Bike Down Mt Wellington

View from the Top

While it’s certainly not the only bicycle experience to tick off in Tasmania, or even on our bucket list, this ride does have a crucial element we can all appreciate: down. Bike rides are great but, unless you’re into pain and muscular glory, they’re even more fun when all you have to do is hang on, apply the brakes and let gravity do the rest. Add spectacular views over one of Australia’s most beautiful cities – or the chance to rip through some local trails – and this bucket list experience all but pedals itself. The peak called kunanyi/Mount Wellington (a dual name that respects the mountain’s Indigenous heritage) towers 1271 metres over Hobart. It features the Jurassic dolerite ‘organ pipe’ cliffs that I’ve seen on mountains in Argentina, South Africa and Antarctica, geological reminders of the days when all three were linked as the Gondwana supercontinent. More importantly for local residents, the imposing mountain creates a rain shadow, allowing Hobart to be the second driest capital in the nation, even though it is located in a rather wet state. Often capped with snow year- round, the summit lookout has significantly lower temperatures than downtown Hobart. You can also expect blustery winds, a sensational view and a dozen people wearing fluorescent vests standing next to mountain bikes. Under Down Under Tours run two to three descents of the mountain every day during summer, providing transfers, bikes, guides and a support vehicle. On the drive up, passing the remains of hard- wood trees destroyed in a huge mountain fire in 1967, our guide points out hazards to watch for.

‘We’ll be going down 21 kilometres. Don’t worry, I’ve rarely seen anyone break out in a sweat,’ he says, reassuringly.
Certainly, the weather is cooperating a lot better than my first descent a dozen years ago. I still remember the wind chill blowing through my bones, and the disappointing view of mist from the lookout point. Today I see Greater Hobart and its surrounds in all its glory – the city, hills, islands, ocean and Derwent River. I also see people arriving at the summit having pedalled up by bicycle, which must be spectacular fitness training and/or a horrendous form of physical torture. We hop on our bikes and begin the first descent to a spot where we can regroup, take some photos and adjust our seats for comfort. Two kilometres pass very quickly when you’re rocketing down a steep hill surrounded by alpine forest. We’re advised to keep left as we’re sharing the road with cars, and without lines in the road vehicles tend to gravitate towards the centre. We’re merely cruising down, taking corners as fast as our nerves can handle, with our support vehicle bringing up the rear. At
our next meeting spot, our guide Lainie points out an optical illusion. In the distance below is the gentle arc of the Tasman Bridge linking Hobart to the eastern suburbs. ‘If you stand the Tasman Bridge on its end, it would be taller than Mount Wellington,’ she muses, which seems illogical from way up here, but since the bridge is 1.4 kilometres long, it makes perfect sense.

As we continue onwards, the flora changes to reflect the altitude, although I’m too busy looking ahead and smiling with the exhilaration of speed. Bikers can opt for an off-road section next, which everyone in my group agrees would be a fine idea. Although there will be some peddling and tricky navigation over loose gravel, it’s an opportunity to experience the unspoiled natural environment off the paved road. Biking on forest trails, we reconnect with the road and continue into the suburbs that have been cut into the foothills. We stop at the Cascade Brewery to admire the old convict-cut stones, and pedal past the historic Female Factory (where thousands of convict women and children were imprisoned) before joining city traffic. Snaking through various neighbourhoods, we conclude
the ride at our departure point on Elizabeth Street. All in, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour round trip, although without the stops to regroup and chat, you could shave much of that time off. As a tour, it’s a fine way to orientate yourself around Hobart, and easily one of the world’s best commercial biking descents. Our short stint in the forest leaves me hungry for more. With its hilly surrounds, fresh air and great views, Tasmania offers some of the best mountain biking in the country.

