Monday, December 11

Invisible Rivers of Air – A Balloon Adventure

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YarraValley. It’s a name you see on wine bottles. I never knew it was a magic kingdom on Melbourne’s doorstep till I saw it from a balloon – when everything fell into place like the map supplied by Peregrine adventures.

We were picked up at 5.00 am. On the way we asked questions to allay our fears. No, it wasn’t possible for crazed eagles to tear the fabric to shreds. Even with the bottom two thirds gone, the craft would still float.

It was one degree at the rendezvous and the other passengers huddled in idling cars. In the gloom sat a huge basket. Why wicker? Tradition, strength, flexibility and aesthetics.

The valley has its own weather, more fickle than any software. This the crew discussed intently as we drove to our launch site. They were happy to field questions. The balloon cost $80,000. The fabric was rated for 800 hours. Ours was up to Hour 799. Very funny.

The frost glinted and the cow-pats steamed in the first shafts of dawn. All hands dragged the basket from its trailer and the balloon from its bag. There followed a gentle ballet of fans, fire and ropes until the majestic dome billowed above us.

Crouched in launch position, pressed against the strangely comforting padded suede compartment dividers, we ascended in a state of grace. For minutes, only the roar of flames broke the silence. The trees fell away, the topography unfolded and the wind gathered us up.

At last the pilot spoke, pointing out the Dandenongs, Lilydale and the winding Yarra in a single sweep. Ahead of us, three other balloons relayed conditions at their altitudes, giving us a modicum of control over our direction.

Halfway through, we dropped swiftly from 1,000 metres to 10. A colder breeze struck us. Fascinated, we learned we had dipped into an invisible river of air flowing down from the mountains. Caught in its current, we actually began to move backwards.

Too soon the back paddock of Yerrin Station beckoned. Toy cows ambled regally to milking. The wind dropped to a whisper. Altitude: 0.5m. Speed: 1 km/h. A pulse of fire to ease us over a fence. Perfect landing. The closest thing to a flying carpet.

Later, at Debortoli’s winery, our pilot gave us the history of his trade and recited the delightful balloonists blessing. After three champagnes and a hearty cooked breakfast, we enthusiastically cried ‘cheers’ and ‘amen’ to a beautiful adventure we will not forget.

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