The air feels cold and the only thing we see when we slide open our camper door is darkness. It has been a short but quiet night. Too quiet actually, so that both of us had fallen asleep restless.
The free campground we chose for our overnight stay provided the perfect scenery for wine and bites in the late afternoon but had turned into a dark and a bit spooky deserted field at night. It was the first day of the season for the campground to open, and from the moment darkness had kicked in the only perk of staying here as the only campers this night, is that we now do not have to worry about waking up any other travellers as we drive off in the early hours of the morning. So early, that I would usually just call this night.
Mist drops light up as we switch on the headlights of our campervan. No one else but us is on the road at this hour. We follow the directions given to us over the phone yesterday and hope that they were given carefully. Otherwise we will definitely get lost in the darkness.
Driving through the rolling green Canterbury hills yesterday, we had suddenly decided it was time to make that long-held wish of a hot air ballon flight a reality. It turned out that today would be a perfect day for a flight.
As we turn into a street that seems to match the description, we start to look for the orange flashing light described in the directions. After almost ten minutes we spot our beacon on the left side of the road. The terrain is completely deserted though. There is no one to be seen and not even a sign of a hot air balloon company visible. While we hesitate to walk up to the family house and press the doorbell at this hour, a man steps into the light of our head lights and gestures to follow him.
A collection of old farmer tools comes into our view as we leave the paved driveway. The doors of an enormous shed slide open, and we know we are definitely in the right place. Blue propane tanks are lined up against the side, a square basket is being installed on a trailer.
Our patience is put to the test though, as the anticipated flight is not just our long-held wish that will be fulfilled today. Four other travellers will be joining us from Queenstown. Twenty minutes later, once the rest of the lucky few have finally arrived, we hook up the trailer and drive to an open field. Ready for take off?
Not quite. Getting a hot air balloon to ‘fly’ is not your average morning ritual. While the skies slowly start to light up, we unfold the enormous balloon on the dewy green grass and start the engine of two powerful diesel vans placed in front of the metres-wide opening.
The next fifteen minutes are the most strenuous arm muscle work-out that I ever had. My task is to hold up the so-called envelope so it can fill with air. As the diesel ventilators blow in the air, the tension grows with each minute. When I feel I am no longer able to hold on to the rope I shout out once more to the other tourists that are holding the envelope open on the lean side with the three of them. It takes them too long to run over to my side and the rope slips from my hands with force.
My arms hurt and my fingers are frozen but we are almost good to go. Only a snapshot with the propane burner and instructions for the ascent keep us from taking off. We lie down on the upper compartment of the wicker basket, our backs against the wrought rattan, our hands up – pressed against the side of the basket. Ballooning has turned out to be more adventurous than I thought it would be.
The propane burners make an ear-splitting sound as we take off – then were are up in the air. The calm of the flight eases the strain in my arms and make me forget my cold hands. In fact, it is less cold now than just minutes ago on the ground. Something is missing – wind! Our pilot has just turned off the propane burners and we are now floating in the wind, feeling light as a bird. Everything below us looks small now, except for the long shadows that appear on the green hills and farmland as the sun slowly rises from the horizon. It is incredible to watch the sunrise from up in the air – looking East we watch the sun lighting up the sea, then making Christchurch glisten as it lights up the city’s rooftops, and slowly breaking the day for the rest of the country until its rises to a height from which it enlightens the mountain tops that form our horizon if we turn our heads around towards the West side of New Zealand’s South Island. While we watch this spectacle of nature and gape at the tiny houses and Lego brick sized cars below us, we are caught by surprise by the silence in which we can savour this special moment. It is exceptionally quiet and we love it. Floating over New Zealand’s beautiful landscape, we take in breathtaking views of the Southern Alps mountain range and rolling green hills of Canterbury with herds of sheep and cows and every now and then a small village. This scenery is not that of Hobbiton but it most definitely provides a serene ‘The Shire’ feeling.
It is an other-worldly experience that lasts for about an hour. Our pilot is now in contact with his colleague on the ground to make sure he will be waiting for us at the field where we will be landing. The shadow of our balloon becomes visible on the farmland as we descent. We will be landing the same way as we took off, lying on our backs. And so, as we are almost ready to hit land, we turn around with our faces in the opposite direction of where we are heading, squatting inside the basket with our backs pressed against the wicker structure. As the basket tips over when we hit land, we safely lie on our backs, the same ridiculous position we were in when we were getting ready for take off.
The grass is still moist from the morning dew but the sun will soon make it evaporate. The skies are bright blue and the day has now started for the farmers as well. When we finish folding the balloon and hoisting it back on the trailer, it is only 7 AM. Another day full of opportunities awaits us.
Now we know: the sky is the limit.
Do you want to say yes to an altitude adventure yourself?
There are many places in the world that provide the perfect scenery for an unforgettable hot air balloon flight, for example Capadocia in Turkey and Bagan in Myanmar who have become famous with iconic pictures of balloon-scattered skies. Canterbury provides a very different experience, being the only balloon up in the air provides a serene environment and 360 degrees undistrubed views of the surroundings. The location is unique as you can take in views of both the ocean and the mountains all in the very same flight. There are two downsides though, it is really quite expensive (we had to pay $395 pp, but it worth every penny!) and weather dependent so you need a bit of luck to take the skies. Our flight was with Ballooning Canterbury. You can opt for a pick-up from Queenstown, or drive up to the family house yourself like we did. The free campground we stayed at is Whitecliffs Domain. For a very useful overview of all (free) campgrounds in New Zealand, I highly recommend WikiCamps New Zealand.