On a propane-fuelled high
Life in the sky seemed to have halted. There was just a gentle wind and an occasional cheer from children waving from the ground. A round-up of the world's biggest annual ballooning festival.
NIGHT GLOW: To the accompaniment of music, the balloonists synchronise the "flame bursting" in their balloons. PHOTOS: SHARBENDU DE
IT all began in 1783 when not many were not around to give a hand to Joseph and Etienne, the Montgolfier brothers. Nevertheless, their passionate spirit gave humankind its first taste of the open skies when they launched an unmanned hot-air balloon from the pastures of France the first ever flight of mankind. Many proudly recall the Wright brothers to be the pioneers of aviation; contritely speaking (if this disappoints you) it was the Montgolfier brothers for their "hot-air balloon".
France has maintained the tradition but Bristol a famous pirate-city in the South-West of England has taken it miles further. Every year, since 1979, the city has played host to the world's biggest "hot-air ballooning" fiesta with upto half a million cheer visitors bustling in the green fields of the Ashton court.
... . my telephone rang. Eleni Kyriacou from the "Bristol Balloon fiesta" office was on the line, surprisingly talking to me through the fiesta. "There's going to be a night glow tomorrow. It's going to be an amazing treat to the senses. You're too late, but if you wish I can try to book you for flying with one of our balloonists." As it should have, it sounded like a sales gimmick to a middle-class Indian, stingy enough to spend a fortune for the pleasure of floating in air. An hour later the phone rang. "I've managed to book you with `Spirit Balloons' who have been flying in Myanmar as well." Finding a seat at such short notice for Europe's biggest ballooning event was extremely difficult.
For free? Squarely impossible.
I happened to be in Bristol on leisure shopping in a Tesco or Sainsbury's outlet, window shopping at M&S; apprehensively ambling past sleazy crime-ridden streets of Eastville and St. Paul's in the afternoons; dining over Spanish Tapas and Sangria (a Spanish drink of a passionately guarded cocktail of spirits served with floating chunks of fruits in a big jar) in Jane Austen's world heritage city of Bath.
"You're lucky to fly on that wonder stuff mate," said Bob (not Marley), a local photographer specialising in aviation photography. The balloons by now were being pulled out of the vans and spread for what each seemed to be over half-a-mile long. Stripes of maroon, blue, red, green, burgundy and white began engulfing the enclosed acres of the sprawling court while over a lakh visitors cheered up, tossing their little Johns and Emilies' in the air.
Lee, the chief pilot and owner of "Spirit Balloons" had aired a message for me. Eleni escorted me to my balloon. The propane had started flowing and the fire was blasting into the shrivelled envelopes. Gradually, as the envelopes breathed in more hydrogen, they started inflating and rising into an almost enormous contraption. The Mitsubishi's and Lancers were accelerating their wheels hard to keep the desperate balloons pinned to the earth. "Hop in quickly," my pilot Adam hollered, as the crew struggled to hold the disobedient balloon.
`Burning hot', then silence
"It's burning hot in here," I hollered back a minute after hopping inside that desperate one sq. metre basket. The propane was making it unbearable when a balloon just effortlessly rose past us into "god land" without a whimper. The enormous crowd around the enclosure was screaming cheerily, the car engines were revving up and the propane was spitting menacing proportions of heat. An envelope of silence suddenly descended on the vicinity. I woke up conscious of the stark contrast around, looked down and realised we too had taken our flight towards god land. The abrupt silence led to emanated a salubrious emotion of peace within; an emotion that, till date, has left its impact.
We were now several thousands of feet above the ground. Afloat without much effort, Adam got his map out and was talking into his walkie-talkie giving route instructions to our retriever vehicle. Life around in the sky seemed to have halted. There was no rush, no honking, no traffic; instead a polite brush of the wind, an occasional cheer from children waving from the ground and their parents who had joined their Johns and Emilies' in waving to us. "Keep waving back," instructed Adam while waving at the jumping audiences. "That's the biggest responsibility a balloon pilot and passenger share. People expect recognition to flow from the muted sky."
One of the most astonishing facets of the British landscape is the amazing magnanimity with which it changes. The swanky city of Bristol was quietly ambling past. People were whizzing about in their convertibles; women drying their clothes in their backyards; children playing in the parks ... . We were catching the nerves of city line from an astonishing vantage point offered only to a handful. We crossed Sir Isambard Brunel's historic Clifton suspension bridge, breathed the fragrance flowing from the flower reserves of the Clifton gorges and drifted towards the river Severn.
"Watch yourself!" a voice shrilled from nowhere. A man from the pastures below holding his blonde John was shouting at me in warning concern as I was leaning way too out of the basket out of curiosity. "Thanks! Have a nice day mate," I cheered back, waving at them. Unbelievable! You're flying and yet you're so much a part of the terra firma that you can watch, listen to and even talk to them and yet be away from the hustle and bustle. "It's only ballooning in this whole world that offers you this luxury," Adam emphasised.
Over 128 diversely coloured balloons donning commercial endorsements were sailing around with passengers waving and blowing kisses in camaraderie.
In the evening, Lee corked open a bottle of Champagne for Adam and me. As we raised a toast to the spirits, the music rocked aloud and the propane from over 40 balloons spat through the sprawling acres of the Ashton court, once again holding everyone in enticement of the nightglow. A fluorescent halo lit the teeming faces. A magical orchestra was set on display where at the beat of music, fire from the balloons went up altogether and at the next beat-- utter darkness. Ballooning once might have been the aspiration of a handful in isolation, but the dream of the Montgolfier brothers now has not only been realised but also received wings with a flap of the spirit and the slap of the wind.
Where: Ashton court in Bristol, England. Ballooning is done throughout the South West of England.
When: Every year in August.
Costs: £160.00 inclusive of VAT per person for flying at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta with Spirit Balloons. The normal cost is £155.00 per person inclusive of VAT regardless of whether the flight starts from Bristol, Bath, South Wales. Flight vouchers are valid at all these locations.
The cost for ballooning through Burma is likely to be £6,500 per person for seven days. Tailor-made packages might be cheaper. Write to email@example.com for details
Contact: Eleni Kyriacou, Bristol Balloon Fiestas Ltd (Ph: +44 0117 966 8716; firstname.lastname@example.org
For ballooning packages and bookings: Lee Hooper, Spirit Balloons, (email@example.com)
Miscellaneous: For every essential detail on Bristol see www.visitbristol.co.uk
For Bath, check www.visitbath.co.uk (Bath is a World Heritage City and is just a 40-minute drive from the City Centre, Bristol).
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