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The only sound that could be heard was the cooling down of metal, really hot metal. It croaked and stuttered as it took a break from the fiery furnace bursting out gaseous energy into the enormous rainbow-coloured balloon that floated above us and kept us floating above the ground.
The breaks from the hot air bursts allowed the calm of the mid-morning air 2000 feet over the earth absorb into my skin. The gentle breeze, refreshing on my skin after the heat enveloping me from the gas burners beside me and the scalding burn of the rising sun.
The silence took hold of me as I breathed and watched the beauty of the world go by as we floated over the valley. I would like to say we glided, but the air was so still we really did not move very far. 1.8 miles in an hour to be exact, a little faster than what I could walk.
But, we almost didn’t even make it up. This was our second attempt at hot air ballooning over the Hunter Valley with Cloud 9 flights. We tried 3 weeks ago, but it was cancelled due to unforeseen weather conditions. You won’t have me arguing about that decision.
This time the 4:30am recorded message told us that we were ready to go and so with sweaters on we stepped out into the pre-dawn chilly darkness to start inflating the balloon to take to the skies.
The cast of twenty eagerly stood around with cameras clicking as we watched the three-man crew get to work on inflating the balloon. Industrial fans were set up to blow cold air directly into the balloon to inflate it before blasts of hot air were sent in to get it rising.
Just as the first bursts of hot air began to fire into the half inflated balloon, the wind changed direction slightly and turned the balloon back into itself and we watched as, not just our balloon, but the three around us began to crumble.
“There’s a storm at Barrington Tops, that has sent an unforeseen wind change our way. Wind does that. Usually we can work around it but not from this spot. We’ll end up in the town centre. It looks like we won’t be flying from here today.”
Oh man, not again.
“But don’t worry, we will pack up the balloon and move to another location where we can take off from, with better flying conditions.”
We received our instructions on how to pack up a balloon and we all got to work pushing out the air and rolling the balloon back up. It was pretty heavy work, and we all looked on with a sinking feeling as the sun rose and peeked its smiling face out from behind the clouds, casting a soft glow over the Hunter Valley. It beat us too it. We missed what would have been the highlight of a hot air balloon ride.
John, our dapper Geroge Clooney-look-alike, pilot said it was one of the worst pre-flight preparations he had ever experienced in his 25 years of flying. And the wind nearly got us again, at our second attempt at inflation at our new location.
Thankfully, John is an expert at what he does, and quickly read the changing wind conditions and swung the balloon around to catch the wind in the right place.
Our false start was just another lesson for us on how we cannot rely on or control Mother Nature. She sets the rules and constantly reminds us of how we need to let go of control; we can never totally control anything. Things will happen that will get in the way and take what our pre-conceived ideas or rules had already defined what the experience would be.
We could have let these rules that weren’t followed by Mother Nature destroy our day, as we did miss the sunrise from the balloon, or we could let it go and appreciate the experience for what it really was.
We let it go.
I wasn’t at all bothered that we just floated, and I didn’t feel as if we missed out on anything at all. As we slowly rotated around in the balloon and took in the amazing views of the Brokenback mountains guarding the vineyards that stretched for miles across the valley floor, I felt extremely lucky and at peace.
There is something so calming about watching the world from a balloon. There is no noise of life, but you can see it moving slowly beneath you in muted form.
Across the valley, another balloon hovered majestically above the treetops, echoing ourselves in its form. I knew exactly what we looked like as we moved up and down and eventually plopped back onto Earth.
I was a little nervous before reaching for the skies, but once we left ground the thing that amazed me was that I felt absolutely no fear. It felt as if hot air ballooning was the most natural thing in the world to do; that being suspended in an open air basket so high above the ground was something that I did every day. If only I felt that same absence of fear in a plane.
I am sure John’s track record of being the safest pilot in Sydney and the Hunter Valley, with a 100% safety record, helps to make you feel a little more comfortable. He has three times as many flying hours as any other pilot and was selected to fly with the Flying Pictures- the F1team of ballooning.
Not only was John an experienced and in-control pilot, he was vibrant and fun. His energy was contagious and was never short of a ballooning story or a joke to entertain us with. John is a clear example of someone who totally loves what he does. You can’t hide that enthusiasm.
Cloud 9 Hot Air Balloon Flights have been operating for 18 years and is the only completely Australian owned company flying in Sydney and the Hunter Valley. You may recognize the name and balloons from the recent Oprah adventure in Australia. Twenty-six of her lucky audience members took a hot air balloon flight over the Hunter Valley. Cloud 9 Balloons have also received industry awards such as Best Balloon Flight company and Best Adventure tour.
As we made our descent down over the steel-poled vineyards and cows loping to a nearby waterhole, I tried to will the balloon to keep on going for a little longer. Mostly because, I couldn’t really see a big open patch of grass for us to land on.
The power lines seemed to surround us as we approached closer to the earth. John had us get in our landing positions and before I knew it he had circumnavigated us artfully on to a small paddock behind to a farmhouse. Sheep and alpacas gathered to watch, as with the soft plop that would come if you jumped down from a five foot wall, we were back on land.
Ballooning is not a major adrenaline rush. From beginning to end, it is soft and gentle. High on my bucket list, and now checked off, I would have to say it is one of the most spectacular and peaceful ways to move above the world, especially to see these famous wine regions of Australia. Cloud 9 balloon flights are sure to make your ballooning experience a great one.
And of course, there is no more perfect way to end a hot air ballooning adventure over the Hunter Valley then with a glass of bubbly champagne. (or Orange juice if you prefer)
Hot Air Ballooning with Cloud 9 Balloons
Where: Flights over the Hunter Valley, and Hawkesbury Valley, Sydney
When: Mid week and weekend flights available. Check website for days and times
Cost: Flights and Packages start at $269
Many thanks to Claire and John of Cloud 9 Balloon Flights for taking us on this sponsored flight. It was truly a wonderful experience.