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Up, up and away in a beautiful balloon

Two hot air balloon float in the sky about the wineries of the Yarra Valley. The mist of the morning still hang around the valley.
Hot air balloons above the Yarra Valley. Photo credit: Kate Robertson.

It’s 7am on a frosty winter’s morning in Yarra Glen, on the outskirts of Melbourne. In the darkness, dozens of people are stomping their feet on the ground and tweaking their jackets to stay warm. Waiting for their hot air balloon adventure to begin.

Volunteers are holding open the throats of six deflated balloons. Industrial fans are on full bore, pushing enough cold air inside the thick material to ready them for the propane burners. Once the hot air is pumped in, the balloons gradually lift upright, pulling the attached padded passenger baskets to rights.

We clamber in, practise a braced landing position, then we’re off. If not for the noise and heat of the burner, you could miss the take-off. The gentle rise into the skies above wineries is as lowkey as a party helium balloon bobbing to the ceiling.

Once the reality of the ground receding hits home, there is a shared gasp of wonder. And the lighting up of phone screens as the selfies begin.

Pilot Brian Garth has been flying hot air balloons, mainly in the Yarra Valley but also in Melbourne and Kenya, for more than 25 years. Despite having over 4,600 flights under his belt, it still inspires awe.

‘My favourite part of the morning is standing the balloon up. Bringing it to life from being in a bag to have it stand above my head. I don't know why, but it really appeals to me.’

Brian has seen wedding anniversaries, marriage proposals and significant birthdays all celebrated floating above the world. He reckons older people ticking off a bucket list item form the biggest proportion of his clientele.

It’s not hard to understand why. It’s not adrenaline, it’s wonder that fills you as you float up to 4,500 feet above the earth. The sun just beginning to lighten the sky. The mist blanketing the valley gradually lifting. The wineries, mountains and the tree line of the Yarra River folding in upon itself revealed.

Tracking the journey of the other balloons in the sky adds to the experience. Watching them dip and soar, following the winds and the interests of passengers.

Brian takes us downward above a small winery. We are so close, it feels like we could chat to the guy picking veggies from a large garden. Coloured autumn leaves still cling to some of the rows of vines, the air is still and it’s surprisingly quiet. It’s a peaceful place, hovering above the world, apart from the noise of the burner when Brian adds a bit more heat to the balloon.

It’s a constant balancing act. There is no steering wheel. Brian can use the burner to raise the balloon and open flaps at the top to let heat out to lower it. He can pull a strap to open a vent on one side to turn it left and another right but apart from that, the balloon’s course is at the mercy of the elements. Brian keeps a constant eye on the wind layers as they change speed and direction. The ground crew, Nick and Stoney, are also studying the weather conditions. This isto help select the most suitable of the designated landing spots.

Choice made, Brian gradually lowers the balloon onto flat land next to a cattle paddock. The passengers adopt our practised crouch. It’s a prize landing. They aren’t always, Brian tells me. Sometimes it takes a few bumps before the balloon settles. The basket is padded so the bounces just add to the adventure.

We scramble out, using the foot holes and footstool. Everyone helps push the air out of the balloon and pack it up into a large bag, ready for the next group. After more photos are taken, we head back to a winery, where our adventure began. We celebrate ticking an item off our bucket lists with a champagne breakfast.

To find our more about hot air ballooning visit Link .

Reviewed 13 November 2023