A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE – Flying Hot Air Balloons in the High Country

Floating over the Victorian High Country where Global Ballooning was born thirty years ago, Kiff Saunders’ prodigies carry the family business forward, sharing the wonder of ballooning with visitors to the region and the people who live here.

If you speak to a Mansfield local and mention hot air ballooning, they’ll almost always regale you with tales of the spectacular balloon festivals held here twenty years ago. They’ll describe the great, colourful glowing structures that filled the sky at dusk and fondly recall memories of their own experiences in balloons. Many of them flew with Kiff Saunders back when he started operating here in the early 90s and were elated to see the balloons back in the sky when they returned in recent years.

Now it is Kiff’s protégés who are taking to the High Country skies. Georgia Croft, trained by Kiff to be one of Australia’s youngest female commercial pilots, revived commercial operations here mid-2020 and has flown countless passengers across Mt Buller’s glittering, snow-covered front. This year, Scarlett Saunders, Kiff’s daughter, and her brothers, Pato and Eddie, will pilot these flights.

“We all love flying in Mansfield; it’s where we all did most of our flight training, so we have really great memories of camping and flying here as a family growing up,” Scarlett smiles quietly. “It’s just a magical place to fly.”

With towering mountains protecting the peaceful undulations of the valley, Mansfield’s flying conditions are perfect not only for sensational sunrises, but also the unique prospect of golden, light-filled afternoon flights during wintertime. Between May and September, passengers can choose to forgo a crisp, pre-dawn wake up call, instead meeting mid-afternoon for a glass of sparkling before setting off on their adventure. Afternoon balloon flights here are something else.

Pato Saunders, the eldest of the three siblings, has always maximised the area for its adventurous aspect, often flying long-distance from surrounding areas like Benalla and the King Valley. He also instructs Global’s budding pilots here, as the contours of low-lying hills and rivers offer all the tools required to practice the real intricacies of ballooning; it’s the perfect training arena for Australia’s next generation of top-tier hot air balloon pilots.

The siblings continue to liaise with the same land owners that Kiff first built relationships with three decades ago; people of the land who have been here for generations. “So many families have opened their properties up to us over the years, and it’s heartwarming to see those partnerships still exist today. It’s an essential part of any balloon operation and not one we ever take for granted,” Georgia explains.

“Now we have even more – people we’ve met from coming up here again – who are all as excited about it as we are. It just goes to show that ballooning really is enmeshed in Mansfield, and hopefully will be for years to come.”

First published in Lamont Magazine, Issue 8, Winter 2023

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