Destinations: Wairarapa Balloon Fiesta

Four of us are snug in a wicker basket and the blue balloon is inflated high above us. The burner roars like a dragon, but nothing happens. The basket stays on the ground. I change lenses on my camera and, when I look down again, I'm 20 metres in the air and the balloon is rising fast.

The lift-off, when it does happen, is ethereal, gentle, and soundless — I don't feel a thing. My heart has a quick flutter. The sensation of floating, without wind, ruffle, or fuss, is odd but very good. I'm soon enjoying it and the different views of the Wairarapa as we slowly float over it. 

People look up and wave when they hear the periodic flaming exhale of the propane burner as it heats the air that keeps us high. Cattle in the paddock below aren't happy about the big weird thing high above them, so they herd together, and in a different paddock, a lone bull hides under a tree.

Today is one of four mass ascensions in the Wairarapa Balloon Fiesta and ours, ZK-FBB, is one of 20 balloons in the sky. The most spectacular, and the one that took longest to inflate, is the Mike Pero Flying House, a large two-storied red house with yellow windows, Tudor decorations, a chimney, and two cats lazing on the roof.

Wairarapa _Balloon _Fest _3

A competition is part of today's ascension. Pilots should fly the balloon over the Mitre 10 car park, in central Martinborough, and drop a weighted and streamer-clad number to prove they did so. But balloons, unlike aeroplanes, can't fly into the wind and ZK-FBB floats along in a gentle zephyr that takes us to the southern outskirts of Martinborough, missing the car park by a kilometre.

Ballooning basics

Hot air balloons were the first human-carrying flying-devices and, despite seeming to be miraculous, modern hot air balloons are not too different to the first hot air balloon that flew over the heads of Louis XV1 and Marie Antoinette, at Versailles in 1783.

There are three sections to a balloon: the envelope, which is filled with heated air; the basket, which carries the people; and the burner, fitted above the basket, which heats the air. When the air inside the balloon is hotter than that outside it, it rises. When the air temperature is similar or cooler, it falls. One of the many skills of the pilot is keeping that balance.

After 40 minutes and one tank of propane gas gone, it's time to come down. The pilot spots a large flat paddock, with no animals in it and no power lines nearby and aims for it. The paddock seems to rise up at speed, but the come-down is gentle — a couple of bumps and we're back on land.

The support person, who has been trailing us on roads as we float through the air, drives the car and trailer across the grass and parks next to the basket.

Without the buoyancy of hot air, the balloon deflates quite quickly. We pull a rope attached to its crown, away from the basket, so it falls in a neat line rather than a jumbled heap. We push out the remaining air, fold in the diaphanous fabric and roll it up in a large tight ball. It takes the four of us to heft it into its bag.

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About the Wairarapa Balloon Festival

The Wairarapa Balloon Fiesta takes place over four days in the middle of March each year – the month most likely to have the still air that balloons require. The balloons take off from Masterton, Carterton and Martinborough spreading the fun around the district.

The Night Glow, the grand finale held in Masterton's Solway Showgrounds on the Saturday night, is spectacular. Tethered balloons, choreographed to music, glow like brilliant coloured light bulbs.

There are four mass ascensions, one on each morning of the Fiesta. Meanwhile, watching 20 balloons all being inflated together at Solway Park, Masterton, at dawn is almost as exciting as going up in one.

During the Fiesta, members of the public can take a balloon ride at $350 per person. Accommodation can be found at Martinborough Top 10 Holiday Park, with 16 powered sites, or Mawley Holiday Park, Masterton, next to the Waipoua River, has 54 powered sites. Both have all the amenities motorhomers or campers require.

For the full, unabridged article about the Wairarapa Balloon Fiesta 2014, check out issue 116 of Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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