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Surrounded by darkness pierced here and there by forehead-mounted halogen lamps, I only know which direction is east thanks to a growing smear of rose burning along one edge of the otherwise black morning sky.
A furious roaring regularly interrupts the sleepy conversations around me as our balloon pilot ignites a collection of burners, warming the chilly air inside a wrinkled stretch of nylon. The orange flames pour into the deflated balloon in reasonably short bursts, momentarily lighting up a perimeter of faces focused on the growing mass, before the pilot lets off and our small gathering is covered again with poorly lit silence.
A group of about 12 of us have traveled from several different Alice Springs hotels onboard a mini shuttle bus, bouncing along for about 15 minutes on a red dirt road into the Australian outback. The pre-dawn commute has delivered us to our Outback Ballooning launch site, where in a matter of minutes we’ll all climb into a wicker basket the size of a small hay wagon.
Unlike the boisterous, forceful takeoff of a large jet airplane, or even the spry jump up of a helicopter liftoff, my first balloon ride builds up surprisingly slowly. The basket separates from the ground only when it is good and ready, inching upward lazily in a fanfare-free climb. As daybreak brightens, we rise over bushes and trees and riverbeds and ruler-straight roads carved into the outback while a border of dark mountains pushes up along the northern horizon.
The ride certainly isn’t entirely silent as the pilot operates the burners frequently to regulate the balloon’s height, but when they are not in use the absence of sound is tremendous. In what seems like only a matter of minutes, we rise to a soaring height, leaving the wide, dry riverbeds and occasional roads below looking like strings tied across the dusty face of the planet.
However, the entire trip isn’t spent so high above the ground. Before long, the pilot has us so low that a passenger near me reaches out and grabs a leaf off of a passing tree. It’s at this height where we see a group of bounding red kangaroos. The iconic Aussie animals are most active at dawn and dusk, so a trip with outback Ballooning is a terrific way to get a great look at the kangaroos out in their natural environment.
The hour-long tour is about up in a flash, and I see a familiar, although much smaller, white minibus hurrying down a distant road below. The bus and road grow larger by the second and, thanks to light winds, we all enjoy a pleasantly light landing before crawling out over the side of the basket.
Helping roll up the massive balloon — squeezing out all the hot air from the long mass of nylon — is a fun group exercise loaded with giggling and smiles. When the task is complete, everyone gathers again in a circle for a selection of fruit, cheese and champagne, a tradition that dates back to the first hot air balloon ride in France in the 18th century, according to a series of entertaining stories told by our pilot and ground crew.
Hour-long flights with Outback Ballooning start at about $362 per person. Folks who aren’t interested in the adventure can ride along in the minibus for $40, watching friends and family takeoff in the limited light of dawn and then watching them touch down again at the landing site.