Everything had to be perfect. First, we had to find a day we could both meet the unusual and somewhat demanding schedule. Then we had to wait on the conditions. My instructions were to phone the afternoon before, for a preliminary go-ahead. Then, if all was well, we'd get an early morning call. It took nearly four months for all the pieces to slot into place.
Yesterday, the phone rang at 4.15. We dutifully got out of bed, made a small thermos of coffee and set off in the car. The streets were quiet; and the sky very dark. At the rendez-vous, we met the others and climbed into the van. We were driven into a dark little park in the shadows of the West Gate Bridge. It's reclaimed swampland, and the mutantly large mosquitoes were there to prove it. It took a while to unload all the equipment, and then the giant fan started its work. Suddenly it was time to go. I was first, and climbed in to lie on my back. Two more followed amidst a rush of shouted instructions and frantic movements in the dim light, then gradually the giant basket was tipped upright, the others climbed in, the ropes were released and we were airborne. The sheets and sheets of fabric that had looked so awkward and heavy on the ground assumed their perfect, classic shape as we rose up in the pale morning.
The city gradually took shape below us as we adjusted to the odd rhythms of balloon flight: the utter stillness and silence of moving with the wind — not a breath of air moving across your face — alternating with the rush and the yellow and blue flare of the gas burners, so loud you couldn't hear the voice of the person next to you, and a hot enough flame to make you pull your collar up on the back of your neck. There was also something beautifully earthly about floating in something made of wicker and leather.
The river and the docklands were a jumbled mixture of lights and trucks moving in jerky little patterns, but the dark green water of the river, and the jetties and little white boats beneath us were surprisingly still. We saw the two square tops of the grey pillars of the Bolte Bridge, then turned around to see the bay and the city laid out before us, as we moved slowly, gracefully, north-eastwards. The other balloon followed us as we flew in a formation organised almost entirely by the wind.
Perhaps a sunny morning would be more spectacular. We didn't actually see the sun come up, for example, and it would have been fun to see the sunlight reflected in the east windows of the city. But the atmospherics of flying not too far from the edges of low clouds and light rain were also spectacular. Weirdly, we passed over the Medley building where my office is; and then not too far from our house, as we flew over Carlton and Fitzroy, and then lower and lower over Northcote. Melbourne Cemetery looked flat, low and grey. Canning St, with its wide green median strip and bike paths, looked surprisingly wide. Trains, of course, looked like toy models. We saw our best friends' house (their car wasn't there, so perhaps Peter was already at swimming training), and then a dog out walking, utterly spooked by the apparition of us.
We landed with a skid along a football ground in Thornbury, and turned to watch as the yellow balloon came to land behind us. It was quicker to pack up the balloon, rolling it up and squeezing out the air. We bundled it into its big canvas bag, and held it down while Chris, our pilot, leaped on top and pressed it all tightly in.
There was a mild hiatus in our joy as we battled Hoddle St traffic back into the city, over the river, and back up to our rendez-vous in the Botanical Café on the edge of the Botanical Gardens, just opposite the Shrine. Chris took coffee orders while we found our specially laid table, with balloon breakfast menu, jugs of iced water and specially labelled balloon champagne also on ice. It is apparently a long tradition, of 227 years, now, of finishing a balloon flight with champagne. It was also good to have it there to toast the happiness of the young couple who had quietly become engaged on the flight, or just before, so discreetly the other eight of us hadn't noticed. We toasted their health, admired their beautiful diamond ring, and sat down to eat a perfect breakfast (I had silky, golden scrambled eggs, crispy hash browns and very fresh spinach), washed down with more champagne.
Chris moved from one end of the table to the other, answering our questions, telling us stories and traditions of ballooning (Wikipedia confirms many of them). Finally he presented us each with a map showing where we had flown, and a certificate, commemorating our courage in rather beautiful syntax. I have scanned this at work, but forgot to email it to myself. I'll add it in, along with some photos I've ordered (taken from a little camera suspended from the balloon), and some of Paul's images, in the fullness of time.
I was a little apprehensive when I booked this trip for a birthday surprise for Paul. I'm not too bad with heights, but I'm not great with things like cantilevered platforms or chairlifts when there is nothing beneath you. But this was pretty much an hour of bliss. We drove home, then set off for work again on our bikes. Canning St seemed even greener than usual, and all day I felt an extraordinary elation. Perhaps it was the champagne; but I think it was really the vision of our beloved city, seen from such a wonderful flight, that made me so happy.
Chris said it took him about ten years to qualify as a commercial ballooning pilot. Imagine how hard it would be to log the flight hours when it's so contingent on the weather. They'd done only three flights in August, too. But he proudly described ballooning as the oldest and the slowest form of air travel. It's also by far the best.