Text message from a friend on an ordinary Friday afternoon: "You're booked to fly at 8 a.m. on Sunday".
Instant panic. Flying in a hot air balloon is one of those things I've thought about for years, always imagining it to be a wonderful and exciting experience, but always imagining it safe in the knowledge that I would never actually do it – much along the same lines as: "it must be terrific to view the earth from outer space," or "it would be exhilarating to traverse the Himalayas." Having a friend who decides to go out and actually organise it for you is quite another matter. Even then actual reality did not prevail until the text message arrived - my name's down, I'm booked!
There then followed two days of trying very hard not to think about it, and having the collywobbles every time I did, until the moment I found myself rising from my slumbers at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning – a minor miracle in itself I might add – and being driven down highways and byways to a petrol station in Catral near Elche where we'd been ordered to meet punctually. And it was punctual – arriving on the dot, we were the last of a party of about a dozen people – all of them, I was glad to note, looking about as dazed and apprehensive as I felt. All the other participants were Spanish, as were the two organisers, but they were able to speak enough English to explain everything that was necessary.
We all climbed into a mini bus which was towing a worryingly small wicker basket, and were driven along a few country tracks until a good taking-off spot was found. There was something curiously improvised about the search, but we were told it was something to do with the meteorological conditions, so we all nodded nervously but wisely and kept our thoughts to ourselves. Once a suitable spot was found the balloon itself had to be unfurled, and what a huge multi-coloured monster a hot air balloon is! It was spread out before us half way across a field while we all stood round gazing on in disbelief at this vast strip of material which was going to carry us up into the heavens! Then the burner was set up – it looked a bit like a giant version of some Girl Guides camping equipment - and the flame was directed towards the balloon opening. It took about 20 minutes to inflate, gradually billowing out further and further until it started to raise itself off the ground. Meanwhile I walked around it warily, noticing things like pulleys to air flaps right at the top and the occasional patched hole along the side with increasing anxiety and utter disbelief that I had got myself into this situation in the first place.
We'd been divided into two groups, and mine was the second one to fly, so I was able to watch the procedure for the other group first. As the balloon lifted itself up the basket was swiftly and efficiently attached, the burner placed inside, and everybody was suddenly ordered to climb in quickly using little holes at the side of the basket for their feet. And no sooner had they done so but lo and behold, they started to float away! One of their number had looked absolutely transfixed with horror for some time. He was gripping a video camera which he wasn't using, and had the glazed grin of the truly terrified. He's the one to watch, I thought, if he comes down looking cool I'm going up, if he comes down looking half as bad as he went up, then that's it, they can count me out!
They floated up into a blue almost cloudless sky in serene and majestic silence, which was only broken by the wooshing sound of the flame as the burner was opened to propel the balloon upwards. The rest of us got back into the mini-bus and the driver communicated with the pilot using a walkie-talkie. She explained that a hot air balloon cannot be steered at all, it can only move up and down between different air currents, so we had the job of keeping our eye on the balloon and finding our way down various country tracks to the place it eventually landed.
Three quarters of an hour later we were watching the balloon descend with a bump in the middle of a field. I went straight to my man who had completely lost his expression of terror and was looking incredibly relaxed and cheerful: "How was it?" I asked. "Fenomal, genial, fantástico". It hadn't been at all frightening and he'd thoroughly enjoyed every minute - honestly! So that was it – the die was cast and my turn had come.
We climbed into the wicker basket with the same rapidity as the previous group and in no time at all we were away, drifting upwards into a glorious sunlit silence. Our pilot chatted to us, we made noises of amazement and delight, and we looked down to see our minibus and the figures around it get smaller and smaller, as we took into our view the farms and orchards surrounding them. We drifted in the gentle winds and from time to time there was a woosh as the burner blew more hot air into the balloon. We looked across to the slightly misted mountains on one side, the stretch of Mediterranean blue on the other, we saw villages and towns merging with the countryside, saw cars moving along the motorway and caught the occasional flash of sunlight in their mirrors.
After a while the pilot took us down near the ground and we brushed across fields of crops and grass. As we slowly rose again we skirted the tops of lemon trees, cleared the rooves of country buildings and set the dogs off barking. We looked at "palomares" or dovecots where male pigeons were kept ready for racing, we peered down at reservoirs and outhouses, villas with swimming pools, and we saw farmers, hands on hips, looking up at us to see if we were going to come down on their land. Towards the end of the flight we were followed by two microlight planes, their pilots and ours being friends "¡Hola Manolo! ¿Qué tal?" All too soon it was time to land and our pilot shouted out to a farmer for permission which was happily given, to land on a patch of land next to his house. We clambered out and I walked over and chatted to the old, one-toothed farmer about his pigeons while the huge balloon was carefully folded back and everything dismantled. And that was it! From the moment we had lifted off the ground all my apprehension had completely melted away. I, and all my companions, were enchanted by the experience which had passed all too quickly. Now I understand why people fly in hot-air balloons, it is a magical, peaceful and fascinating experience.
After our flight we were taken for a picnic of "empanadas" under the shade of a tree. We were told that after the first ever balloon flight the pilot had been toasted with champagne and that now it is a tradition for everyone to drink champagne after their first adventure in a hot air balloon. Champagne glasses were produced and we all congratulated ourselves. When we were finally taken back to our cars we said goodbye to each other like old friends. Everyone exchanged kisses and handshakes and thanked the pilot and his companion for giving us such a truly unforgettable experience which we would recommend to all our friends.
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This article is published courtesy of CB Friday in association with thinkspain.com