Alex’s birthday took place in April, and I had been determined to give her a memorable gift. During my initial visit to Vienna, but far enough in that all the feelings had started to bud where Alex was concerned, Alex had mentioned that for her previous birthday her work colleagues had given her a huge helium balloon. The glee in her face indicated to me that balloon + Alex = happy, and I therefore decided to give her the biggest balloon anyone had ever given her.
This I accomplished in the form of a hot-air balloon ride.
Well, truth-be-told, this I accomplished in the much less climatic gift of a home-made voucher for a hot-air ballon ride. Part of the gift was that she could choose the location of the flight, and given that we frequently moved between London and Vienna, with the odd side trip to Greece and Prague, she had her choice of location. At the time of said gift-giving, we had already begun preparations for our Australian sojourn, and so she decided to vote for the city that had helped shaped the person she loved (me).
We both agreed that, given the fickle nature of Melbourne weather, we’d try and take the hot-air balloon ride as soon as possible to avoid the risk of missing out altogether, and so in the week leading up to our departure, I went about finalising the date of the flight. We landed on the Saturday and thought we should have recovered enough from the day-long ordeal by Monday in order to take to the air again.
Unfortunately, the day before leaving for the airport, the coordinators of the flight informed me that the weather for Monday didn’t look good, and that, in fact, the weather for the rest of the week wasn’t looking good either. There was one ray of sunlight, however (metaphorically and literally): Sunday was clear. Even though we knew we’d be exhausted from our hemispherical commute, we thought fuck it, and booked it in.
So, after touching down at five pm Saturday, jet-lagged and generally fatigued from the energy it takes to cram yourself into airline chairs for twenty-three hours, we woke up at four am Sunday and drove into the fine city of Melbourne to see it from the air.
This was Alex’s first taste of Melbourne, and was rather anti-climatic given the sun was not yet up and we were we just driving through dimly-lit suburbia. She was polite enough however to ohh and ahh as I pointed out landmarks from my life despite the fact that most of it couldn’t be seen at this time in the morning.
We wove into the heart of the CBD, parked, and walked the final stretch down Flinders Lane to the Grand Hyatt, the meeting point. There we met some of our fellow aviators, a young couple from Sydney, the male of the pair being kind enough to ask if we’d heard about the hot-air balloon crash that morning in Florida. Tactful. It kind of killed the conversation.
Once all had gathered, we were loaded into a van and driven to our take-off site — the park behind the Royal Children’s Hospital. We all assisted in dismounting the balloon and basket from the trailer and unrolling the expanse of nylon that was going to pull us up and above the city. The pilot set up a giant fan and directed air into the material, and quickly followed it with what we’d all come to see: fire.
This was literally the combination of ingredients that would levitate us into the sky — air and fire — proving that the hot-air balloon truly lives up to its name.
The limp and flaccid stretch of nylon slowly engorged with air and fire, and eventually rose to stiff attention above us to blot out the sky. (If you found an erection metaphor in that previous sentence then that was your doing, not mine. I was just describing the process of inflating a balloon. Shame on you.)
We all piled into the basket, that, while big, felt cramped with the ten of us squeezed in to create the smallest mosh pit ever. The pilot also boarded, released a few eruptions of flame up into the cavernous balloon, and after a few bumps along the grass, the impossible happened and we floated off the ground.
The first two minutes involved clinging as tightly to the basket edges as my fingers would allow, and trying desperately to keep every muscle in my body perfectly still and balanced in case any movement tipped the basket and had us all tumbling out. My brain avidly pointed out that the ground was going away, and that we liked the ground, and that maybe that was a safer place to be than suspended in wicker underneath gouts of fire and a thin nylon sheet.
Alex was a pro. Despite the near-panic attack induced by looking at photos on the company’s website a month earlier, she calmly pivoted around, capturing the miracle of drifting from the ground and lazily weaving between the tips of skyscrapers. A few “Oh boy!”s were whispered through pursed lips, and the odd chuckle tinged with just the tiniest hit of mania slipped out, but otherwise she was totally calm.
After five minutes of my brain alerting me again and again that the ground had gone, the lack of any actual harm and the apparent lack of threat despite the unusual location we found ourselves in soothed the flight-or-fight in me enough to for it to curl up in the back of my skull and enjoy the view.
And what a view. We headed straight over the heart of the city, and Melbourne was laid out like the most detailed of maps, complete with toy-trains shooting out across tiny rails, minute figures of people strolling the pencil thin footpaths, and the building stretching up to meet us, suspended there above it all. If you are impressed by the satellite feature on google maps, just know you haven’t seen anything yet.
Eventually the fear disappeared so completely that we leaned over the basket’s edges, looking down on the patchwork of homes, pools, and footballs ovals that made up the suburbia as we drifted away from the city, taking the winds blowing South-East. Someone made the comment that we were lucky to have such a smooth flight, and the pilot remarked that all flights were smooth. We were never stationary, and so never offered resistance to the breeze, and we had no form of propellent of our own to drive us through the air currents and cause turbulence. We were a feather caught in the breeze, a leaf drifting down a river, and being part of the movement made it feel as if we were still while the world scrolled below us. It turns out there’s some perks to going with the flow — there’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.
Eventually we made our way to the Moorabbin airport where, upon descending, out pilot calmly informed us that we were going fast enough that our basket would tip on landing. We absorbed his words, fought down a bubble of panic, and giggled nervously, because what else do you do when someone tells you your hot-air balloon would crash land.
It turns out this is a rather normal occurrence and we adopted the brace position we had been taught, bending our knees and sandwiching ourselves between stands of wicker. The edge of the basket kissed the ground, trundled along for a while, then the whole thing slowly and elegantly tipped until we settled on our backs in the grass. It was nice to lay there next to Alex, grass blades tickling my cheek, safely back on solid ground. The strangers crammed around us I could have done without.
Euphoric from the spectacle we had just partaken in, we helped pack away the balloon, now once again shrivelled and flaccid, its work done for the day and all air ejaculated from its insides (keep it clean, people). We were then driven back to the Grand Hyatt, given glasses of sparkling wine as is customary, and gorged ourselves on the lavish buffet breakfast offered by the hotel.
As we retraced out steps down Flinders Land and back to the car, walking through the city that only an hour before we had floated above,we were greeted with one last sight. Alex, being without her glasses, squinted as we approached the edge of a street, emerging out of buildings to a small park on the opposite street, and asked, “What kind of dog is that?”
It was a ram. In Melbourne. Just chewing grass beside the skyscrapers.
The worst part was nobody else was acting like it was a weird thing. I could envision Alex’s phone call back home, her family asking her impression of Melbourne and her response, “It’s nice and all, but they just have livestock roaming through the streets.”
I tried to assure her this was completely unusual, and she seemed convinced. Mostly.
So the birthday gift, and Alex’s first experience of Melbourne, had been a success, and we’d only be in the country for nineteen hours.
Luckily, there was plenty more to come.