UP AND AWAY
Getting up well before the birds is not always fun, but when the reason is a once-in-a-lifetime hot air balloon ride, then it’s a different story.
It’s a crisp winter’s morning and still pitch black as we make our way from Christchurch to the Hororata base for a 6.45am start. Our group comprises 10 people; a local couple celebrating a birthday and a family from Singapore who are taking to the sky on their final day of a 12-day tour around New Zealand.
A father and son duo runs Ballooning Canterbury from the family farm. Director and chief pilot Michael Oakley and son Nick have a wealth of flying experience under their belts. Both are New Zealand glider pilot champions and have represented New Zealand at the world gliding championships, and Michael at the World Balloon Championships, so we are in capable hands.
Today we’re flying in the biggest of their three balloons. This one takes 16, but they also offer intimate rides for two (plus the pilot).
It’s a hands-on experience that requires our help, so Michael talks us through a safety brief and what’s required to set up the balloon.
Unpacking the massive balloon is light work with many hands. I volunteer to hold open the mouth of the balloon so the two huge fans can inflate the envelope with cold air before hot air is added to bring it upright.
Once the last safety checks are complete and the last of us climb into the basket, we’re ready for take-off. Unlike a plane where the roar of the jets and force of the upward momentum signals take off, a hot air balloon is a completely different experience. So quiet and smooth is it that it takes me a while to realise we are already rising – utter magic!
The sun begins to rise over a single band of low-lying fog. Michael tells us this is an excellent sign of perfect flying conditions. And, as we silently rise off the ground and float above the endless stretch of paddocks, it’s clear we couldn’t have picked a better day.
Drinking in the spectacular views of Mount Cook’s snowy tips glistening in the morning sun, I’m pleasantly surprised at how the air is warmer up here than on the ground and without a breath of wind, which, Michael explains, is because we’re flying with the air currents.
Towards the end of our ride, as we start our descent, we spy sheep, cows and horses turning their heads as we sail above them. And, a young family ventures outside, with steaming mugs of morning coffee in hand to give us a friendly wave.
While the panoramic views are breathtaking, it’s when we are so close to a patch of forest below us that we can literally reach out and touch the treetops, that is the standout moment for me.
Back on solid ground after a smooth landing, we all pitch in to help pack up the balloon. Over a champagne breakfast and a light snack, Michael recounts the story of how this magical mode of transport was first discovered by two French brothers who then pioneered the first hot air balloon ride over the streets of Paris.
A stunning start to an idyllic day in Canterbury, a hot air balloon ride is one experience highly recommended for any bucket list.
WORDS Majka Kaiser PHOTOS Cassandra Kovacs