The Aussie Journals, Ch. 6
Above and Beyond
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.
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 rush to the four points on the basket where we 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.
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
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 a resort.
We are served baked chicken legs and champagne, the traditional foods associated 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. 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.
The camels got me up. No way was I going to miss this.
“The best five dollars you’ll ever spend,” promises Simon. He hasn’t led us astray yet. Off the coach I go and into, of course, the gift shop, where I plop down my five bucks Australian and return to the paddock outside.
I wander around, looking at both saddled and unsaddled camels, then find the place where the camels rides begin. Two saddled camels kneel on the ground, wearing contraptions that look an awful lot like two saddles with the camel’s hump in between. These are dromedaries, one-humped Arabian camels.
Oh, no, I think. They can’t possibly carry two people at once. I examine the camels’ legs, notice the thick bones but the apparent absence of meaty muscle. Their hindquarters seem to be emaciated when I compare them to the rears of horses and moose. The feet are extraordinarily wide, for floatation on sand.
One camel seems to agree with me about carrying two people. She lets out a long, bellowing moan as she surveys the crowd before her. She moans again. Laughter. Again. For obvious reasons, her name is Mona, and she is a very vocal camel. Two well-proportioned Americans climb aboard Mona and another two on the accompanying beast. My knees hurt in empathy as the two animals lurch onto their front feet, then onto their rear feet. A handler leads them around the large paddock.
Visions of Lawrence of Arabia fill my head. “’Orenz,” I cry when two of my friends ride past on their camel. “’Orenz, ’Orenz!”
I am at the end of the line and feel overwhelmingly grateful that my camel has to heft only me as it stands. I am full of questions as the camel is led around the ring.
“How much can they carry?”
“Four hundred kilograms,” comes the answer. That shut me up. I feel pretty proud of myself when I can convert centigrade and kilometers into something close to the correct ballpark, but kilograms are beyond me. Later I learn it converts to 880 pounds!
“Why the cord in the nostril?”
“We can’t use bits and bridles on camels as they chew their cud. This cord merely pierces outer flare of the nostril, and doesn’t hurt.” I wasn’t sure about that, but I notice the gentle touch of the handler and say no more.
My camel goes down on its front knees, then down at the rear, its legs underneath itself, and placidly begins to chew its cud. I dismount, pat my camel a thank you, and my heart is racing. As Simon had promised, it was the best five dollars I’ve ever spent.
Back aboard the coach, we are off to the Yalara Resort, located on the outskirts of the famed Ayers Rock, deep within the Australian Outback.
June 2, 2008