The Good Life

Ball ning in Switzerland

Sounds romantic and adventurous, doesn't it! We thought so too, and since we had an opportunity to see my native country from a different viewpoint, one of my relatives being a balloon-pilot, we jumped at the chance.

Our vehicle - apologies for the picture quality, it was 6.00 a.m.!

We couldn't have picked a better day for our flight - a perfect Fall day, with a slight ground fog in the early morning, and that burnt wood smell in the air so typical in September. Up at 6.00 a.m. to drive to our starting point, a small clearing in a forest, where our vehicle was being prepared - a hydrogen balloon with a wicker basket attached to it, just big enough to hold the three of us. A majestic sight, the red balloon already filled with gas, gently swaying in the morning breeze, weighed down with extra sandbags to keep it on the ground. According to the weather office, the prevailing winds would be north-east, which would take us somewhere over Germany, in the general direction of Munich. Our ground-crew was ready to follow us in a 4-wheel drive with trailer, to bring the balloon back to the starting point after landing. We would be in constant radio contact with the jeep, to get information on wind conditions close to the ground, a pretty important consideration when attempting to land! We had our maps to keep track of our course, and finally, we climbed aboard, the ground crew removed the extra sandbags, and the balloon lifted gently off the ground.

We were off - and drifting right into the tall firs surrounding us, getting tangled up in the branches and desperately trying to fend off the prickly indication of things to come???

A few handfuls of sand thrown overboard to clear the tops of the trees, and now we were REALLY off. We decided to stay at a fairly low altitude to begin with, so we could really enjoy the countryside below us, and what a sight it was! Green fields, vineyards, fruit orchards, small villages, each with its own little church, in the distance the Alps, still shrouded in thin fog, and above the clear blue sky. The silence was wonderful, only occasionally broken by a barking dog, a church-bell ringing, cowbells tinkling, the sounds easily being carried up to us through the fresh morning air. Soon the last of the fog was burnt away by the sun, and it got really warm, as we were travelling with the wind and therefore could not feel the breeze. After a while, we decided to climb to a higher altitude, and a few more handfuls of sand sent us soaring up to where the wind was stronger and we really started to move. Time for a sip of tea laced with rum, which we were careful to ration - the facilities are limited in a wicker-basket, so you don't want to ingest too much liquid!

Towards noon, the wind calmed down and we spent about an hour hovering over one particular village - that place is forever burnt into my memory now! But in a balloon, you're at the mercy of the wind, and there's nothing you can do but wait for its direction to change...We were low enough to be able to talk to people - a farmer's wife coming out of her kitchen, asking us to land and stay for lunch, a boy following us on his bike, asking to be picked up and taken along; then the wind picked up, and up and onwards we went.

view from the balloon
The view from "up there"!

We were now able to see the shores of the Bodensee, a large lake dividing Switzerland and Germany. Soon we were over the water and decided to have a closer look at things. Some gas was vented out of the balloon, and we slowly sank towards the water. At about 2 meters above the surface, we tied a water-filled plastic container to a long rope and slowly paid out the rope until the canister hit the water, dragging behind and acting as an anchor, slowly pulling us down to just above water level - sometimes to just a bit below as well! We skimmed across the surface of the lake, to the amazement of various boaters which soon surrounded us. Some people offered to tow us to shore, but we weren't finished yet! Up came our improvised anchor, some sand was dumped, and we started climbing again. Up and up we went, until the sailboats were tiny white dots, up to 1600 meters. Suddenly, there was a roar, and there was a 'Mirage' fighter plane from the Swiss Air Force, circling us, and dipping its wings in greeting before speeding on.

Now it was time to think about picking a good landing site, as we had crossed the lake and it was getting late. Easier said than done - one doesn't usually take power lines and tree tops into consideration when earth-bound. We spotted a field which seemed big enough and approximately in the direction in which we were travelling. But it was not to be - as we sank lower and lower, the wind at ground level picked up, and before we knew it, we had passed our chosen spot and were heading directly for a farmhouse. Frantically shovelling sand over the edge, we just cleared the rooftop, leaving the farmer's wife gaping up at us in amazement, with the dog beside her barking up a storm.

It took a while to spot our next potential landing site, and that turned out to be literally a last-minute decision. I casually mentioned to our pilot that the field ahead of us seemed like a good spot, and he decided to go for it. The rip- panel on the balloon was opened, we quickly lost altitude, long, heavy ropes were thrown overboard, trailing behind us, slowing us down, and as we all bent our knees, held on to the rim of the basket and hoped for the best, anticipating a tremendous bump as we came down, we set down lightly as a feather - in the middle of a herd of very curious cows. We were quickly surrounded by kids and adults who were more than willing to help us getting the balloon deflated and folded up, a 2-hour task, after which everyone was invited for a glass of beer, courtesy of the aliens from the sky.

Luckily, we had landed quite close to a country road (we tried to convince the ground crew that this had of course been pre- planned, but they kept insisting it was pure luck!), making it easier for the jeep to be brought in and the balloon loaded on the trailer. By the time we had delivered the balloon and driven back home, we had gone through 3 sets of Customs and were exhausted. But what an adventure!