Above and Beyond
Part One: Above
This is the day we have been waiting for, or as Simon put it, “Su-u-u-per Wednesday, the most anticipated day of the trip.” Thus, when the wake up call comes shortly after four a.m., I jump out of bed and get dressed. Kathy, my roommate, does the same, and soon we are in the lobby of the hotel.
A bus with a company logo painted on its side arrives and twenty of our group board and select seats. After a few miles, past the airport, we leave the pavement and drive down a dirt road. Dust infiltrates the bus. Finally we slow and pull up next to other vehicles. One of the trucks has a flat tire and we wait on the bus while the men finish changing it.
“If you want to help,” says our driver, “you’re welcome.” He is not referring to changing tires, but to helping the crew inflate a giant hot air balloon. Still dark, the scene is lit only by headlights, the temperature cool but not uncomfortable. The crew on the flat across from us already has its balloon out of the bag and stretched on the ground. Behind us, and also on the far side of the road, the second crew pulls its balloon and straightens the straps and ropes and cords.
Our crew unloads the wicker passenger basket and lays it on its side. A stout strap fastens it to the bus. We are given safety instructions: “Do NOT walk between the bus and the basket!” Crewmen straighten, adjust, pull and flatten the balloon. They crawl inside, making sure everything is ready.
Across the way, I see both balloons in various stages of inflation. A huge fan is turned on to inflate our balloon with cold air. A crewman turns to me, “Do you want to help?” I spring forward, anxious to be a part of this adventure. He instructs me to hold one side of the balloon’s neck (or “skirt” as it’s called in balloon-ese) shoulder high so the fan can direct air into the balloon envelope. Again they crawl inside, tinkering with who knows what in the darkness.
Gullible holding open the balloon skirt for inflation.
Julia Hart photo
I hear a loud rushing noise from across the road and see flames from the propane burner of the first balloon. Soon, the same noise comes from the second balloon. We are a long way from that point, I think, as cold air rushes past me into the cavernous shroud of nylon. Eventually, Eric turns on a burner and hot flames plunge into the darkness through the fire-retardant skirt. I see light on the eastern horizon now, and can make out figures outside the area lit by headlights.
Again and again Eric shoots short blasts from the burners, and the balloon begins to stand upright. A crewman runs to the wicker basket and pushes it onto its bottom. Per instruction all twenty of us rush to four points on the basket and climb in. The basket is untethered from the bus, a blast of fire escapes from the burners, and we begin to ascend. In the distance, the other two balloons are drifting in the morning dimness.
About to launch. Photo by Outback Ballooning
I look down at the vehicles at our launching site. They are preparing to follow us to our anticipating landing site. Eric keys a two-way radio and announces to flight control at the airport that three balloons are launched and gives the approximate direction of travel. The message is acknowledged. This is, I think, a morning ritual for Outback Ballooning.
Except for the occasional noise from the burners, the flight is silent. We rise to a thousand feet, slowly sink, more flames, rise again. The sun appears, lighting the desert with orange, then golden light. Sunrise in the Outback. Kristy photo
We see cattle tracks on the uninhabited land below us, then wild kangaroos.
We float northwards. Below, near a patch of scrub trees, I spot three kangaroos, one obviously a young joey. It appears anxious, hopping one way and then the other, pausing to look at its mother. “Shouldn’t we run?” it appears to be asking. Mom is unperturbed. She’s seen these large orange UFOs before.
Eventually we are given landing instructions: hold on tight, flex your knees, be prepared for three bumps. That is exactly what happens as Eric pulls the cord and air escapes through the valve in the top of the envelope. We climb out, the envelope is laid out straight, and volunteers help to roll it and stuff it back into its bag. We are exhilarated. This has been worth every cent, but more is to come as we are bussed back to Alice Springs and let out onto the park-like grounds of Alice Springs Resort.
We are served baked chicken legs and champagne, the traditional foods associated Kangaroos, Kristy Hart photo
with hot air balloons. Then Quiche Lorraine and orange juice, cut fruit, chocolate cake, cheese and crackers. It is the best breakfast we have enjoyed on the trip.
Soon our coach arrives with the 19 members of the group who did not opt for this side trip, those who slept in until 7 a.m. and missed a thrilling ride in the sunrise hour of the Outback.
Most of us find empty rows on the coach, and settle in for naps. Packing the balloon. Kathy pix
We have a six hour coach journey ahead of us today, with a couple short stops. Sleep comes late for me. My mind is replaying the morning, too vivid with color and subtle drama to allow it to slow down and slumber.
Next: Part Two: Beyond!