Soaring up and over Down Under
It is 6.30am when the first rays of tropical sun catch the scarlet and gold fabric of the hot-air balloon, Koala. Suddenly, the Australian morning lights up. We're wafting silently 750 metres above neat fields of tobacco and maize, orchards of mango and lychee. Below are the fertile plains of the Atherton Tablelands and a lazy morning breeze seems to be steering us towards the virgin rainforest of Australia's Great Dividing Range.
'No worries,' says Clive. He's the relaxed chief pilot of Hot Air, the pioneering balloon company that takes tourists for dawn sails in the skies above tropical North Queensland. He tugs a lever and a roaring jet of flame spurts like a dragon's breath into the balloon. We ease higher, through a misty cloud.
With me on vast balloons sailing gently through the dawn were nine young Hong Kongers who had won a student ecological contest. Here, they were getting a kookaburra's-eye view of how agriculture, industry and tourism can flourish without overwhelming nature. It was an education they could never gain in the classroom.
You start the hot-air adventure at 4.30am when a minibus picks you up at your Cairns hotel. By 6pm, you are on the Atherton Tablelands, a rolling area of high downs 600 metres above sea level.
Light is just breaking in the mild winter morning as the crew starts firing life into the sleeping giants. The colourful material of the balloons is spread on the ground, their mouths gaping open as jets of burning gas are directed inside. As the hot air collects inside the tough fabric - half-canvas, half-plastic, by the feel, and said to be five times tougher than other balloon skins - the monsters gradually take shape.
When fully inflated with 9,840 cubic metres of hot air, Koala wafts as tall as a 10-storey building. The beaming grin on this balloon - the largest in Australia - stretches 40 metres from ear to ear.
Dangling below is a stout rattan gondola divided into four sections. There are four passengers to a section, making 16 nervous people ready to take to the air, plus the confident, competent pilot; Clive has flown more than 3,000 hours over 10 years and is the senior airman of the fleet. He knows what he's doing.
We clamber in. Clive gives us a safety and instructional briefing. He pulls the magic lever and a two-metre flame gushes into the balloon above us; I glance down at the ground which is suddenly four metres below me. We're rising soundlessly, without any bumps or sways. It's like going up in a slow invisible lift without a building.
This is about as close as you can get to sailing in the air. The only problem is, Clive murmurs, you can't steer. You go where the wind takes you. By controlling your elevation, you can often find breezes that are going your way.
Below, the orchards and crops merge into the sparse high country bushland. It's very different vegetation in the ranges a few kilometres away where daily downpours in this hot, humid corner of Australia have created the largest national park rainforest in the world. Like that other local wonder, the Great Barrier Reef, which can be seen from the jungle peaks, the rainforest is jealously protected.
Koala gains height. Suddenly, Clive announces, we're 600 metres above the lychee farms. Around us, a whole flock of orange, blue, green, scarlet and yellow globes are rising like some sort of strange mushrooms growing in mid-air; there are 13 balloons licensed to carry tourists operating around the town of Mareeba. The area is favoured because of the stable morning air conditions and its proximity to the year-round tourist influx in Cairns. The operators lose only 20 days flying a year because of bad weather.
The young Hong Kong ecologists are receiving an unbeatable view of how a well-maintained part of the planet is managed. The neat fields are interspersed with large areas of scrubland. Look closely, and you can see a group of kangaroos cease their rollicking motion and stop to look up at Koala.
Balloon adventures were just one sector of the imaginative programme devised by David Man and David Leung, the two travel industry professionals who three years ago founded an eco-awareness movement aimed at making Asian travel agents and their customers take more care of the planet.
You've got to start young, Mr Man proclaimed, aiming their first major project at Hong Kong students. The response to a challenge for youths to produce their own five-day eco-tourism programme for visitors to Hong Kong was an impressive success. About 700 entries came from scores of schools.
Most people might think an environmentalist-inspired visit to the crammed SAR would last five minutes, but 700 students who took part came up with vividly imaginative programmes. The nine students aloft on the Koala were the winners.
Their visit to Queensland - which has gained a reputation for being among the most eco-friendly travel industries on Earth - was busy. The students from crowded housing estates in one of the world's busiest cities saw sheep being shorn, went white-water rafting, trekked through the rainforest, swayed over the jungle on the world's longest scenic cable car, snorkelled among clouds of tropical fish on the Barrier Reef and tramped up a 200,000-year-old lava flow. They also visited the Cairns College of Technical, Advanced and Further Education where tourism courses with a strong ecological theme are part of the curriculum.
What did they learn? 'We can live in harmony with our planet,' contends Fu Hiu-lai, one of the student winners. 'But humans have to take care of our natural heritage. We must treat the world gently.' Next year, Mr Man and Mr Leung plan to organise a similar contest, which they hope will reach well past the borders of Hong Kong.
New Zealand's tourism industry has already indicated it might be interested in sponsoring the winners as its contribution to helping spread the environmental message to Asia.