Bucket List: Hot Air Ballooning

During my childhood, on my nana’s refrigerator hung a postcard featuring colorful hot air balloons floating over rolling green meadows. I would gaze at the balloons from my chair at her 1950s formica kitchen table, drinking orange juice and eating raisin toast, and think about how much I wanted to see hot air balloons. (That postcard might actually even still be there, come to think of it.) Somehow over the years, that fascination with the balloons’ appearance turned into a wish to ride in one. So in 2006 when she came with my mom to see me in Australia and we took a side trip to New Zealand, we made about five attempts to hot air balloon in Christchurch. Sadly, each try was rained out by unlucky southern hemisphere autumn weather. To add insult to injury, the day of our departure dawned bright and sunny. We groaned about it the whole way to the airport to catch our flight back to Sydney. My nana had hot air ballooned previously though, so she was mostly just disappointed for me. For twelve years, it remained on my bucket list. Until last month when I finally – on about my seventh attempt – flew for the first time in a hot air balloon.

As I mentioned in my previous post about Enlighten, V and I and three friends were hoping to hot air balloon over Canberra on the last weekend of the festival. We’d been looking forward to our reservation for months and were all paid up and ready to go. Unfortunately, because of unexpected rain on St. Patrick’s Day, our sunrise balloon ride was washed out. No launch from the lawns of Old Parliament House, floating over Lake Burley Griffin amongst a dozen or more brightly colored balloons, including a frog and a hummingbird.

We booked in right away for the following Saturday. The morning of, I awoke so early, showered, dried my hair, made coffee – but not too much. I called the automated line at 04:45 and got the same confirmation as before. Trying not to get my hopes up too much, we met at the new departure point, the Hyatt Hotel, shortly before 06:00 for the pilot briefing. The difference this time? The sky’s clarity was evident even pre-dawn. And no rain lurked in the Doppler forecast. We gleefully climbed into one of the balloon vans and headed for the hills.

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The balloon basket on its side with Telstra Tower in the background, and the balloon itself doesn’t look substantial at all…

Our balloon pilot was actually the owner of Balloon Aloft, so we felt we were in good hands. He had a few people help move the basket off the trailer, and then tip it on its side. Careful! I thought in my head as it hit the ground. Then he had everyone gather around the balloon and stretch it out, almost like that “parachute” game I remember playing in P.E. as a kid. He asked for two large volunteers to hold the balloon’s mouth open on either side as the fire began to roar, and our colleague JS stepped up. The laughing kookaburras cackled in rounds from the surrounding trees, adding a uniquely Australian element to the morning.

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Slowly starting to take shape

It was pretty crazy to watch the balloon expand, erasing any doubt about its ability to lift us and the basket up into the sky. We milled around, taking pictures and videos as the anticipation built. It probably took an hour from the time we got there until it was time to get in the basket.

During this time, I learned from one of the Balloon Aloft crew that we would ascend between 2,000 and 2,500 feet. Any higher and we’d be in Canberra Airport’s air traffic control space. Inexplicably (at least to me), Australian Capital Territory (ACT) airspace above 5,000 feet is controlled by Melbourne’s air traffic personnel, about 400 miles away. (Sydney’s is a lot closer, but I’m speculating that they have their hands full with eastbound flights to Asia.)

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Closer and closer to lift off!

There were only to be two balloons flying on this day. The Qatar Airways balloon (red) was the one we flew in. As we righted the basket and were asked to climb in – which we did without the ladder, and me particularly ungracefully – we all kept looking at each other in delight and disbelief. Our colleague A had ballooned as a kid, and our colleague JA had ballooned in exotic Africa, but it was the first time for my JS, for V, and for myself. It was like we had been somehow expecting all along to hear that our flight was cancelled, but now that we were actually *in* the basket we could not be denied!

It was a little tight: the balloon was partitioned into quadrants, each expected to hold four adults, and then a separate narrow center space for the burner equipment and the pilot. It was a little crowded, as three of the five of our group were not small folks (including myself), and I had worn a puffy vest that I stuffed in my backpack and then had almost no room to either wear or put at my feet. I’m not sorry I brought it though, because I ended up needing my water, and later at brunch, somewhere safe to stash my camera bag.

