My wife Karen has always wanted to go Hot Air Ballooning since I can remember. Last Friday on her birthday she finally did.
An activity dependent on the weather conditions I booked our flights well over a month earlier, told her to keep the day free and tentatively waited to see if everything would go ahead. I called Thursday evening and was told to meet at the Ipswich Country Motel at 5:45AM the next morning – we were a go.
By now Karen had an inkling what was going on which made me more anxious to have it all come off without a hitch. She was awake at 3AM and me at 3:30AM to make the drive from the northside of Brisbane to Ipswich. We arrived at 5 o’clock roughly and parked, Karen’s excitement was now truly a joy to behold but what if I was late? What if it was 4:45AM?
I relaxed when another car pulled up in a motel carpark at 5:15AM. No way was somebody this early for a business conference. Either we were about to go hot air ballooning or see a crime be committed.
It was still dark and quite cool in the winter morning as we introduced ourselves to ground crew member Gary, later we were joined by a trailer and a Toyota Landcruiser. There were two more passengers (another couple), another ground crew member named Pearce and the pilot Graeme Day.
We bundled into the back of the Landcruiser which had been converted with seats along the side just on top of the floor. We drove to a football field in a park which Graeme had the keys to enter. The pilot and business owner has take-off and landing sites all over the place. He has arranged to have access to them and it became readily apparent that good relationships are important to the success of his business.
The basket was rolled off the trailer and as per the suggestion of the website I offered to help but that was to come later when me and the other male passenger held up the balloon as fans blew air into it.
When the balloon was ready we climbed into the basket using footholes on the side. The pilot radioed to nearby RAAF Amberley to get the all clear and then with flames burning we ascended.
Graeme has 27 years experience in hot air ballooning having worked all over including Canada and France. He has the quiet confidence of a true professional who loves what he is doing but takes it seriously. It puts you at ease.
As we took off I looked around but kept my hand firmly on the basket handle. I’ve abseiled off Kangaroo Point and climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge but I find even at two or three stories I am more and more uncomfortable with heights. This did not escape the veteran pilot and vendor, Day advised me I could relax noting I was holding onto “that handle”.
I told him I was fine and I was but I did grow more comfortable as the flight went on. In the balloon you travel with the wind so the only movement comes from the passengers moving which is not much. I did find myself at one point quite comfortably leaning out over the basket and taking a photo with my phone.
Speaking of, you’re allowed to take as many photos as possible which makes for a nice change from other activities where you usually have to pay the vendor for one photo they take.
Years ago I was working at the Royal Brisbane Hospital sometimes in the early morning observing hot air balloons flying over the Brisbane CBD. At the same time Karen was working as a speech pathologist down in Canberra and had booked a flight in a hot air balloon. That flight never went ahead and she ran out of time and moved back to Brisbane. Years later we met and now after all this time she’s finally had her balloon ride and I feel very blessed to have shared it with her.
Hot Air Balloons don’t fly over Brisbane anymore, there are those who fly over the Gold Coast CBD or close enough and there are vendors flying over the Gold Coast Hinterland and Byron Bay. The things that attracted me to Floating Images was the experience of the pilot, the locality to Brisbane, the low key vibe I was hoping for and that the views would include Mt Tamborine, Mt Cootha, the Great Dividing Range and the Brisbane CBD. I think it would be interesting to check out the other vendors but everything I was hoping Floating Images would be – they were.
As we took off we could see mountains everywhere and the sun rising over the Brisbane CBD to our East. We flew past RAAF Amberley the lights flashing along the length of the runway like pilots get to see them.
Off in the distance was a clear view of Toowoomba lit up by the rising sun on a beautiful orange palette with still the twinkling lights of the town not quite out yet. A view Graeme advised you don’t get on every flight due to timing and fog and so forth.
We saw how landscapes had been changed by flooding, the Bremer River, the Borallon Correctional Centre, Ipswich of course and all the types of views I had hoped for.
Certificates handed to us later state we reached an altitude of 2,200 feet and flights are scheduled to go for an hour. During the flight we twisted around allowing passengers to face all directions at one point. Flying in a wide left hook, Graeme utilised the wind to fly further.
At one point the gas flames burned for several seconds allowing us to realise why people wear caps on hot air balloon flights, Karen pointed out to me as quite astutely that she was closer to the flames than me too.
Graeme radioed to the ground crew about two possible landing sites, he weighed it up in seconds and then advised them he was going for Fernvale. Having noticed the ground being now more comfortably close I asked him how high up were we now and he told me 1,200 feet.
We flew for several more minutes at this height to Fernvale and then gradually descended. Ordered into brace positions we landed in a farm field hitting the ground gently, rising once and then coming to a landing permanently.
We stayed in the basket until the ground crew arrived and then proceeded to pack up with them. The field belonged had belonged to a farmer and his wife who was now widowed. A bottle of wine was left on the patio at her front door by Floating Images.
Then we drove back to the Ipswich Country Motel, a drive that seemed much longer now given the brevity and beauty of our flight over the same distance. The staff were great at the Ipswich Country Motel as we enjoyed a Big English Breakfast and non-alcoholic champagne with Graeme and our fellow passengers.
During the flight we learned from conversation over RAAF Amberley that the other male passenger was a former soldier. Unlike me he’d leaned over the basket comfortably for long breadths taking in the countryside below.
His partner was the only passenger who’d gone hot air ballooning before, over the Brisbane CBD in 1987. She told us they took off from the West End and landed in St Lucia where she told us the basket had tipped over upon landing.
Later talking to my parents I found out my aunt had taken a balloon ride in the 1980s from St Lucia. Not for the first time did I wish I could talk to her about her adventures in the years since her passing.
The other female passenger asked me to take a picture of her with her partner early on in the flight and then kindly returned the favour for which I am very grateful.
Graeme has a 10 person capacity basket as opposed to the smaller one we flew in that morning and advised the limit in Australia is 24 with overseas vendors carrying 30 passengers at a time. I much preferred how it had gone for us with just four passengers. I would recommend Floating Images without hesitation.
I was reflecting this morning, I’ve taken 19 flights all up as I approach 40. Two light aircraft in my childhood out of Archerfield, some lower airline flights over regional NSW and then jet airliners whether domestic or international.
The flight in the hot air balloon offered a new perspective, I had 360 degree view of my surroundings and could take them in at leisure. I could hear dogs barking on the ground below, Brisbane and Toowoomba separated by a four hour drive could be both be seen at once.
I suddenly realised how close Brisbane would be for an aircraft like the F-111 Aardvark flying out of Amberley. It made the place I grew up in both more closely bound and grand at the same time.
And it was nice to do something that made my wife so happy. You savour moments like that.