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Published July 12th 2020
A uniquely peaceful and uplifting experience
Whether it's something that you've always dreamed of doing, an experience to tick off your bucket list, or something you are considering for the first time on a whim as you read this article, a hot air balloon flight is a unique experience that won't disappoint.
As you gently float across the countryside in the stillness of the early morning, the experience can be described as peaceful, magical and incredibly uplifting. But before you rush out to jump on a flight, you should know that this isn't a spur of the moment activity and there is a bit of planning involved.
First, you will need to choose your preferred location – we decided on the picturesque Hunter Valley for our sunrise hot air balloon adventure. Then you must choose the company and type of flight you would like. We went with Balloon Aloft and chose their Flexi ticket option. While all of the Balloon Aloft tickets allow you to reschedule if the flight is cancelled due to poor weather conditions, we went with the Flexi ticket option as it is refundable in the event of bad weather and we weren't sure when we would be able to return for another fight.
For safety reasons, hot air balloon flights can only go ahead when weather conditions are favourable. The ideal conditions for balloon flights include light winds and cool and calm atmospheric conditions. All flights are scheduled for the early morning, around sunrise, as this is when weather conditions are most stable.
So you've booked in, what happens next? You will receive a confirmation on the afternoon before your scheduled flight as to whether your flight will proceed. You are then given instructions as to the location of the meeting place and time. We were advised to be at Peterson's Champagne House in Pokolbin no later than 5.45am. We were also able to check-in online the afternoon before, which involved each person in our group filling in a form regarding our current health and fitness and signing the required disclaimers.
Make sure you set your alarm for the morning of your flight. Just to be safe, we set two alarms, as if you are late you run the risk of missing your flight. It is still dark when we arrive at Peterson's Champagne House but there are plenty of staff there directing us where to park and where to go. On arrival, we have our temperature checked (a COVID Safe measure) and are sorted into groups. We are also asked to indicate the breakfast we prefer from the menu for after our flight. After some further instructions, we are taken out to the mini-buses.
Balloon Aloft has numerous options to choose from in terms of launch and landing sites. The site they choose on any given day is determined by the prevailing wind conditions and direction. As we drive around the Hunter Valley the team checks out possible launch locations by sending up small weather balloons to check which direction the wind is blowing.
Watching the balloons inflate is an interesting spectacle
On this particular morning, a few locations are discounted as being unsuitable before we finally start setting up in a paddock around 7am. As the equipment is unloaded, we have a safety briefing with our pilot and are given instructions on the easiest way to get into the basket. Then we are invited to watch and take photos as the massive balloons are inflated. There are four balloons going up this morning, each carrying around 20 passengers. The process is an interesting spectacle as the brightly coloured balloons gradually take their shape. It takes around 20 - 25 minutes for the balloons to be inflated and once the baskets are upright we are told to climb in.
After around 25 minutes we are almost ready for take off
As we clamber into the basket, it's reassuring to be told there is no graceful way to do this. But it is also important to note that you must be agile enough to climb in and out of the basket by yourself as the crew are not allowed to assist you. Then we get ready for take-off. Some of the passengers in our basket are clearly a bit nervous about taking off, yet the moment itself is barely noticeable as we gently lift and glide smoothly off the ground.
It's a strange, yet peaceful, feeling to be floating higher and higher up in the air. It's surprising to realise there is virtually no sensation of movement as the balloon floats with the breeze and moves in the same direction and at the same speed as the airflow. The first few minutes after take-off is the best opportunity you will have to take photos of the other balloons close up.
The pilot of our balloon is Clay and he expertly manoeuvres the balloon – higher and lower – changing the height of the balloon in order to steer. We venture up to around 3800 feet, way above the early morning mist of the Hunter Valley. From here the valley is spread out wide below us. We can see to Newcastle and Lake Macquarie to the south-east and Barrington Tops to the north.
The valley is dotted with farms and vineyards and the atmosphere is peaceful, the quietness interrupted only by the noise of the propane gas filling the balloon. Clay points out several features of the landscape. Apart from the four Balloon Aloft balloons, we also see a couple of other balloons in the distance.
At our lowest height, we fly just above the tree line for a close-up view and we are able to see numerous kangaroos and even some rabbits darting across the farmland and vineyards. Clay steers us over some dams so we can try to capture an elusive reflection shot. The duration of your flight will depend on the conditions, however, they generally last between 45 minutes to an hour.
Reflecting on how difficult it is to capture a reflection shot
Our flight took around 55 minutes, ending with the smoothest landing imaginable thanks to the skill of our pilot. We had flown right across the valley and managed to land a hundred metres or so from Peterson's Champagne House, the location we had started our morning from. On landing the road crew was there to greet us and help to deflate the balloon. Guests are asked to lend a hand in getting the balloon packed away. It's not too difficult, just helping to roll up the balloon and lift it back into its box, which took around half an hour.
Then we jumped back into the minibus for the quick trip across the road to Peterson's. We were greeted with champagne and orange juice on arrival and then seated for breakfast. It was just a short wait for breakfast but while we were waiting we were shown the photo package which was taken by a GoPro camera on the side of the balloon. You have the option to buy the photo package if you wish (it costs around $30 for all of the photos).
For breakfast, there was a choice of a big breakfast consisting of bacon, poached eggs, sourdough, grilled tomato and mushrooms, spinach and hash browns. There was also a vegetarian big breakfast option or a third option of french toast. The tasty food and generous serving size satisfied our hunger, however, we were disappointed that there was no decent coffee served during breakfast (only percolated coffee, tea, champagne or orange juice was offered). By the time we finished breakfast, it was around 9.30am.
From the moment we arrived in the morning until the moment we left, we felt like we were in safe hands. It was evident the team at Balloon Aloft are very experienced and know what they are doing. Everything ran like clockwork and it's obvious that a lot of thought and preparation has gone into their processes. The whole experience exceeded our expectations and was an incredible way to start the day.