By Ellen Hill for Escarpment Group Photos: David Hill, Deep Hill Media
A piece of Australian sporting and cultural history has been brought back to life at the grandest of the grand hotels of the Blue Mountains this Christmas.
Standing taller than 6m, Candy the Kewpie doll has taken her position under the grand chandelier in the famous Casino Lobby of the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath.
Along with Scarlett, who now lives at the Powerhouse Museum, and Betty who resides at the National Museum in Canberra, Candy is one of 12 giant Kewpie dolls that twirled around Stadium Australian during the unforgettable Sydney 2000 Olympic Games closing ceremony.
Candy and her Kewpie sisters were designed by Brian Thompson based on the Marcella Kewpie, a flapper-girl Japanese version of American magazine illustrator Rose O’Neill’s cowlicked, roly-poly original.
O’Neill created her first Kewpie doll in 1907 for Ladies Home Journal.
The name refers to “little Cupid, spelling it with a K because it seemed funnier’’.
The characters were an instant hit and O’Neill drew them for magazines and advertisers for more than 25 years, with the dolls spawning a range of merchandising and given as popular carnival prizes.
Characterised by big eyes in shy, sideways glancing expressions, a single topknot of blond hair, splayed “starfish’’ hands, and an exaggerated potbelly, the mischievous baby-like elves were children’s guardian angels in her stories (specifically, they protected the human girl Dottie Darling).
While Cupid “gets himself into trouble. The Kewpies get themselves out, always searching out ways to make the world better and funnier’’, O’Neill said.
Visitors to the Hydro Majestic can see Candy as they assemble for hotel history tours and enter the elegant Wintergarden Restaurant for high tea or fine dining meals until early January.
Escarpment Group Christmas theming creator Greg Tomkinson said Candy was right at home in the flamboyance of Mark Foy’s “Palace in the wilderness’’.
Candy, Betty, Scarlett and friends were the centrepieces of artistic director David Atkins’ backyard-themedparty to end all parties’’ and the Hydro Majestic is the original Blue Mountains party palace.
“The Christmas tree in the Casino Lobby must fill one of the grandest spaces in the country and competes with the famous dome in scale and design. Needless to say, it has to be fabulous.’’
Along with elaborate decorations throughout the hotel, the Hydro Majestic will celebrate the festive season with a schedule of music and dining events beginning with an opera dinner concert on December 22, Christmas lunch and dinner, a global fusion evening on December 29 and New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Go to hydromajestic.com.au or phone (02) 4782 6885 to book events, accommodation and dining.
By Ellen Hill Photos: David Hill, Deep Hill Media
The chirp of cicadas competing with Christmas carols, an awe-inspiring backdrop of towering golden escarpments and dramatic valleys and a cooling breeze carrying the subtle scent of eucalyptus. Welcome to an Aussie bush Christmas and summer holiday season in the Blue Mountains.
Begin the Christmas countdown early with lantern-making workshops for kids aged four to 12 at Leura Garage funky eatery off the top of Leura Mall from 3pm to 5pm on November 28 and December 4 and 13 in the lead-up to Leura Village Association’s December 15 Christmas festival. Cool prizes from upmarket local shops. Cost: $10 per child (must be accompanied by an adult) includes lantern kit and drinks and nibbles. Bookings: (02) 4784 3391, firstname.lastname@example.org or leuragarage.com.au/lantern.
Give your adult loved ones some grown-up time with a Faeriestorm Nanny Service voucher. Available in hourly blocks (minimum two hours *conditions apply), the fully qualified nannies will care for their kids while the adults enjoy some down time. Purchases: Brenda Edwards 0417 448 318 or email@example.com.
A night away with a day spa pamper package at a blissful retreat such as Parklands Country Gardens & Lodges or dinner at a swanky restaurant such as the Wintergarden Restaurant at the Hydro Majestic Hotel are always popular.
A truly unique way of sightseeing in style is with Blue Mountains Vintage Cadillacs from within a vintage Cadillac car. Dressed in formal attire, your local driver will collect you from and return you to any location in the Blue Mountains. Bookings: firstname.lastname@example.org or Donald on 0455 352 976.
