Everyone has a bucket list in some way. Maybe it’s written down, shared with a friend or just something you know you want to do in the future. I’m no different to anyone else and have things I want to do – big and small. Today I ticked off a biggie on my long list – hot air ballooning over a major city – Melbourne. I’ve ballooned before, interestingly enough, almost 25 years ago to the day, in the Serengeti in 1994. Over a city though would take it up a notch. Making it more wonderful and memorable was that I shared this experience with my daughter who turned 21 a few days prior.
A few things to note – I’m a Melbourne girl. This is my home town and I’ve lived in and around here all my life, as well as other places around the world. It’s been voted the Most Liveable City from 2011 to 2017 The bonus for Melbourne is that there aren’t many major cities around the world that will allow hot air balloon tours, so this is another reason to take it up. Plus, I discovered that hot air ballooning over Melbourne has been acknowledged by the Victorian Tourism Awards Hall of Fame as a ‘must do’ experience for 2016, 2017 and 2018 (at the time of writing), which begs to offer it’s a worthwhile thing to do.
This picture above was cleverly taken by Chris who has the ability to manipulate a camera and video that is attached to the balloon, into a variety of positions. Consequently, he can capture these unique photos and give us a wonderful memento and perspective of what WE looked like in the basket.
I’m one of those people who like to do their homework before undertaking this sort of thing, so after a lot of Googling, review reading and speaking to a few contacts within the industry, one name consistently came up – The BalloonMan.
Chris Shorten is the face of BalloonMan, Chief Pilot and certified by CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority). What he doesn’t know about ballooning over Melbourne isn’t worth knowing. With over 3000+ pilot hours under your belt and ballooning since 1997, I imagine he’s seen it all. From the moment the day started, his talents shone through from safety briefing right to farewells after our buffet breakfast.
Although Melbourne is blessed with consistent air currents, it’s still no easy task to navigate a basket of people across the skies. There is a lot to take into account such as the complexities of wind speed, other aircraft flight paths, current meteorological changes, liaising with the ground crew – even down to the weight distribution within the basket. Chris is not just your pilot but a guide on what can be seen high over Melbourne. Pointing out landmarks, trains pulling into stations, well-known buildings, even balloons on the horizon that were floating over the Yarra Valley.
My excitement had me awake a good half hour before the scheduled wakeup call but knowing what we were about to undertake meant I was more than ready to sacrifice a little sleep. The pickup for the flight was from the Grand Hyatt in a very comfortable minibus. Along the way, Chris gave us our safety briefing and talked about what to expect. After some liaison between the Chris and ground crews, the launch site was changed to a ‘better’ launch site – Yarra Bend. Although on any day the starting point can be at a number of places across Melbourne. Remember, flights are at the mercy of the wind and conditions. Therefore, there can be no real certainty about the start and finish points although the breadth of experience of BalloonMan means they have a well-researched plan on how things will go on the day.
As we slowly drove into a large empty field, with three other balloon companies behind us, the anticipation was starting to build. Our balloon had eight excited passengers plus the pilot and Daryl was today’s ground crew. I know in other countries they have balloon baskets that can hold 20 people. 10 is the maximum with BalloonMan and I found this made is a much more personalised and intimate experience.
The balloon was hauled off the trailer, unpacked from its cocoon and sprawled lifeless on the grass The basket was put into place and tanks set up. Looking up into the very first light peaking from the east, the sky was one long trail of fruit bats returning from their nightly adventures in the parks and gardens of Melbourne. That in itself was exciting, with a silent, black jetstream of bats overhead until we launched.
It was time to inflate the balloon. With an enormous roar, the burner came to life like a fire-breathing dragon puffing life into the pink silk balloon.
With three other balloon companies lined up parallel with us, jets of gas inflating the balloons, I could see we had ‘the prettiest balloon’! Yes, I know! But it really is a beautiful colour. Here is a short video of not just our balloon but another two being inflated.
Finally, as the balloon became vertical and Chris gave us the nod, we climbed into the basket with anticipation. Another briefing on how to brace ourselves for landing and then…..without fanfare or noise. “We’re off!” This is where the beauty of our balloon took my breath away, as you look inside and see the bright colours against the rapidly rising dawn.
It takes you somewhat by surprise that you are in fact moving because the pace is quiet, the wind silent and it’s only when you see the treetops that you take a breath and realise ‘we’re up’. Much like an airport travelator, you move without moving yourself, and it’s quiet and peaceful. Plus when you see other balloons, it’s hard to know if you’re moving faster, slower, going up, going down, sideways or whichever way.