That same afternoon, Harry Nichols – local hero, up-and- coming Enduro World Series competitor and Discovery Parks brand ambassador – agrees to take me into the Meehan Range bike park in Clarence. It’s a popular play- ground of marked trails, tracks and jumps, although this time I have to pedal up to enjoy the down. Harry blitzes on runs named Corkscrew, Cliff Top and Smooth as Butter, and I do an awful job trying to keep up. I do, however, execute a couple of awkward wipeouts.
‘Please don’t do as I do. Just go where I go,’ I tell Harry. Harry tells me about the Maydena Bike Park, the country’s biggest gravity-based bike path, which opened up about ninety minutes outside the city. Tasmania has a welcoming community of mountain bikers, volunteers, bike shops and trail keepers; it’s the kind of destination that belongs on any enthusiastic mountain biker’s bucket list. As for the rest of us, all we have to do is sit in the saddle and start at the top of a mountain.

Click here for more info about the Mount Wellington Descent from The Great Australian Bucket List. 

How to Travel Australia with Kids

This month sees the publication of 75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (before they don’t want to go).    You see, while living and writing The Great Australian Bucket List, I was also travelling with my wife and two kids, aged 2 and 5, moving at a frenetic pace that very nearly did all of us in.  Family travel, I was learning, is an entirely different beast.   But we discovered some truly incredible wonders for all ages, gathered priceless memories, and also learned a thing or two.   To celebrate the launch of the new book, here’s some of that hard-fought wisdom for parents of young kids, and the people and family who support them.

75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (Published by Affirm Press)
  • There Are No Gurus

With due respect, any Mom or Dad who claims to have family travel figured out is delusional, likely fibbing, or paying someone a lot of money to look after their kids. The truth is: young kids do not give a flying crap about your best laid plans and intentions. Rather, they’ll make a crap while you’re flying (probably an explosive one, the kind that just violates a diaper).   Children under the age of five are frequently erratic, inefficient, agitated, annoying, moody, and instinctively know how to push your buttons. And this is before you take them on a stressful journey. Of course, you love them more than anything in the world, and there are moments of such tenderness, magic and wonder it makes all other forms of travel – backpacking, honeymooning, grey nomading – pale. But you will work for those moments, and pay for them in blood, sweat, tears and dollars. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  • Flying

If there’s strategy, we tried it. Not letting the kids nap so they’ll sleep on the plane (they didn’t). Letting them nap so they’d be rested (they weren’t). Buying books, loading up devices, crayons for colouring in…the reality is that some flights are terrible, and some flights are not. Overwhelmingly, we found Jetstar’s crew to be sympathetic and helpful. Fellow passengers meanwhile could be broken down into several categories: a) We’ve been there and Thank God we’re not there any more b) How dare you bring your snotty kids on this plane and ruin my flight c) I’m right there with you and we’d chat but my kid is eating the tray that was last wiped down in 1997 …and d) Every cent I invested in these noise cancelling headphones was worth it. Never will time tick more slowly than when you find yourself on a plane with your screaming, inconsolable, jetlagged and overtired infant and toddler. The best thing that can be said for flying is that it eventually ends, you will land in your destination, it beats spending all those hours in a car, and with devices, flying today is very much easier than it used to be.

  • Driving

We drove almost 20,000 kilometres during our trip, and it definitely helped that we were in a comfortable Ford Everest. With direction from my toddler, I curated a playlist of 100 songs I knew my kids would enjoy, and adults might be able to stomach on endless repeat. We learned that snacks must be instantly accessible, along with wipes, and towels for sudden eruptions of projectile vomit on winding roads (watch for seismic clues like the kids being too quiet, moaning, or turning sepia). Good car seats are essential (we went with Britax) with the advantage of the kids being strapped in. Sometimes strapping them in was an easy process, and sometimes we’d lean in too close to fasten a buckle and get the open-handed slap to the face. Don’t blame the kid, you’re a sitting duck. GPS definitely takes the sting out of getting lost and provides some indication on how long the journey will take, not that this will stop the endless barrage of “Are We There Yet?”   Road games help, especially for the older kids. Drugs occasionally help, especially for parents.

