Wednesday, 14 October 2009
Sails in the Desert
Ayers Rock/Uluru, Australia
Today was a big day for me, huge in fact: I crossed one of the items off my bucket list: I rode in a hot air balloon! Yes, today was ballooning day for the group.
Our pickup was scheduled for 4:00 am in order to facilitate a sunrise takeoff, which in and of itself constitutes o’dark thirty. To meet the bus at 4:00 am, one really needs to get up at 3:00 am in order to perform one’s morning ablutions, so if there is anything any earlier than o’dark thirty, we had to be up by it. If, however, one is so excited one does not know whether to shit or go blind and is morbidly paranoid about sleeping through an alarm and a wakeup call, one will of course arise at 2:30 in the morning and before one’s ablutions (face washing, tooth brushing, sunscreen slathering, and dressing) in the absolute darkness lest one wake one’s peacefully slumbering traveling companion. Miraculously, at the conclusion of this feat, all my clothes were on in the right places and (after a check in the daylight) right side out!
The bus from the balloon company picked up the 26 of us who were going ballooning as promised at 4:00 am. Mark and Nico, the balloon company driver and crew, took us out into the middle of the great beyond (once again, I was very glad to be in a large group, as this would have been a prime serial killer opportunity) to the first of two launch sites we sampled that morning. We waited for quite a little while before Charlie, the balloon pilot, decided the winds were not propitious at that particular launch site, and that we would have to move to alternative launch site number one. He figured this out by letting go of a helium balloon that contained a battery-powered LED. The balloon glowed red as it floated up, helping Charlie determine which way the wind was blowing in the dark. The second launch site was deemed a go, so Charlie, Mark, and Nico began setting up the balloon.
The first thing they did was unload the basket from the trailer. I was very interested in the wherefores and particulars of this operation, particularly how all of us were going to go up in this one balloon. It was really quite simple: big basket, big balloon. That’s right, the basket held twenty people at a time, plus the pilot, so most of our group got to go in one balloon. Charlie told us they were using the biggest balloon, which displaces 12 tons of air, for our flight. They laid the basket on its side and attached the balloon to it. Next, they began filling the balloon with cold air using a giant fan, not unlike the ones used to fill up Jupiter Jumps! (I must report that I am quite certain the noise level on that fan was in excess of 85 dB and it would most certainly fail a DuPont noise audit. And, sadly, no hearing protection was provided for anyone except the pilot.) Once the balloon was mostly full, they anchored the basket to the tour bus, then started lighting off the propane burner to warm up the air inside. If anything, this was even louder than the fan! The warmth from all that propane felt really good, though, as the morning was still somewhat cool. I cozied up to it and wished only for a marshmallow to roast!
Once the balloon started to lift off the ground a tad, Mark and Nico started loading us into the STILL HORIZONTAL basket! The basket was sectioned off into four compartments, which were fully padded on the sides and bottom. He had people climb into the compartments one at a time; in this orientation, they looked rather like the sailors’ berths on aircraft carriers that you see pictures of, with the ballooners tucked in lying on their stomachs with their heads sticking out the top (well, except for the one oldster who climbed in head first and couldn’t get turned back around!). Mark and Nico loaded about 15 people that way, saving the last five for loading after the basket was levered upright by the balloon. I guess he thought David and I looked particularly spry, because he saved us for the upright loading, which required us to clambor over the top of the basket. I wouldn’t necessary say I was particularly graceful, but I got in without falling and without sticking my butt in someone’s face like the upside down geezer!
Once everyone got loaded, Charlie hit the burners and we lifted off just as the sun rose over the horizon. It was amazing: we gently and gradually rose off the ground, with little sensation of movement at first. Then, with a long and loud blast of the burners, we began to rise! Up, up, and away, flying away from the sunrise! I was near the center of my little compartment, so I was able to sneak a peak at Charlie’s altimeter. The highest I ever saw it creep was 2600 ft, which was the absolute altitude above sea level. I asked Charlie and he told me that the elevation at Alice Springs is about 1500 ft, so we were 1000 feet in the air at our maximum height.
We flew at 1,000 ft for a short while, then Charlie lowered the balloon down much closer to the ground so we could hunt for kangaroos. And when I say he lowered the balloon, he lowered the balloon: the bottom of the basket was brushing the tops of some of the trees! (According to Charlie, he does this to brush the dust off the bottom of the basket…while I know he’s teasing, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, as the ground out here is composed entirely of red ferrous dust that gets in everything and everywhere.) Did I mention that the burner was really loud? Charlie took advantage of that noise to flush out the ‘roos. We were almost to the end of the flight and were disparing of actually spotting anything other than prodigious amounts of kangaroo poop (we knew where they’d been, but not where they were!) when Charlie briefly demonstrated the noise they make for us (a gentle clicking, in case you are interested), and that seemed to draw the little buggers out, because not 30 seconds later we spotted two adult red kangaroos!!! If spotting two kangaroos in Australia gives you this much of a charge, I can’t imagine what going on safari in Africa must be like!
