Soaring gracefully above the verdant countryside dangling under the colourful orb of a hot air balloon with a light breeze ruffling your hair. Perhaps looking forward to a champagne breakfast when you return to terra firma. Sounds magic!
I wonder how many people have that experience on their bucket list? It was on my 60 for 60 list and on my recent Great Southern Road Trip it was marked off with a big tick! DONE! DUSTED and I survived!
A balloon ride is one of those things that feels tantalizingly, but acceptably risky. Up there with bungy jumping and parachuting. Catastrophic consequences if the very unlikely mishap actually ever occurs. In Australia, these types of industries are highly regulated and frequently audited. The risk is there, but it’s in the same order of magnitude as being taken by a shark at my home beach. Close to zero but not zero. Miniscule but not impossible. Compared to driving a car it is extremely safe!
So those butterflies in my stomach are just nervous anticipation of the fun ahead. Right? Right! The image of the balloon plummeting to the ground in a ball of burning, melting nylon with 16 screaming passengers in the basket is an over dramatisation from an over active imagination! Right?
The pilot (John) and his team are experienced and have an excellent track record. They give us a thorough safety briefing. John shows us the brace position in case we have to make a “fast” landing or the basket tips over.
Hold the handles tight, back against the basket side and bend the knees a little bit. Just a little bit, like you’re skiing.
The wind is perfect, the weather is as good as it will get and the location is captivating.
Standing here in a paddock by the side of the Bass Highway just outside of Launceston, I feel a teeny-tiny bit uneasy. Just a little bit. Despite the fact that I understand the physics of flight and my own mental safety assessment rules out a crash, I am still feeling anxious. My self talk is in hyperdrive! It will be fine! And no you don’t need to go to the toilet again that’s just nerves!
Thankfully, as the balloon is unfurled and fills with hot air, the anxious feeling flips to excitement. This is going to be good!
The balloon glides silently through the whispering air at an altitude between 1000 and 2000 feet (300 – 600 m). The pilot has clearance up to 3000 ft but says there is no point because you’re too high up to see the view clearly.
The silence is punctuated frequently by the roaring gas burners used to keep the air hot and the balloon aloft. The skillful deployment of various vents allows the pilot to turn the balloon.
The view is undoubtedly spectacular although in these days of drone cameras, it may not be as unique as it once was. It’s now common for us to see a bird’s eye view. Seeing it with your own eyes, and having a ‘live’ view has got to be a superior experience.
As anticipated we are treated to the patchwork of green and brown fields, lego size buildings and tiny little cars on the roads. The glorious skyscape is an added bonus. No pink, but a glittering patch of rays breaking through the patchy cloud. The reaction of the creatures below is a surprise. The horses skitter away, the sheep head for cover and the cows go on munching the grass. A large eagle gets out of the way and roosts in another tree. Dogs bark and people wave. Since this is the usual launch area for Hot Air Balloon Tasmania, folks around here must be used to the brightly coloured balloon floating overhead.
The landing site is a minute by minute proposition and (obviously) determined largely by the wind. We drift over the site the pilot was hoping to land at and end up in a fallow field a few blocks over. The basket stays upright and we all climb out.
The farmer who owns the plot has come out in his tractor to watch and is quite excited we chose to land in his paddock! He said he’d seen the balloon lots of times, and was hoping one day, it would touch down on his patch.
We spend the next half hour helping to deflate, then fold up the balloon before returning to the muster site at Entally Lodge for a hearty breakfast. No champagne but excellent coffee. I take out my phone open my list and tick the check box! I’ve completed a little more than half of the things on my 60 for 60 list. I might not meet the deadline but I’ll have a good time trying!
My balloon experience was with Hot Air Balloons Tasmania. It’s a family affair and runs out of Launceston in Tasmania’s north. The pilot and crew were very proficient and excellent hosts. We met at Entally Lodge which was about 20 minutes drive from Launceston but I understand you can arrange to be picked up from the city centre if you prefer. We then transferred to their transport to be taken to the launch site near Carrick another 10 km down the road. In the days leading up to my flight I was sent texts to confirm that the launch was able to go ahead, the muster location and time. There is a maximum group size of 16 people. While in the air, John will take a few photos using a camera suspended on a rig attached to the balloon.
For this flight we were asked to be on site at 6:30 AM but it can be earlier depending on the weather forecast. The flight itself was about 50 minutes. We returned to Entally House for breakfast and I was back on the road a little after 10 AM. The photos were in my email by 2 pm that same day.
All in all a 5 star experience!