• Sun
  • Jul 13, 2014
  • Updated: 4:00am

Air heads

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, 12:00am

'You're going loony?' my mother says when I announce I'm going ballooning. Probably because ballooning is such an offbeat pastime, everyone I tell initially mishears or does a double-take before responding with envy. Clearly, we are suckers for the idea of gracing the sky in a luminous vehicle redolent of a calmer, cleaner age.

To achieve that vision, you need to fly at dawn when the air is usually still. In case of rain, I must ring my flight operator at 3am for an update - to stay awake, as for a long-haul flight, I sit in a nightclub, only to learn that my trip is cancelled. The next day I rebook and undergo another extended night out, thinking I must be crazy.

But the weather perks up. Next thing, I am standing in a dress shirt and slip-ons with 15 other curiosity seekers in a field in Menangle - a suburb on the southwestern fringes of Sydney noted for its namesake virus, which is carried by flying foxes.

The master of ceremonies, meticulous Englishman Richard Gillespie, briefs us. He is helped by the ground crew: Dino, a country boy, and droll, craggy Victor. They then conjure and unleash a light-emitting diode-fitted pilot ball that will show which way the wind is blowing.

Wending its way into the dawn sky, the 'piball' hangs a left and continues its hypnotic trajectory as drizzle enters the picture. So too does inertia. If we leave the scarred, sodden field serving as a launch pad now, the drizzle will carry us with it, meaning we spend our adventure under a cloud.

We wait. As suspicions that we are grounded mount, the weather suddenly clears. We pile in and Gillespie unsnaps the carabiner mooring us to Victor's four-wheel-drive. Our vessel creaking unceremoniously, we rise.

In the time it takes to say 'addictive', we have cleared the treetops and are sailing. Regardless of prior palaver, I can just about see why scientist-cum-poet Diane Ackerman once wrote that ballooning beats jet travel 'because it is more languorous and low-tech; it's adventure in an antique mood. What a treat to stroll through the veils of twilight, to float across the sky like a slowly forming thought.'

Although we are packed into the honeycomb-like space of our wicker basket, our stroll through the sky feels therapeutic, thanks to the immense calm. Yachting is intense by comparison. Aloft, you experience absolutely no sensation of movement.

And yet, because a balloon has no steering wheel or brakes, riding one feels alluringly random. You never know where the breeze will lead; you have become at one with a complex, mercurial weather system.

Our whim-of-the-wind Camden caper takes a turn away from a field radiating the smell of manure towards suburbia with its trampolines and gazebos. 'This is great for house-hunting,' Gillespie says before warning that our fire-breathing machine will wake every dog in the neighbourhood.

He's not exaggerating: dog after dog starts barking, creating an eerily disjointed racket as we plough on above a cloud of cockatoos towards the fields on the other side of the suburbs.

Thankfully, no flying foxes materialise. On the horizon, like apparitions from a myth, two horses race - one black, one white.

Continually pumping flames into the balloon's cathedral-like interior and tugging strings, Gillespie aims to land us beyond a golf course on a stretch of long grass in deep country: it's a rodeo circuit. Judging by our journey so far, I expect a landing as smooth as the champagne breakfast to follow.

Instead, a gust hits us. With a bone-jarring crash we bounce off the ground and, travelling at 30km an hour, skid for more than 80 metres, cutting a swathe. Crouched, we try not to elbow and crush each other as the basket flips.

In the aftermath of our own rodeo ride, surprise gives way to nervous laughter. One by one, trying not to become entangled with strangers, we crawl from our cubbyhole into the dew.

'It's not an exact science,' Victor remarks when he rolls up to round us up. 'Yee-hah!' Dino says.

Go to balloonaloft.com or call 1800 028 568 for more information.

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