Tuck into a sumptuous feast with all the trimmings, decorations, bon bons, beverage package and even a visit from Santa for the children at the 5-star Lilianfels Resort & Spa near Echo Point or a seven-course degustation at the multi award-winning hatted Darley’s Restaurant. Bookings: escarpmentgroup.com.au or (02) 4780 1200.
NEW YEAR’S EVE:
For an unforgettable Auld Lang Syne moment, feast in the New Year at the chic Echoes Restaurant at Katoomba or the world-famous Cat’s Alley at the Hydro Majestic Hotel after watching a sublime sunset over a blue haze-shrouded valley while sipping a cocktail and resolving to take more time out in 2018. Bookings: escarpmentgroup.com.au or (02) 4780 1200.
SCHOOL HOLIDAY ACTIVITIES:
Talisman Gallery, Hartley historic village, Great Western Hwy (400m before turn off to Jenolan Caves heading west): Try your hand at the time honoured art of blacksmithing and make your very own fire poker on the forge and anvil on January 26 and 27. Cost: $25 includes materials and tuition. Decent footwear required. Bookings essential: Ron 0407 723 722 or email@example.com.
Everglades Historic House & Gardens, 37 Everglades Ave, Leura: Kids aged three to six can learn about heritage conservation and the natural environment in one of the most enchanting historic properties in the Blue Mountains through the My Adventure at Everglades activity book ($10 and $5 per subsequent book). Entry: $13 adults, $8 concessions, $4 children, National Trust members free. Details: (02) 4784 1938 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* All businesses mentioned are commercial clients of Deep Hill Media
By Ellen Hill Photos: David Hill
“Bula Mrs Hill. Bula Mr Hill. Bula Master Hill.
“Bula scruffy dog.
“Naughty dog – you should be at home.
It set the tone for the whole seven-day visit to Fiji’s Coral Coast.
From the palm tree-lined beaches, the thatched huts, azure waters dotted with quaint fishing boats, sapphire-coloured skies, and strapping young men in sarongs, all the clichés were there in glorious real life. It was as if we had been engulfed by the pages of a tourist brochure.
After a tough previous few months, it was just what we needed, right down to being handed a coconut on the promenade by the grinning man who scampered up to cut it down.
The Fiji Hideaway Resort was perfect: not too posh so we felt uncomfortable but nice enough to feel like a treat.
Our white bure (villa) was spacious, cool and clean, surrounded by tropical plants and with high ceilings, a queen size bed, an indoor shower (and a pretty spiffy outdoor one) and a front verandah.
Unheard of for us, we embraced the opportunity to “fly and flop’’ and didn’t leave the resort for three days.
With jobs that require us to be positive, polite and almost servile, it was a welcome relief to laze by the pool while resort staff scurried around at our beck and call.
We enjoyed the theatrical nightly kava ceremony, the lighting of the torches, the cultural stage performance each evening and got a buzz from the “personal’’ invitation to attend drinks with the resort general manager the afternoon we arrived.
Our tweenage son preferred our company, although the resort does have a kids club where resort crew look after the children with non-stop activities from treasure hunts to snorkelling and Fijian fishing lessons.
The resort website encourages visitors to meet
the real Fiji’’ by visiting thefriendly locals’’ in nearby villages, although we suspect the many locals who work there feel obliged to welcome tourists into their personal spaces after serving their every need all day.
After three days of soaking in the cloistered embrace of the resort, we tentatively ventured beyond the protective gates and wandered down the narrow potholed road towards town.
Just a few hundred metres down the road we were confronted by a man holding a machete.
He eyed us suspiciously.
We eyed him anxiously.
“Where are you going?’’ he asked.
“Just for a walk,’’ my husband said, aiming for a casual tone but achieving a warbled defence.
Why?’’ the man asked in amazement.Why you leave the resort?’’
Sitting cross-legged on the bare earthen floor of the hut, a tiny naked child peeped around the doorframe as the man told us his hard luck story and asked for money.
