Early risers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 November, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 1994, 12:00am

THE eerie desert silence was shattered momentarily as a bright orange flame shot forth with a deafening roar, silhouetting a small group of people huddled together against the cold.

The stillness returned, and we were enveloped in inky blackness again, awaiting the next burst.

Inflating a hot air balloon is a slow and tedious process, and as I vigorously rubbed my numb hands together I was already beginning to question the decision to climb into a wicker basket and float up, up and away above the endless scrubland surrounding Alice Springs.

It was now 5 am, I had set my alarm for 3.30, been picked up outside my hotel at four, to be driven out into the desert, and was now standing bleary-eyed with a group of total strangers.

A man-sized fan began to whir frantically, the blasts from the flame-thrower became more frequent, and the heavy-duty red and white nylon a dozen of us, like modern-day Lilliputians, had struggled to unfurl across the desert floor, began to take shape.

The fierce, fiery blasts heightened my apprehension. Thirteen people had perished here in the desert in Australia's red centre in the late 80s when two hot air balloons collided.

But morbid thoughts brought on by hunger and tiredness faded as I looked up at a canopy of stars with the clarity and brightness that can only be found in places like this, where the air is clear and unpolluted, well away from the artificial lights of the city.

As the blackness faded ever so slightly with the approach of dawn, around a dozen of the group, mainly women, heaved themselves over the sides of the basket and clung on to the rope handles, the balloon, fully-inflated now by hot air, towering above their heads.

The pilot released the valve and with a quick burst of flame, they rose slowly and silently. No screaming of engines, no rotor-driven blasts of wind. It was surreal, dream-like, as if an invisible hand had switched off life's volume.

The sun was still beneath the horizon, and the blackness was fading into grey as the balloon continued to climb, with the occasional punctuation of flame to help it gain height.

The passengers looked remarkably vulnerable in that now tiny basket, dangling precariously under a massive bag full of air.

But I reminded myself that this was no ordinary wicker basket. It weighed half a ton, and the male passengers had earlier grunted and groaned with the effort of sliding it from the truck out here in the desert.

I envied those balloonists above me. They would see the sun rise from above the desert. The basket was too small for all of us and those who were left behind would have to wait 30 minutes for it to come gently back to earth a few kilometres away, before it would be our turn.

But thrills awaited us even here on terra firma. We boarded our small bus again and bumped across desert tracks for ten minutes to witness a scene that was a photographer's dream, something you only expect to see at the movies.

The golden ball broke the horizon with the balloon silhouetted directly above, floating towards us in a red glow, the birth of a new day. Now I was pleased to have missed that first ride.

The expressions on the faces of the passengers who clambered out of the basket dispersed any lingering apprehensions about ballooning. They had had a trip of a lifetime. Some even decided to pay for an extra half hour.

We glided silently above the waving figures who were still intoxicated by their experience, and the desert opened up below us, a seemingly endless, harsh plateau, broken by the bare, austere Macdonnell Ranges.

The giant shadow of our balloon darkened the land a few hundred metres below, and the thin, stunted trees which cling to life in this arid environment, cast their own, thin shadows like fine brush-strokes on an artist's palette.

Red Kangaroos, the largest of this family of marsupials in Australia, looked up at us curiously from their grazing, before bounding uncertainly across the desert and stopping to take another nervous look.

Not a breath of air rocked the balloon as we soared above the desert. Up here, looking to the horizon on all sides and seeing only emptiness makes one realise how isolated Alice Springs is. To be lost in that monotonous landscape is surely to court death.

We had been warned to bend our knees and brace for the landing, but we touched down so gently, we could have been on top of a feather mattress.

Now it was time to graft again. Passengers are 'invited' to participate in dismantling the balloon. Indeed, if they declined, there would be no way to do it. For many hands are needed to squeeze out the air and roll up the vast patchwork quilt of nylon.

But it was all good fun, and almost everyone did their bit, discarding sweaters as the thermometer rose rapidly. The mid-day temperature out here can reach 50 degrees Celsius.

Mind you, there was a good reason to pack everything away as quickly as possible: Hunger.

A few kilometres from here a desert breakfast awaited. Hot quiche, chicken legs, cheese and biscuits, chocolate cake, fruit, tea, coffee, juice and champagne. Lots of champagne.

John Sanby, who owns Outback Ballooning, and his staff, made sure the champers kept flowing. The shared experience and the alcohol made for quite a party. Strangers were soon like old friends, exchanging addresses.

'Having an accident with a balloon is now a chance in a million,' said John, who emigrated to Australia from South Africa about 20 years ago, and who now operates seven balloons in the desert around Alice.

'There are now separation rules, and two balloons are not allowed to take off at the same time.' Indeed, safety was the priority in those early hours as we drove off from Alice Springs. The bus stopped twice for checks on the wind direction. Small helium balloons were sent up under a spotlight and compass readings were taken.

Throughout the balloon flight, radio contact is kept with Alice Springs' small airport, and of course, there are no power lines to cause a hazard out here.

The champagne was still flowing in the bus on the way back to Alice, and a boisterous group of tourists, some in their 60s, who a few hours earlier had been silent, sleepy strangers, walked a little wobbly into their hotel reception area. They were inebriated.

Fellow guests making their way down for breakfast gaped in astonishment. But for them, of course, the day had only just begun.