Sitting on the sofa in that hotel room was like being a condemned man in his cell, waiting for the summons to die at dawn.The balloon company’s representative would soon come to take us to the launch site. It was 4.30 a.m.
It was important to start so early because the winds are gentler and more predictable at that time of day.
At the appointed hour, 5.15, a hand rapped quietly on the door. We departed in a minibus that still smelt of the showroom. Somehow that gave me a sense of confidence as we rattled off into the unknown.
A lot of people were doing balloon rides that day, and we all congregated in a hotel for a free buffet breakfast. ‘Free’ in this sense meant ‘free for all’. As we were one of the last to arrive, almost all the breakfast things had already been ripped to pieces like free wildebeest carcasses on a hyena package tour. In any case, I could only manage a cup of black tea, lost in my thoughts.
Would I panic? Would I lose my nerve? Although not afraid of heights or a sufferer from vertigo, I would never go to the edge of a cliff, nor look down over a ravine. Wasn’t a balloon ride far more dangerous than that?
“Keep calm,” I told myself. “It doesn’t matter how high the balloon goes up. You feel safe at twenty meters above the ground, but that drop would kill you. From the point of view of survival, it makes no difference if you’re twenty or six hundred meters up in the air. You just have to forget your worries and enjoy the ride.”
Eventually, the operation began. We left in our allotted groups for the launch site. With no sense of irony, the minibus passed the town cemetery along the way. One of the graves was open, and we all joked that you could reserve it as part of your flight.
I was wondering what I would do if the balloon were to come down. I imagined myself waiting in the basket until the last possible moment and then leaping out to break my fall, performing a series of Matrix-style horizontal rolls. Later I learned that everyone else had been having similar fantasies.
On arrival, we saw the balloons, slumped like vast odalisques on the ground. They were being inflated one by one, and we watched as the team scurried around, pulling ropes, adjusting valves and shouting orders.
It still wasn’t clear to me how you got into the balloon. Was there a sort of door on hinges ? No: you clamber over the side using square footholds that have been built into the basket. I was one of the first ones on board which meant my head was right next to the pilot, and the jet of flame roared worryingly close to my ear.
Once the dozen of us collapsed into the basket, the pilot gave us a safety talk. At one point, he cryptically pointed at Maria and I asking “is this your friend?” Puzzled, I said “yes”. The pilot needed to know this to teach the landing procedure. You squat down in the basket with knees bent whilst grasping a pair of handholds. Your ‘friend’ then does the same whilst sitting in your lap. As we were pressed together, I thought “Well, if we weren’t’ friends at the beginning, we certainly are now.”
Safety briefing over, our ride was about to begin.
It was nothing like I expected. I had expected to be very aware that there was nothing beneath my feet but a whicker frame. Actually, it feels completely solid underfoot. The balloon also moves in a graceful way. It sort of hovers over the ground, and feels more like travelling in a silent elevator than a plane or a car. There is no shaking at all. After a while, you’re barely aware of your precarious position up in the sky.
“‘How do you control it?” I asked our pilot. “How do you move it from left to right, west to east?”
“I can’t!” He cheerfully replied. “There is no wheel on a balloon. We just go wherever the wind takes us.”
The best you can do is move the balloon up or down in order to catch the right wind movement. This then pushes you in the direction you’d like to go. It is a very inexact science. Some sixty-minute rides only cover a mile, whereas others traverse whole canyons.
Our day was perfect for flying. In the beginning, we drifted over the ground at a height of about thirty meters. I was disappointed as many other balloons were high above us, and I thought that we would not be doing the same. There was no need for alarm on that count. At one moment, our pilot said “go up” and we began an extraordinary ascent.
Soaring into the sky, we parted from the earth with a collective squeal/howl/gulp/whimper. Following the thermals, we drifted over the weird Rose Canyon where people had been living in cave villages for millennia. The valley was dry and sparse and we slipped along ravines and gullies, hovered over sheer cliffs, and almost touched the tops of the fairy chimneys that dot that lunar landscape.
The day before, many flights had been cancelled due to strong winds. As a result, on our day, hundreds of other balloons were in the sky, which sounds like it destroyed the effect. Actually, these added to the excitement as a whole dream-like world of coloured bubbles bobbed and weaved around us. Out in the distance, some balloons seemed to touch each other, although our pilot was never in danger of that. He could direct the balloon with incredible accuracy, so much so that we could wait, sitting in ring of rocks like an egg in an eggcup with tree branches almost scratching the bottom of the basket. Nothing came near his balloon.
Some people were nervous then, seeing how close we were to the treetops.
“Is this your first flight?” Our pilot asked one of them.
The passenger nodded.
“Mine too!” Our pilot grinned in reply.
I later realised that his friendly patter was a key part of the trip. It all helps to assuage the fears of travellers.
As one mark of his expertise, at the end, he landed our balloon exactly in position on the trailer. Interestingly, he never had to repeat his safety briefing. Everyone got into the landing position several hundred meters before we touched terra firma. It wasn’t clear whether this was because we feared for our lives or because people were keen to get close once again to their ‘friend’.
The balloon ride was expensive (€130 per person), but it did come with a glass of champagne to celebrate at the end, even though it was only 8 a.m.! It’s also worth remembering one thing. You don’t pay that money for them to take you up in the air. You pay it so they get you back down to earth safely again.