A history of Kiff Saunders, owner of Global Ballooning Australia
Q1: How did you get interested in balloon flight and start your own business in it?
Aviation was a big part of my early family life. My grandfather started one of Australia’s first private flying schools in 1936 in a small town just on the outskirts of Sydney. I actually began flying when I was 15 years old.
Camden Airport is still active today, so when I returned from my travels in 1987, I happened to meet some balloonists who had started a commercial passenger business and who were keen to train up young commercial pilots. Not being the type to shy away from adventure or the unknown I jumped at the chance and subsequently have spent the past 31 years taking to the sky in a hot air balloon.
My early years of commercial ballooning were quite nomadic - My life possessions consisted of a motorcycle and a backpack so I used to hire my services out as a travelling pilot. This had me roaming the country flying promotional balloons around Australia to build up my experience and flying hours. In 1989 I was asked to manage a small ballooning business in North East Victoria, which presented me with the opportunity to finally remain in one place, which was a welcome change after 5 years on the road living out of a backpack. I did not know it at the time of my decision but as has happened in all of my adult life destiny would determine my path and I would subsequently make my permanent home in this amazing state of Victoria. It was only after months of exploring the region on my motorbike that I completely fell in love with the natural beauty of country Victoria. After all my nomadic travelling around the world and Australia it was a strange feeling to finally be in a place that I was reluctant to leave. Fate intervened again in my life in 1991 when the company I was working for decided to close their operations in Victoria - by then I was settled into a lovely lifestyle so decided that the only course of action was to start my own ballooning business. Global Ballooning began with one balloon, my best friend (driving the car) and my dog ‘Zephy’ coming along for the adventure. It is always amazing how simple twists of fate determine our direction; I love the fact that with a positive mindset and a sprinkle of serendipity, magnificence and opportunity is never far away.
Q2: What's the most beautiful thing to see or feel when flying over Melbourne and Yarra Valley?
The flights we conduct over the City of Melbourne are regarded as the most technical passenger hot air balloon flights on the planet. Nowhere else in the world will you experience the sunrise from a balloon basket whilst drifting silently over a city of 5 million people. It is a very impressive flight and particularly attractive for any traveller wishing to experience the best that adventure tourism has to offer.
Our Yarra Valley flights are also world class and really appeal to the traveller wishing to experience a region that is abundant with natural beauty - Rivers, Mountains, Lakes, Vineyards and an assortment of native and farm animals. Having lived in the Yarra Valley for the past 20 years I never tire of flying here. Due to the surrounding mountains, the valley is a natural amphitheatre, which makes it a perfect location for ballooning. The Yarra Valley is also home to the Mountain Ash, the World’s second tallest trees and tallest flowering plant - be sure to make time to wander slowly through the stunning native countryside, sample some of the amazing food and wine or pick some of the fresh produce from the region.
After 4500 flights in a balloon, my perspective is completely different from a passenger experiencing their first ‘lighter than air’ flight. Where a passenger on their first flight will focus on the balloon, my attention is focused on all that is to be seen from the basket and the intense satisfaction of sharing my passion with those who are with me in the sky. There is so much magnificence surrounding each balloon flight, particularly the changing colours of dawn as the sun rises on a new day. I love the feeling of my senses being engaged and the intuitive connection I have with the wind, although I think the most beautiful aspect of my job is the happiness that my balloon brings to my passengers and the people watching from the ground. There is no doubt that witnessing or being part of a balloon flying through the sky inspires a sense of fanciful childhood wonderment in us all - there is a magical fairytale feeling that invades our thinking and releases us from the real world for a short while.
Q3: Tell us about your typical day and your favourite part of it.
There is no typical day for a balloonist outside of getting up very, very early to check the weather. I like to say that ‘My life blows with the Wind’ both metaphorically and in reality.
I must have seen ten thousand sunrises in my life and have really grown to love the calm that exists in that period while most people are still sleeping.
Certainly, the place where I am most calm and at peace is in a balloon basket - I find when I am up in the sky, all of the pressures of life just disappear and I can exist completely at that moment.
