Yesterday, I was finally able to complete one of the items on my 30 before 30 list. I have four-and-a-half years left before I hope to complete the list and, while I’m working on a couple of items (specifically numbers 3, 11, 15, 20, 21 and 24), I haven’t completed any of them yet.
Yesterday I rode in a hot air balloon!
As I mentioned in the last post, Joery and I were lucky enough to purchase our furniture from a store who was in the midst of a promotional campaign where they offered free rides in a hot air balloon in lieu of a small discount off your furniture. Since the discount was smaller than the cost of a two-person hot air balloon ride (and because it’s on my to-do list), Joery decided to take the tickets. And Saturday, with predictions for clear skies and some wind, we got a phone call asking if we would like to ride in a balloon the following day.
The entire experience was great, providing you don’t dwell too much on questions such as “I wonder if I fall from this height whether I would bounce off the electrical wires or if they would just cut me into tiny pieces before I hit the ground”, or “if the bottom falls out of the basket, how long can I hold on before plummeting to my death?” (What can I say, I watch too much TV).
But really, I had an absolutely amazing time. The company was located in Sint-Niklaas, which is about 30 minutes from Ghent (it’s actually right between Ghent and Antwerp, so you could kind of see both cities once in the sky). Apparently the city is rather renowned for their hot air balloons, and every year there’s a hot air balloon festival in September that celebrates the liberation of the city by British troops from the German occupation in 1944.
Take-off was a little intense, since I had no idea what to expect. While we were waiting for our balloon to be ready for lift-off, there were two other balloons already preparing for flight. The first one took off so quickly and rose really fast. It definitely made me a bit nervous, so I had always imagined hot air ballooning to consist of slow ascents and gentle descents, which is not really the case. We basically had to hurry into the basket (we were with four other passengers and the pilot) and once the team let go and the pilot turned up the flame, we went up quickly. My ears even popped.
But once up in the air the view swept just sweeps over you. It was a really clear day, so we could see quite far (though seeing Ghent meant looking directly into the sun, so I couldn’t make out the city’s towers). We took off around 7pm and landed right after sunset, around 8:30pm. Most of the trip was over the countryside, though we did fly over part of Lokeren (and an industrial park after missing our initial landing space). I think the highest we went was about a kilometer up (3,280 feet), though we bobbed up and down a lot (at one point we were lower than the top of a tree that we drifted past).
The highlight for me was hearing a little voice yelling, “Hallo, HALLLLLLLLOOOOOO” and (after a bit of searching) looking down to see a kid standing in his backyard waving his hands like crazy. I waved back and I think it surprised him, because afterwards he ran all the way to the end of his yard and started jumping up and down and shouting (this time something completely incomprehensible), almost as if he was stranded on an island and we were the rescue balloon. It’s amazing how far sound travels, because we were quite high at that point in time. I also was able to hear the organ music coming from (presumably) one of the churches of a little village we flew over.
Another surprise was how much the basket wobbled. I don’t know what I expected, but any shift in weight caused the basket to dip a little. Not enough that anyone could actually fall out (it did come up to your elbows) or even lose their balance, but enough to be noticeable (and cause the above questions to pop into your mind).
We also got to see the sunset from the sky, though it was a bit accidental. We planned on landing in a field, but we got caught in a gust of wind and weren’t descending fast enough, so we had to switch the plan and go back up before colliding with a barn.
Landing was a bit rough. We bounced a couple of times and almost tipped over before getting caught in a small barbed wire fence. Joery hopped out and, as the pilot gave a little bit of flame to rise the balloon a bit, pulled us toward the middle of the field.
After packing the balloon back into the trailer, we all stood in a circle in the middle of the field and the pilot poured us all a glass of champagne and told us the story of the first hot air balloons.
The brothers who invented the form of travel (initially with paper balloons and rabbit test-subjects), noticed that after people rode in the balloon’s basket, they started experiencing problems with their balance. So they devised a test to make sure their passengers were alright to go home. Each passenger, upon disembarking, had to kneel on the ground and put their nose on top of their glass. They were supposed to maintain that position for 30 seconds and, if they experienced no balance issues upon standing up, were free to go home.
And, as we all took the “test” the pilot went around and poured champagne on our heads (apparently, baptizing us into ballooning).
And, just so you know, tripping while you stand up afterwards (as I did) is not such a good plan.
All in all, a very good day. It was a bit cold, though, so I seem to be a bit sick today, but it was totally worth it.