real life

TRAVEL: Is romance a lot of hot air? (asks Kate Hunter from a hot air balloon...)

Kate and Jim on their hot air balloon adventure in NZ.

‘You’ll need to call the Up Up and Away office at 5am,’ our itinerary read, ‘If conditions are favourable, you will be collected at 5.30am. Please be dressed warmly and wearing sturdy footwear.’

I’m glad they mentioned the shoe thing. I don’t know about you, but a strappy stiletto would have been my first choice for a hot air balloon ride in winter over the South Island Of New Zealand.

This ballooning ‘adventure’ was the final item on our three day ‘romantic getaway.’ It posed two problems. The first? Neither of us like getting up early. It seemed ludicrous to leave the warmth of a giant hotel bed when there weren’t kids forcing us to do so.  The second problem was Jim’s fear of heights. He doesn’t even like being tall.

I don’t know what made him agree to go in the end. Maybe he took a blow to the head skiing the day before. Or maybe one too many glasses of excellent New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Maybe it was the promised romantic experience? Who knows? I do know I had a mild panic attack before we left and forced Jim to make a frenzied call to our life insurance company to check that our policies were valid in case of a hot air ballooning mishap. I was almost disappointed to find out they rate the activity as low-risk. There was no way out. We were going up.

However, on boarding the Up Up And Away bus, we relaxed. Our pilot, Nigel, was Biggles re-incarnated.  Tall, silver-haired, with a plummy British accent. He wore a turtleneck beneath his flight-suit and a cap with little lights built into the brim. The only disappointment was at no point did he use the word, ‘jolly’.

The magical view.

Arriving in a field near a village with the quirky name of, ‘Cust,’ we and the other 5 passengers helped Nigel and Geoff  (bus-driver) prepare the balloon. I was relieved to know it would be Nigel, not me, attaching the cables that link the basket to the balloon. Passenger participation only extends so far.

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Just on sunrise we climbed inelegantly into the basket and practiced landing positions. I held Jim’s hand tightly as the burners roared and we lifted off the frosty grass, into a powder-blue sky. When Nigel turned the burners off, the silence was stunning. So was the view. Aha, I thought, this is why people do this. Even Jim opened his eyes.

The Canterbury plains are most often described as a patchwork. That’s true –but it’s a patchwork hemmed by snowy mountains and the Pacific ocean. It’s breathtaking –in a good way.

Ballooning in winter, Nigel tells us, is better than in warmer months. The air is cooler, so less gas is needed and the flight is almost silent.

I’ve flown a lot – in big planes, small planes and helicopters, but nothing compares to this. It was extraordinary. I could have stayed up all day. So could Jim – Nigel told us flying was the easy part – it’s landing that’s the challenge.

Interestingly, licensed hot air balloons can legally land wherever they like. Nigel picked a likely-looking paddock (checking for bulls and crazy farmers), then played with the wind until we were safely on the ground. Smiles all round. Within minutes, the land-owner and his wife and two small sons came to say hi, and Geoff arrived with the bus and celebratory bubbles.

It was only 10am but I felt we’d seen and done something amazing. We had a great story to tell our kids, and an experience neither of us had had before – and we’d done it together. In my book, after 14 years together, that’s romantic.

Kate and Jim travelled as guests of Tourism New Zealand.  And thanks also to Air New Zealand. For more information on Kate’s hot air ballooning adventure go to Up Up and Away.

Here’s a quick gallery of the trip..

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