As we rise above the bush, we see the sun’s rays slowly peeking over the horizon. Soon enough it’s blazing above our heads and showering the entire horizon in gold. The bush beneath us takes on a different dimension as the gum trees transform into dark green dots under our feet and rivers slither like snakes. The occasional bellow of the hot air pierces the tranquility, reminding us that we are floating mid-air in nothing more than a wicker basket and a balloon.
We are flying above Alice Springs on a hot air balloon, surrounded by swathes of wilderness. This part of Central Australia is a vast expanse of reddish brown desert studded with patches of yellow-green spinifex and gum trees, home to no more than a few Aboriginal communities and wildlife. There are no big land masses or big structures, just sprawling bushes all over the horizon. Atop a hot air balloon, it’s easy to get a sense of the vastness of the Australian outback.
Up, Up and Away
Our hot air balloon flight had started earlier that morning, at the crack of dawn. It was still completely dark when we got to our launch site; the sky was studded with millions of stars and the temperatures were well below 10 degrees Celsius. These hot air balloons can only rise in the early hours of dawn because of the colder temperatures, explaining why flights only occur in the early morning. Besides, temperatures in this desert skyrocket to a scary 38 degrees Celsius at noon, making it close to impossible to fly anytime after 7am.
Shivering in the cold desert air, we helped our pilot Ron and his colleague Byron set up for our flight. The enormous balloon is as tall as a 14-story building, so everyone had to chip in to help unfold it and set it to its take-off position. Just as Ron and Byron fired up the balloon, all 20 of us hopped in quickly and watched in excitement. As soon as we lifted off, the balloon rose slowly above the canopy of the bush. Despite being in a group of 20, there was a soothing silence as we all soaked in the view around us.
[quote]“That is why hot air ballooning is such a great way to see the outback. Not only do you feel the magnitude of the desert, you also get a really different perspective from here. Just see for yourself and you know what I mean,” Ron explained. [/quote]
The flight was slow and relaxing, so much so that we barely noticed that we were almost 1,300 feet above the ground. At one point, we all gasped out loud as a tree came within inches away from us, but we barely felt a thing as our basket floated over it. Due to the wind conditions, we bobbed up and down mid-air, at times floating so close to the bush canopy that we felt we were almost landing, while other times we were so high we could almost see the mountains in the distance.
“You’re about to see me spit, not just because it’s fun but because it’s my way to test the wind direction and speed,” Ron said. Apparently he wasn’t joking. A small lump of spit could determine where the wind was blowing from and how fast we were going. Ron also shared that the maximum legal height for hot air ballooning is 10,000 feet but the height best for viewing is anything below 1,000 feet. We didn’t know how the view was like from 10,000 feet, but from our vantage point, the view was definitely spectacular.
Above the Clouds
As we glided over the bush, we could see rugged, colossal mountain ranges looming in the near distance. “That is part of the West MacDonnell Ranges, and below us, is the Owen Springs cattle station. It is over 3,000 sq km and covers a big part of this area.” I gasped, that is almost 30 times the size of my home country.
I was strangely surprised to see how green the landscape was. Based on our previous conversations with local experts, we knew that Australia’s Red Centre is nowhere near empty. It is home to hundreds of different species of plant life, but I had no idea it would be packed with this much vegetation. From this height, I got a refreshing perspective of the desert: from the sand dunes to the amount of vegetation.
“That is why hot air ballooning is such a great way to see the outback. Not only do you feel the magnitude of the desert, you also get a really different perspective from here. Just see for yourself and you know what I mean,” Ron explained.
Ron has been a hot air balloon pilot for six years but he’s still as serious and passionate about his job as day one. “Many people think it’s easy and relaxing to control hot air ballooning, but we pilots have to be very careful. All your lives are in our hands. There is no room for errors.”
His colleague Byron is equally enthusiastic about hot air ballooning. Byron’s parents had set up Outback Hot Air Balloons a few decades ago when they first moved here. He took his first flight when he was just two years ago, and got his pilot license at the tender age of 16. Today, he can’t imagine his life without ballooning. Outback Hot Air Balloon remains the one and only ballooning company in the Alice Springs region.
Back on land, Byron pulled out a few bottles of champagne and popped them open to celebrate the end of our flight. We all clinged glasses and cheered to the spectacular flight we just had – with beautiful images of the outback etched in our mind.