Gourmet Ballooning – King Valley Style

Ballooning in style in the King Valley.

Ever wondered what it’s like to go up in a hot air balloon? Border Cafe’s SALLY HARDING had a truly uplifting experience, taking in the vineyards and patchwork of fields of the King Valley at dawn with Goldrush Ballooning (and sampled some local gourmet goodies along the way. Is it ever too early for Prosecco?)

I was given a book a while ago titled, What It Feels Like. It describes significant life experiences, in case you’re thinking of giving one a go – like winning the lottery, for example.

Some of the other ‘thrilling’ experiences described include walking on the moon and going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Truth is, I’ve never wondered about these things. They are waaaay out of my comfort zone.

Now hot air ballooning, that’s a bit different.

King Valley Balloon Festival

As a child I remember seeing one for the first time in the Jules Verne book-turned-movie, Around The World in 80 Days (hero character, Phileas Fogg, would smash his travel-race bet in a few dozen hours now, I reckon).

On a working holiday I worked as a horse groom in England. One of my favourite memories from riding out in the countryside was the occasional hot air balloon rising above the century-old chestnut trees that lined the posh estate.

A few years later, when I lived in Melbourne, there was often a colourful sprinkling of hot air balloons across the morning cityscape, lighting up the sky, sort of zen-like (little did I know that the pilots were juggling three different air traffic controllers, all part of the constraints of CBD flying).

King Valley Balloon Festival

Only recently did I realise that although I had always looked up to hot air balloons, I did not know what it actually felt like to be in one. For this experience, I did not want to simply rely on the pages of a book.

So why the King Valley?  Easy. Wine regions are particularly suited to hot air ballooning for a few reasons. One is tradition (an ongoing theme with balloons). The first passenger hot air balloon – or any manned aircraft, for that matter – lifted off in France in 1783, where wine seems to go well with anything.

Secondly, the acres it takes to grow grape vines also provides plenty of space for hot air balloons to go up and down wherever the wind blows (literally, so long as you take a bottle of bubbly as a sweetener for landing in a paddock without permission. It’s another tradition).

Ironically, in such a technological era, the fundamentals of balloon travel have not changed much, including the preference for light-weight wicker baskets. The gas used is LPG, not hydrogen or helium, and a modern nylon fabric is used for the balloon itself. Hot air balloons and pilot credentials are also regulated by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and involve radio-control and other technological bits and pieces.

Arriving in cool darkness at Brown Brother’s Milawa Winery, things quickly lit-up chatting fellow travellers. Our pilot seemed to know us already, probably because he had messaged the night before to confirm everything was on track (dealing with an aircraft so dependent on weather means conditions have to be spot on and the occasional postponement).

It is an even more bonding experience to drive to the airstrip and all pitch-in to set-up the balloon and basket and watch the roaring gas burners turn a flat sea of fabric into a colourful spectacle that seems to fill up the sky. The pilot gave the word and the ten of us jumped on board and the balloon slowly started to rise.

So what does it feel like to be in a hot air balloon? Nicely warm at times, especially on your head. It was also good to share the experience with other excited passengers. Best of all was the feeling of being gently lifted into the skies to see a 360 degree view of the world from 3,400 feet.

There is also special kind of peace I’ve only felt a few times before – on top of a snow-capped mountain, in an underground mine, paddling quietly out to sea on a still day.

To me, hot air ballooning is not really about travel (by the way, author Jules Verne didn’t originally include it as a mode of transport, that was a Hollywood touch). It really is about the experience.

There are no airline windows to minimise the view and no noisy engine to interrupt your thoughts. You are in the sky because of nature and to appreciate nature, and it would be fair to say I have never witnessed such a beautiful dawn.

Our landing was relatively smooth and traditionally unannounced in a local farmer’s paddock, but the ground crew had already gifted him with a bottle of Brown Brothers Prosecco so he looked happy enough to see us and wandered over for a chat.

The passengers all had breakfast with the pilot at a nearby café, drinking a glass of Prosecco as a form of ‘first flight ceremony’, another tradition for first-time passengers. It had been an early start but so much had been packed-in (including the hot air balloon and basket, which we all helped to put away as a team).

It was most definitely a life experience and, who knows, maybe it feels a little bit like winning the lottery? Will put that on the wish-list next for a chance to find out.

For more on Goldrush Ballooning: https://www.goldrushballooning.com.au/

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