This is very fortunate, given when I am back on the ground I have to manage my little ballooning empire, which consists of 32 balloons, 30 staff and the barrage of aviation compliance work that can be very demanding.
When I am not flying I like to retreat to the mountains to sit by a river and read. I am fortunate that Victoria has a treasure trove of hidden places that you can hide away in to escape the hustle and bustle of day-to-day reality.
Q4: We hear that you travelled to China alone when you were young. Why did you decide to do it?
Having studied Chinese modern history at school I found myself fascinated by Chinese culture. I really love history, so when I finishing my studies I decided that when I departed Australia to discover the big wide world, I wanted to get off the well-travelled road to challenge my thinking and myself. This was back in 1985. I was just 22 years old and quite shy and naïve. Back then there was not a lot of information about independent travelling in China, so I just purchased a one-way ticket to Hong Kong and decided to allow fate and my fierce determination to find a solution to how I would achieve my dream adventure.
Q5: Could you share with us some interesting stories during the trip? And how did you get all those authentic experiences despite the language barrier?
My travels through China in 1985 was by far the most memorable, rewarding and life-changing experience I have had in my life. This may be because I had never travelled abroad before, maybe it was because I was on my own or perhaps it was because my heart and mind were just ready to be transformed. Whatever the case, from the moment I arrived in China as a completely lost lonely traveller, I was swept up in a wave of excitement, intrigue and exceptional generosity.
I like to look back at my travels through China as the time when my world was turned upside down. As a country boy growing up on wide-open farmland, my arrival in China was like nothing I had could ever have imagined. There was not one thing that I could identify with that I could associate with my own upbringing. The lifestyle, the rich history, the amazing architecture, the food, the transport, and even the way that business and agriculture was conducted, were completely foreign to my way of understanding. The strange irony was, that having arrived in China from the vastness of country Australia to such a densely populated region. I had never felt so free in my entire life. With no language skills or idea, I was fundamentally stripped bare, which fundamentally gave me the opportunity to rebuild myself into a person that was solely of my own design.
The benefit of travelling without a fixed plan or time frame is that you are actually never lost or for that matter in a hurry. Certainly, my travels through China taught me the art of allowing circumstance to control my destiny. It was definitely challenging to be in a country where I was alone and did not speak the language but it was character building and I found that the immense generosity of the Chinese people I met along my path carried me on a journey through China that ended up invading both my heart and soul.
It certainly helped me in my travels that I was 191 cm tall white Australian boy who permanently looked lost and confused, as anyone who could speak two words of English would find me to say hello. At first, this was quite confronting to be constantly watched by all around me and to have people continually invading what I regarded as my ‘personal space’, but I must say that after my first month of travel in China I began to love this aspect of the people. There was such a genuine curiosity in the ‘tall Australian Boy’ and as I found my feet and got used to being the object of interest it gave me great personal satisfaction to engage in a game of hand charades with ‘one and all’ to explain who I was, where I was from and what I was doing in this wonderfully strange place. I have such fond memories of these times and the happiness and laughter that surrounded me.
I find it interesting to be back in China now - it has changed so much - back then I used to walk out in cities to a wave of commuters on bicycles making their way to work where now there a wave of cars. The simplicity has disappeared to be replaced by frenetic fast-paced living along with all the incredible technological advancement that has made China what it is today. It is a little disappointing that I am now just another western face in the crowd - I miss the fact that no one will tap me on the shoulder to practice a few words of English or take me by the hand and help me on my way.
I certainly miss the days of singing - dancing - drinking - smoking - eating bags of sunflower seeds, arm wrestling grandmothers on the train to pass the 40 hours between cities and all the laughter. I miss being taken places with no idea as to what was happening - the sights, the sounds, the smell and most of all the smiles. China is a country that has captured a piece of my heart - the people I met on my travels taught me what I regard as the most fundamental lesson of my life - that being - no matter how rich or poor “a happy life is defined by what you give not by what you get.”
Q6: What changes does this travel bring to you? Do you think people, especially young people should go out and experience all the different things? And do you also have some advice about it?
