, for obvious reasons. I assure you, though, that it was a great time, even when I fell out of the boat and was dragged behind it for about ten seconds. It was a scorcher of a day, so the cold water felt so good, especially when they let us take a swim at the end of the rapids.
For more pictures of early morning ballooning, head over to Flickr!