The next day it was slightly disconcerting to see him elevated as an elder at the local Methodist church service, where we were amused by the spotlessly dressed children in their Sabbath whites, singing psalms like angels and squabbling like seagulls during the sermon.
We took an organised full-day tour to Robinson Caruso Island (arranged by the resort staff), where tourists can enjoy a bountiful lunch, educational tour and entertainment. There is also a bar, children’s water activities and basic hut accommodation.
The resort shops are stocked with a range of items, from toiletries to clothing along with traditional novelties and snacks – all carrying a generous mark-up price.
The Hideaway has a full gym but we steered clear of physical torture, preferring a massage at the day spa and a lounge by the pool.
Apart from the raw sausage served at the “traditional Aussie BBQ’’, the only real downer was the lack of an ATM (we had to order a taxi and travel to the 5-star hotel down the road).
After building a sandcastle on the beach, going on numerous romantic sunset strolls along the sun-soaked shores of the
majestic ocean lagoon with year-round warm tropical waters’’ andpristine coral beaches’’, collecting shells and sipping rich cocktails by the pool, we truly felt refreshed.
Sometimes you just need a postcard.
Several international airlines have flights into Fij, including Qantas, Air New Zealand, Korean Air, Pacific Blue, and V Australia. Air Pacific is the national carrier and has direct flights from Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland, Christchurch, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Japan. The Fiji International Airport is located in Nadi.
The Coral Coast and the Fiji Hideaway Resort & Spa are a 90 minute transfer away. The resort’s reservations staff can organise a transfer at the time of reservation via private car, taxi, or coach (fees apply).
Sightseeing around the Coral Coast is a must, with beautiful beaches and coral lagoons to explore. Taxis are available from the resort to visit Sigatoka for duty free shopping or the tour desk can organise a rental.
We rode the public bus into Sigatoka, which cost only a few dollars.
By Ellen Hill Photos: David Hill
(Continuing the story of the Hawkesbury River, we re-publish here an article that featured in the April-May 2009 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine.)
THE last tendrils of fog swirl up to meet the golden rays of a weak winter sun, mirrored on the still surface of the water.
The occasional jumping fish makes a quiet “blip’’ noise. Birds twitter in the trees and skate across the gentle ripples before settling on the surface to float aimlessly with the tide.
This is Ted Books’ favourite time of day to cruise the Windsor section of the Hawkesbury River in his boat, the Montrose. He’s alone.
By mid-morning, the water twinkles in the glaring sun, the river a silver thread pulsing through colonial Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s kingdom with the monotony of routine.
Given the majestic Hawkesbury River has supported his family for five generations, you understand Books’ attachment to it.
As the boat gently bobs along the water, Books’ shares his memories and tells the history of the stretch he knows best _ the strip of water his famous colonial ancestors eventually learned they could not tame.
Ted Books is known for expressing a strong opinion and enjoying a chat. But he’s not known for being an emotional man. A former wrestler and retired excavator, he tends to say his bit in his no-nonsense way and leave it at that.
But aboard the Montrose, I not only see a different side to Books, but the river I have known most of my life.
“Sydney’s salad bowl’’, “Sydney’s playground’’, the Hawkesbury River has supported Australia’s largest city since European settlement.
For the handful of free settlers desperately trying to survive with virtually nothing in a foreign environment, the river was their transport, it watered them, their crops and animals.
In colonial times while chain gangs of convicts were still cutting roads by hand, the Hawkesbury River was the natural highway to Sydney Cove.
In fact, ships including the 101 ton Governor Bligh were actually built on the river. Two of Books’ ancestors _ Captain John Grono and Alexander Books _ had a shipyard at Pitt Town on Canning Reach, the remains of which can still be seen at low tide.
Among the 200 cargo vessel movements on the river each year were tall ships which took three inward tides (about 20 hours) to travel from Brooklyn at the mouth of the river to Windsor.
The 100 ton SS Erringhi was the last of the big ships to trade on the Hawkebsury River between the 1920s and 1937.
