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Sunday, August 26, 2007

It's Lisa in a hot air balloon!

Party On!
Although it could just as easily be Mike Myers in Wayne's World. The likeness was uncanny the moment she put on that cap.

Don't Look DownAnd here I am snarling at the camera and trying not to look down.

Anyhoo, being made of money, my surprise birthday present to Lisa was a ride in a hot air balloon, courtesy of Virgin Balloon Flights. I'd booked a flight from Crowborough, taking in the Hundred Acre Wood and Eeyore's house, but just to prove that nothing ever goes according to plan, at 2pm yesterday afternoon it was suddenly moved to Yalding in Kent, due to "uncertainty about the wind direction". I expect it was a blustery day in Winnie the Pooh country.

So instead of a gentle drive through the Sussex countryside, we had three hours to get around the M25 to Maidstone. Fortunately, it being a bank holiday weekend, we were the only people heading away from Brighton, so we made it to Yalding in ninety minutes and found ourselves at Teapot Island, which is apparently in the Guiness Book of Records for having the largest teapot collection in the known universe. I think they pay for them out of the extortionate parking charges.

A quick cream tea later, and we headed down the road to the state-of-the-art balloon launch site, which turned out to be a small field with grass.

A Load of Hot Air
We were greeted by three Virgins, who advised us to return to the car for our baseball caps, in order to stop our hair being set alight by the gas burners. We did as we were told, and returned to watch the balloon being inflated. Lisa was looking visibly nervous by this point, but as it turned out, she couldn't care less about the flight - she was just terrified about how she was going to climb into the basket.

And she was right to be worried. Floating two thousand feet above the Kent countryside was a piece of (cheese)cake, but getting in and out of the basket was like something out of the Krypton Factor assault course. Especially as you only have a few seconds to do it. Once the balloon's inflated and the basket's upright, the pilot shouts "EVERYBODY IN!", and you have less than a minute to haul yourself over the side before the whole thing takes off.

Shadow PuppetBut with a combination of brute force and blind panic, we made it in without any serious injuries, and were soon ascending to 2,500 feet and doing shadow puppets on the corn fields below.

The actual flying experience is quite amazing. I was expecting a bit of turbulence, but in fact the basket remains completely still, and you feel like you're hanging motionless in the air, in complete silence. It's all very calming and serene.

Apart, that is, from when the pilot turns on the burners, which roar like a jet engine and make the back of your neck feel like it's on fire.

Pilot Damon BridgerFan the Flames
Anyhoo, we floated off in a north-easterly direction, passing fields, lakes, mansions, and a gypsy caravan site, while the pilot, Damon Bridger, pointed out Canary Wharf on the horizon, and steered us towards Leeds Castle. Apparently he has landed there in the past (Leeds Castle, not Canary Wharf), but the owners weren't too happy about it, so after almost ninety minutes in the sky, we aimed instead for a cornfield near Sutton Valence.

Balloon AnimalThe landing was a bit like something out of Fearless, but I was pleased to see that as we flew dangerously low over a row of houses, the occupants were only too happy to come out and wave to us. Or possibly they were just shaking their fists. Adopting the crash position - sorry, I mean the landing position - which involves crouching down and hanging on for dear life whilst gritting your teeth and praying, we hit the ground, bounced, took off again, landed, skidded, and eventually came to a halt with the basket at an angle of forty-five degrees. As you can see from the photo on the left, Lisa still had her eyes shut five minutes later.

To be honest, we were never in any real danger during landing, but both Lisa and I did come close to incurring major injuries trying to climb out of the basket. Lisa almost twisted her spine and landed on her back in the corn, while I did my best to fall over the side and break my leg.

But feeling like survivors of a major disaster, we gathered our thoughts and relaxed while everyone else packed away the balloon.

BasketcaseBalloon or Bussed
While we enjoyed a complimentary glass of champagne, and were handed our certificates personally signed by Richard Branson's photocopier, the basket was loaded onto the back of a trailer, after which we all piled into the minibus which had been following us through the countryside, and were driven back to the launch site, tired, flame-grilled, and full of hot air. Next year I'll just get Lisa a card.