I clearly remember my first thoughts whilst drifting over Camden on my first balloon flight in 1987 - ‘How cool would it be to travel Australia with a balloon and flying over some of this country’s spectacular landscapes’. I never would have imagined at the time the journey that was about to begin.
It has always fascinated me, as I barge my way through life, how being interested, determined and pro-active leads to manifesting magnificence. I have always suffered from adventure envy - that being - watching someone else engaged in amazing activities whilst I sit around dreaming.
This self-imposed feeling of ‘missing out’ has been the catalyst for most of my inspiration to get out of bed and start moving in a direction that is anywhere off the well-trodden path. This attitude has been far from strategic, more a stubbornness to prove something to myself. Interestingly, through years of casting my fate to the wind I have learnt that the best experiences hide in the random opportunities that present though just being out and about. When one dwells in this mindset you meet like-minded inspirational people who give you confidence to extend your own version of yourself. Throughout my early travelling years to now I can attribute nearly all of my most spectacular memories to individuals who have inspired me or shared a similar passion for a challenge.
As a father of three who grew up prior to the tech revolution I am a little obsessive in regards to the legacy that I am able to pass on to my children. It certainly is impossible to fight the influence that mobile phones and instantaneous amusement has on killing outdoor creative imagination. This is just a fact of modern life and therefore it is far more beholden on parents to be active with their children if they wish to instill some old fashion values.
It is interesting, that despite all the concerns for the youth of today, to see how quickly we forget the core essence of our own youthful enthusiasm, that place where nothing really matters, fear of the unknown does not exist and time is not relative to any fixed point. In reality these attributes, although somewhat immature are fundamental to inner contentment. We get wrapped up in our own busyness and forget that leading by example is fundamentally the best legacy that you can give your kids.
On this point I have attempted to make amends by reminding myself how much joys exists for all concerned when you leave all the excuses at home and hit the road. Given I now have three, second generation, balloon pilots in the family along with a troupe of young enthusiastic friends all keen to create their own memories, it is hard to escape the energy and their desire to recreate some old ballooning exploits.
The flight over the Snowy Mountains is one of those adventure flights that have been firmly on the boy’s agenda and something that we have talked about for several years. Although technically not that difficult a flight to achieve given you only need to fly about 50km - getting suitable weather conditions at a time that suits everyone is much harder. A flight over high mountains is always a little more technical given the propensity for cloud and of course mountain waves. Ideally you want calm conditions on the ground, fast winds up top and inversion layers that hold for at least three hours after sunrise. This makes winter the ideal time to conduct the ‘Snowy’ flight, as there are regular westerly winds and freezing surface temperature.
Having had a few false starts over the past years including a cancelation on the field, the decision to drive to Khancoban to attempt an Alpine crossing was purely speculative. Eddie and Harry were the keen drivers of enthusiasm having spent all week studying the weather given they are competitively working on getting a few notches under their ballooning adventure belts. Me, having spent a week conducting flying training in the freezing cold of Northern Victoria, and feeling a little under the weather, certainly needed convincing that the fog/cloud forecast would not make the expedition a long drive rather than a epic flight. After much MET research and discussion between Ed and myself the decision was made to go - with Harry champing at the bit to hit the road. The key factor in our ‘go’ decision was the fact that it was forecast to be minus 4 degrees, which hopefully would keep the forecast fog frozen to the ground and the fact we also had a friend staying at Jindabyne who we could call prior to launch to determine the conditions on the other side of the mountains.
Eddie and Georgia (Croft) set about packing our two balloons onto one large trailer and assembling all the required necessary gear including swags and lots of fuel. Bronnie (Bowen) was coerced into crewing for ‘Team Saunders’ and by sundown the Troopie was packed and ready to hit the road. ‘Team Fraser’ involving Harry, Mia, Zach and Lauren arrived just in time to crash my pre-expedition roast fillet dinner, eat everything in sight and then head out the door prior to washing up - happily taking all the other helpers - leaving Scarlett and me with an hours worth of cleaning.