“I used to dive off the Windsor bridge and there used to be 30ft of water there,’’ Books says. “We used to dive off the bridge and go with the tide to Pitt Town, about 4 miles by water.’’
The Hawkesbury Nepean River is part of the vast 22,000 sq km Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment, stretching from Goulburn to Lithgow, Moonee Moonee, Pittwater and Singleton.
Its tributaries and creeks begin in the higher land of the Great Dividing Range, others in the highlands to the west of Wollongong and south of Sydney.
The Nepean begins in the Camden Valley near Moss Vale and becomes the Hawkesbury at Yarramundi after being joined by the Wollondilly River, on which Warragamba Dam, Sydney’s main drinking glass, was built in the 1950s.
From the 1870s, a series of dams was built on the Upper Nepean, south east of Camden and its tributaries the Cataract, Cordeaux and Avon Rivers.
The mighty Hawkesbury Nepean River ends at Juno Point at Broken Bay.
“Sydney would never survive without this river,’’ Books says. “This river is the playground for the city.’’
Every now and again Books stops the boat, points out a landmark, pulls out yet another packet of black and white photographs and tells the story of the place.
“See that place up there? That’s where Thomas Arndell (the first surgeon to the colony, he came out with the First Fleet) settled when he came to the Hawkesbury. His homestead’s still there.
“They built next to the river because it was clean water and there was fish.’’
The oldest church building in Australia is at Ebenezer, built from stone in 1803 by a small band of free settlers. The church used to run a punt across the river to transport people to church.
The water is deepest _ about 90ft _ nearby, opposite Tizzana Winery at Sackville Reach Wharf.
Glancing at the river banks from the boat, it seems not much has changed apart from technology. Irrigation pumps spew water across enormous paddocks of turf, veggies and flowers. The staccato bark of a dog sends drifting ducks into a flurry. The sun’s rays highlight the fur on a lowing cow staring with lazy interest at the boat. The ghostly figures of farm workers can be seen inside a row of greenhouses.
But then Books’ tale of how his dad and his mates used to catch more fish than they could eat up this stretch of the river is broken by the roar of a power boat towing a skier.
Books pauses and waits for silence to return before pointing out another historic property on the hill.
He revs up the engine and the Montrose slips on.
The river remains a great source of seafood: flathead, bream, mullet, hairtail, mullaway, whiting, flounder, tailor, snapper, trevally, blackfish, leatherjackets, kingfish, John Dory, shellfish and prawns.
It is also home to much bird life: shags, cormorants, kingfishers, ducks, sea eagles, pelicans and terns.
And down in the salt water near the river mouth at Brooklyn there are sharks, sea snakes, jellyfish, stingrays and fortescues.
Today, the Hawkebsury, Penrith and Baulkham Hills region along the river generates a whopping $1.86 billion worth of produce (not including the equine industry). Sydney chows through 90 per cent of it.
The vast quantities of fruit, vegetables and turf grown in the Hawkesbury have fed the entire Sydney population and beyond for generations.
The river is also a major tourist attraction used extensively for recreation (the annual Bridge to Bridge boat race attracts thousands). Tourism and recreation reap $2 billion a year, thanks to the river.
Three car ferries and several bridges provide crossings over the waterway.
Crowds of day trippers are drawn to popular swimming, fishing, water skiing and boating spots each weekend.
A startling white glare suddenly burns the retinas of our eyes. Deck chairs blindingly white in the sun, emerald green manicured lawns and landscaped yards, expensive boat sheds. The property listings at the local real estate agents would reveal that river frontages are also becoming private paradises for the wealthy.
But later, in the golden after glow of sunset, the birds and fish replay their evening ritual as the mist settles like a gossamer blanket over the water surface, melding with the gloom of dusk. The river continues to beat its slow rhythm of life just as it always has.
By Ellen Hill Photos: David Hill
(As NSW experiences the worst floods in decades, it is worth remembering that flood waters have been a regular feature of the Hawkesbury River for centuries. This feature article by the Deep Hill Media team appeared in the October/November 2010 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine. It is republished here with fresh images showing the current flood.)
