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Up, up and away! Chasing the sunrise with Hot Air Cairns

chasing the sunrise

After three and a half years in Australia there aren’t many experiences that still leave me speechless. Hot Air Ballooning is one of them.

A trip across the skies in a Hot Air Balloon has always been on my bucket list, ever since childhood. I can vividly remember watching a festival with tens of them lifting up at the same time and just gazing at them, mouth agape. Consider this real desire to try it out and you have to wonder why it’s taken me so long to book a tour with Hot Air Cairns.

Hmm, perhaps the 4.05am pick up had something to do with it.

Just a little.

My alarm blared out at 3am but I was surprised to find myself already awake, my brain having woken me up a few minutes before. Now I just needed to get my body on board! Of course drinking a bottle of wine and going to bed at midnight had been the right strategy! Usually I find it difficult to sleep in cars or buses but almost instantly my head slipped to my chest and I napped for most of the way up.

When our driver woke us up the temperature change was palpable.

My breath fogged up and my toes were frozen, no amount of wriggling was going to defrost them either. As we drove towards a field with the merest hint of dawn beginning I looked eagery for where our transportation might be. But no, all I could see was a big hill.

Oh, wait.

That’s not a hill, is it?

hot air ballooning cairns

hot air ballooning cairns

hot air ballooning cairns

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I knew that our hot air balloons would be big, we’d been told the one we’d be in this morning would be the largest in Australia. But nothing can quite prepare you for the sight of five gargantuan balloons – each over four storeys high – being lit up by flames the size of cars. It looked like we were surrounded by transparent caves filled with dragons, and angry dragons at that. Each time a burner activated it emitted a roar as the gas ignited and the entire balloon would become illuminated from within. They took turns transforming the field a ghost like orange.

I was captivated.

With the lack of sleep combined with the early hour it felt as though I was dreaming, floating through a pixar animation. The majority of other passengers didn’t speak English and so I was in a little bubble, watching things come together through the lens of my camera.

Of course it took another British voice to break the spell.

“Oi, love! You getting in the basket or what?”

Now I’ve managed to pull off many thing in my life, but clambering inside the basket while juggling three separate cameras was not one of them. Happily I don’t think I was the only one with this problem and I was thankful indeed to be wearing shorts.

hot air ballooning cairns

Taking off in a hot air balloon is not like a helicopter or plane. It’s as though you’re one of those stray balloons let go by accident, floating upwards. At first I didn’t even realise we’d begun ascending so softly did we leave the ground. It wasn’t until I noticed the angle of my photographs changing that I looked down and saw the ground much further away than it had been before.

It felt like how flying feels in dreams. Totally natural. You’re moving with the wind, floating along like a feather.[hcolumns]

hot air ballooning cairns

hot air ballooning cairns

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With the ground below coated in candy floss mist and the sun barely peeking over the mountains the scene below us looked like an ethereal mood painting. The colours were subdued and everything looked in soft focus through the mist.

I felt my childhood self next to me, squeezing my hand. I wished I was doing this with my Dad. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. A little tear squeezed itself out and I was glad to be in the corner, shielding my face.

Yet again, the other Brit chimed in. “This is nice, eh?” he said wielding the iPad in my face, “Better than a holiday in Blackpool.”

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hot air ballooning cairns

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As always, it can be a struggle for me to put my camera down and just enjoy the experience I’m having. I suffer from FOMOOTPS (fear of missing out on the perfect shot) and as such have viewed many a sunrise from my viewfinder.

Thankfully I exercised some control and managed to retrain myself somewhat. Plus it was such a staggering experience that my mouth was hanging open most of the time. It’s hard to take a decent picture when your jaw is resting on your knees.

Loud mouthed Brits aside, I hadn’t counted on what a serene experience the flight would be. The dawn silence was only punctuated by the roar of the burner. My fellow passengers spoke in hushed tones as though we were in a giant flying library. Pure serenity.

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hot air ballooning cairns

We’d taken off at the literal crack of dawn, but the sun moves fast this close to the equator. The pale light didn’t take long to strengthen, illuminating more and more of our surroundings. Pleasingly symmetrical farms with square macadamia trees sat alongside the straight rows of tea plantations. I couldn’t help but wonder about the residents of the houses below. Was there anyone peeking out of the window and looking back up?

hot air ballooning cairns

The wind had carried us a few miles along in our half hour flight and soon we could see the ground crew assembling, ready to help us to land. We bobbed towards a large field and it felt as though the basket must be brushing the tree tops. I did also wonder about the proximity of a nearby lake…

hot air ballooning cairns

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hot air ballooning cairns

hot air ballooning cairns

hot air ballooning cairns

We readied ourselves for landing, crouching with backs against wicker basket. Our basket bounced a few times before imperceptibly coming to a stop. Clambering out looking like the epitome of elegance (snigger) I found the view on the ground to be almost as good as the view from above. The field was filled with balloons, golden maize and bewildered horses. As the other balloons arrived one by one we helped to pack ours up. Not an easy task when you’re trying not to step in horse poo!

hot air ballooning cairns

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hot air ballooning cairns

hot air ballooning cairns

hot air ballooning cairns

And then we were back on the bus, my eyes were closing and when they opened back up we were in Cairns. Had I been in a hot air balloon only a couple of hours before? It didn’t feel like it when the experience had been so surreal.

But if it had been a dream, it was a bloody lovely dream and not one I’m likely to forget in a hurry.

hot air ballooning cairns

Need to know:

  • Pick ups start at 4am and, yes, they only go that early in the morning. You’ll return by 10am but you are able to book an ‘express’ tour (which I did) that will have you back much earlier, so you’re able to hop on another tour.
  • It’s bloody cold, even in summer, so make sure you wrap up properly.
  • If you get car sick then you might find the drive up the range a bit tummy-churning. Take medication if you’re worried!
  • Prices are around $235 and increase with express tours and upgrades.
  • No you don’t have to help pack the balloon – but you will get home a lot faster if you do!
  • Don’t wear a dress or shorts – you really do have to haul yourself into the basket…
  • To book either click here or call +61-07-40399900.

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