Friday, 16 April 2010

Up, up and away

Blimey, I'm still a bit gobsmacked by the balloon ride. It was amazing. It's something I've always wanted to try and it certainly didn't disappoint. It was serene, smooth, fun, exhilarating, and I really can't think of enough adjectives to do it justice.

So here's how it all went.

We'd been to Scotland on the bike on Wednesday and were dead tired after a 340-is mile trip but couldn't crash out until 11.00pm. That's when you ring to get final confirmation that your balloon flight is actually going ahead. It was, so hooray! However, meeting point was changed (something to do with prevailing winds as I recall) and we had to be there at 6.30am.  It's about an hour's ride from home so that meant setting of at 5.00am (just to allow an extra 30 mins to cover any potential mishaps en route) and that in turn meant a 4.00am get up. Oo-er would it be worth it?

Set off in the dark and it didn't get light until we were about halfway there. It was quite chilly too and there was some frost on the ground around Lancaster. Our meeting point was the Little Chef at Ings in the south Lakes. Great I thought, will get there in time for a nice hot cuppa and a wee. How wrong I was - the damn place doesn't open until 7 so there was nothing for it but to go tramping through the little woods behind it to find a suitable spot to relieve myself. This is no mean feat with bike gear and an extra pair of leggings to contend with. Most inelegant.

There were a number of people sitting in cars on the car park who seemed to be waiting too and I realised that I had no idea how many passengers there would be on the flight. Bang on 6.30 a battered minibus arrived with the Virgin Balloon on the side followed shortly after by a flat bed truck with an ENORMOUS basket on it.  We all piled into the minisbus and were driven to a field in Kentmere that was full of noisy sheep and lots of sheep poo. Participation was very much the order of the day and we helped drag the basket off the truck and spread out the balloon on the ground.  While all this was going on there was much releasing of small black balloons and lots of tutting and sighing from the pilot.

The balloon is first inflated with cold air and they had a couple of fans blowing away. We were given the safety info and told that once inflated with cold air the hot air would be blown in and we'd have to jump in to provide "ballast". The basket was divided into 5 sections; a central strip for the pilot with the burners and four compartments on each corner each holding 4 people. There were 16 passengers altogether. It's snug but makes for good balance and the compartments probably add to the stability too.

We all got in and the take off was amazingly smooth. I sort of expected to have that stomach churn you get when a lift starts up, but not at all. It was hardly noticeable.  We climbed fairly quickly and ultimately got up to 4215ft at the highest point. The speed varied quite a bit at different heights and at one point we were completely still and not moving at all.  Time for the in-flight photo.  We rose way above the clouds and watched them rolling over the hillsides. Could just make out the summit of Scafell poking out of a blanket of clouds.

We were travelling in a southerly direction and flew towards lake Windermere. It was spectacular and we were able to fly right over it. It was now time to land. Apparently, the wind speed at ground level kept increasing so we all sat down and assumed the position quite a few times to no avail. We were getting a bit giggly at this point. This extended the flight so no-one was unhappy about it.  On one landing attempt we skirted the top of some trees which was quite exciting.

Eventually a suitable spot was found and the wind was okay. It was to be a "tip and drag" landing so we all sat down and assumed the position again and down we came with a bump.  The basket ends up on it's side so we were all sort of on our backs and laughing our heads off.  We'd been in radio contact with the "chasers" all the way through and they were on the way to collect us.  We got out of the basket all a bit undignified and silly, when a farmer came roaring up on a quad bike with a face like thunder not too happy with a big red balloon landing in his field. He was soon followed by his wife who was even fiercer.  Happily the pilot was able to smooth things over and we were soon helping to pack up the balloon. Bit like packing up a really massive tent. The minibus arrived and we stopped at Lowick Green to admire a heavenly view and enjoy a glass of champagne before being taken back to the meeting point.

It was brilliant. We saw deer, foxes, swans, lots of sheep, and amazing views. I would love to do it again. It was so worth the 4.00am start.

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