We listened to a last few instructions from our pilot, including practicing a landing brace, and taking selfies and pictures for people on our half of the basket. I looked down at the grass and saw a giant spider scurrying amongst the blades right where we had climbed in. I thought about pointing it out, then decided not to. The pictures below I actually took later that morning after we landed, but this shows how the inside of the balloon was configured. (The brown loop handles on the inside are for your hand positioning for the landing brace.)

The fire roared, heating the air inside the balloon, and we started to rise. I took a picture of the receding ground in surprise, holding my phone tightly as my Nikon rested safely around my neck. I imagined my dad talking about positive buoyancy when lift exceeds weight. Or something like that. Then I looked at my watch: 08:15 on the dot.

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First moments ascending over Canberra

The thing that surprised me the most at first was how smoothly the balloon just lifted straight up in the air. It really reminded me of being in an elevator. And higher and higher we rose, in a totally vertical flight path, until we were all gasping with delight at the scenery. It made me realize that strangely, I had done more thinking about looking at balloons in flight than actually flying in a balloon myself. V, who is afraid of heights, also didn’t think too much about it until about a week beforehand, when he suddenly had a lot of nervous questions. (Pre-flight we had repeated a front office joke that if our balloon went down, the embassy would lose the braintrust of the HR, economic, political, and public affairs sections, which was rather in bad taste and not altogether true, and yet still morbidly funny.)

At least I’d had the presence of mind to take a Dramamine, because I just know myself too well. I really didn’t want my unpredictable vertigo to spoil something I’d waited for years to do.

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Canberra doesn’t want to be Melbourne or Sydney – it has its absolute own beauty!

As everyone in the balloon quietly exclaimed at the bicyclists near the National Arboretum, the rowboats and kayaks on Lake Burley Griffin, and the flocks of screeching sulfur-crested cockatoos landing en masse in the far-below treetops, I breathed in the fresh morning air and was so grateful we had finally made it up.

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Is this real life??

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The morning sun was blinding, and the roar of the balloon’s fire was surprisingly loud

As I mentioned, there was only one other balloon in the sky – the blue one that had taken off shortly after us – and so I took a lot of pictures of that balloon, and I suspect, they of ours. The pilot explained that we were wind-dependent as to where we floated, but that we could still go up and down, and he also had some mechanism to gently rotate the balloon, which he did slowly to save us from the sunrise glare and let each side take pictures of the countryside.

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Hot air ballooning over the Australian Capital Territory at dawn on March 24, 2018

We pointed out areas to one another that we recognized – embassies, fancy houses we laughed were ours, neighborhoods where friends lived. In the picture below I think V was pointing out to me a roundabout several minutes from our house, and near to the hospitals where I received medical treatment for the last several months.

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This picture hardly looks real, but it is real and unedited

Throughout the stillness and coolness of the morning, the cockies screeched their pterodactyl-like calls that echoed from one end of the land to the other. We chatted amongst ourselves, alternately shouting over the noise of the flames, and then dropping our voices abruptly when the pilot reached neutral buoyancy and snapped the cylinder shut, leaving us yelling in the silent air.

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In the distance, V and I could see the pine ridge cresting our own neighborhood. The cars on the nearby highway looked like surreal little toys. The perspective was just incredible as directionally-challenged me put together a few things about the ACT layout. As we headed southeast, away from neighborhoods, past an abandoned quarry, and over more southern bushland, we started to see farm animals – mostly horses and cows and sheep. So naturally I started looking for kangaroos – and soon we started to see them, bouncing in groups of three or more through the dry brown land.

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Canberra, the Bush Capital of Australia

When we started to come closer to the place our pilot wanted to land, the balloon gradually flew at lower and lower altitude. As we approached a field, clusters of roos we could see increasingly clearly bounced off in different directions in a state of growing alarm proportionate to the speed of our approach. We assumed the brace position, and as we bumped onto the grass, we all laughed: it was such a gentle landing that we counted ourselves lucky.

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It will be hard to see, but just to the right of the white tree in this picture, a kangaroo is bouncing away

The balloon van approached and parked near us as we took more selfies and started to climb out. The pilot only let a strategic few out so the rest of us wouldn’t lift off again. Those volunteers went at the pilot’s instruction to pull a cord and help get our balloon down. I checked my watch: flight time had been just over 50 minutes.

