'GOOD MORNING everybody. This is your captain speaking. We are commencing our descent and will be landing in approximately five minutes. Would all passengers hold on very tight and remember to bend their knees.' Not the most reassuring words when descending from 3,600 metres. But this was no run-of-the-mill flight. Standing room only, with no movie, meal or complimentary drinks, there is no better way to fly than by hot-air balloon. And no more spectacular backdrop for such a once-in-a-lifetime flight than the breathtaking Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. The breathtaking trip was the brainchild of pioneering Australian pilot Chris Dewhirst, the first man to drift a balloon over Mount Everest, in 1991; and the billowing red, blue and gold Balloon Sunrise Nepal canopy is now a familiar sight on most mornings from October to May as it floats gracefully over the patchwork Kathmandu valley. But the lucky ones, squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder in its creaking whicker gondola, all agree: there's nothing commonplace about ballooning in 'the land of the gods'. THE FUN began in a rice paddy bordering the medieval village of Kirtipur, the ground crew straining at guy ropes as four roaring butane burners blasted the primitive aircraft to life. With the first hint of sun straining through the huge nylon envelope, Lord Buddha's all-seeing eyes - incorporated in the canopy design - rose as butterflies danced in 10 tourists' stomachs. Suddenly it was all systems go. With no time to dwell on any lingering fear of heights, the cosmopolitan payload, from Hong Kong, Australia, Britain, Denmark and India, clambered in, jostled for position ... and held on for dear life. The shout was heard and we were up, up and away, rising silently and rapidly. Far below, the crew relaxed, waved and shrank, before disappearing under the last thin veil of morning mist. Cutting through wisps of fine cloud, remnants of vertigo were dispelled by a marvellous sense of calm. All was still as the basket drifted with the wind towards sprawling Kathmandu, providing a panoramic and hypnotic bird's-eye view of scattered, red-brick villages, and of the geometric maze of rice terraces and butter-coloured, oil-seed rape fields. The occasional roar of the burners aside, the only sound as the dazzling, snow-tipped Himalaya came into view was from whispered 'wow's' and sharp, gasping intakes of breath. Far from the fumes, dust and hubbub of bustling Kathmandu, the passengers inhaled hard, savouring the crisp, thin, fresh air. Tugging on the steering cables, British pilot Nigel Pogmore carefully spun the 3,000-cubic metre balloon to give everybody an uninterrupted prospect of the roof of the world. From the ultimate viewing platform, we watched as the sun's early rays illuminated the highest mountains on the planet. Gosaithan, Phurbi-Gyachu, Gauri Shanker, Chhoba-Bhamare, Melungste and 8,201-metre Cho Oyu - every peak is regarded as a god in Nepalese folklore, having been revered by the first mortals to settle the valley, as far back as 700 BC. The most celebrated of all - 8,848-metre Mount Everest, also known as Qomolangma, and 8,516-metre Lhotse - were regrettably coy, preferring to hide behind a dense bank of swirling black storm clouds. Below the vessel, the fertile expanse of the subtropical valley lay in hazy sunshine, the fields dissected by winding rivers on a long pilgrimage to India and an audience with the holy Ganges. Rice terraces carved into rolling, violet foothills built a stairway to the heavens. Levelling out at 3,500 metres, Pogmore edged Rebecca (he has named the balloon after his 14-year-old daughter) over the Nepalese capital, all eyes searching for landmarks and points of reference. The wide-brimmed hats issued as flight souvenirs helped to cut out the glare - and provided essential protection from the blistering heat of the burners. The magnificent 'monkey temple' of Swayambhunath was easily spotted, perched high on a forested hill northwest of the city. The mesmerising, all-seeing eyes that grace the whitewashed stupa of one of Kathmandu's most celebrated religious sites stare out from a million postcards, and have become the unofficial symbol of Nepal. They are even mirrored in the design of the balloon canopy. The tiered pagoda rooftops of the famed Durbar Square were also unmistakeable among the low, crumbling brick buildings of old Kathmandu. One of three such squares under UNESCO World Heritage protection in the valley, the compound is a labyrinth of ornate 14th-18th century temples and palaces, as well as home to more Hindu effigies, gods and icons than any neighbourhood on the planet. On the banks of the winding Bagmati river, the gilt roofs of Pashupatinath, Nepal's most important Hindu temple, reflected the sunlight. Two columns of pungent black smoke rose, indicating that the first of the morning's open-air cremation ceremonies was in progress on the steps leading to the river. At Bodhnath stupa nearby, tiny, ambling figures could be seen. Tibetan refugees, they circled the huge, bleached mound, clockwise as always, stopping occasionally to prostrate themselves or twirl prayer wheels while chanting immortal mantras. Approaching Kathmandu's Tribhuvan airport, Pogmore's walkie-talkie crackled into life. 'I've got your visual, want to come through at 7,500, I'm at nine-five,' the Lufthansa pilot said. Seconds later, a German airliner swooped low over the foothills and into the soft embrace of the valley. Pogmore said planes could sometimes be seen taking off and landing far below the balloon, and that helicopters would occasionally hover nearby. 'Passengers get some great shots,' he laughed. 