By Ellen Hill Photos: David Hill
BEING caught between the cusp of a new day and the last flickers of night is like witnessing two of nature’s most intimate acts – birth and death. Secret and mysterious, only a select few are privy to its glory.
Today, we are that select few, a group of strangers pressed together in a wicker basket like sardines in a can, suspended 1000ft above the ground smack bang in the centre of Australia.
In the pre-dawn silence when the nocturnal animals have bedded down before the birds awake, the sun sends tentative golden strands across the red dirt until it glows like an ember. Its radiant tentacles stretch out slowly as they have done for millennia, highlighting desert features of oaks and mulga scrub, rock wallabies and craggy outcrops.
On the opposite horizon a sleepy full moon melts down like an egg yolk behind the rugged outline of the MacDonnell Ranges, leaving the sky silvery blue in its wake.
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and the 30m tall balloon with its cargo is carried along with it.
Hot air balloons are the most basic of aircraft. But all fears and concerns for the world below and the flimsiness of our craft have whooshed above our heads as the pilot pumps the burners to send jets of orange, blue and white hot propane fuel into the balloon.
We float aimlessly through the first heaven, unaware of our progress. There is no airspeed, no aerodynamic lift, no vibration and no wind noise. We cannot pitch or roll.
The G-free experience is like gently levitating rather than flying.
My seven-year-old son, almost too terrified to join the flight, pops his head up from the base of the basket to get a better look at the unfolding palette before us.
He remains there mesmerised until the basket scrapes the top of a tree on its final descent back to terra firma.
Out here, the ranges are no fuzzy-topped mountains emanating a soothing blue haze but a jumbled stretch of rocky outcrops and hills that appear much larger and further away than they really are because the pathetic scrub is no more than a few patches of scrub and that accursed spiky buffel grass.
This is one of the most isolated and arid places on earth, a place where you can wander far into the horizon and not see another soul. A place where all there is for company is the melancholy “Ark, Ark, Aaaah’’ of a lone crow, the crunch of your feet in the never-ending dirt and the gentle wail of the breeze. Where the sun beats down so hard it feels like it’s pushing you into the rock hard earth.
Here in the second largest desert in the world, clouds become a myth and the clumps of spinifex grass haul themselves out of what must be imaginary moisture. This desert of 1.3 million sq miles receives just a Biblical rich man’s drop of water on its tongue _ 5 inches a year. Some parts of central Australia only get relief once or twice a decade, just enough to torment. This collection of small deserts is called the Outback, and takes up 44 per cent of the continent.
Mile after mile of river and creek beds wind their way through this parched land, baked to that red dust and rock in the merciless Outback sun. The “Floodway’’ signs that appear at regular intervals along the highways seem ludicrous as the waterways snake through the landscape as a mocking reminder of the thundering rains that will surely come.
Then myriad dry lakes fill with water and the lowest point on the continent, the half million square mile Lake Eyre Basin, floods as the rivers drain into its bowl.
But sometimes nature taunts the thirsty tongue and parched earth. The rains didn’t come for a few years and the Todd River remained a shortcut walkway into the town of Alice Springs from outlying settlements.
Reality hits as the basket bumps and scrapes along the ground, sending puffs of ochre coloured dirt into the air. We hadn’t even noticed our descent.
Still trapped in the romance of the experience, we tumble awkwardly from the basket and stomp our boots on the dirt. Reality hits when we’re all summoned to help the crew pack up the nylon balloon into its bag.
Nothing less than breakfast of honey glazed chicken drumsticks, quiches, fresh fruit, cheese and chocolate cake washed down with fruit juice or champagne would be good enough to end such a civilised experience.
Cost:30 minute flight: $AUD240
60 minute flight: $AUD360
Chase and breakfast for non-flying partners: $AUD60
Children 6-16 receive 20 per cent discount
Separate mandatory insurance fee: $AUD25 per passenger payable on the morning of the flight.
What to wear:It can be dusty in the bush and balloon riders are welcome to help rig and pack away the balloon so enclosed shoes and warm casual clothing (don’t wear light colours) is suitable.
How to get there:Passengers are collected from their accommodation and dropped back after the flight. Qantas has regular flights to Alice Springs from most Australian cities.
Toll free: 1800 809 790 (within Australia), +61 8 8952 8723
Deep Hill Fine Art Media received a complimentary Outback Ballooning ride thanks to Tourism Northern Territory.