Ms B had been bothering me by going on and on about how awesome her ride on a hot air balloon through the Valley of Kings during her trip to Egypt in 2005 had been (and admittedly that must have been fabulous, judging from the pictures, with all the pyramids and things).
So today, while Ms B went on with her business, doing some lawyering in Canary Wharf, and with me being ‘between jobs’ (my next assignment will only start in a few weeks’ time, again abroad in Germany), I got up real early, 4:15am to be precise, sat myself in a rental car I had hired the night before by 4:45am, and drove to the launch site in Hampshire, 1h30m drive away from home. Due to a couple of bad turns (despite the Tom Tom, I know, inexcusable! I’m not a human lifeform before 8am, more like a mix between a vegetable and a crazed meerkat), I arrived just two minutes before the official meeting time at 06:58am.
Everyone else was already there, most of them from nearby territory, all friendly, chatty folks, so we introduced ourselves. Then the drill with the name lists and safety briefing started.
Another few minutes later, we were given tasks. Another dude and I were asked to hold the rope that is attached to the top of the (still uninflated) balloon, and the inflation process was put in progress.
It was fascinating to watch how the giant balloon gradually started to build up. Our job was simply to hold tight to the rope and try to ensure that the balloon wasn’t going to bounce about too much.
We watched everyone get seated and then jumped in ourselves. Less than a minute later we were taking off.
It’s a weird feeling, sitting with 16 other people in a small basket under the balloon, and lifting off the ground like a feather. We watched the other balloon on the launch site (owned by a different operator) get smaller and smaller and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise. Hampshire is one of Ms B’s and my favourite stretches of English land. So many little hills, hedges, streams, forests, old mansions and picturesque hamlets. A good friend of mine regularly goes hunting in Hampshire, and from up here I could see why: there’s deer everywhere, in all four directions. They were looking at the balloon in disbelief and with excitement, some even running after our shadow on the field, highly unusual for these peaceful plant-eating cutiepies.
Then the captain started to put a camera in position, using an intricate system of ropes, clips, and rings, and we had our photo taken.
Our captain did a great job in explaining the business of hot air ballooning to us while we were gliding through the skies. Ballooning is an amazing artform. To think that you drive a vehicle that can literally only go up and down (well, if you’re experienced, you can read the sky and know how fast and in which direction the wind is likely to go at which altitude so you go to the specific altitude where the wind is closest to the speed and direction you’re seeking, but it’s never a precise science and nearly always impossible to find wind going the exact way you like, at any altitude that is).
You take off and just see where it takes you. The ride could be 40 minutes or 2 hours, it all depends on the wind and the ground you find yourself above. It takes a lot of experience and built-up knowledge to do the job right. You don’t want to go down on an angry farmer’s land (there is no angry like an angry farmer’s angry, especially when they own angry dogs), you don’t want to go down on freshly lined or unharvested land, you definitely want to avoid powerlines and other hazards, you need flat land, no hilly or bumpy terrain, ideally you’re looking for something wind-protected.
Over the years our captain seemed to have made contact with most of the farmers below us. He knew which farms are friendly and which are not, he knew where the boundaries were between each farm, and he regularly kept his colleague, who followed us in the Land Rover below, updated about our whereabouts. Whenever the captain found a suitable spot for landing, he and his buddy discussed over radio the details and intricacies, including if they had the contact details of the farmer and so on. Then, usually the wind changed direction or speed and the landing spot was soon out of sight.
Finally we found a very large, flat, open field and the wind had come to a complete standstill. We could see from watching the shadow of the balloon on the field that we were moving at less than 1km/h, it was difficult to detect any movement at all, watching from above.
We went down millimetre by millimetre over a period of ten minutes or so. It was a testament to the captain’s skill that he knew exactly how to make this happen. It’s counter-intuitive, but even though we were intentionally going down towards the ground, the captain still regularly put on the burners, because one thing you do want to avoid is the air turning cold and the descent going down in one big swooooooosh.
About one metre above the ground the captain asked for volunteers and another guy and I jumped out a few seconds later, immediately putting our weight back onto the basked from outside in order to avoid it lifting off again without us. We pulled the balloon to a slightly more perfecter landing site about 150m away, where there were no hazards to the deflating balloon’s fabric on the ground, such as sharp objects.
It was one of the most weird and wonderful experiences of my life to (together with the other dude) move a featherweight, ten-storey high thingy from one place to another, past a wooden cattle gate and past fence posts, with the bottom of the basket always at about 1m high above the ground, a bit higher when we had to navigate the fence posts. It was surprisingly easy. We did break a sweat, but it was fun.