'You can see the rivets.' Although blessed with boundless enthusiasm and infectious good humour, Pogmore takes his responsibilities seriously and is far too busy manning the burners and monitoring altimeters, variometers and the navigation system to take photographs himself. But floating gracefully over the Kathmandu valley against the backdrop of the world's greatest mountain range, it's easy to believe he couldn't be happier than when flying the only balloon in the country. Landing Rebecca required all of our pilot's 13 years of experience - although despite his warnings, Pogmore set her down with all the turbulence and drama of stepping off a kerb. Coming back down to earth, however, did prove the highlight of our 90 minutes in the sky. Pogmore expertly manipulated the burners for a precise descent as our huge, bulbous shadow sucked the daylight from tiny hamlets and their mustard crops. With only 60 metres or so to go, families rushed from their homes and shops, shouting to friends, belting barefoot through the dusty streets and splashing into the irrigated fields to greet us. Whooping and waving with delight as Rebecca fell from the air, our hastily convened reception committee finally numbered more than 500, and also included surprised farmers and their hyperactive, apple-cheeked children, all grinning from ear to ear and wrestling to shake hands, leap into the basket and be a part of the hot ballooning action. The experience certainly beat immigration and customs. And though not quite gods, we certainly felt like stars. But being treated like Sean Connery arriving at the Oscars is an everyday experience for Pogmore. 'I'm famous!' the irrepressible Yorkshireman exclaimed heading back into town in the company van. 'Nowhere else in the world would they call me captain,' he laughed, clearly delighted not just at being the only balloon pilot in Nepal, but at holding such a lofty title. 'But here they insist on it.' With eyes alert behind graduated shades and arms folded across his crisp white shirt, Pogmore looks every bit the seasoned commercial aviator. But the mischievous grin, battered Australian bush hat and tie decorated with balloon motif provided some clues to a man much harder to pigeonhole. Hired by Balloon Sunrise Nepal in 1996, this is one upwardly mobile professional who chose an unusual way to the top. With no office politics and no scrambling for position thousands of metres above sea level, he is clearly in his element. 'I started like most born travellers, running away on a push-bike as a kid - until the police brought me back,' Pogmore, 45, remembers with a chuckle. 'Later I graduated to driving buses - double deckers - before taking off for Turkey on a 750cc Honda. That was in 1974 or so. Everyone was saying to me: 'Istan where? Istan ball?' I went back but that was it - a few weeks' work and I just had to quit.' Appetite for adventure irreversibly whetted, Pogmore signed up for an 18-month tour of duty with British adventure-holiday specialists Encounter Overland, driving paying customers from London to Kathmandu in specially converted Bedford trucks. 'Once you've done something like that, you can't do a proper job,' he shrugged, scratching his beard thoughtfully. 'Well not a normal job anyway. No way was I driving buses again.' His wanderlust eventually took Pogmore to Australia, where in 1985 he joined Dewhirst's ground crew. Although the cost of becoming a commercial balloon pilot approached A$20,000 (HK$90,000) even then, his boss agreed to cover the training if Pogmore would work for him. So he stayed on in Australia until 1990, when he returned to Britain to fly freelance. Apart from a 12-week stint Dubai which brought some sunshine, he was then resigned to flying greyer skies. But years later came a pleasant surprise. 'I hadn't seen Chris for years,' said Pogmore. 'One day he called to say he wanted me to fly a balloon in Nepal. Of course, I'd had a passion for Kathmandu since the Encounter days. So here I am!' Pogmore's energy and humour seem to rub off on everyone who has the pleasure of dealing with him: passengers, ground crew, even international airline pilots and air traffic controllers. Although he appreciates Nepal's laid-back way of life, he knows his safety, and that of his passengers, is in his air traffic controller-friends' hands. 'I'm constantly on the radio getting updates and requesting altitudes, and we're all talking to each other all the time,' he said reassuringly. 'They have an important job to do and they take it seriously.' POGMORE ALSO respects and is proud of his Nepalese ground crew. Every day, the 14-man team leaps from the Sunrise truck ready for action long before Kathmandu has wiped the sleep from its eyes. Following the boss' example, their philosophy is 'keep smiling and enjoy yourself' - even when unloading 1,000 kg of unwieldy balloon in the chilly, damp Himalayan dawn. Thanks to Pogmore, they have all been kitted out in shiny new navy and yellow jerkins, overtrousers and caps. 'They looked like a dog's dinner before,' Pogmore said. 'Nobody could tell who they were. They would have to fight through the crowds to get to us when we landed. Everyone thought they were just bullying sightseers and trying to get the best view.' Pogmore saves most of his banter and anecdotes for passengers, and, unlike many in his profession, he relishes the opportunity to get to know people from all over the planet, answer and ask questions, and share his passion for the Kathmandu valley, the Himalaya and both Rebeccas. After each flight he badgers everyone to join him for belated breakfast at a leafy garden cafe, where he holds court, near the Sunrise offices. 'I can't understand the pilots I've met who just want to get up, get down and get away. They can't enjoy it,' he said. 'It's not just about flying the bloody balloon. It's about having fun, sharing the experience.' Tucking into his bacon and eggs and waving his knife like a magician's wand, he added: 'After all, I'm not just a dentist pulling teeth.' The huge smiles all around the table were proof of that, and perhaps the only job references he'll ever need. Balloon Sunrise Nepal operates from October to May, depending on the weather. Telephone (977-1) 418214/418624/424131; fax (977-1) 418561/424157.