After we saw the ‘roos, it was time to land our balloon. I was a little concerned because a couple of people in our group had been ballooning before and said that sometimes the basket will tip over onto its side when it lands. Fortunately for us, Charlie was an exceptionally good lander and our basket stayed plumb and true. Then it was time to disembark our craft, which was almost as ungainly as getting in even though it was still upright. Even I, probably the most nimble and agile of the group (which, let’s face it, ain’t sayin’ much!) needed an assist from David to get out of the basket. (He’s stronger than he looks, which came in very handy when one of the mobility-impaired oldsters couldn’t get out. David basically lifted him out of the basket.) Mark and Nico loaded us all back into the bus and drove us back to the hotel for our champagne/orange juice breakfast. (We had more than champagne and orange juice, but those were your beverage choices.) Let me just say that the balloon crew had a very free hand with that champagne bottle: originally they were pouring mimosas from pitchers, but by the end of breakfast it was straight champagne right out of the bottle!) and many, many in our group partook very, very freely---I think there were more than a few for whom it was fortunate we had a bus driver! They served chocolate cake as the final course of breakfast (it was a very odd menu: chicken legs, quiche, fruit, cheese and crackers, and chocolate cake), and I remarked that starting the day with booze and chocolate is certainly a good way to go!
Our next stop of the day was the Alice Springs base of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. This is a group of doctors based at locations around Australia who fly out into the bush and provide routine and emergent care to citizens who do not live in ready proximity to medical care. The doctors are paid by the Australian government, but the RFDS does solicit donations to help them buy new aircraft--can you imagine the screaming if we tried to institute something like that in the States?? They showed us something called a pedal radio, which was developed in the 1930s as a way for residents of remote communities to contact the RFDS. It’s exactly what it sounds like: the user pedals to generate the electricity needed to power the radio. Clever, eh?
After the Doctors, it was off to downtown Alice Springs for a spot of shopping and lunch. And saying you’re going to downtown Alice Springs is like saying you’re going to downtown Parkersburg. Mostly, it exists to serve the tourists: souvenir shops, T-shirt shops, and places to eat. We grabbed a sandwich and a refreshing iced chocolate, picked up a few souvenirs (really, y’all, I’m doing good with the shopping thing because of the weight and size restrictions…just so you know, you all are getting flat, non-breakable items that pack well.), and then it was time to board the bus back to the airport for our flight to Uluru/Ayers Rock.
Once again, QANTAS rocked my world! Because I knew about the no boarding zones thing, this time I was the first person on the plane (well, except for the handicapped people, and I don’t think that should count against me, do you?). David said he looked around and I was gone before he knew what was happening. You gotta move fast when you hang out with me. As the Varners say, only the hardy survive with me! The flight to Uluru was short, only 50 minutes, but they served afternoon tea: cheese and crackers, a little piece of lemon cake, and a container of water all wrapped up in the cutest little expanded polystyrene container. It looked like a little pencil case! QANTAS excels at sleek packaging, that’s for sure. I wonder what we’ll get on our flight to Cairns tomorrow, since it is three hours. The mind boggles.
Our hotel here in Ayers Rock, Sails in the Desert (or Sticks in the Sand as Lisa jokingly called it!) is definitely a cut above the Alice Springs Resort. We checked in, then set out for a look-see at the stuff in the little “village”. Just like in the US National Parks, everything here is owned and operated by one vendor and exists to serve the tourists, even more so than Alice Springs, so selection was limited and prices were elevated, but I bought a few (again) little things. There was even a little grocery store, where we scoped out the Tim-Tams. Turns out there’s more than one flavor!! I think sampling will be in order.
At 5:30 we headed out to view Uluru at sunset from one of the viewing locations. Uluru(aka Ayers Rock) is the world’s largest monolith--basically the whole thing is one giant rock. It is composed of sandstone, and geologists estimate that, just like an iceberg, only 1/12 to 1/10 of it is visible above the ground…the rest goes down about 4 miles. Uluru is red due to large amounts of iron oxide (rust for the non-chemist readers), which is omnipresent in the middle of Australia, giving rise to the nickname “The Red Center”.
Once again, Tauck hooked us up: booze and snacks while watching the sun set over “The Rock” sitting on little camp chairs! Luxury viewing for sure. I think some of the oldsters were so loaded on the free booze they couldn’t have told you which way west was! (I heard rumors that one of them is traveling with his own bottle of Scotch…how do you do that and prevent breakage?) Old age drunkenness aside, sunset was spectacular as it changed the shadows cast over the Rock. Interestingly, just like in Hawaii, the sunset didn’t linger very long, and neither did we: back to Sails for dinner with Sandra, Linda, and Fay at the casual dining option before an enrapturing evening doing laundry and corresponding with you, my lovely readers.
So, while I wait for the laundry to dry (I would have been done half an hour again save for the lady that had to wash her clothes twice because she’s “highly allergic”), I will say good night and sleep well. I am sure I will! Tomorrow we’re off to Cairns for the night, then to Hayman Island and the Reef!