The list of things that can drag me out of a nice warm and comfortable bed before 7 am in the morning is rapidly decreasing. Stunning sunrises, bucket list worthy activities or spending time in the company of some lovely women all qualify. A hot air balloon flight did just that!
The prospect of all three of these found me standing in a Catalan field with low-lying mist swirling around the trees and the sky almost orange against the surrounding hills. It was cold here the flat-bottomed valley forming a cold air sump, some of the girls were already sheltering in a small van.
“sheer exhilaration and gamut of emotions”
A hot air balloon flight has always been a dream for me, having only previously taken a tethered ‘flight’ and parachuted from one in training. Describing a dream is often difficult and the words and images from this post will fall short of expressing the sheer exhilaration and gamut of emotions that I experienced as a dream was realised.
The pilots were busying themselves preparing our chariots of fire seemingly oblivious to anything but the task in hand. Gradually the huge hairdryers which were pumping air into the flimsy fabric balloons brought shape to them until they resembled giant neon garlic bulbs.
I was not feeling any anxiety whatsoever, only anticipation and excitement. Being at height is something I exult in, revelling in the feeling of exposure, a rock face or parachute silk are some of my sanctuaries.
Our pilots were finishing off the last-minute preparations, providing short blasts of hot air into each balloon and ensuring all the equipment was safe and working correctly. Taking advantage of this I explored the field getting a few more images from different angles, the mist now quite thick around my feet, resembling ethereal treacle.
Soon we were ready to go, climbing into the basket, there was little time wasted, it was not exactly lift-off. Drift-off maybe a more accurate description; we gently floated into the air and quickly gained height until we were far above the other balloon, the ground receding below us.
As our altitude increased everything on the ground began to take on a toy like quality, people vehicles, trees and even houses become miniaturised. Initially it seems very quiet but with a little prompting from our pilot to listen carefully it is possible to hear the wind gently blowing through the trees and dogs barking. Sounds drift up to us quite easily, and are easy to hear once attuned to listening for them.
“drifting like a cloud”
We are travelling surprisingly fast, drifting like a cloud in a flimsy willow basket below a huge air-filled globe of sheer fabric. Our pilot obviously realised we had become accustomed to drinking cava whatever the situation and we are soon enjoying a breakfast of cava and cake.
The views that drift before us are simply breathtaking in the clear morning, light which is apparently always the best for ballooning. Extinct volcanoes are way below us, small copses, cultivated fields, villages and larger towns all change their character as the morning light changes.
The hues of the sky gradually changed from the early golden yellow to dusky pink and finally becoming an azure blue as the sun finally began to overtake us. The mist was also beginning to clear except for the most stubborn patches clinging in the isolated hollows. This made everything appear a little hazy as if looking through a sheet of perspex and providing a suitable dreamlike quality.
The only slight disturbance to the reverie was the constant sound of camera shutters as everybody in our willow haven attempted to capture every single awe-inspiring vision that appeared before our eyes. We drank cava and ate cake high in the sky, chatted amicably and gasped occasionally at a particularly impressive vista. Our pilot provided a calm narrative, not intrusive but informative acting as our guide pointing out anything of interest as we floated by.
“giant sheet of fabric just a few millimetres thick”
I attempted to retreat within myself just a little, becoming selfish, soaking up every sublime view, and each jaw dropping moment. Ultimately however this did not feel right, it was not only my dream it was something we shared, a common bond forged with the earth far below us and supported by the giant sheet of fabric just a few millimetres thick above our heads. These were my feelings at least.
All too soon it was time to descend and we gradually began to return back to earth and reality. The sun now high above us, caused the balloon to cast a dark shadow. Watching its progress over fields and passing through buildings was strangely compelling.
We recieved an explanation of how to ‘brace’ for landing but after several unsuccessful attempts our eventual ‘touch-down’ was exceedingly gentle. The base of our basket basically just ‘kissed’ the ground as the dream came to an end.
The pilot needed to move to a corner of the field, requiring the other guys and I to get out and lighten the load. The girls took off again but this time only a few feet off the ground and one of the other pilots provided the slightly surreal image of pushing the balloon to the chosen corner.
“amazing speed and efficiency”
The huge air-filled sphere deflated with amazing speed and efficiency. Within a few short minutes it was laid out flat on the ground and the pilots were already busy squeezing the last remnants of air from it and beginning to fold it up ready for transport.
Suddenly that was that, it was all over, almost rudely awoken from our amazing dream. The emotional high took sometime longer to come down from than our descent from the heavens. The mood in the vehicle as we returned to base seemed reflective, there was little conversation. Our heads still in the clouds maybe, or perhaps it was just my own feelings that made it seem this way.
Time to snap out of it however, there were still plenty planned for us in Catalonia, but first it was time to enjoy ‘breakfast’ and yet more cava.
Very grateful to Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona for organising this trip and to the pilots of Vol de Coloms for providing “an experience of a lifetime”.