Call time 4 a.m! YES. You read that right. Four in the morning…and I’m supposed to be on vacation. But I am not complaining. I am up and about by 3.30 am (in spite of a late night) getting ready for my pick-up by Hot Air Balloon Cairns, from the Peppers Palm Cove hotel, scheduled for 4 a.m. If you, like me, have never gone hot air ballooning before, the first question would be: why does one need to wake up at such an unearthly hour. They could certainly have planned something at a more reasonable hour. The answer is no, as I learned later on in my hot air balloon session with Hot Air Balloon Cairns. At the break of dawn, the air is cooler and therefore there are less currents and movements, making it more conducive to a hot air balloon ride. As the sun gets higher, and the air heats up, there are more currents, making it increasingly difficult. Therefore, all sorties organised by Hot Air Balloon Cairns take place at sunrise. Which is, actually, a good thing, because, in my opinion, the landscapes are so much more poetic and brilliant at dawn than under the blazing heat of the noon sun.
After I was picked up, we drove for about an hour from Cairns into the hinterland. It was pitch dark and I could barely see anything. We were driving out into the country, with only fields, meadows and lush greenery. The wilderness indeed! We pulled up into a gate to our launch site – apparently, these launch sites, decided daily depending on the weather and the winds, are private farms, which grand permission to Hot Air Balloon Cairns to launch their balloons. It was still dark, but as I got off the car, I could make out the shape of two massive hot air balloons, being inflated. I couldn’t see much, but I could see their silhouette in the twilight sky.
As I walked on the dam, dewy turf towards the balloons, I could see the glow of the fire, blowing hot air into the balloons – one with a giant kangaroo on it and the other with a koala – making them glow flaming orange in the darkness.
A short safety briefing later, and we were assisted into the massive basket. Each basket is divided into four sections with about 8-9 people in each, with a central compartment where the skipper stands.
The cold wind in my face, the heat of the fire blazing above my scalp, and we were all set to go. Time for take-off.
As we rose gently over the fields – paddocks, as they call them in Australia – I could see the sky getting brighter. The landscape was breathtaking – a mix of light, shadows, shades of green and generous amounts of mist and fog to make it all look so poetic.
Finally, we climbed all the way up to 2, 000 ft, I could see the mountains in the distance. That’s when the skipper pointed out to the horizon. I looked and there it was, the sun had just peeked out of the horizon. It was magical. Sunrise at last. And I was there to experience it, in the hot air balloon, over the gorgeous paddocks of Queensland.
We spent about half an hour sailing over the farms, fields, sugarcane plantations and country roads. Every second was picture worthy.
As we began to descend, I could see the mini van that dropped me off, following the balloon in the distance, trying to figure out where we’d be landing.
Soon enough, with a gentle thud (and our brace positions), we landed onto terra firma, in the middle of another private farm.We hopped out of the basket but the guys at Hot Air Balloon Cairns were not ready to let us go just yet. It was now time to fold that gargantuan balloon, after deflating it, wrap it up and pack it into a huge plastic bag, about the size of a car boot. Now this was an interesting group effort and everybody participated. We rolled up the balloon to let all the hot air out, once it was flat, we began to coil it up and slowly push it into the big bag. The entire process took no more than 15 minutes. It really was strange to see the massive hot air balloon, that carried all of us across the plains, folded humbly and meekly into this bag.
A few photographs later, and I was on my way back to Palm Cove, about an hour’s drive away, where I was looking forward to a hearty breakfast at Nunu’s and then a quick snooze to make up for the early start.
Stay tuned for more of my adventures in and around Cairns….