IN 1978, my family moved to Richmond. It was the hottest summer and coldest winter for decades. But it was the rain that sent doubts lapping around my parents’ minds about the wisdom of shifting their young children to what was considered a distant outpost.
That March, the Hawkesbury River rose to 14.31m above Windsor Bridge. Richmond became an island. Our world ended at Chapel St, Agnes Banks and the RAAF base. Cows and farm equipment were brought up to the high paddocks on the fringes of town.
We didn’t know it then, but we and countless others previously and since had one man to thank for our safety – Governor Lachlan Macquarie.
Local Councillor and Hawkesbury Flood Risk Management Committee Chairman Kevin Conolly believes the flame-haired leader would be happy with modern efforts to protect residents against flood – Macquarie’s colonial edicts concerning the floodplain continue to influence town planning in the Hawkesbury today.
But with many newcomers never having experienced a flood, modern authorities face similar challenges to their colonial peers.
Hawkesbury residents have been warned of flood dangers since Captain Arthur Philip saw weeds high in the trees at Agnes Banks. Governor King tried to convince settlers into regions other than the fertile but flood-prone Hawkesbury region.
But on his arrival in the fledgling colony in 1810, it was Governor Macquarie who took firm action and ordered the abandonment of floodplain dwellings.
A March, 30, 1806, report in the Sydney Gazette gives a descriptive account of what Macquarie did not want to see again – “…many individuals lost every thing they possessed, and that several have perished in the deluge, which was never before known to arrive to so great a height by from eight to ten feet. What rendered its progress still more destructive was the false notion of security which many had imbibed, from the supposed confidence that there never would be another heavy flood in the main river…”
Hundreds of terrified souls were plucked from rooftops and rafts of straw but five people died and much of the colony’s food supply was lost.
On December 6, 1810, Macquarie gave his famous after-dinner speech proclaiming the five towns of on high ground above the flood plain – Richmond, Windsor, Pitt Town, Castlereagh and Wilberforce.
Each settler was allotted a plot in the new towns large enough for a house, offices, garden, corn yard and stockyard relative to the size of their flood prone farm.
But settlers largely ignored him at/to their peril. In 1816 the river rose again to 13.88m at Windsor Bridge, then to 14.03m in February 1817.
Frustration is apparent in Macquarie’s March 5 1817 proclamation when he again ordered settlers to higher ground – “…many of the deplorable Losses which have been sustained within the last few Years, might have been in great Measure averted, had the Settlers paid due Consideration to their own Interests, and to the frequent Admonitions they had received by removing their Residences from within the Flood Marks to the TOWNSHIPS assigned for them on the HIGHLANDS, it must be confessed that the Compassion excited by their Misfortunes is mingled with Sentiments of Astonishment and Surprise that any People could be found so totally insensitive to their true interests, as the Settlers have in this Instance proved themselves.”
A new benchmark was set for town planners in June 1867 when the Hawkesbury River spilled 19.26m above Windsor Bridge.
Fifteen members of the Eather family were swept into the swirling torrent at Cornwallis on the night of June 21. Twelve drowned, including Catharine (just 36), Emma (38), and five children apiece. Ironically, Catharine is buried opposite the start of the new flood evacuation bypass in Windsor.
Modern scientific evidence suggests an even greater inundation is possible, one where all that can be done is evacuate as many people as early as possible. Referred to as the probable maximum flood (PMF), experts predict it could reach 26.4m above Windsor Bridge.
Hawkesbury Council has successfully lobbied governments for flood evacuation routes – Richmond and Londonderry roads have been raised, and a new bypass built between Windsor and McGraths Hill. A higher Windsor Bridge will be built soon, and council continues work with the State Emergency Service (SES) to fine tune evacuation plans and procedures.
Lobbyists like Clr Conolly and former farmer John Miller continue to demand that more be done, including raising the Warragamba Dam wall by 4m, which would lower floodwaters by the equivalent of two house storeys, they say.
