Balloon over Australia. `Being in an aerostat, we're at one with the wind,' said our guide; `where the winds go, we go' '
Hunter Valley, Australia
DESCENDING softly as a cumulus cloud, we hovered at 80 feet over the sign below: ``Kurri Golf Club welcomes all visitors.'' ``Mind if we play through?'' shouted Peter Vizzard down to a group of startled women getting ready to tee off.Skip to next paragraph
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``Oh, my word!'' one gasped.
``Why, it's a balloon!'' observed another, regaining her decorum.
``Never mind,'' Mr. Vizzard shouted back, having a bit of fun. ``We'll continue on,'' he said, waving to the slack-jawed group.
``Actually, it's OK to land on the fairway, but they get upset if you land on the green,'' he said, spotting an uninhabited field ahead where we could put down.
Here in the hills of the Hunter Valley, a three-hour scenic drive from downtown Sydney, Vizzard co-owns and pilots Balloon Aloft, a commercial and recreational ballooning business.
He gave up a teaching career several years ago and is now a full-time world champion aeronaut. This interest and the business that sprang from it have taken him into the skies of 13 countries, including China, France, Ireland, Holland, and the United States.
Although the sport has billowed in the past dozen years, here in Australia the sight of a balloon is still rare enough to stop traffic or rattle anyone's golf game.
There are 5,000 balloons in the world, 4,500 of them in the US, Vizzard estimates, ``but only about 100 balloons here in Australia.''
Our fun began early that morning, as the sun began to blink between the silver-and-green eucalyptus trees.
Sixteen anxious fledgling aeronauts gathered on a frosty pasture and watched with craned necks as Vizzard released a blue, helium-filled toy balloon into the air.
``Winds are light and variable,'' he observed, squinting far into the sky. ``That can be a bit of a nuisance, as they can shift in any direction. But it's OK. Let's go. Here, give me a hand,'' he said, tugging at the giant wicker basket on his trailer.
Until that moment, it was a bit iffy whether we would actually fly. ``We have to err on the side of caution. About 15 to 20 percent of the time the weather is too bad, and we can't go. Winds are a machine powered by the sun,'' said Vizzard. ``If it's windy in the morning, you know it's only going to get worse later in the day. Anything stronger than 10 miles an hour, and we won't go. Today it's just about 10.''
With the basket on the ground, we stretched out the 1,000 square yards of green-and-yellow striped ``rip stop'' nylon along the grass as Vizzard started blowing warm air into the ``envelope'' with a giant fan.
In 20 minutes the envelope had puffed up to the size of a nine-story light bulb and began to tug restlessly at the lines. ``OK, let's go. Seven of you hop in. The rest will go later,'' he ordered, as half of us scrambled into the huge basket.
``Is [this] dangerous?'' one person asked.
``Of course there's some element of risk, like with sailing or flying,'' he said. ``But you set your own level of risk -- get a weather report, watch the winds in the clouds, water, and trees, and make a judgment. We use the winds, but we make sure we're not at the mercy of them. Being in an aerostat, we're at one with the wind. Where the winds go, we go. It's not like a helicopter with 7,000 parts.