I have a very firm philosophy about travel that I now practice every time I find myself in a foreign land. Travel is about changing one's perception as to how we think. It is so important to be open to experiencing a different way of thinking and living without attempting to compare it to how we live at home or against our own beliefs or social system. I certainly like to travel with an open mind and without too fixed of a plan - I find the magnificence in travel is attached to all of the people you meet along your journey and how amazing it is that though just asking questions, locals can disrupt your path or thinking and help to shape where you go and what you experience. I have always found authentic local people to be overly generous with information, hospitality and their time - regardless of all the language barriers, I have discovered that all this generally costs, is some appreciation and a smile.
Travel has certainly shaped the person I am today and I would encourage any young traveller to aim to discover themselves by searching out the unfamiliar whilst expanding their understanding of different cultures and places. Independent freestyle travel can sometimes be hard work but the rewards are measured in personal growth, in confidence and overall worldliness - all attributes that far exceeds any hardship.
If I had one piece of advice for young travellers it would be to remember to always manifest magnificence - trust that everything will be OK, get out of the cities and challenge yourself to discover new people and places. Most importantly leave your judgments and fears at home and be prepared to adapt your thinking to a different way of living - there is so much to learn if you are interested and enthusiastic, activate your sensory perceptions and give be sure to give as much of yourself to people you meet along your journey.
Q7: Could you share with us one of your most memorable ballooning experience? We’ve heard that you have flown over many countries and broke some records, what’s your ultimate flight dream?
I have been fortunate in my ballooning life to have travelled and flown throughout Australia and also many different countries around the world as part of my work. Looking down from my little basket is always such a beautiful way to experience any new environment - I like to believe it adds a new dimension of understanding to the places I visit. I find that although most people see me as a balloonist with the balloon being the most interesting aspect of my job - for myself - it is really is all of the circumstances that surround any project that are far more memorable. I don’t usually get to look at myself in a balloon - I get to look down and see people and places - but even before I fly my balloon I always find that it is the journey that has occurred to get me to where these wonderful flights take place that is the most rewarding.
I have three very memorable experiences that stand out in my ballooning career - the first was in 1996 when I was asked to establish a ballooning business in Nepal. This required me to spend my mornings gazing out across the Himalayas, which was really something that to this day I find incredible.
The second was to be invited to put a balloon up at the North Pole - a journey that had me travelling across Russia to join a Nuclear Ice Breaker that crashed through the frozen ocean to most Northern Axis of the World. It was a spiritual journey to one of the last remote regions of the world punctuated by the awe-inspiring sight of Polar Bears going about their daily arctic lives.
The third was to achieve flight across Lake Eyre in Central Australia - a trip that involved driving from Melbourne through the spectacular Flinders Ranges to the edge of Australia’s giant salt lake a place once thought to be an inland sea. Sitting with family and friends around the campfire under the big southern sky and then flying over the amazing salt basis was truly one of life’s great experiences.
As for my dream ballooning adventure - this would definitely be in China. I would so love to retrace my travels through western China and capture imagery from the air of some of the incredible landscapes that so inspired my imagination when I was 22 years old. It would be my ‘Kongming Lantern Adventure’ that highlighted the people, places, culture and cuisine. I would have to make sure that my dream flights included traversing the mountains of Guilin and Yading, drifting over the Gobi desert and of course an epic journey along the ancient pathway of the Silk Road and Great Wall. I wait for the day that my phone will ring and I will be invited to participate in such a ballooning project. It would bring me so much happiness to be given the opportunity to show my appreciation for the great gift that the Chinese people gave me 32 years ago.
Q8: What are the factors that make a perfect ballooning?
I think that when someone experiences their first ‘lighter than air’ flight in a balloon it is hard for it not to be perfect, the sensation is quite magical - watching the giant balloon come to life, the fire, the changing light and finally that magical feeling of the world drifting effortlessly under your feet is just something you never forget.
From a balloonists point of view, we like clear sky, cool crisp air, amazing sunrises and light winds. The thing that makes my morning perfect is when am sharing my world with enthusiastic and happy guests as I always draw additional pleasure from their energy - particularly if when they leave me, they tell me I have the best job in the world - haha.
Q9: Could you please use three words to describe “Australia” in your opinion？
Big Sky Dreaming
by Kiff Saunders