John Miller, 81, knows firsthand about floods in the Hawkesbury. Heady with romantic ideals of farm life, he brought his pregnant wife and toddler to his new farm at Sackville in 1955. In 1956, seven floods wiped out every fruit and vegetable crop he planted.
“I knew nothing about the 1867 flood or any other flood. I’d never a seen a flood before … I got to the bottom of the farm and there’s water up to my packing sheds, and I was carrying bags of fertiliser on my back because it had been raining for weeks, and I kept sinking down in the mud. I didn’t know until I bought the place it was called Mud Island.”
After asking neighbours about his property, John relates “he said ‘Well, in 1867 there was a two storey house there and it was washed away, and a bloke found it at the bottom of the Ebenezer gorge’.
“I couldn’t make a go of it so I moved out of the area and grew mushrooms.”
The zone around John Miller’s former farm is where floodwaters are deepest and most furious. When the Hawkesbury Nepean River floods the water doesn’t just gradually rise – Mother Nature throws a tantrum.
It only takes a few days of very heavy constant rain to cause severe flooding in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley because water surges into the valley at a much higher rate than it can flow out. When the water hits the narrow sandstone cliffs at Ebenezer/Sackville, a bottleneck causes the water to back up into the Richmond/Windsor floodplain before heading back down for another go at squeezing through the cliffs.
Meanwhile, anything in its path is ripped away and catapulted downstream at great speed. “You’ve got tree trunks” John Miller says. “You’d see them go under the bridge and then spear out of the water as they came out the other side. It was horrifying.
“Some people say to me ‘We’ll never get another flood again’ and I say ‘No, and we’ll never get another bushfire in the Blue Mountains either, will we?’ Some people have said I’m a scaremonger, but I’d hate to have to say: `I told you so’.”
Clr Conolly agrees – “The risk is certainly very real. There will be another flood, but there are a lot of people who are not familiar with the fact that it does flood, and the magnitude of floods in the Hawkesbury.
“Macquarie took a very sensible approach and saved many people’s lives. We’re trying to do the same.”
Living high and dry above the floodplain these days, I can only hope others will heed the warnings too. *
• Captain Arthur Philip sees weeds in the trees when he camped on Richmond Hill at Agnes Banks while touring the Hawkesbury Nepean River in 1789
• Governor Philip Gidley King tries to persuade settlers to “set a greater value on the forrest lands’’ of Toongabbie, Parramatta, Prospect Hill, Castle Hill, Seven Hills and Port Jackson after the devastating October 1806 flood when the river rose 14.64m above Windsor Bridge
• May and August 1809: floodwaters rise 14.64m and 14.49m above the bridge respectively, devastating the colony’s food supply
• December 6, 1810: Governor Lachlan Macquarie names his five towns and orders settlers to abandon their riverbank homes
• March 1817: Macquarie strengthens his order to abandon the floodplain
• June 1867: 12 members of the Eather family drown when floodwaters rise 19.26m
• 1960 Warragamba Dam completed
• November 1961: the river rises 15.1m
• March and June 1978: floodwaters rise 14.31m and 9.55m respectively
• February 1992: the last Hawkesbury River flood when water rises 11m above the bridge
• June 2002: $150 million Warragamba Dam auxiliary spillway completed
• On the right hand side of Cornwallis Rd about 1km from the Greenway Cres and Moses St, Cornwallis, intersection is a simple sign commemorating the tragic demise of 12 members of the Eather family swept into the torrent on the night of June 21.
• One of the 12, Catharine, is buried in Windsor Catholic Cemetery, Hawkesbury Valley Way and George St, ironically opposite the start of the new flood evacuation bypass in Windsor.
• The height of the 1867 flood is marked on the side wall of the Macquarie Arms Hotel at Thompson’s Square, Windsor
• Away from Windsor, markers can be seen throughout the Hawkesbury to commemorate floodwater height and the location of significant sites including behind St James’ Anglican Church, Pitt Town; and the location of the original church at Sackville Reach near the cemetery on Tizzana Rd.
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.