Living it up
It's 4.15am, an ungodly hour anywhere - but when you're on holiday in a tropical island idyll in the South Pacific, it is veritably demonic. Nevertheless, 15 minutes later I am waiting groggily outside my hotel to be picked up by Adrenalin, Fiji's biggest adventure tour company. All being well, I am about to float silently over jungle-covered mountain slopes just as dawn breaks, from the interior of Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu, to the glittering sea.
By 5am we're driving inland on tarmac that within minutes becomes bumpy dirt track. The figures of slinking dogs, panicked chickens and early-rising Fijians appear momentarily in our headlights, before plunging back into blackness. During the one-hour drive we make two stops; each time Kevin Flanagan, the 'hot-air balloon guy' and our pilot for the trip, releases a biodegradable balloon with a small LED light attached. We watch each small balloon's path into the night sky to determine wind direction and speed - both will dictate whether we take off. If the flight is cancelled, we can try the next day or get our money back.
We reach a village hemmed in by hills that rise towards the ridges and mountain peaks of the central highlands. Adrenalin has negotiated with the village chief to use an open area by the Nadi River - during the day it acts as the village rugby pitch and the fee paid for its use as a launch pad is a source of income for the village.
As the enormous balloon is unloaded and laid out in the field, the treetops become black silhouettes, the sky turns purple, then mauve. Dawn is approaching. The giant balloon slowly takes shape as hot air is blasted into it, rising to the equivalent of a 10-storey building.
There's no graceful way to enter a hot-air balloon, so we clamber over the sides and tumble into a basket big enough to hold 12 people.
'OK, could everyone jump up and down,' shouts Flanagan. When we do, he adds, 'It doesn't do anything, but it's just kind of fun, isn't it?'
Flanagan, it turns out, is a gentle joker, the perfect companion for this genteel form of transport. The anchor ropes are released and we ease up into the air; the heat from the initial blasts of blue flame has to be intense, to get the balloon above the treetops, but after that the burners are used infrequently.
Shrinking villagers wave goodbye in the half-light. We will see the sun before they do, as we gain altitude. Our timing is perfect - an arc of flashing yellow rises over a ridge far to the east. We look westwards to see the sea separating itself from the horizon and below us the ground turns from dark grey to gold and green as sunrays light up the long grass on hilltops and thick jungle in the valleys.
Flanagan opens the parachute-like flaps near the balloon's apex to allow hot air to escape and we descend slowly to brush the top of a tree bursting with bright- red flowers, before rising with a brief blast and running silent and serene over a landscape unaware of our presence. I begin to appreciate the paradox of hot-air ballooning; a sedate yet thrilling journey that provides a unique view of the world with time enough to inspect the details of everyday life below.
On occasion, when a blast from the burners alerts dogs and cows to our passing, their agitation rouses the inhabitants of the neat little homesteads scattered across the hills and valleys. Looking up, they all seem to respond in the same way - who could resist shouting a greeting and waving at an enormous orange balloon floating over their house?
For a little over an hour, the morning wind takes us towards the coast - in the distance, we can see the resort haven of Denarau and the Mamanuca islands, where most of Fiji's tourists relax by the pool or beach. A jumbo jet, looking and sounding like a tiny mosquito at this distance, flies into Nadi airport to the northwest.
Flanagan keeps us amused with stories of the 18th-century French pioneers of hot-air ballooning who took a bottle of champagne on every flight to mollify the terrified and irate landowners and peasants who would converge with pitchforks and sickles when the balloon landed, intent on destroying the 'fire-breathing dragon' that had just flown into their midst. The pilot also has plenty of anecdotes from his days ballooning in the United States, such as the time he accidentally landed with a basketload of tourists on the property of movie-star couple Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. Russell drove to meet them in his pickup, proved to be amenable and told Flanagan to 'come by tomorrow and Goldie'll cook you up some breakfast'. Flanagan - and the next day's consistent weather - brought the balloon down close to the same spot, whereupon Hawn was as good as Russell's word and rustled up a cooked breakfast for everyone onboard.
There is no regular landing point for a hot-air balloon trip - 'I'm just the co-pilot, Mother Nature is the pilot,' says Flanagan cheerily - since the slightest shift in wind speed or direction can mean a completely different flight route from one day to the next. As he scouts below for a suitable site, Flanagan explains that the enduring tradition of giving a bottle of champagne to the owner of the land on which you touch down has been given a unique twist in Fiji. Here they give a far more useful 15kg sack of rice. Flanagan tells of a man who came out of his hut to see the massive balloon landing nearby. When he was presented with the bag of rice, he incredulously said that his family had just run out of food and, without any immediate prospective work, he had been praying for a miracle to get them through the coming month.
Flanagan chooses a field to land in - he tries to share the wealth of the rice gift by landing in a new field as often as possible - and we bend our knees and grip the basket sides for the small jolt and short drag that ends our very special sojourn.
After a fond farewell we have only a short, easy ride, in vehicles that have tracked us, back to our hotel, where we are just in time for breakfast with the late-risers.
If only they knew ...
Getting there: Air Pacific (www.airpacific.com) flies three times a week from Hong Kong to Nadi International Airport. Alternatively, you can fly via Brisbane or Sydney with Qantas (www.qantas.com.au). Adrenalin Fiji can be reached through www.adrenalinfiji.com.