  • Packing

Before you depart, resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to pack far more than you need. Imagining every conceivable scenario, you simply can’t help yourself. What if it gets unseasonably hot, cold, wet, dry, or buggy? If it does, you can deal with it with a quick visit to the store, mall or market. Our kids outgrew their shoes twice in 10 months. For almost a year, their wardrobe consisted of a small suitcase that seemed to refresh its garments along the way, when the holes and stains and smells overwhelmed the clothing’s usefulness. Even with a limited selection, our five year old would have meltdowns over her fashion choices, with a favourite dress or shirt cast out from one day to the next. Your best bet is to pack a travel uniform of sorts, with the same garment combo in multiples. Good luck with that.

  • Eating

The restaurants of Australia seem convinced that the most important food groups for every growing child are chicken nuggets and chips, pizza, mac and cheese, fish and chips, chicken nuggets served with mac and cheese, and pizza served with fish and chips.   Basically, all the essential minerals and vitamins one can get.    Of course, any time we ordered something that wasn’t from the Kids Menu, the kids would take one bite, and the bill would take a bigger bite. This is why we did a lot of cooking wherever we stayed, which not only saved us money, it also saved our sanity.

  • Accommodation

Self-catering cabins at holiday parks (we had wonderful stays with Discovery Holiday Parks) and two bedroom apartment rentals (we stuck with Oaks Hotels) served us much better than a traditional hotel room. Kids need the space, you need the kitchen, and holiday parks come with jumping pillows, pools, playgrounds, and most importantly, other kids for yours to play with. We used an ultra-light, easy-to-assemble travel crib from Valco Baby which ensured our two year old had consistency. He’s a good sleeper, but our five year-old frequently ended up in our bed, and I frequently ended up in her bed, a sofa, and one time, on the floor in the closet. You do what you got to do.   Kids thrive on routine, and travel is all about shaking that routine up. Everyone has to give or take to make it work on the road. By everyone, I refer to parents giving up everything, and the kids taking as much as they can.

  • Activities

I’ve written several “bucket list” books that investigate unique experiences, and I’ve built my career as a writer who chases the extraordinary, a Connoisseur of Fine Experiences.   You can visit a beach, wildlife park, waterpark, or museum anywhere, so I had to dig a little deeper for activities that could include my kids. Stuff like standing beneath a snarling lion inside a cage or hand feeding Bluefin tuna in South Australia.   Stuff like swimming with baby crocs or in natural jacuzzis (NT),   being inside a glass box hanging off a building or panning for gold (VIC), kayaking off Fraser Island or feasting in a shipping container food market (QLD), sailing with dugongs and chasing quokkas (WA), petting stingrays and braving the world’s steepest railcar (NSW) and jumping on modern art and staring down ferocious devils (TAS). Of course, the kids loved the beaches (the Whitsundays, Bondi, Byron Bay), the wildlife parks (Caversham in WA, Cleland in SA, Wildlife Habitat in QLD, the Melbourne Zoo), the museums (Scienceworks and the Melbourne Museum in VIC, Questacon in ACT, the Maritime Museum in Perth) and waterparks (most of the Discovery Holiday Parks we stayed in, the Oaks Oasis).   But most of all, they loved ice cream. Because in the end, it didn’t matter what incredible activity or destination we ticked off, the best part was just being together, spending quality time as a family that we’ll always look back on with joy, wonder, and inspiration.

Despite the challenges – the meltdowns, the pukes, the frenetic meals, lack of sleep, intense drives – my family managed to breathe deep, laugh, play, capture memories we might only appreciate later, and celebrate the incredible Australian opportunities that came our way.

You can buy 75 Must-See Places To Take The Kids at Booktopia and Dymocks. 

 

The Aussie Art of Getting High

Australians love the idea of being at the top of buildings and bridges. It’s an grounded in unique locations, over-proportionate attention to personal safety, slick marketing, huge opportunities for commercial profit, and less cynically, the chance to do something unusual.  Depending on your age, interest and physical ability, it will range anywhere from “wow, that was one of the most thrilling adventures of my life!” to “wow, I can’t believe I just paid for… that?”  Here’s a handy round up of the bucket list options in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Gold Coast and Brisbane. 

Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb

SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGECLIMB

 The most iconic climb in the country is one slick operation, capable to funnelling in full tour buses in one end and successful bridge climbers holding mementos out the other.   Processed through a series of efficient assembly line-like stages, you get suited, briefed and safely, attached, and then walk a series of ladders, gangways and arches. The view of the Opera House and the Sydney CBD is worthwhile, and if you’re a visitor, you’ll learn much from the running commentary about the city and history of the bridge. You can climb at dawn, twilight, night or during the day, with a variety of flexible packages designed to eliminate whatever excuse you have for not doing climbing atop the world’s largest steel-arched bridge.   Millions of people have done it, over 4000 couples have got engaged, and the oldest climber was 100 years old.

Adelaide Oval Roof Climb

ADELAIDE OVAL ROOF CLIMB

This one befuddled me with the fearsome language “Take on an Icon!” and redundant safety precautions.   Last time I checked you don’t have to strap yourself into a harness, cover your rings in medical tape, remove every object from your person, take a breathalyser, and wear an overall to climb up a ladder, or walk a gangway. It probably wasn’t fun dealing with the insurance companies on this one, who surely imagined every conceivable scenario of the silliness one could get up to on a stadium roof. The Oval is fetching, particularly if you take the tour and spend the extra dough during an AFL or cricket match. Spending a few minutes on the seats overlooking the pitch is total bucket list. I did a 2-hour Twilight climb, watching the Riverbank light up and the fruit bats fly across the city.   All I could think of was a: do we really need all this safety stuff, and b: it would have been great to have done this on a game day. 

Q1 Skypoint Climb

QI SKYPOINT CLIMB, GOLD COAST

 Queensland’s Gold Coast is has long sandy beaches, and squirmy canals that shape the city’s character.   The best place to see them is from the Q1 Observatory, and better yet stepping outside for the highest external building climb in the country.   I followed the typical routine as dictated by the stringent requirements dreamed up by the geniuses of insurance liability: light jump suit, safety harness, breathalyser, cameras and phones in a lock box. There’s points for the high-speed elevator that gets you to Level 77 in just 42.7 seconds. From the Observatory, it’s 140 steps up a walkway to the summit, safely locked into a railing. Here you can lean over the beach of Surfers Paradise, gaze down a 270-metre vertical drop, and wonder why no-one is climbing to the top of the other tall buildings that frame the coastline. It’s a 90-minute experience (including the safety briefing stuff) and your ticket includes access to the less exposed but just as scenic Observation Deck.  You can read more about SkyPoint adventure here.

Eureka Skydeck’s The Edge

EUREKA SKYDECK’S THE EDGE

The Eureka Skydeck is another observation deck, boasting the fastest elevator trip in the southern hemisphere, and floor-to-ceiling 360-degree views of the city from 285 metres above the ground. There’s an outside area to grapple with Melbourne’s erratic weather, a kiosk, some befitting touristy-things. Recognizing its lack of edge in the thrills department, Eureka also offers The Edge, a moving glass cube that extends out the 88th floor and suspends above the city. Anchorman Ron Burgundy might say you’ve been trapped in a “glass cage of emotion.”   My young kids didn’t have any scary problems when the glazed windows cleared (with a sound effect crack for good measure) to reveal Melbourne beneath their feet. Then again, they are my kids.   Couples have been known to propose and those with a fear of heights, well, shouldn’t be doing stuff like this in the first place.

Story Bridge Climb – Image Courtesy Visit Brisbane

STORY BRIDGE CLIMB AND ABSEIL

Brisbane’s storied landmark is the only bridge climb that lets you abseil your way down. The three-hour tour operates at dawn, dusk and twilight, and lets you scale to the top of the Story Bridge for 360-degree views of the twinkling city, the Glass House Mountains and south to the Scenic Rim. Suitably impressed, you’ll head over to the southern pylon for a thirty metre- abseil down into Captain Burke Park. The adventure, of course, is tailored for ’bucket list enthusiasts’.

