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