We once lived for 12 years in a large, crumbling house on the semi-rural fringe of west Auckland. The house was situated across the road from a large park, and on winter mornings we were occasionally awakened by the sound of rushing air in sudden, loud bursts. For the longest time we didn’t know what was going on because the park was encompassed by a tall hedge of bamboo. Finally, one morning we glimpsed a large hot air balloon floating in the pre-dawn light. With the mystery solved, we became able to register the sound and quickly drift back into deep sleep (this was our sleepy 20s after all) but usually not before I murmured something about how I would love to go ballooning one day.
In July 2013 we spent a few days relaxing in Cairns, Far North Queensland. Colin organised the whole holiday, including a couple of surprise activities. One night he informed me that we had to get up at 4am the next morning. I suspected we were going fishing, and while I like a bit of fishing now and then, a 4am start seemed to predict an entire day of the kind of hardcore open-seas fishing that Colin loves. I was further underwhelmed when he told me not to take my bikini as there would be no time for swimming or sunbathing. Whatever…I packed the bikini anyway, along with a good novel and plenty of sunscreen, resolving to enjoy the day as much as I could.
After being picked up from the hotel at 4.30am we drove inland towards Mareeba (strange) and I finally figured it out when we passed a roadside billboard advertising ballooning. Much to my excitement, we soon arrived at the launch site operated by Hot Air Australia. It was still dark and three gigantic glowing orbs lit up the surrounding fields. After a quick safety briefing we climbed in with 14 other passengers (ours was a huge balloon) and lifted off the ground.
I knew that it would be quiet up in the air without a motor but I hadn’t expected it to be so perfectly still. The balloon travels with the air current, so no matter how high or fast you go, you only feel the breeze on your face when the pilot changes direction, moving to a different air current. The feeling was of being both weightless and suspended. We flew effortlessly high, over 2,500 feet, but it was all so magical and gentle that the height barely registered.
As we came into land we could see wallabies racing through the fields, and we flew so close over a house that we could have easily seen in the windows if the curtains had been open. We felt a few small bumps as the balloon touched, lifted, touched and finally settled. After a few final photos, we bundled back into the car, driving off to breakfast and coffee.
While ballooning was the high point of the trip, we also spent a wonderful day out on the Great Barrier Reef (including a helicopter ride over the reef), another day driving through the Atherton Tablelands (buckwheat crepes for breakfast at the Kuranda Markets, divine dried banana dipped in dark chocolate at Coffee Works, and rustic lunch at Flynn’s in Yungaburra), and another day exploring Port Douglas and its surrounding villages. All things considered, it was the perfect mid-winter break.