Climb the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree

 

Thin metal rods are poking out a giant tree, spiraling up and up (and up) towards a wooden platform, 75 metres in the Western Australia sky. These karri trees are amongst the tallest hardwoods in the world, and this particular tree, the tallest in the forest, was once used as a fire lookout for any trouble smoking in the forest.   It seemed like an innocent enough roadside attraction, just 15 minutes drive from the town of Pemberton, where I had refueled on gas and a beef pie.   I had wandered into Warren National Park out of curiosity, captivated by a sign directing visitors to the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree. Playing on my iPod was U2, which in a very strange way, was a sign of perfect synchronicity.   Dave Evans is the real name of guitarist The Edge, and his namesake tree, a pure coincidence, seemed destined to deliver the same.

At the top of this lookout tree stands a large platform weighing two tons.   To get there I would have make my way up 130 erratically staggered thin black rods, thrusting myself up between ever widening gaps.   From the bottom it looked harmless enough, because I couldn’t see just how high I had to climb. I started eagerly, one pole at a time, a little unnerved by a very thin wire safety net which looked like it could maim more than save. It didn’t take long before I looked down, and my knees began to feel as wobbly as a Central African government.

It was one of those beautifully dangerous things I love about Australia, where the world’s most poisonous snakes and spiders might be living in your pillow.  I read an actual headline that week: “Man Breaks Leg Kicking Spider”.   The dry rolling countryside is rife with critters, while the long sandy beaches expose you to a strong sun that can bake you in seconds.   Still, this is gorgeous country, with a big sky, small population, and striking eucalyptus forests leading up to the country’s premier wine region, Margaret River.   25m above the ground, I realized that whoever built this tree path must have had one too many drinks. I was clutching onto the thin poles so tight my muscles were cramping, my toes clenched so hard you could crack a bullet between them.    Higher and higher, and just when I was sure I might absolutely wet myself with fear, I arrived at a small wooden platform. A truly unhelpful sign read: “That was the easy bit, mate!”  Aussie, oy, oy oy vey.

A sturdy tanned Australian fellow crawled down from above, drenched in sweat.    “C’mon mate, once you’re this far, you may as well go all the way to the top,” he said, in that typical Australian drawl which makes any stranger seem like a good ol’ buddy.     It encouraged me to continue my climb, cursing the damn Australian sticky flies, relentlessly exploring my nostrils and ears.  I reached another rest platform, and another, and then another, until at last, I was on top of the tree, dripping in sweat, staring out above the lush forest in all directions. The sea cast a blue glow in the distance.   My knees were still swaying, but that might have had something to do with the tree itself, dancing to a gentle ballad in the wind.   During strong wind, the tree can sway 1.5 metres in either direction.

Cautiously, I made my way down, wondering why they don’t sell T-Shirts at the bottom of trunk:  “I survived the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree.” I wondered how many people had slipped. I wondered if the safety net worked. I wondered who Dave Evans was, and whether he was the unfortunate chap who could answer both questions. Assuming the latter was affirmative.

The ordeal took an hour, far scarier than any tree I had ever climbed.  There wasn’t even an official around to call an ambulance should you drop out the sky, all the way to hell, do not stop and collect your broken bones.   If there was, he might tell me “it’s just a big tree, mate. We have spiders bigger than this.”

Life on the Larapinta Trail

Australia’s most iconic outback trek was the last tick on my Australian Bucket List, and one of the first things I tell people to add to theirs.  The landscape is truly extraordinary, and with World Expeditions taking care of everything including the logistics, meals and accommodation, you don’t have to sweat it either.  As with all the other experiences in my book, just a few photos made it to print, but I took so many more.  I thought I’d share some of them this month as the outback sun cools down and the Larapinta Trail season kicks into high gear.

Smashin’ the Pinta!

Firstly, a shout out to my group.  Yes, they happened to be predominately women, which is awesome, and from New South Wales, which we won’t hold against them ; )  Point is, doing the Larapinta in Comfort, as this World Expeditions package is called, will appeal to all shapes and sizes, and anyone who enjoys day hikes.  Don’t be put off by the multi-day trekking aspect of it, because we’re not in the Himalayas, there’s no altitude, and the pace is doable for anyone with a modicum of fitness.  Two exceptionally able guides are with you all times, and if you want to sit it out, that’s entirely up to you.  While I wouldn’t recommend this one for young kids, trekkers well into their 70’s have been “smashing the ‘Pinta” successfully for years.

