Waking up 2 hours before sunrise does not sound like the best start to the day.
But don’t be fooled.
Today we’re going on a hot air balloon ride. And this is the only way to do it. By the end of the flight I won’t even remember any gripes about rolling out of bed at an unholy hour. I’ll only remember the ethereal sensation of floating above Melbourne, Australia.
I’m telling you this so you don’t hit “snooze” and miss out on an experience recognised in the “Hall of Fame” by the Victorian Tourism Awards… 3 years in a row.
Yes, it’s really that good.
If you’re from Europe or North America, then Australia seems like it’s on the other side of the world. And you’re right. It is.
So, if you’re planning a big vacation all the way “down under”, then you might as well do it with a bang. Maybe I shouldn’t use the word “bang” when describing a hot air balloon ride. Bad delivery, but you get the idea.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And if I could recommend any way to see Australia’s second largest city, this would be it. It’s not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but the feeling of silently gliding above skyscrapers towards a glistening rising sun, is priceless.
There are very few major cities that allow hot air balloon tours above them. It takes a significant degree of expertise to navigate one of these craft in a densely populated urban area. Melbourne is one of those lucky few cities, thanks to its “smooth” air currents and favourable geographic features.
There’s no shortage of good reasons to visit this city. In fact, Melbourne has been ranked as the most liveable city in the world 7 years in a row. But now I can add one more reason to the list… hot air ballooning.
With only a few tour operators to choose from, I went with Global Ballooning Australia. They offer flights over Melbourne and the Yarra Valley, and have won more awards than you can poke a stick at. Their safety record is impeccable and their experienced pilots are exceptionally skilled. Oh, online bookings are also convenient and easy.
We were lucky enough to have Kiff Saunders as our pilot on the day. He also happens to the owner of the company and one of the most highly regarded balloon pilots in Australia. He regaled us with stories of his experiences flying all over the world – Japan, France, Luxembourg, China and even the North Pole. An absolutely charming character.
Ok, if you want to skip to the juicy bits… here you go. This is a visual story of a sunrise flight over Melbourne with Global Ballooning Australia.
On the big day, I admit I cursed that alarm clock, waking up before 4am. But I’m so glad I didn’t hit snooze.
A mini bus from the balloon company picked me up on time, and took passengers to a central meeting point – Pullman Hotel in this case. If you choose to drive there, discounted flat-fee undercover parking is available. Once waivers were signed, all the passengers climbed back into the mini bus. During this short stop, the balloon pilot observed wind conditions to determine the best possible launch site.
We drove to a park about 10 minutes away. One of the perks of being awake at this time of the morning is there’s no traffic. At the other end, we piled out of the bus into the dewy grass and helped with the unloading of the balloon basket off the back of the trailer.
Unlike other luxurious balloon tours around the world, this is ballooning “Aussie style” – you’ve gotta roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty… if you want. Passengers were invited to help unroll and inflate the balloon’s “envelope” (the actual fabric that holds their air) using a giant fan. This was more fun than I expected.
Once our pilot inspected everything, the burners blasted hot air and our balloon came to life. Important safety instructions were given by ground staff and the pilot, which included how to get in and out of the basket, and how to brace for landing.
Now the time had come.
Each passenger climbed into the basket, and once given the all-clear, the pilot lifted off. It seemed like only seconds later we were meeting the dawn sky. You can’t feel the wind in the balloon as the aircraft floats with the wind. The view of the sun rising over Melbourne was breathtaking. Nothing else comes close. I had to prod myself out of the jaw-gaping trance to remember to take a few photos.
A second balloon from another operator took off from the same site as us, which was very convenient as it gave us an opportunity to include a hot air balloon in our photos.
The photos above give you a pretty good idea of some of the views. But on top of this, our pilot, Kiff, shared interesting titbits about Melbourne and the landmarks we passed over.
I was fascinated watching Kiff communicate with the airport control tower to elevate and descend the balloon and catch the ideal wind currents that would take us to our desired destination.
The hot air balloon flight lasted about an hour. But it felt so much faster. Before I knew it, the ground was getting closer and the pilot gave us the instructions to prepare for landing. This involved squatting and holding on to safety handles. I can’t say the landing was like landing on a pillow. But considering the relatively small parkland we landed in, and the close proximity to houses, I was thoroughly impressed with Kiff’s laser-like precision.
The passengers climbed out and helped position the basket near the mini bus and trailer which was waiting for us. The envelope got deflated, and we all helped in rolling it up and putting it back into its storage bag. I didn’t expect that I’d be getting a workout quite like this, but my biceps were grateful.
The bus ride back to our meeting point was quiet as passengers looked over their photos and caught their breath. I used the opportunity to chat further with Kiff, and hear about his son’s recent adventures (he’s also a hot air balloon pilot). At the Pullman Hotel passengers enjoyed a 5-star buffet breakfast with champagne. The perfect way to end a spellbinding flight over Melbourne.
You won’t have to twist my arm to get me into a hot air balloon on any given day, let alone to soar over Melbourne, Australia. This is definitely the best way to see the city – nothing else comes close. If you were to spend your hard-earned on anything, then this is one of those memorable experiences that will stay with you forever.
by Josh Bender