Champagne is what you drink when you want to celebrate something. In the early days of flight when any trip in a rudimentary aircraft would likely be your last, it was drunk by hearty aeronauts just to celebrate being alive. Balloon pilots have clung onto this tradition, not because hanging around under a big bag of hot air is particularly dangerous, but because it’s classier than knocking back VB at eight in the morning. Last week however, we had real cause to celebrate, and had the empty bottles of bubbly to prove it.
No, we haven’t bought a new envelope. I wish.
But we have flown over the Wurrumbungle National Park. And I’m happy to say that by the end of it, I needed a drink.
Balloon flight plans are simple; after launching, landing is mandatory. What you do in between is optional. Our plan was to follow Cambo out of the launch field, swing by the Siding Springs Observatory, wave, get plenty of height to find the predicted 20 knot easterly and scoot over the mountains to land in farmland to the west. Things were going splendidly until the bit where we couldn’t find the 20 knot wind. A mountainous national park looks very big when you’re hung stationary over the top of it.
To be fair we were doing 5 knots but it felt like we were standing still. The Grand High Tops spread out across our front with nothing but 15km of dense, rugged beauty between us and the first available landing spot. Cambo was more sanguine about our predicament. In response to Gretta’s question about options he said, ‘I’m gonna drop down and ride the cowboy on outa here.’ Going low to use the venturi effect off the mountain tops and exposing ourselves to the potential curl over wasn’t ideal, but hey, that’s what makes it an adventure.
So down we went.
We passed right over the top of Belougery Spire and nailed the gap between Crater Bluff and the Breadknife. None of which we knew at the time. They were just gigantic lumps of rock which seemed awfully close. The curl over was negligible as we increased speed to 10 knots and started to make good progress over the forest to open pasture. A dose of wind shear at Toora Creek stopped us from relaxing too much as we left the Wurrumbungles behind us and broke, with a sigh of relief, into flat, open country.
Country that wasn’t slowing down any. We’d wanted speed and now we had it, just in time for landing. We’d covered another 8km at tree top height when we crossed a main road and spotted a paddock that was full of thistles. Gretta made a last-minute decision to take it anyway and in we went for an 11 knot, 35m lay over drag landing that stopped just shy of the treeline.
I’d been wrong to worry about crashing into the national park. Landing with thistles was far worse.