Day 8: Early Morning Ballooning

4.32am. The all too familiar ring tone of our guide Steve rings through the timber hotel room. We ‘awake’ from the torture instrument that the Chinese call a bed. This was the worst so far in this journey. under the sheet it looks like a mattress but it feels like a freight pallet with a mattress material cover. The edges are solid timber and the middle core is probably ply wood or bamboo.

Bags packed, we climb into our vehicle and with eyes half awake we embark on the drive to Yangshuo. In the distance the strobing glow of lighting sillhouettes the karst peaks and I’m beginning to wonder if taking a balloon trip in China was such a good idea.

We arrive at the base of the mountains in Yangshuo as the team are firing up the first canopy. The red burst of flames echo into the valley as the balloon takes shape and slowly rises up. Given a complimentary cap to guard our hair from the heat above, we hop into the basket and say our last prayers to the ‘travel gods’

Lift off! We rise rapidly above the valley floor into the cool tropical air. A few more bursts of from the burner and we achieve altitude. A gentle breeze takes us along a path which roughly follows the river below. Once we are up 2 more balloons have since inflated and are rising up to greet us. The pilot feathers the burners and air vent causing the balloon to bob and weave it’s ways amongst the peaks. At one moment we are 20m from the river snaking its course and then within 15 frames of my camera – several hundred metres into the upper limits of perceived safety.

As the flight continues the early mist starts to clear and reveal the rising sun. Already at 15º to the land below, it glows a hot pink shrouded by a dragon fist of early morning cloud.

This was truly postcard stuff. A decision to try this experience many months ago has paid off. We saw a thatched green escarpment as far as the eye could see. Fruit and rice, vegetables and chinese greens each in their own compartmentalised space at varying stages in their development. Combined with the mountains fading into the distance it was a moment in time. Once the sun was up, it was time for us to get down, chased by 3 ‘ninja’ balloon catchers around small fields of rice, taro, greens, and oranges. After a false start (too close to the only power line, and no wind at low altitudes to move us away), we were caught and brought down for a soft lading. After a 2 km walk we were back to the car, whilst our able pilot and his ninja crew folded up the balloon.