Twas a cool, dark morning one year ago, almost to the day. The morning of one of the most exciting and exhilarating adventures I have ever ever experienced. The morning that I rose at 4.30am, wearing my neckerchief and leather flying cap, and cycled maniacally through the dark Fitzroy streets, avoiding end-of-the-night revellers – drunk and stumbling onto the road, pashing wildly in alley ways, looking for cabs, looking for fights, looking for souvlakis – in the pre-dawn light.
I met Wa, my bestie, on a street corner near Gertrude Street (similarly attired in cap and scarf) and from there, we cycled through the slowly lightening morn to a hotel in East Melbourne.
No, it was not for a sordid 4 star hotel BFF tryst. It was not so we could arrive first at a neckerchief and leather flying cap convention. It was the morning we were taking a birds-eye-view of Melbourne in a hot air balloon.
We arrived at the hotel, and entered a foyer filled with people wearing polar-fleece and baseball caps and tracksuit tops, their necks weighed down by large SLR cameras. Balloon pilots were scattered about the place, with balloon-branded jumpers and clipboards and “If you fall out of the balloon we do not accept responsibility” forms for us to sign. Wa and I were herded into a minivan with six other eager adventurers (none had gone to quite the same effort as we had in the dress stakes) and we were off. Well, off to an oval in Prahran, soon to TAKE off in our gas-filled bag and basket.
When we got to the oval and our basket was lifted from the back of the van and the balloon laid out and the burner unit fired up, our pilot gave us a quick spiel on safety and landings and helped us all into the wicker basket. He attached a flashing beacon to a helium-filled party balloon and set it loose into the dawn sky, to see which way the wind was blowing (reassuring – I did NOT want to end up soaring across Port Phillip Bay) and to get a vague chart of our flight path.
Weirdly, it wasn’t until I was in the basket, with my elbows resting on its wickery side, that the following important points occurred to me: a) we were going to be up very very high, b) we were going to be up very very high IN A BASKET, c) we were going to have a large propane burner mere centimetres above our heads, and d) hellooooo, fear of heights, anyone???
I pondered these facts (with mild anxiety) as I gazed out across the park, distractedly taking photos of the other balloons slowly lifting off the ground, taking photos of Wa, taking photos of the trees, taking photos of the treetops – hang on – what was this? We’ve already taken off? We’re already above the trees, and the streetlights and the tram tracks and the hospital and – oh me, oh me – we’re floating high above the park now, actually too high to leap from the basket to the safety of terra firma and green grass. There’s no turning back now.
Over the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the Tennis Centre, and the Fitzroy Gardens, the Freemasons Hospital, and over Gertrude Street, over the street corner I’d met Wa on a few hours earlier. Over my workplace. Over Brunswick Street. Over friends’ houses. Over MY house! I actually leaned over the side (not too far, mind you) and called out to Gus as we floated above my backyard, in the hope he’d run out and woof at the hiss of the burner, but no such luck.
Over familiar streets and shops, and then… into unchartered territory. Past the familiarity of my local hood and over Brunswick, and Coburg. Over a park with a lake full of ducks. Over backyards with crazy woofing dogs, running madly in circles. Over joggers. Over men in their dressing gowns, peering up at us from their driveways as they collect their Saturday paper. Over the drive-in, its huge empty screen looming large. Over factories, roofs passing underneath so low I thought we’d come to a stop on a square of asbestos-ridden tile. Over a park and an oval and, actually, no, we’re coming down. Our pilot tells us to brace, and we all lean against the side of the basket, as we were shown earlier that morning.
And after three heavy bumps, we were on the oval and clambering out of the basket onto the dewy grass.
A trip in a hot air balloon is not nearly as terrifying as I had thought. In fact, it’s the opposite of terrifying. The silence, the gentle drift, the occasional roar of the burner – it’s calming and peaceful and slow. The world as it is seems to be all about how quickly you can get from A to B, and how instantly we seem to ‘need’ (and receive) information, and how everything needs to be mapped out and planned. Not knowing where you’re going to end up is exciting, and fun, and kinda highlights that we should focus more on where we’re at now – on looking around and learning and drifting and laughing – and less on our final destination. Don’t you think?