It’s still pitch black when our alarms go off – 4.15am to be exact. Despite the early morning start, it’s easy to offset my drowsy, zombie-like mind with the sheer excitement of what’s on the agenda for today.
While our time in New South Wales’ premier wine region, Hunter Valley, had so far consisted of eating and drinking our way around the picturesque rural countryside, I was saving my sober state of mind for our much-anticipated sunrise hot air balloon ride.
While my first knowledge on the existence of hot air balloons came from the cover of my grandmother’s edition of Around the World in 80 Days (spoiler alert: they don’t even use a hot air balloon!), my impression of them has largely stayed within the fictional realm. Romantic, dream-like connotations come to mind when thinking of hot air balloons and while my boyfriend and I would usually scoff at other such clichéd and sappy experiences, this was one activity we were willing to forfeit any reservations for.
So, despite having to tape our eyes open, and the contents of my suitcase being ill-equipped to handle the below-zero temperature outside, we hastily navigated our way through the maze of wineries (there are more than 50 in the area!), all the while being weary of the reflective yellow signs dotted on the sides of most roads warning us of stray mammals wandering into our path. We were the first to arrive at Peterson House, the regions’ specialists in sparkling wine. Though I was tempted to start the morning off with a few bubbles, we opted for a strong coffee instead, hoping the caffeine would help us forget how early it was. Our pilot, Clay, and his team from Balloons Aloft greeted us at the winery’s restaurant and instructed us to check in and choose our meal for our post-flight champagne breakfast. Normally, I’d be opposed to pre-selecting a meal – the anticipation of food to come is usually too much for me to wait two to three hours before consuming it – but in this instance, the butterflies I was experiencing allowed absolutely no room for wanting any kind of culinary treat.
Once everyone arrived and we were briefed on the trip, we were ushered into a bus and told we were driving for about 20 minutes until we reached the launch site, one of Balloons Aloft’s many choices in the region, decided upon after the release of weather balloons into the sky. I took advantage of this perfectly allotted nap time and squeezed in a little shut-eye during the drive, only to be awoken by my head suddenly banging against the window I was using as a very firm pillow, as the bus traversed the choppy paddock deemed our launch site.
Out of the bus and into the icy, quiet air of an early Hunter Valley winter’s morning; Clay huddled us around a rectangular wicker basket only about two-thirds of the size of the mini-bus we had just stumbled out of. Sectioned off into five compartments with the middle divide loaded with cylinders of propane and the burner suspended in a metal frame above it with only just enough room for the pilot to stand, I began to question whether he was expecting the entire group of 20 to fit inside this woven wooden receptacle. I was not mistaken. We were divided into groups of five and each group was allocated into one of the four outer segments. Confused but not concerned, I eagerly listened as we were asked to help with the set-up as needed. And what a set-up it was. All of a sudden, the basket was tipped 90 degrees and two generator-powered, roaring fans were pulled out and placed on either side of it while a rainbow nylon carpet was pulled out in front. Volunteers were called upon and those keen to get involved gingerly helped to open the mouth of the balloon as the fans began to project wind inwards, the fabric billowing as it inflated. Keeping a safe distance as I keenly observed this clockwork-like operation, I was swiftly jolted out of my gaze by the thundering sound of the propane being ignited next to me. Shooting flames into the gaping balloon as it gradually expanded and rose into the air, the experts carefully and delicately turned the balloon and basket upright, steel cables securing the nylon air ball to its carriage.
With our heads fixed skywards, gawking at the looming object above us, we all gathered around the basket once more as we received our final safety instructions and then, quite hurriedly, clambered over the wall of the basket to secure our position. Any notion of a tight squeeze aboard the craft quickly disappeared when I released the basket had more legroom than I could expect on my economy flight back home to New Zealand in two days’ time. After everyone was aboard, Clay instructed us on our landing position, fired a few more jetballs of propane-fuelled fire into the fabric bubble above us and without warning, we had begun our steady ascent. Slowly and smoothly, our carrier guided us into the skies of the valley just in time to see the golden rays of first light beam over the hills.
The vast valley below us was dusted with streaks of fog sitting low over the lakes and dams belonging to the rural folk of the Hunter Valley. And while the flora was a strikingly different shade to the deep, bushy green back home; the bare, earthy branches of the eucalyptus and gum trees showed a different kind of beauty.
I hadn’t even properly taken the time to consider what we were doing until we were told we had reached the 1000-foot mark. The peace and quiet of the wicker cradle hovering over the farms and lifestyle blocks of The Hunter at sunrise easily countered the fact that the only thing keeping us buoyant was the heated air inside the giant nylon bladder looming above us.
The intrusive roar of the propane flame shooting into this bubble was quick to bring me back to reality and remind me that this great feat of science, the ever-fabled hot air balloon, was exactly (and only) that, and its stunning ability to show its passengers a whole new meaning to the term ‘scenic view’ was unrivalled by nearly all other modes of transport available.
As Clay used the air vents on the balloon to control our altitude and rotation, the detail in the beauty of the Hunter Valley became more apparent. Long, stretching roads, lined with eucalyptus and freckled with the driveways of its residents of the now light-filled valley began to show themselves. Farm animals and wild kangaroos co-existed within the natural half pipe, while a river twisted between rows of trees.
Our pilot’s vast experience was obvious when he recounted all the simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious stories of his time captaining these vessels. I was quick to give my boyfriend a questioning eyebrow raise when Clay was asked if anyone had ever dropped anything from the air. He’d bravely bought his pricey camera on board without a strap and was brazenly leaning with it over the edge of the basket, all in the name of getting the perfect shot. Clay was quick to tell us that no, he hadn’t witnessed anyone drop anything but the question had become a popular one among riders. He did, however, recount a story of a competition balloon pilot carelessly leaving his tablet on the edge of the basket, only for the ground crew to watch from afar as it plummeted to certain destruction. Even more cringe-inducing was a reminder that it really pays to be sure you’ll receive a positive response when you pop the marital question a few thousand feet up in the air with no escape for any involved, including the poor pilot having to look on as two strangers awkwardly break up. I’m sure that made for an uncomfortable and swift descent back to reality.
The descent back to the ground was so gradual I wouldn’t have even noticed if it wasn’t for the basket skillfully avoiding grazing the treetops that guarded the river below. Clay pointed out our landing spot, a dry patch of farmland where the ground crew were waiting for the touchdown, and we were told to brace ourselves for landing and we all squatted and held on tight, expecting a bumpy ride to our rest position. What happened was quite the contrary, as the basket gracefully set itself upon the paddock, making it even more hard to believe it was carrying the weight of 20 people.
After reluctantly disembarking, it was all hands on deck as pack-up began. The balloon was deflated onto the ground and the youngest passengers hopped on top and rolled over it in an attempt to expel air while the fabric was bunched into the shape of a sausage. It took about two dozen of us to carefully fold and roll the now-deflated balloon away and it became easy to forget just how towering it once was.
The bus ride back to Peterson House was an easy time to daydream as my mind flashed back to the tranquil feeling of gliding peacefully over Wine Country. And while a hearty champagne breakfast on the verandah overlooking the Peterson vineyard made the return to earth a bit easier to swallow, the view from the top is definitely the better perspective.
Photography by Jordan Stent
Balloons Aloft have been operating in the Hunter Valley (just two hours north of Sydney) for more than 35 years and run their sunrise flights year-round.
Visit balloonaloft.com/locations/hunter-valley or call +61 2 4990 9242 for more info.