A fresh start

Barry Oliver takes an early hot-air bal­loon ride over the west­ern sub­urbs of Syd­ney

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Long way down: One of Bal­loon Aloft’s newly launched Home­bush flights over west­ern Syd­ney; de­spite the tan­gle of streets and houses there’s no short­age of land­ing sites in the sub­urbs T’S 4.30am and I have two wake-up calls de­mand­ing ur­gent at­ten­tion: one on my mo­bile, the other on the room phone. The most ter­ri­fy­ing part about bal­loon­ing has to be the early start. But it could be worse. I’m stay­ing at Ac­cor’s new Pull­man Ho­tel at Syd­ney’s Olympic Park, where my fel­low bal­loon­ists are meet­ing. Oth­er­wise my rise-and­shine time could have been at least an hour ear­lier.

Down­stairs, every­one has lit­er­ally risen to the oc­ca­sion and the talk is of wind: it’s ex­pected to pick up in the af­ter­noon. I’m handed a safety brief­ing card, a bit like those on planes, ex­cept there’s no men­tion of a life­jacket or whis­tle for at­tract­ing at­ten­tion.

Th­ese Mon­day to Fri­day one-hour Home­bush flights have just been in­tro­duced by Bal­loon Aloft, which also op­er­ates out of Cam­den (south­west of Syd­ney), Can­berra, NSW’s Hunter Val­ley and Queens­land’s Gold Coast.

Af­ter a 20-minute drive we release a small test bal­loon and watch in­tently as it dis­ap­pears from view at the rate of 60m a minute. A patch of grass in Rooty Hill gets the nod as take-off site (there’s a choice of about 20) but I’m more wor­ried about the land­ing. My pre­vi­ous bal­loon­ing ex­pe­ri­ences have been over open ter­ri­tory such as the desert in Alice Springs and Colorado ski coun­try but here it’s con­sid­er­ably more built-up.

Our pi­lot Matthew Scaife has the laid­back de­meanour that seems to go with the job; he breezily as­sures us there are heaps of po­ten­tial land­ing sites. We should re­lax, he flies the hot-air bal­loon more of­ten than he drives his car.

It’s all hands on deck to spread out the 35m-high bal­loon, or en­ve­lope as the ex­perts call it, so they can cor­rect novices such as me. The bas­ket is the largest I’ve seen and eas­ily ac­com­mo­dates our group of 11 in a num­ber of cosy com­part­ments.

Soon Ju­lia Delta In­dia is up, up and, well, drift­ing over the M7 mo­tor­way not far off the ground. Shouldn’t we be soar­ing? But Scaife is to­tally un­con­cerned and de­lighted when driv­ers start hoot­ing their horns and wav­ing. I won­der if they are telling us to get out of the way. Scaife says the pre­vi­ous week one driver was so en­grossed in the bal­loon that he ran into the car in front.

We’re trav­el­ling at about 8km/h, re­ports our pi­lot, whose main task seems to be fir­ing the burn­ers, which let out an im­pres­sive whoosh. Apart from that, we are at peace with the world at 600m and climb­ing. We’ve no co-pi­lot and I ask Scaife what hap­pens if he ex­pires or falls out (same thing re­ally). Any­one can fly a bal­loon, he says, just burn when the houses get big­ger’’.

As we float over East­ern Creek Race­way our speed hits a suitably sporty 30km/h but the higher we go the slower we seem to be mov­ing. As we pop through a thin bank of cloud it turns chilly for 30 sec­onds, then it’s coats off again. A cou­ple of the bet­ter-pre­pared among us pro­duce binoc­u­lars.

When some­one shows in­ter­est in a quarry (peo­ple can be weird) we drop in for a closer in­spec­tion. Yes, it’s a quarry, with trucks like gi­ant Tonka toys. Scaife, who tells us his fa­ther also pi­loted bal­loons, spends three months of the year fly­ing in Bri­tain. There, un­like Aus­tralia, where there are so many ther­mals, it’s pos­si­ble to bal­loon in the af­ter­noon as well as early morn­ing (some­thing to do with heat­ing of the earth’s sur­face).

He says he loves bal­loon­ing be­cause no two flights are the same. The early starts don’t bother him: In­stead of a nine-to-five job, I’ve got a five-to-nine one.’’ Over Prospect Reser­voir at 1200m (maybe we should re­con­sider the life­jack­ets), we spot an­other bal­loon in the dis­tance. Prob­a­bly a train­ing flight, Scaife com­ments, with a pro­fes­sional eye. Too small for any­thing else. He likens bal­loon­ing to sail­ing since we are mostly at the mercy of the wind, though he can turn us by tug­ging on ropes. At the mo­ment there is a westerly wind, though that’s ex­pected to change.

We’re a mixed group. The ride is a birth­day sur­prise for one man, who tells us he was ini­tially not happy to be wo­ken by his wife at 4am. I thought I de­served a liein on my birth­day.’’ An­other passenger, from Eng­land, is on the fi­nal day of a two-week hol­i­day.

There’s a flurry of ex­cite­ment when we spot a rab­bit and more ac­tiv­ity as res­i­dents, many still in py­ja­mas, come out of their homes to wave. Their dogs join in with a vol­ley of barks. We’re per­fectly po­si­tioned to spy on early-morn­ing life in the sub­urbs. It strikes me that voyeurism and bal­loon­ing could go hand in hand.

Fair­field gets the go-ahead as our land­ing site and Scaife re­lays this in­for­ma­tion, with map ref­er­ences, to the ground crew, who are fol­low­ing with the trailer. But find­ing the right spot is eas­ier said than done and po­ten­tial sites come and go with reg­u­lar­ity.

Fi­nally, the bas­ket brushes some trees, skims over lamp­posts and we’re down on a small piece of waste­land with knee-high grass. Scaife apol­o­gises: We usu­ally land on nicely mown play­ing fields.’’

Res­i­dents turn out to watch the show as we roll the en­ve­lope and lift the bas­ket on to the trailer. This is a bit like hard work but our re­ward comes back at the Pull­man with a flight cer­tifi­cate and con­grat­u­la­tory glass of cham­pagne, the tra­di­tional bal­loon­ist’s break­fast. Who needs ba­con and eggs? Barry Oliver was a guest of Bal­loon Aloft and the Pull­man Ho­tel.

Check­list

Overnight ac­com­mo­da­tion at the Pull­man with the hot-air bal­loon flight and cham­pagne break­fast starts at $530 a per­son; $830 for two. The ho­tel, which opened on Septem­ber 1, has a spe­cial launch rate from $235 a room, a night, in­clud­ing break­fast for two; avail­able to March 31. More: www.ac­corho­tels.com.au. The bal­loon flight is $295 a per­son and op­er­ates Mon­day to Fri­day. Op­tional post-flight break­fast at the ho­tel is $27.50. More: 1800 028 568; www.bal­loon­aloft.com.

New on the block: Pull­man Ho­tel, Olympic Park

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