An uplifting ride to remember

It was dark when I woke up. It was 3 a.m. I had not packed woollens for my Australia trip. The temperatures in Darwin were warm, and so far Cairns had been quite alright in the evenings. But we hadn’t pencilled in woollens for some mini-adventures such as these. This last minute decision to go on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure was taken after we reached Cairns and flipped through the colourful tourist brochures. I dressed in layers and hoped it would suffice to stay warm enough.

As Subodh and I stepped out of our Air BnB in front of Hotel Park Regis at 4 in the morning, we heard the gentle whirring of a bus. These guys were here before time! A beaming man stood with a writing pad and a list in his hand. That was Kevin. “I’m looking for a lovely Indian couple who have signed up for sky diving, ” he said in his Aussie drawl. My jaw must have dropped, as I said ‘But….!” He grinned,”I’m joking! I’m here to take you on the hot air balloon ride.” Phew!

Kevin was fun and I was amazed to see the level of his energy at four in the morning. Apparently he was up since 2 am, coordinating between four other vehicles who were gathering tourists to go on the balloon ride on his phone. He was also talking to his friends who were getting the balloons set up for flight. We picked up guests from other hotels in the next fifteen minutes and were on our way to Mareeba.

It was an hour’s drive to Mareeba, which lies to the west of Cairns. Mareeba is on the Atherton Tablelands in tropical North Queensland, a dry area with large open spaces, amenable to hot air ballooning. We had to get there before sunrise. A few videos with safety instructions were played in three or four languages (Apparently Cairns receives loads of tourists from Japan and China as there are direct flights from there).

One of the instructions that was given was that one should keep at least a 24 hour gap after doing a scuba dive and going on a hot air balloon ride because of the possibility of barotrauma. I silently thanked my stars. We had done a dive on the 15th. We had tried to get a reservation for the balloon ride for the 16th, but were not successful. We instead booked a ride for the 17th. We spent some quiet time in Cairns on the 16th and did some local sightseeing. It was a good thing as the scuba dive had left us exhausted. And now this information was just brilliant. Then Kevin told us we could sleep, as it was still dark outside, and not much could be seen.

Kevin stopped in an open ground. It was dark all around us. And suddenly a bright pop of yellow and orange loomed up before our vehicle in the dark, with the hiss of a loud burning flame. It woke us up instantly. The balloons! Over the next twenty minutes, we saw the balloons being filled with hot air, slowly swelling up and rising. The lit up orbs in yellow and orange looked fascinating. And then slowly the sun rose in the horizon.

Kevin allotted us into several groups and told us which balloon we were to board. In the first group, was a father who was going on this balloon ride with his daughter. It was her gift to him on his fiftieth birthday. Subodh and I were in group 2, which meant that we would first chase the balloons across the fields in our van. And then watch them descend. When the first group got off, we would board a balloon. It seemed fun, especially as we were able to see the sunrise. Moreover, hopefully, when we boarded, it would be brighter and warmer.

It was rather exciting to see people climb over and sit in the large wicker baskets. One of the baskets could take 24 people, while the other could take 16. The organizers had taken great pains and decided how to balance the weights. Inside the baskets were separate slots where two people could stand. Apparently wickerbaskets were best suited for this task compared to other material like lightweight metals. But durable wickerbaskets were really expensive.

The balloons took off one by one. And we began the long chase in Kevin’s van. The sun was out now. Throughout, Kevin was communicating with the pilot about the wind speed and direction. And they decided where he was going to land. We reached a large empty field and watched the balloons descend. We were told that we would board the orange balloon with the koala on it. Everyone was told exactly how they were paired for proper seating in the wickerbasket. The boarding part was very systematic. We stood on the side of the balloon. As one of the previous occupants jumped off the basket, a new one would board. That way the weight was balanced. Finally, now that we all had boarded, we grinned for the cameras and were ready for take off.

Our pilot Malcolm was amiable and efficient. We needn’t have worried too much about the chill, as we were close to the burners, and were rather warm. I gave a whoop of delight as the balloon began to rise. We were ‘up above the world so high’! In a few moments, Malcolm pointed out to some white dots at the edges of the fields below. Wild kangaroos, he said. I couldn’t make out if they were kangaroos, until I zoomed in with my camera, and then got all excited about them. At one point, when Malcolm lowered the balloon a little, we scared a kangaroo and it hopped away quickly .

It was great watching the landscape from the skies. We spotted some abandoned cars, a pair of joggers, a creek, a rodeo, and much more from our viewpoint in the balloon. I spotted a herd of cattle going for a drink to a nearby water body, and was struck by how disciplined they were, walking in a straight line. I wondered when humans would learn to be so organized. It was even more fun spotting the other balloons adjacent to us and spotting the shadow of our own balloon on the earth below.

Then it was time to descend. We had been warned about what positions to take when we landed, with our cameras tucked away. And told that the wickerbasket could tumble. We had a bumpy landing. One bump. Two bumps. Three bumps. And then the wickerbasket toppled! No one was hurt, as it was really gentle and we had been told how to hold on to the belts. Subodh and me were now supine in the lower section and we just rolled out! Much easier than climbing over! But that was not all. There was more fun coming our way.

Kevin told us that we were now to participate in folding up the balloon. It was hard work. But it turned out to be great fun with Kevin’s wisecracks and his crazy sense of humour. Once the balloon was folded after much huffing and puffing, the task of packing it was like returning a baby back to the womb! We really couldn’t believe how so big a thing could be packed into that little bag. But we pushed and pushed, till it happened. The wickerbasket and the balloon were loaded on to the trailer, and we all got a ride to the main road clinging on to the edges of the trailer.

What a fantastic way to spend our vacation! The 30 minute ride with the added fun was worth this adventure. Do try it if you get a chance.

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