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.
``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.
``Now there's a little game we play called `Watch Out for Power Lines.' Let me know when you see any; I can't look everywhere at once,'' Vizzard said, as we brushed the tops of the gum trees, grabbing at leaves and searching for koalas.
After a euphoric minute or two of silence, he interrupted the quiet with a blast on the burner that sent a 20-foot flame hissing into the balloon like the fiery breath of a medieval dragon.
``Boy, what Rambo could do with this thing,'' one passenger quipped, as Vizzard let loose with another blast of flame.
``This is heavenly,'' said another as we flew above a flock of pink-and-gray galahs. ``I feel like I'm in a '20s movie with David Niven,'' she said as we climbed 350 feet a minute, casting a broad shadow across the patterned vineyards below.
``OK, let's see who can spot the first kangaroo for our American friend here,'' said Vizzard, as we dipped between the trees and began to descend.
Although a recent poll of men in the US showed the desire to go ballooning second only to taking an African safari, according to Vizzard more women book balloon trips than men. ``I guess it's because there's a certain romance to it,'' he says. He stresses, too, that it's a sport for any age. ``We take whole families and kids of all ages. Even had a young man take up his 92-year-old grandfather on their mutual birthday.
A balloon ride here lasts about an hour but is ultimately at the discretion of the pilot and the wind. That's usually long enough, as the anticipation and setting up are half the fun. The actual ride is strangely devoid of sensation and vibration. And then, you're standing all the while.
``A few people are disappointed,'' said Vizzard as we descended. ``Some people think we are going to fly off to Canberra or back to Sydney. But to go 50 miles, you have to have 50 m.p.h. winds, and I'd never take people up in wind that strong. One time a woman was upset because we went up on one side of the road and landed on the other side an hour later. There just wasn't any wind.
``OK now, bend your knees, crouch down a bit, and hold on tight,'' said Vizzard, the ground coming up fast. ``Stay in the basket until I say to get out. I need you all for ballast. Everyone starts jumping out and the balloon will start rising again.''
Bump. Bump. We hit the ground, dragged a bit, rose, hit again, and stopped with a thud.
The second shift, who had followed us in the van, ran up excitedly. ``How was it? It looked beautiful,'' someone exclaimed.
``It was unreal!'' one aeronaut chimed.
``Heavenly!'' remarked another.
``You float around like a free spirit. Just bliss,'' said yet another.
At a cost of $125 to $150 (Australian, US$78 to $94) per person, balloon rides don't come cheap. But, as Vizzard explains, ``The whole system -- envelope, basket, and burner-fuel system -- costs around $30,000 here in Australia. . . . And insurance. Insurance is our biggest expense. And then if the weather is bad, everyone gets a full refund.''
Ballooning, he said, is a bit less expensive in the US, where flights are more common. But then again, try finding a koala or kangaroo in Kansas. Practical information
In Australia, contact Balloon Aloft, RMB 56, Hume Highway, Cross Roads, New South Wales 2170, Australia; tel. (02) 607-2255.
Or contact Balloon Federation of America, PO Box 264, Indianola, IA 50125; tel. (515) 961-8809.