“When the wind blows in your face, something different is about to happen,” we’re told. It’s true and when the wind blows on our faces we change direction during the best morning I’ve had for ages. In fact it is so good I’m in love – in love with hot air ballooning. It is such fun even clichés fail me.
At 4 30am I was woken with a phone call. “It’s on, the weather is perfect, and your transport will be at your door in 20 minutes. It takes an hour to reach Methven, (1025 ft above sea level) home of Aoraki Balloon Safaris and close to Mt Hutt ski fields – and also on the Lord of the Rings route, a nearly a New Zealand-long-trail. Meeting with others who have driven from Christchurch or stayed overnight, we’re given overshoes, have our names and weights recorded and divided into two groups. A short bus ride takes us to the Methven Show grounds where we’re to be launched upwards.
Already the excitement is building and our group of eight or nine strangers are talking freely with each other. We’re all virgin balloonists and are anticipating a great time. Unlike many tourist ventures, on this we get to assist with the preparations. Some drag the traditional wicker basket (willow cane and rattan) from the trailer while I help unfurl the colourful giant balloon from an impossibly tiny bag: even the basket seems too small for us all. The balloon is now stretched out on the ground, a Kiwi and Swiss traveller hold open its mouth and two huge fans begin blowing. Slowly the multi-coloured nylon takes shape and our excitement continues to grow. We are all taking photos – recording the time for future memories – and finally it’s full – so full in fact that there is around eight tons of air in it. Now to heat it – apparently this is what makes it rise – and guess it’s why they call them hot-air balloons. Our pilot directs the roaring jets of flames into the mouth without burning it and shortly the balloon is moving. It rolls slightly to the right, back to the left, centres itself, then as we let go it leaves the safety of the ground to do what a balloon does best – it flies.
As it hovers above the creaking basket, so evocative of ballooning images, we climb aboard, are given safety instructions for landing (facing forward holding the rope handles and bent knees,) and, after being given the chance to bail out, and no one wants to disembark, the heat is turned up and off we go. Actually it’s up we go. Magic. Cool cool cool. What else can I say? It is at this moment, as the ground falls away below us, that I fall in love. I’m having a natural high and I know I’m addicted with this first rush. Although I watch the other balloon, I am too preoccupied with my own experiences. The world looks very different from up here; it’s quite different to a plane because of the lower altitude and speed. A local is taking a photo of us from her terrace but it seems most of the other 1000 villagers are still asleep on this crisp clear spring day. A dog is barking, magpies are chortling, hares and sheep flee, cattle stare, and the Swiss traveller breaks out some genuine Swiss chocolate to share. Perfect. He, like many of the others flying today, was given the flight as a birthday gift: one couple were celebrating their wedding anniversary.
The South Islands’ snowy-backbone, the Southern Alps, provide a perfect pristine backdrop for our 360°views. New Zealand’s highest mountain Aoraki-Mt Cook can be seen in the distance along with beautiful braided rivers. Across the productive, but dry Canterbury Plains, the port town of Timaru and the Pacific Ocean are clearly visible. I click my camera frequently: the rest of the time I’m awe-struck. No wonder parts of this scenery was used in the Lord of the Rings ( And, am I the only person in the world not to have seen the movies?)
All too soon the gas is getting low and it’s time to land. We have been watching the chase vehicle following us and our pilot points out the landing spot, and reminds us of the landing position. The lower we get to ground the faster it seems we’re going. Then, cattle staring and even following us, we skim over the final fence, more air is vented and we land in an empty field. One little bump, back up into the air briefly then we land. As if in slow motion the basket gracefully falls on its side and the journey is over. We burst into laughter as we gaze, from our backs, up into the sky that only a moment ago we were floating in. Although we have landed, the adventure is not quite over. The farmer and our chase vehicle are driving towards us and we have a balloon to pack. With more laughter we roll our bodies along it to expel the air, and then squeeze it back into the very small bag. It fits. The traditional ballooning breakfast: a glass of good kiwi bubbly or orange juice, coffee, croissants, jam, cheese and fruit.
The farmer gets a bottle of bubbly to take home. As a child lying on my back, and watching clouds drift by, had whetted my appetite for flying like a bird. This, surely, is as close as one gets.
Facts and figures The balloon is 81 feet in diameter – 93 feet highHolds 245, 000 cubic feet of airThe air is heated with LPGBalloons always fly east to west, the circular direction of the world’s major weather patternsThe balloon and basket were made in South Dakota, USA
Brief history of ballooning. Paper-makers Joseph and Etiene Montgolfier, who were looking for new applications for their product, made the first hot air balloon, in France. The brothers made a balloon from paper and fabric and it rose when put over a flame. They first tested it with a rooster, a duck and a sheep – under the orders of Louis XV1. The brothers never flew. The first flight with people was in Paris in front of Louis and Marie Antoinette while outside France the first was ten months later (Sept. 1784), by an Italian in London. Marie Antoinette is on record as having said, “It is the sport of Gods” The traditional bottle of champagne was given to the farmer on whose fields the balloon lands was not so much for the joie de vivre of today, but to stop the farmer attacking these strange and uninvited creatures with pitchforks.
To read more by this writer buy her book: Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad. Readers reviews are on this website – see above.