Touching the Sky: Balloons Over New Zealand
by FERGUS BLAKISTON
The sky is a silent place. Hanging motionless beneath a hot-air balloon 5,500 feet above the ground, with nothing more strenuous to look forward to than a champagne breakfast, and nothing breaking the silence but an occasional burner blast, I realized how quiet it truly is.
Fear of Flying
I’ve taken to the air a few times before, but normally this involves long bouts of sheer terror and ends with me vowing “I’ll never do that again.” Consequently, I never knew the sky could be so tranquil. Until, that is, I tried ballooning in southern New Zealand.
We took off at dawn from a field full of startled sheep (New Zealand has 55 million of them) near the town of Methven, situated in the shadow of the Southern Alps. With the sun just clearing the horizon and a pale moon hanging in the western sky, we had unrolled the balloon on dew-wet grass. Under the careful supervision of George Currie, co-founder of Aoraki Bal-loon Safaris, the balloon was plumped using two powerful fans.
As it took shape, I walked inside the vast spherical auditorium of air. With the sun shining through the multi-colored panels of fabric, it looked like a synthetic church, complete with stained glass windows.
Coming to Life
Once the balloon was swelled with cold air, our pilot Bruce started the burners, heating the air inside to a toasty 210 degrees. Like a giant awakened from slumber, the balloon arose from its prone position, expanding to 93 feet high and 81 feet around its circumference. We climbed into the basket, the tether rope was cast off, and we headed for the sky.
We weren’t the first adventures to thrill from the launch of our hot-air balloon. Enthusiasts have taken to the skies since 1783, when the French Mongolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne, first flew a paper-and-linen contraption (sans passengers) in Annoy, in the south of France. Believing that smoke, rather than hot air, would make the balloon soar, the brothers placed a mixture of hay, wool and horse manure in the balloon’s urn and set it alight. The balloon took off and flew out into the countryside, where it crashed in a field and was promptly attacked by pitchfork-wielding peasants who thought it had come from another world.
Up, Up and Away
After clearing the trees surrounding the field, we floated out over the awakening town. Before takeoff, Bruce had released a small helium-filled “piball” (pilot balloon) to determine the wind direction. It revealed a northeasterly current over Methven, which now carried us gently across rooftops and out over the harvest-bare fields beyond.
Below, the rising sun cast long shadows from hedgerows and trees. Flocks of sheep and herds of dairy cows diminished to Lilliputian size as we gained altitude. To the west, the Southern Alps reared, freshly dusted with snow. Irrigation canals carrying water still blue from alpine glaciers stepped down the plains. Braided rivers — the Rakaia, Ashburton and Rangitata — emerged from their deep valleys and meandered towards the sea, shimmering on the eastern horizon.
By the time we reached our ceiling altitude of 5,500 feet, we had ceased moving. The air was still as a millpond, and the balloon hovered immobile in the sky. Although the ground temperature had been a cool 50 degrees, here it was a mild 75. Though I could make out vague sounds from the Earth below — a bulldozer scoring lines in a blackened stubble field, a squawking flight of spur-winged plovers — we were otherwise encased in an almost tangible silence.
A Bird’s Eye View
As the air in the balloon cooled we began to descend, picking up a breeze which pushed us gently south. On the patchwork plains below, I could make out an intricate network of undulations and depressions: a whole new topo-graphy only visible from above.
This part of Canterbury, Bruce explained, is perfect for ballooning. The plains run unbroken from the sea to the mountains, with no foothills to create updrafts and currents which can seriously affect the performance of a hot-air balloon. Coupled with this is a vast interlocking labyrinth of country roads, making it simple for the chase vehicle (containing the all-important cham-pagne breakfast) to follow the balloon’s flight. Aoraki Balloon Safaris pioneered balloon flights in the area, and Methven is now widely regarded as one of the world’s best ballooning sites.
Walking on Water
Continuing on, we drifted languidly toward the Ashburton River, which flowed along a bed of gray gravel lined with poplars and willows tinged russet and gold. Bruce brought the balloon down until we were skimming a few inches above the riverbed. I could smell the river’s mud and stones and hear the rush of the water. Trout darted in a shimmering pool of aquamarine waves. As we approached the bank, Bruce fired the burners once more. We climbed again, drifting in slow motion at treetop level: another new perspective on the world.
A few minutes later, we touched down in a field of wide-eyed dairy cows. Pulling a rip-cord to open the top of the balloon, Bruce let out the hot air, essential for our descent. As instructed, I jumped out, grabbed a line attached to the top of the balloon and leaned on it hard to topple the balloon so it wouldn’t collapse onto the basket.
In response, the balloon deflated like a sea creature washed up on the shore, its buoyancy and shape gone. It was strangely sad to see the balloon robbed of its beauty and grace, now just a pile of colored fabric lying in a paddock of cow manure.
The mood was quickly lightened by George, arriving in the chase vehicle and resplendent in tuxedo and top hat. He proceeded to hand round champagne and croissants, a ballooning tradition established in the sport’s early days. Since early aeronauts constantly risked being pitchforked to death by the local peasantry whenever they landed, they took to carrying bottles of champagne to prove they were Frenchmen, and not creatures from the netherworlds.
A Reverent Ritual
With a herd of bemused cows as our audience, we knelt in a line on the grass. Bruce anointed our foreheads with champagne and recited the Balloonist’s Prayer:
May the winds welcome you with their softness.
May the sun bless you with his warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well,
that God will join you in your laughter
and set you gently down in the loving arms of Mother Earth.
On our unhurried, graceful ballooning journey, we had touched the sky. In doing so, we had joined the ranks of the elite few who know the beauty and peace of the air. We weren’t aeronauts or aviators. We were Balloonatics.
For more information, contact Aoraki Balloon Safaris: Tel. 011-64-03-302-817 or 011-64-02-533-4861 (mobile); E-mail:calm@ voyager.co.nz; Web site: www. nzballooning.com
For information on additional operators and programs, see the Activity Index under “Ballooning.”