Eventually we reached Mareeba, the biggest town on the Atherton Tablelands, and booked ourselves into accommodation for the night.
Prior to European settlement, the area around Mareeba was inhabited by the Muluridji indigenous people. In the local Aboriginal language, Mareeba means meeting of the waters – referring to the point at which the Barron River is joined by Granite Creek.
That evening we walked into the Secret Recipe Thai Restaurant and later found this was its opening night. We felt the food was ordinary and the service needed refinement. Then it was to bed ready for a 4 am rise and repack.
By 4.45 am I was walking in the dark for a kilometre or so to the Mareeba Heritage Centre. A small HotAir company bus pulled up soon after and Peter and I registered ourselves ready for our hot air balloon adventure. Depending on the wind and the weather, the balloons rise from different parts of Mareeba so time passed while decisions were made as to the best departure point (the company has agreements with about 30 farmers to rise from or land in their spare paddocks). While some people were disconcerted about the delay, this was all about giving us the best and the safest experience.
Once under way, the dark sky began to lighten and by the time we reached the paddock, it was possible to see one of three balloons cumbersomely beginning to take shape while it rocked and rolled on its side. Then air began to expand the second balloon.
Never at any stage was I fearful. From the moment the guide in the bus started explaining all the procedures, to our arrival at the departure point where additional safety and process information was supplied, I felt I was in good hands. As the morning lightened I watched a vast team of people setting the balloons up and controlling them. Everyone seemed very professional and it was clear that safety for all was a paramount concern. So my only feeling was one of excitement and let’s get on with it.
Finally ‘my’ balloon decorated with a kangaroo including a pouched baby began to take shape. The roar of the burners resounded across the paddock and heightened my anticipation.
Before long, one balloon was ‘standing up’. Soon after I looked across and the first two balloons were caressing each other.
And then it was the turn of my balloon to lift itself and become vertical.
The rectangular carriage basket held approximately 8 people on each side of the pilot and his burner. To keep the balance we loaded ourselves one at a time from each end; this meant using a foothold in the basket to swing the legs over and drop softly into a space that comfortably fitted two people and three at a pinch – standing only. It is worth noting that you must pass a security/safety test – if you could not get into the basket unaided then you could not travel. Despite my aches and pains and limited flexibility nothing was going to stop me and, while my entry wasn’t glamorous, I got into the basket and I flew.
I was surprised with the use of soft fabric covering edges and the interior, so it seemed safe and plush.
When loaded, the accredited pilot had his final chat with those on the ground who continued to restrain the balloon from lifting off.
I looked up into the glowing interior. Peter and I were ready/rearing to go.
I didn’t feel the loss of contact with the ground. There was no big announcement. No shudder. Perhaps we were a couple of metres from the earth when I realised we were flying; but the word fly suggests felt movement. There was none and for the next hour (we were booked on a half hour trip but some people were on an hour trip – would we mind staying on longer? Silly question. Of course not) never once did I feel movement or notice any markers of movement on my body. Strands of hair stayed put and did not wisp around. Never a sense of a breeze across my face. No shuddering or jolting. Just smoothness of the kind where you would swear you were not moving. Even the word float conjures up dips and rises which suggest that a lurching might be felt from time to time. But there was none. No bouncing, no rattling and no vibration.
We kept rising. Seemingly drifting, but with the pilot taking us purposefully westwards, over the township of Mareeba, over eucalypt forests, over fruit orchards, over rivers, over jumping macropods and onwards. Sometimes he took us down to tree top level and sometimes we rose to around 2000 feet. Yet never a wobble. Never a sense of change. The picture was complete with the occasional interpretative commentary.
Giant selfies were taken. Peter and I were together in the right hand corner at the back of the right hand side.
Near the end of our trip, the pilot informed us that where we would land was further than he had ever travelled with visitors like us – and this had been the result of the good luck of the upper air currents pushing the balloon along. He was headed for a new paddock.
Have you seen the American movie “Twister” (1996) where gung ho locals chase tornados? While we flew, down below the ground staff raced around in their vehicles following us by finding the best back roads. Then, when we landed, they were present to dismantle the balloon and return us to Mareeba.
With so much to see and think about, the hour passed seemingly in one moment and then we headed for a cleared paddock which a high grassy area before it. With a slight misjudgement the basket softly slithered across the dew laden tall grass and came to a gentle halt. I didn’t feel it land, only felt the wet grass tickling my face as we swished through it. I giggled with pure pleasure.
It was easy to get out of the basket and help from the organisers came readily.
Then we were asked who would like to help dismantle everything. Everyone was happy to help and the packing up became part of the whole adventure. First the balloon was wrapped and tied.
Then the balloon was packed into large blue ‘crates’.The basket was loaded onto a trailer then the blue ‘crate’ added. The pack-up process was beautifully orchestrated, and completed within 10 or 15 minutes. Very impressive.
When we all jumped onto the trailer cadging a lift to the edge of the paddock and our return bus, it was suggested I might like to sit up front with the driver (age before beauty?). Yes please. The driver, Eva was the only woman in the group of organisers. I had already noted how fit and strong she was and how gender played no part in her contribution to the organisational process as she did her share of the heavy lifting. I was surprised to learn she and most of the others would then be going off to their day jobs.
Overall I was most surprised how warm it was; I had left my thermals and beanie on the bus when advised the temperature in the air would be no colder than on the ground. In fact I should have left my jacket on the bus as well. However a hat would have been useful; whenever the burner was activated, a whoosh of very hot air hit the top of my head even though the flame was three or more metres away.
This balloon ride is one of my life’s memorable experiences – mostly because I am still amazed there was no ‘movement’ even though we covered many kilometres, that it was warm ‘up there’, and that in feeling so safe I was perpetually in a state of hyper-excitement, eyes wide open in wonder, through the entire flight.
For breakfast, we can recommend Dino’s Europa Deli; and for fascinating delicatessen items to take away try the Vanilla Almonds.