There is something humbling about floating more than one kilometre above the earth. The world stretches out, shifting endlessly as the colours of dawn throw new light on the horizon. Captive (and captivated) in a basket, there is simply the moment. The sound of silence is interrupted only by the occasional blast of the furnace as it opens to send hot air into the balloon and lift you further away from the world as you know it. Without fanfare, the basket has soundlessly departed from the ground and you find yourself peering out at a 360-degree view of the Yarra Valley that is postcard picture perfect in every direction.
Suddenly the 3am alarm doesn’t matter as you realise that this – this glorious vista at dawn on a cool Tuesday morning – is all that matters. This is once in a lifetime, once in a moment even. You take a breath and marvel that you are one of ten lucky people together in basket watching the beginning of a new day up close. There is reverence, an unspeakable softness.
For today’s flight we have headed from our meeting place at Balgownie Estate north towards Glenburn. It’s still dark and our strange little convoy of troupees towing wicker baskets seems strangely out of place. At the launch site, after a safety briefing and checks, we help the crew get the basket ready and hold the massive balloon (nothing prepares you for how big this silky piece of fabric is – or how much you will be relying on it 100% very soon!) while it is filled with air from a massive fan that is then heated to create lift. By 6am, we are one of three hot air balloons ascending into the Yarra Valley skies on a journey of softly panning circles, following the updrifts in a southerly direction. Every burst of the furnace bathes us in golden light and transforms the balloons into giant lanterns. It’s above beautiful.
The skyfilled night gives way to a pink and gold sunrise and our one-hour flight seems to take hours. From the safety of our basket we wander the skies, across forests of ancient trees, open paddocks and farmhouses, neverending vineyards and townships. If you’re a local, there are recognisable landmarks that you feel you can almost reach out and touch. If you are a visitor, you have a perfect vantage point from which to plan where to next! From this elevation you see absolutely why the Yarra Valley is a valley – the ring of mountainous terrain embraces a valley that is always green – a lush food bowl and source of water and life, and everything we enjoy the most in life.
As the sun bursts over the fringe of mountains, the mists hovering over the dams and valleys start to lift and the city skyline is revealed (we can even see a tiny balloon hovering above the CBD). It’s meltingly gorgeous. I am caught between capturing everything I can on my camera versus taking it all in first hand without the distractions of tech. It seems impossible to take a bad photo at this angle!
This floating experience is serene and atmospheric, and something so much more than I expected. To see this part of the world in its pristine nature, so much of it untouched and wild, gave me a renewed sense of what we need to love and protect in our environment and gave me a fresh insight into how we all share this land.
Charting a path across the Yarra River (Birrarung) and billabongs of Yering, Kiff points out local wineries and landmarks, boxing kangaroos and his local primary school.
We land in a paddock in across from Yering Estate, the resident cows barely raising a head to greet us. After ‘all-hands-on-deck’ to pack up the mighty deflated balloon, we return to Balgownie Estate for a cooked buffet breakfast and a much anticipated coffee!
Kiff, our captain, has been flying balloons since 1987. He has just returned from a world ballooning event in Slovenia with his son where people could land 'on a flag in the middle of a paddock’ he says, so precise were their navigation skills. I’m certain Kiff would hold his own in such company. I sense he knows instinctively what his digital navigation tools are going to show before he’s even looked at them. “It’s all about invection – the meeting of cool air and warmer air bands,” he explains. “But it’s also something felt,” he continues, “a five senses experience.”
“When you are up here you have a different perspective. It’s a joy to be able to see beyond your own confines. To experience the world like this, it opens you up. You can’t not be affected,” he says. “Everyone should know this feeling.”
With my new perspective, I completely agree.