Basket case adventurers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 August, 1998, 12:00am

There's a fellow in Chicago called Steve Fossett. By all accounts, an affable and engaging fellow, a multi-millionaire with an inexplicable desire to fly around the globe in a hot air balloon.

In most circumstances, I would say good luck to him. In our bland world, eccentricity is to be encouraged. We need more of it, and if Mr Fossett wants to take to high altitudes and waft about the planet, let him, so long as it does not harm or seriously inconvenience others.

Alas, that's not how it works out. Mr Fossett's pastime is paid for in part by other people, many of whom have no interest in his high-flying hobby nor any wish to help fund it. But when adventurers take to the skies, oceans, mountain peaks, or the depths of the jungle, it is often other people who end up footing a large part of the bill.

In Mr Fossett's case, it is taxpayers who will dig deep. Predictably, he was foiled by the weather, and a storm brought him down in the Pacific Ocean. Australian, French and New Zealand naval and air force units had to go to the rescue.

The sports-mad Australians do not seem to begrudge spending vast amounts of money rescuing foolish people from perilous situations into which they have voluntarily placed themselves. In 1997, their sailors and airmen went to the rescue of a yachtsman who came to grief during a round-the-world race sponsored by a major multinational firm. The cost was estimated at about $60 million. Very sportingly, Canberra said it would not ask the race organisers to foot the bill; boy, am I glad I am not an Australian taxpayer.

It's my view that people who want to go off on insane jaunts should be prepared to pay for their own pleasures. Why should others fork out considerable amounts of cash because Joe Bloggs decides to paddle across the Atlantic in a converted bathtub or, like Mr Fossett, blow about the skies attached to a hugely expensive plastic bag? The wealthy aviator was attempting to win a US$1 million (HK$7.74 million) prize offered by the American brewing giant, Budweiser. He promised half the money would go to a university which helped organise his aerial ramble. Budweiser, presumably, wanted publicity.

The balloon went up in Argentina, crossed the South Atlantic and Indian oceans, then Australia, before plonking down ingloriously in the Pacific. Thank goodness the South China Sea was not on the itinerary otherwise our rescuers would have had to go out and retrieve the damp Mr Fossett from the waves.

The world seems richly inhabited by people who expect others to be endlessly fascinated by their idiosyncrasies and to cheerfully pay to pull them out of trouble when their ill conceived expeditions go awry.

I recall one fixated mariner from Liverpool who made numerous attempts to row across the Atlantic. As most people could predict, these attempts ended up in failure. When the weather got cold or the waves grew high or some other problem arose, as they do on the open sea, this character would press the button on his Mayday machine and the Royal Navy or some passing merchant ship would have to go at full steam to his rescue. More fool them.

Realistically, I don't suppose you can leave even the most stupid people to drown out on the icy waves, but the temptation must be compelling when it is their third attempt and they have been warned not to try again.

What do such bids prove? That man can paddle across an ocean. So what? Balloonists seeking records, in particular, seem to pose a problem. In recent years, one bunch came crashing to earth on farmland in middle America. The pair admitted they didn't know where they were landing. What would have happened if they had smashed into a hospital or a house? Another mob of wayward fanatics fuelled by hope and hot air caused an international incident when some former soviet splinter nation sent up jet fighters to bring them down. Others have objected because Beijing will not let them drift wherever they like across China's air space.

To my total astonishment, one of the leading balloonists is British billionaire Richard Branson. Like Mr Fossett, he wants to journey around the earth in a basket.

Now, the engaging Mr Branson is one of the men I admire most, a truly inspiring entrepreneur and a man of wonderful heart. I once asked him why a guy who owns a global airline (he controls Virgin Atlantic) wanted to drift about the planet suspended under a bag of warm gas when he had at his disposal a whole fleet of 747s. He just smiled.