The plan was that Lemmings would head up to Khancoban, camp the night in swags, assess the early morning cloud/fog and report back as I drove up in the early morning with Scarlett. - My secret hope was that I could be turned around if VMC conditions were not suitable - which was a seriously misguided expectation given the Lemmings were still firmly wrapped up in their swags with the temperature at minus 3.
Cracking the whip the team jumped into action and by the time we arrived they were brushing ice off the gear and attempting to determine the wind direction. Given there was no wind of significance below 6000ft and building fog that prohibited seeing the upper wind, which ruled out launching from Khancoban, the decision was made to relocate to Geehi in the Alpine National Park. At the time it was my hope that we would have clearer conditions at Geehi to allow us to hopefully observe a pi-bal up into the forecast westerly gradient wind, which would provide us with the perfect track to Jindabyne.
The 30-minute drive to the launch field was a little treacherous with considerable black ice on the winding Alpine Way but our relocation was rewarded with completely clear conditions and thick frost on the ground. After a bit of fluffing around given us losing the first pi-bal we reloaded and launched 3 helium balloons tied together which enabled us to confirm that there was westerly at speed. A phone call to our Jindabyne contact confirmed that it was clear and calm on the other side of the ranges resulting in a flurry of activity to inflate the three balloons.
The issue with launching from Geehi is that it is one of only a few clear spots in the Alpine National Park so there is no opt out once airborne until you hit the snow line. This can be a little daunting when you are waiting to hit the gradient wind and confirm that everything is on track - although in reality there really is not much to be done other than enjoy the view. This is where preparation is crucially important as regardless of the conditions you still need to allow for the fact that you might be off target or in a position where you may need to activate an emergency plan and spend the night out in the cold.
Having two young pilots in tow certainly adds to the responsibility for getting it right and I must admit to feeling added pressure to make sensible decisions. I am fortunate that both Eddie and Harry have been around balloons for a long time and are confident to handle the additional pressure, which made the decision to launch much easier. With the three balloons inflated and baskets stuffed with additional survival gear along with a female co-pilot (Georgia, Scarlett and Mia) on board, quick releases where pulled and our rapid ascent to a Snowy Mountain crossing began.
Seeing my GPS hit 54 km/hr heading straight at Jindabyne at 7000ft gave me time to relax and enjoy what is fundamentally the great joy of our sport. Looking out across such spectacular country with snow capped mountains from our little wicker platform whilst sharing the experience with family and friends is such a rewarding experience. It is with great pride that I get to spend these precious moments with my children and for them to share it with their friends. These moments are lasting and it is not really about the balloon flight - it is about all that happens around such an adventure, the planning, the journey, the sleeping out, the camaraderie and energy that surrounds getting out, living life and making memories.
The flight itself was relatively straightforward, outside of some mountain wave turbulence on the leeward side of the ski slopes, which kept Eddie alert (being the first to discover it). Harry and Mia won the prize for best flight having completed a ‘ski and dash’ at 12 knots on the top of the mountain - whilst I just enjoyed taking ‘selfies’ with Scarlett. Our approach to landing on the edge of Lake Jindabyne allowed all three balloons to play around in some light and variable steerage, which resulted in us all landing within 100 metres of each other much to the retrieve teams delight.
A balloon flight would not be complete without a post flight feast, so after our pack up and mandatory team pix we all piled off to Jindabyne to enjoy a late breakfast in preparation for the 7-hour drive back home.
There is a new order in Australian ballooning that is quite exciting - I am heartened to see so many young offspring of balloonists taking to the burner. Our beautiful sport will be enhanced greatly by the injection of youth and enthusiasm - I certainly hope that flights such as our Snowy crossing inspire other young balloonists to get out of bed and challenge themselves. It is not that hard and regardless of whether the adventure occurs or not - it is mainly about giving it a go and knowing that it is all about the journey not the destination.