The wind did its best to thwart my attempts to fly in a hot air balloon but I finally got the chance to make one of my dreams come true at the International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Elvas in Portugal’s Alentejo region.
After a last-minute dash across the Portuguese countryside from Alter do Chão to Fronteira, I arrived just in time to watch the balloon being inflated. It took me right back to my childhood, I used to love watching the balloons flying through the sky. If you haven’t been in one of these beautiful balloons before you need to check them out! I am even looking at booking to ride in one on my next vacation!
It surprised me how much effort is involved; it took several people and a considerable amount of pushing and pulling to hold the sides open while air from the fan gushed inside. Happily for me, my offer to help was turned down so I busied myself taking photos.
When the balloon was full of hot air and upright, it was time to see how easy it is to get five women into a space not much bigger than a phone box. I was secretly relieved to be spared an undignified clamber over the sides of the basket; I didn’t realise they have doors.
Now that it was pumped full of hot air, the balloon tugged the basket impatiently, trying to free itself from the Land Rover that served as an anchor. The basket rocked from side to side, causing a flutter of panic at one point when we thought it would topple over.
The team of pilots and ground staff soon stabilised the basket and once it was released from the car, we climbed, smoothly and quickly into the sky. The brightly coloured balloons below us were fat with air and ready to follow us.
The flat, green fields and jagged lakes of the Alentejo spread out below us. After a while, the plains developed waves, adding depth to the landscape. Acres of vineyards and olive and cork oak trees formed geometrical patterns. The warmth from the sinking sun and the intermittent blasts of the burner kept me toasty.
Happy? You bet!
When the burner wasn’t roaring and Hervé wasn’t shouting into his walkie-talkie, there was silence. At least until we got closer to Fronteira, where every dog in town was barking its alarm at the scary objects floating past. As we watched cattle scatter then heard the crazed clanging of fifty-odd sheep bells, it became clear that animals aren’t that keen on hot air balloons.
The farmers we passed gave us a wave from their tractors although I’m not sure how pleased they were to have these giant balloons landing in their fields. In my excitement and anxiety over whether or not I would be able to fly, I hadn’t given any thought to where or how we would land.
As our pilot Tiago explained, the balloon is totally at the mercy of the wind making it impossible to know where it will end up, which is why Hervé kept shouting directions via the walkie-talkie so that the guy who was driving the Land Rover could find and meet us when we landed.
There’s not a great deal that can be done to make the landing soft, either. We obediently clung to the ropes and crouched down but my knees crashed against the side of the basket as the basket hit the muddy field. Just as we thought it was safe to get out, the balloon started dragging and jerking us across the lumpy field in an attempt to fly again until the ground team managed to hold us down.
After piling out of the basket, all that remained was to deflate the balloon by crawling around on all fours to force the air out and picking bits of dried thistle off the material before stuffing it into a sack ready to drive back to the launch site.
My very first hot air balloon ride was certainly worth the wait and best of all, it was free!
And not just for me…
The 16th International Hot Air Balloon Festival took place in and around Elvas from November 10th to 18th, attracting over 50 teams of balloonists from all over Europe. The organiser, Aníbal Soares of Publibalão, persuaded the festival participants to allow members of the public to fill up any remaining spaces in their baskets in a bid to promote hot air ballooning in crisis-stricken Portugal.
With a usual price of €150 or more for a one hour flight, this was my best chance of riding in one so I’m really glad my perseverance paid off.
I’m not the only blogger to get lucky – Kathryn’s hot air balloon experience in South Africa looks every bit as thrilling as the one I had, with even more spectacular scenery.
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