[First filed: January 02, 2009 @ 13:03]
Santa threw a bit of a curve ball this Christmas morn with vouchers for a boxing day balloon ride for not just me but also for my brother (visiting from Japan), and both our girlfriends. (The gift was with Balloon Aloft, this article is in no way a judgment on other balloon providers in Canberra)
While immensely appreciative of this parental largesse it did mean our Christmas night was tempered with the knowledge we’d have to be up, about, and at the Hyatt by 5am the next day.
Worse still one of the party would have to be up at 4.15am to confirm the flight and check it had not become a victim of the weather.
(more and a slideshow below)
The Hyatt is a slightly surreal place at 5am. The bellhops in flat caps and knee breeches are busy stuffing bags into the cars of early departers, the front desk is staffed, and yet it’s still eerily quiet.
In the foyer the men from Balloon Aloft checked our names off their list and gave us paperwork.
When that was done they suggested it would be a good idea to use the Hyatt’s toilets; as hot air balloons are yet to sport such amenity.
After all the passengers (10 on our flight) were assembled they crammed us like sardines into the back of a 4WD with trooper seating. (“There are some f***ing big sardines” said one of our fellow travellers)
The 4WD was towing a trailer with both basket and envelope and we all set off into the dark.
Once we arrived at Commonwealth Place (between Old Parliament House and the lake) a test hydrogen balloon carried a red LED up into the dark sky to give the pilot a feel for what the higher level winds were doing.
We were then invited to help out with setting up the balloon. Mostly this was good fun and the activity a shield against the cold.
After half an hour’s messing around the balloon was assembled, inflated, and the sardines loaded themselves into the basket for some training on how to brace ourselves for landing.
With dawn breaking we cast off the surly bonds of earth and set off into the sky, drifting towards Black Mountain.
Now let me say that balloon travel is weird.
Floating at the same speed of the wind makes for a famously gentle ride. But with no sensation of movement looking down to see the world zipping past can bring on motion sickness, not helped by vertigo.
And if you think those burners are loud when they pass over your head, try standing directly under one.
Which brings me to a little discussed inconvenience of balloon travel. The drips.
Most former high school chemistry students will be aware that water is a byproduct of burning hydrocarbons. But normally you think that water is in the form of vapour. Not so.
Hot (but not burning hot) drips of water falling occasionally upon the head and hands can be more than a little disconcerting if you’re not expecting it.
If you’re last into the basket then you won’t be under the burners so I recommend holding back when everyone’s loading up for this reason alone.
If, like me, you’re aware of the deadly history of ballooning it’s best to try and put that knowledge from your mind. I’d also strongly advise against sharing your knowledge with your fellow aviators. They will not thank you.
But, when not feeling mildly nauseous, or thinking about the abstract physical principals by which I was suspended in the air, I was as caught up in the magic of the morning as anyone.
We flew out over the lake by the National Museum and then up to catch a wind going the other way before hovering over Barton for some time while our pilot lined up a perfect return to exactly the spot we’d taken off from.
Somewhere over the lake one of the passengers earned the ire of the single men in the basket by proposing marriage to his girlfriend. Fearing a very awkward return trip the other passengers held their breathe before she said “yes”. (On the ground later the pilot told us a story about a flight which had two proposals, only one of the girls had said “no”. Just think about how awkward that would have been for a second)
Looking into the backyards of some of the larger houses in the Inner South is worth the price of admission alone. And the more prestigious government departments have some interesting courtyards we common people wouldn’t normally see.
Realising the Department of Finance has a line graph at the bottom of its fountain was but one of many pleasant surprises.
We were up for a couple of hours.
On landing we helped pack up the equipment before a short drive to the Hyatt for champagne in the gardens, the conferring of certificates, and the chance to purchase Balloon Aloft branded merchandise with which to remember the experience.
An ingenious remote control camera hanging from the side of the envelope had also taken a photograph which looked so perfect I’d have thought it a studio fake if I hadn’t been there when it was taken. Copies of the photo were selling for $15.
At ~$350 a pop this is not a cheap way to spend a morning. As a result it’s as often as not a gift, or a vehicle for marriage proposals.
But it’s certainly an unforgettable experience.