As we quietly floated over Melbourne, the sounds of a city starting to awaken rose up to us – trains, trams, cars on the freeway and the occasional siren. By the time we landed, the metropolis was well and truly on the move.
Each balloon company runs their own ship (so to speak) but liaise with each other about wind speed or any other important data that makes for a safe and smooth trip for their clients. Our flight was at a different pace and trajectory to others because the wind blows differently at various altitudes.
Major tip: ballooning is weather depending so don’t decide to book it on the last day of your trip as the conditions may mean they won’t fly that day and you’ll miss out. I had booked for the 8th January but the weather wasn’t suitable until the 11th, and so please allow for contingency days so as to not miss out due to late planning.
Our landing was even more spectacular than the take-off. Why? Because we were fortunate to float over Melbourne Zoo. We could see the elephants, the giraffes and even the orangutans. As we silently floated above them, oblivious of their aerial visitors, it was a sweet sight and beautiful memory I’ll never forget.
Once we landed safely, we assisted our ground crewman Daryl in packing up the balloon which took no more than 15 minutes. Teamwork makes for light work. Within 20 minutes we were sitting at the Grand Hyatt salivating over the 5-Star champagne buffet breakfast which was held in our very own private dining room and toasting our adventure with BalloonMan champagne.
At the time of booking, the cost was $448 per person which included the buffet champagne breakfast. Certainly, the food was outstanding and a culinary treat. Plus you can dine until at least 10.30am until you’ve had your fill of croissants, juices, cereals, hot food and more.
The bonuses of flying with BalloonMan are:
- A high definition (HD) video of the trip – click here to view our flight
- Aerial photos of the balloon
- Certificate of completion
- Map of the route taken on the day
- Was the least expensive balloon company but offered the best value for money
Interesting facts about hot air balloon flights
Why are they so early in the morning?
The winds are their best and lightest at dawn with more settled conditions to hot air balloon. If you were to try and fly later in the day when the temperatures are warmer, it’s not as safe and less predictable.
How high do hot air balloons fly?
That depends on where you fly but in Melbourne, it’s from 250 to around 3000 feet (yes I know that is imperial but that’s the way they talk in ‘balloon world’). You don’t really want to fly too high because it takes away the majestic views but also the details of a city.
How does a pilot steer the balloon?
A balloon pilot will have undergone many years of training, accreditation and experience. To fly a balloon you require a licence. Technically, a pilot can’t steer a balloon, instead, they will ascend and descend through the various air currents and thermals. A good pilot can make a balloon gently turn so clients can all see the same things around them. Pilots’ know the geography, the features that affect the flight path and if there are any regular wind patterns that can influence a flight.
Will I get motion sickness?
It’s unlikely as the balloon moves in a gentle, slow motion. As the balloon rises slowly, floats gently and lands usually gently, there is very little sense that you are in fact moving. This minimises any sensation of motion sickness. You’re also only in the balloon for an hour.
I’m scared of heights, so can I still fly?
Ballooning is different to say, walking to the edge of a cliff where this is a fixed point of reference. Firstly, you are in a large basket where you can hold onto the side, plus inside the basket are ropes to hold as well. I’m 175cms tall and the sides of the basket came up to my sternum so you feel somewhat cocooned.
What should I bring on the flight?
Nothing but essentials, not even a handbag. These will be safely stored with the ground crew vehicle. Depending on the weather, a cardigan, sunglasses and camera. That’s it.
What should I wear on the flight?
It’s actually quite warm in the balloon, ideal for winter months. In other words – dress comfortably. If the morning is chilly, wear layers that you can take off and tie around your waist as you don’t need them. I’d highly recommend closed-toe shoes plus it can be damp underfoot with dew. There are no seats so you’re on your feet for at least 90 minutes. You will have to climb into the balloon basket so no heels! Hot air balloons don’t normally fly high enough for the actual temperature to drop and you will find it’s warmer once you leave the ground. There is no wind chill, as you’re drifting with the wind, at the same speed. The sun is rising, naturally warming the air and the burners act like heaters, generating a nice warmth for everyone in the balloon basket.
Note about cameras
Obviously having a camera is essential but don’t get fixated by taking snaps. Stop and enjoy the moment. Yes, it’s fun to take pics of the sun rising, the balloon inflating, taking off etc. but really, you should just soak up this short experience and enjoy it for what it is. If you’re looking at everything through a camera lens then you’re not living in the moment. Plus the BalloonMan has plenty of pics for you. Oh, and Aviation Regulations dictate that selfie sticks are not allowed.
Now it’s your turn.
What’s your experience of hot air ballooning? Where did you fly? What were your highlights?
Leave a comment below.