Finally the captain lowered the balloon down completely to the ground. The well-trained team (including two elderly couples and several people around retirement age) acted like a bunch of seasoned Navy SEALs, making sure no one jumped out the basket too soon and that everything was safe.
We started deflating the balloon (mainly by pulling the top of it to the ground and flattening it on the ground by pressing the air out), then wrapping it up and packaging it, quite a long, arduous process, but fun nonetheless. When everything was done, we walked over to the nearby farm house (the farm manager had already driven over to our landing site and given permission for us to do so, even though he did mention that his boss, the farm owner, was rather displeased that we were the fourth balloon going down on the estate within the last 24 hours, because it disturbs the cattle), took out the sparkly, filled our glasses, and said cheers to a wonderful experience.
A van was already waiting to take us back to the launch site. Even though we had travelled at slow speeds never exceeding 25km/h for only an hour, it still took more than twenty minutes for the drive back, because you have to follow the roads, can’t drive a straight line.
So, surely this must be a 5 out of 5 experience, I hear you say. But no, I wouldn’t recommend this balloon experience. Not with this provider: Adventure Balloons. I always try to check out each provider thoroughly before booking, but in this case I was inattentive. I saw that they are the oldest hot air balloon company within reach of London, they have a great rating on Tripadvisor (#1 of 3 things to do in Hartley Wintney hahahaha, but still four out of five stars by 284 happy customers), and that they even had been awarded a Certificate of Excellence in 2015, not that long ago (but not awarded ever since). Regrettably, in hind sight, that seemed good enough for me.
Adventure Balloons’ website looks like they offer a fun balloon ride experience. However, that is not the case. What they do offer is a vague chance of having a fun balloon ride experience at some stage during the next one or two years, if you have the persistence, energy, time and money to rebook your flight every single time it gets cancelled.
If their website would be clear about this fact, and if they’d make the effort of making obvious cancellations way ahead of time (for example, when there were storm warnings in mid-September, the website still allowed you to book for days that had predicted wind speeds of 30km/h and more at the time and only cancelled the flights within less than 10 hours before scheduled take-off, why?) then no qualms, but it isn’t. It doesn’t tell you how tiny the percentage of actual versus scheduled flights is. Among those customers, that haven’t given up yet, you’ll find many (kudos to them) who have already tried ten times or more. In most cases, you call the provider’s so-called weather-line the day before the scheduled flight and it will tell you that the flight has been cancelled. In some cases the weather-line will tell you that the flight is currently expected to take place and it will tell you when to be where for the launch the next day. Then you arrive on site, there is no wind, not a cloud in the sky, and still the flight gets cancelled last minute.
In many cases it would be much cheaper to spend a few days in the Maldives, flights, hotel, and food included, than to do this balloon experience. Let’s say you’re two persons, each of you on the statistic London average wage of £34,991 and you have to take two and a half days off because of flights that get cancelled last minute (not counting the time you finally take off for the flight that actually takes place, that’s your holiday, it’s time you took off to have fun, only talking about the time you took off for cancelled flights). That’s already £800 gone down the drain simply in unwarranted loss of income (£34,991 divided by 220 working days times 2.5 days times 2) for the two of you.
Add car rental costs plus petrol or train tickets plus cab (no launch site is next to a train station, you’ll either have to rent or own a car or take a cab from the train station) for a few failed attempts, and this will easily add another £400 for the two of you (it’s not cheap to book stuff last-minute, only after you called the weather-line, hours before the flight), so we’re at £1,200 for the two of you.
None of this includes the actual cost of the experience on the day it finally (if ever) takes place: £290 for two Champagne Balloon Flight Standard Tickets.
Statistically, I was one of the 77% who fly by their fifth attempt (in my case it was literally the fifth attempt). 3 out of 3,000 passengers took 20 attempts, according to a Guardian post.
Apparently most of the tickets get booked as gift vouchers. Just imagine. How much do you need to hate someone to give them a gift voucher that will kill dead days of their lives that they will never get back, that will cost them more than a beach holiday in the Maldives, and that will generally cause them to feel violated and angry. 2 out of 5 in our book, sorry (it would have been 0 out of 5 if it weren’t for the apparent expertise of our captain). Funny enough, 2 out of 5 is also the ranking on Trustpilot, I wish I would have checked before I booked.
Thanks for stopping by, hope to see you back soon.