Floating over Bhutan, in a hot-air balloon
There is a new way to experience the exotic kingdom - in a hot-air balloon
It is dawn in a remote and majestic valley in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
As my daughter Hannah and I wait in a frosty field in the earlymorning chill, we are served coffee and tea in china mugs laid out on a linen-covered table.
Finally, just as the sun rises over the snowflecked mountains to the east, the preparations are completed. Six of us climb somewhat apprehensively into a large wicker basket.
Then, with one last blast of flaming gas into the great red canopy above us, we begin to float upwards.
Our team of young helpers cheer. The inaugural flight of the world’s highest commercial hot-air balloon service is under way.
For the next hour, a light breeze propels us gently down the majestic Phobjika valley and, as the sun burns away the mist, we revel in the scenery unfolding all around us.
On both sides, the valley’s forested flanks - the lair of leopards, bears and wild boar - rise steeply to the skyline.
To the north, the 400year-old, multi-tiered Gangtey Goenpa monastery stands on a ridge, dominating the valley physically and spiritually.
We drift serenely southwards, following the silver ribbon of the Nakey Chuu river as it snakes through bogs and water meadows.
We float over goldroofed temples and small white stupas, over clusters of colourful prayer flags and white-washed Bhutanese farmhouses with wonderfully ornate wooden windows, over the rich brown earth of freshly tilled potato fields.
We pass over horses, cows, the odd shaggy yak and a pack of feral dogs that bark furiously at the huge translucent globe high in the sky above them. Knots of early-rising schoolchildren and the odd peasant farmer stand and watch, amazed, the apparition gliding over their heads.
The breeze picks up as the valley narrows, and so does our speed. Our pick-up truck is far behind, jolting along the rutted track that is the valley’s only road.
Far below, our helpers are splashing through bogs, laughing and panting as they desperately try to keep up. We progress so smoothly, so silently, that it seems the earth is moving, not us.
Eventually, Mr Cary Crawley, a professional balloon pilot from England, brings us gently down. The basket bumps three times along a grassy meadow and ends up on its side.
Future passengers will be greeted with champagne and taken away on horses, but not us - this being merely the experimental first flight.
Nobody minds. We’re all exhilarated - even the two officials from Bhutan’s civil aviation department who have come to inspect a form of transport they know nothing about. We climb out, shake hands, high- five and take pictures.
“I told you we’d do it - and we did,” Mr Brett Melzer declares triumphantly as he embraces Ms Khin Omar Win, his wife and business partner.
Their elation is entirely understandable, for the flight is the culmination of a decade-long venture that can be described only as quixotic.
Ms Win, who was raised in Britain, met Mr Melzer, the footloose son of an Australian oilman based in Singapore, after she returned to her native Myanmar in 1997 to work for the UN Development Programme.
Together, they pioneered balloon rides over Myanmar’s famous Bagan temple complex.
As “Balloons over Bagan” flourished, they branched out, opening a luxury lodge in the jungle of northern Myanmar that was accessible only by air.
In 2009, the regime crony who owned the airline that served Malikha Lodge, forced them to sell it to him by suspending all flights.
Undaunted, the pair resurrected an idea they had shelved while building the lodge - ballooning in Bhutan, another exotic and little-known country that was just opening up to the world.
They employed Mr Crawley to explore the crumpled kingdom of soaring mountains and plunging valleys created when the Indian subcontinent collided with Eurasia.