Away we Go

I took this picture just minutes into the start of our six day adventure.  Everyone was fresh and eager and getting to know each other on the trail.  It’s also a good opportunity to figure out how your boots, poles and gear is going to hold up in the days ahead.

Into the West MacDonnell Ranges

It doesn’t take long before you crest the plateau of the West MacDonnell Ranges and instantly grasp what all the fuss is about.  The gradient is relatively flat, and the views incredible.  Before each leg, your guides explain what’s coming up next, and prepare you mentally for the hike ahead.  There’s plenty of time to stop and take photographs.  Incidentally, I carried a mirrorless Olympus to keep things light. Some hikers brought their DSLRs, others were more content to just use their phones.  One of the best shots in my book was taken by a fellow hiker using her Google Pixel phone!

Check out the video! 

Into Camp
Camping in Style

World Expeditions have their own impressively sustainable camps set up.  It’s like camping without the hassle.  Delicious meals are cooked for you, there are solar hot showers, cots and sleeping bags in large canvas tents, and couches to stretch out your feet and enjoy a glass of wine.   Speaking of which:  hikers can pick up their own booze in Alice Springs before the journey, which is driven ahead (along with your bags) to each campsite along the trail.  Just to clarify: You’re not doing the full Larapinta trail, but a curated six-day hike that encompasses the very best bits!  And compared to sleeping in a small tent, carrying all your food and cooking it on scrappy camp utensils, this is very much what comfort looks like.

Simpsons Gap
Serpentine Gorge

Each day’s hike has a destination highlight, bursting with natural beauty and cultural significance.   Sacred watering holes and slices in the red escarpment, both of which attract wildlife and wonder.  They’re also great spots for snack breaks!   Most of these can be accessed by bus from Alice Springs and form part of the tourist attractions in the region.  You’ve come in on foot though, so you’ve earned it!

One Step at a Time
On the Trail

Here’s some hiking shots to give you an idea of the landscape and trail quality.   Low shrubs and trees, blue skies, and comfortable trekking.  Most of us used a pole or two, some didn’t feel the need for them. We carried only daypacks with snacks and water, bug spray and sunscreen.   One guide in the front (with the faster walkers) and one in the back (with the straddlers, like myself).

Lunch Break

Lunch consists of sandwiches and wraps, fruits and nuts, carried in and out by our wonderful and superhuman guides.  Always a welcome opportunity to top up the energy reserves, stop in your tracks to look for wildlife, and appreciate the surprisingly dense vegetation.

Mount Sonder Sunrise
Coming down Mount Sondor

The climax is undoubtedly Day 5, which involves a steep, 8-kilometre long climb up Mount Sondor to catch one of the most epic sunrises in Australia. We woke up at 3am. It’s quite an experience hiking at night under the galaxy of stars that paint the skies in this part of the world.  It’s hypnotic watching your headlamp light the way forward. Mount Sondor is officially the end of the Larapinta Trail, and also its highest point.  We watched the sunrise, and returned along the same path to witness the spectacular scenery we’d missed in the dark on the way up.  It’s a challenging day, but after 4 days trekking, your muscles are warmed up for it, your boots are broken in, and the sheer adventure gets you over the tough part. After that, it’s downhill all the way.

Pounding the Pound
Ormiston Pound

The final day is an easy 6-kilometre walk into Ormiston Pound, which isn’t technically part of the Larapinta Trail, but you can quickly see why its on the itinerary.  Hiking between the spiky spiniflex, we were asked by our guides to enter the gorge in silence, reflecting on the beauty around us, and also the adventure we’d had this past week.  It’s a very special place, and impossible not to enjoy a very special moment.  From here, the bus picked us up, and returned us to our hotels in Alice Springs.  The group met up that night for dinner and drinks, and a well-earned toast to one of the greatest adventures on The Great Australian Bucket List.

