The alarm on my phone screeches with a mad vengeance. Rudely awakened, I reach out to snooze the device that’s the bane of my existence and look at the time – 3.30am.
The sky – from across my hotel room in the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia – still looks pitch black. But in half an hour’s time, I need to be at the lobby to wait for the transport that will take me and a companion on my first ever hot air balloon experience.
From our hotel in Surfers Paradise, we swiftly make our way to the hinterlands – passing through a city that is still largely asleep on a Saturday morning. The journey takes about an hour, and the lack of sleep – and too much wine the night before – doesn’t make the ride any better.
Once we reach the launch site, the discomfort from the bumpy ride melts away as my eyes take in the spectacle across the vast field. Huge roaring flames from a burner blast out to inflate the balloon, casting a bright orange hue against the dark landscape. Once fully inflated, the balloon could stand as tall as a 10-storey building!
There are five balloons ready to take flight, with each basket holding up to 20 people. As there are quite a number of participants on that day, the basket I’m on is at maximum capacity.
“It’s a full house today!” a staff remarks, before asking if we have any travel insurance in the event of any eventualities.
“I’m just kidding, you’re in good hands! Our pilots are some of the most experienced in Australia,” he adds with a laugh.
That’s very reassuring, I thought. But whatever jitters I have about taking off in an untethered giant balloon dissipates as we slowly take off.
Words can’t even begin to describe the sensation of the calming quiet up in the clouds, with the spectacular views of the landscape below and the skies above. It’s all very (The Secret Life Of) Walter Mitty-ish. It feels like time slows down while we’re up in the air.
Adding to the experience is the cool and crisp fresh morning air. Although it’s terribly freezing, I’m just glad I’m dressed warmly in a light wool blend jacket.
There’s the occasional sound of the burner, excited passengers ooh-ing and ahh-ing, birds chirping and dogs barking from a nearby vineyard. But as we are travelling with the wind, the atmosphere up in the sky, for the most part, is completely quiet.
Breaking the silence, our pilot says the reason hot air balloon flights take place so early in the morning is to catch optimal wind conditions. Balloons need cool and calm winds to operate effectively. The hours following sunrise are the most suitable as the heat of the day hasn’t descend yet.
“Besides, isn’t the view of the sunrise remarkable?” he adds. The pilot is right – seeing the breaking dawn on Queensland’s majestic hinterland while floating gently over a picturesque landscape is simply breathtaking.
Every now and then, we could even make out hopping silhouettes on the ground. Upon closer inspection, it turns out, they are kangaroos!
Everything about the journey is simply magical. When the balloon finally lands at O’Reilly’s Vineyard for us to do some wine tasting and have a hearty buffet breakfast, my head and heart still feels like it’s up in the clouds.