In the meantime, we watched the progress of the other balloon’s van; the driver had looked for a shortcut across a cow pasture and was now confronted with a herd of angry cows heading it off, obviously expecting feed. The cows charged the van, forcing it back across a riverbed where the driver tried to make a three point turn but temporarily got stuck.

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V checking out the second balloon’s landing

I kid you not that we watched the face-off between the cows and the blue balloon’s support van for more than fifteen minutes. The cows’ mooing and lowing was so loud and insistent that it became comical, then surprising, then annoying, and then kind of dumbfounding. The cows were pissed, and they WEREN’T having any of the van passing through with no food to offer them. The Balloon Aloft staff on our side seemed to find it only mildly amusing, but I started to feel really sorry for the van driver, who clearly couldn’t find an unfenced passage between the cow field and the blue balloon’s landing site. Eventually he made it over, but it took almost thirty minutes. I can only imagine what the passengers of that balloon were thinking.

By that time we were packing up our balloon, which perhaps not surprisingly, was also a team sport. If you look closely at the photo below, you will see that the corner of our basket actually happened to land on a large rock.

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The pilot and van driver/crew

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Once the balloon was more or less on the ground, which was no small feat, we went through a process of lining up on either side of it and rolling it towards the middle, like a humongous sleeping bag. After fussing to try and pick weeds off the balloon that were sticking, I was too slow and had to excuse myself from much of the process; I wasn’t (and am still not) allowed to bend following my January spinal surgery.

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It took a village

Once the balloon was rolled, Balloon Aloft crew rolled it and tied it. Passengers lifted it and began packing it into the box which we’d towed behind the van. I felt a little silly that I hadn’t realized the balloon had been in there the whole time that morning as we headed to the launch point. “Where did you think the balloon was?” my friends teased me. It was probably one of those moments where I was so busy with my camera that I missed an important detail.

There are some pretty funny pictures of JS stuffing the balloon edges into the box while V is on top of it trying to smush it further down. But alas, as you may have noticed: I do not post identifiable pictures of American diplomats on my blog. So even though it probably looks like V and I are alone most of the time, rest assured that we have buddies!

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Loading the basket safely back up on the trailer

As we neared the edge of the farm, the van driver pulled off alongside a house with a well-appointed and cheery yard. The front door promptly opened and a sharply dressed older gentleman came out as if expecting us. The pilot retrieved a bottle of champagne from the back of the van where we five sat on benches facing each other and presented it to him as a courtesy for the pre-arranged landing.

V called the farmer’s dog who gleefully jumped in the van for some diplo-love before his owner could stop him. We had a lively chat with the pilot about American politics on the way back into town and he mentioned that when we get our new ambassador Balloon Aloft would LOVE to fly him. We then headed back towards the Hyatt for a champagne reception with Balloon Aloft, followed by a full brunch for ourselves to celebrate our successful flight. We took a fun picture in front of the basket, lined up in the same order as the previous Saturday when we’d photographed ourselves looking pathetic because our flight was rained out.

During our brunch, we remarked about the things that had surprised us about the flight: how uniquely tranquil Canberra had looked from the air, how quiet and peaceful it was during the flight, how NOT scary or motion-sick-inducing the experience had been, how the air up there wasn’t colder than the air on the ground (I guess we weren’t high enough for that), and how HOT the burner could get on the top of your head! JS had smartly worn a beanie and I think he was glad for it. The only way it could have been better in any way would have been (a) to have a little more space, but FAR more importantly (b) to be in a balloon-filled sky! Those would have been some incredible pictures. We will definitely try again during the next Enlighten festival in 2019.

A few times since our flight, during our early morning commute to the embassy, V and I have seen the Qatar Airways balloon’s graceful crimson silhouette dot the sky. “It’s our balloon!” we’d exclaim. “It flies again!” V even snapped a picture of it floating near the embassy a couple of days post-flight. And so we wish Balloon Aloft years of safe flights and happy passengers ahead. We already can’t wait to fly in a hot air balloon again someday, maybe over the New Mexico desert, over the Hunter Valley vineyards, or past Cambodian temples…we shall see.

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