Special thanks to the ‘Smashin’ the Pinta’ crew who made my experience so memorable.

If you’re inspired to tick off the Larapinta Trail, click here for more information from World Expeditions.

 

Balloon over Canberra

It’s hard to imagine dozens of hot-air balloons taking off each year from the grounds of Westminster or Capitol Hill,  floating above the hallowed halls of the nation’s political power.  But, while Australia’s politics is a hybrid of both the UK and US political systems,  Canberra is definitely not a hybrid of Washington and London.  Instead, the nation’s capital is its own distinct place, one that is accessible, fun, and definitely open to playing with balloons.   The Canberra Balloon Spectacular is the annual event that brings together over two-dozen balloonists from around the world, departing over nine days each March from the lawns of Old Parliament House.  Visitors and locals are invited to hop in the basket for incredible views, and tick off a bucket list experience soaring in the skies.  Which is exactly what I intended to, showing up for a 6:15am flight as the sun approached the horizon.

Ballooning already features on The Great Australian Bucket List, with a chapter about ballooning over the Murray River in the Barossa region of South Australia.  For those who have never hopped in a basket, it’s a far gentler adventure than one would expect.  Ballooning gives one the sensation of quietly floating, free from the noise of engines or the speed of other forms of flight. Hovering over lakes and rivers, you won’t so much ripple the water below.  Pilots are at the mercy of wind and thermal currents, able to navigate altitude if not direction.  This is why conditions are so crucial for a successful flight, and why early mornings are favoured before the heat of the sun plays havoc with air currents.  Seeing the sunrise in a wicker basket hundreds of metres in the sky is also instantly memorable.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfectly blue-sky morning when I met my fellow flyers and pilot in the lobby of the Questacon Science Museum at 5:45am.   In fact, it was misty and overcast.  Still, the winds were calm enough for a greenlight, which is more than I can say for my half dozen other attempts at ballooning around the world.  Pilots release a helium balloon and carefully monitor what it does as it rises into the atmosphere, a low-tech but effective means of reading the conditions.  My flight is with Balloon Aloft, and we drive to a field to unpack the balloon and basket and get ready for the flight.  Passengers assist by holding the balloon envelope while the pilot blasts heated air inside.  These gas-powered blasts sound like mini-jet engines, powerful enough to fill the envelope in about 15 minutes. The gas blasts keep the balloon flying, and warm passengers in the basket.   There’s a lot of anticipation as the envelopes fill up, pulling the 8-person basket upright.  Once critical mass is achieved, there’s little time to dawdle.  We scamper into the partitioned sections of the basket, and away we go.

The early morning chill dissipates with each blast from the burners, as slowly we rise to see a stunning view over the capital and surrounding valleys.   Surrounded by other balloons gives me a sense of scale and distance, the colours of the envelopes brightening up the skies for balloonists, as well as onlookers and early morning commuters below.  The distinct road ring that surrounds Parliament Hill showcases the careful planning that went into the capital, while Parliament Hill itself looks somewhat bunkerish and fortified from above.   We drift with the current towards the artificial Lake Burley Griffin that flows in the centre of the city (named after the American architect who won the award to design Canberra).  After a 45 minute flight, the pilot signals the perfect spot to land adjacent to the National Rock Garden.  We’re instructed to brace for the landing, which can be smooth or bouncy, depending on conditions, and the skills of the pilot.  This morning, our Balloon Aloft pilot is on form.   He keeps the balloon upright long enough for support teams on the ground to hold it down long enough for us to climb out, and the balloon quickly deflates.   We all assist in the folding of the envelope, and are shuttled back to the lawns of Old Parliament Hill for a buffet champagne breakfast awaits.  By mid-morning, the balloons have landed, the pilots and passengers are trading stories, and a few more bucket lists have been ticked.

The Canberra Balloon Spectacular is part of the city’s annual Enlighten Festival.  You can also book your scenic flight and find out more info with Balloon Aloft Canberra.