I AM not comfortable off the ground.
I joke that I get a nosebleed standing on a chair to change a kitchen light globe, but my joke is not that far from the truth.
If I analyse my fear, it is not height that worries me, but risk of falling with a painful sudden stop at the end, likely accompanied by incapacitation and inconvenience due to broken bones.
So when my wife Naomi announced our sister-in-law had paid for a hot-air balloon flight at Northam for the two of us as a thank you for our efforts helping prepare a Lower Chittering property for sale, my reaction was outward bravado, but inner trepidation.
Naomi had been up in a balloon before - a birthday present 12 years ago at Rawnsley Park, a working sheep station with a tourism sideline near Wilpena Pound in South Australia's Northern Flinders Ranges.
She had loved the experience.
Even a semi-crash landing into a remote hillside, with the wicker basket tipping on edge and spilling passengers out, thankfully without injury, she considered all part of the adventure.
The pilot had become concerned and brought the balloon down quickly when it suddenly picked up speed and seemed caught in a draught created between the outer wall of Wilpena Pound and adjacent ABC Range as morning thermal air currents developed, Naomi explained later.
On that occasion I had been happy to brave pre-dawn cold to help lay out the balloon for inflation and to wave Naomi and the other basket occupants off at sunrise with my own feet remaining firmly planted on terra firma.
Because there were more people in the basket than could fit in the Toyota LandCruiser 'Troopy' chase vehicle towing a tandem trailer to retrieve the basket and balloon, I tagged along in our baby Suzuki four-wheel-drive to bring Naomi and whoever else needed a lift back once the balloon had landed.
Being part of the chase crew was an experience in itself on that occasion.
The 'Troopy' driver - on radio contact with the balloon pilot - and I drove a couple of kilometres, parked outside a farm and shared a thermos of coffee while the balloon sat stubbornly stationary 150 metres above the farmhouse.
Every time the pilot lit up the gas burners to keep the balloon in the air, it sent two farm dogs hanging off their chains in the yard below into a barking frenzy that probably was not appreciated by the farmers' family just after dawn on a Sunday morning.
Then the balloon suddenly took off on a zephyr of breeze, so it was into the cars and chasing at 80 kilometres an hour down the main road, doing a rapid lap of another farmer's front yard before turning onto a dirt track that runs north-west across the bottom of the Northern Flinders Ranges.
The balloon had disappeared somewhere between us and the ranges in the middle distance when the 'Troopy' driver suddenly stopped and came running back.
"They're down, do you know where they are?" he asked.
"Sorry mate, I've just been following you and watching for your brake lights in the dust, I've got no idea where they are," I replied.
After 'bush bashing' a couple of kilometres up a dry creek bed heading roughly towards the ranges, we finally spotted three people standing on a distant hilltop frantically waving at us.
I did not expect any such drama at Northam - the Rawnsley Park balloon flight had been only the second in the region at that time and the less rugged topography and more benign thermals mid-May around Northam seemed much more conducive to calm, stable flight and a gentle landing.
Besides, they have been flying balloons at Northam for decades without incident, I reassured myself.
But, in the week before the flight and particularly after a text message from Liberty Balloon Flights' director and chief pilot, Nick Brau, on the Wednesday evening, indicating the flight would likely go ahead as scheduled the following Saturday, the trepidation began to build.
Even on the hour's drive from home to be at Dome cafe, part of Farmers Home Hotel in Fitzgerald Street, Northam, by 5.15am on the Saturday, I was still not sure what my reaction would be when the balloon basket started to leave the ground.
I enjoy flying in planes, big or small - but only once they are in the air with the wheels up.
The mad race down the runway and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as we leave the ground, still induces a fleeting mild panic no matter how many times I fly.
I have also been up in a tiny Robinson helicopter - the type used to muster cattle - with a former muster pilot who flew it like it was an extension of his arms and eyes.
We zig zagged across the sky as he held the control column with one hand while waving the other about pointing out landmarks.
He had lifted off quickly in a cloud of dust while my brain was still processing the fact there was no door and only a lapbelt - it looked like it came from a 1966 HR Holden - to help keep my backside suction-cupped to the seat.
There had been no time to jump out.
But a balloon take off would be different, Naomi assured me, gentle and sedate - plenty of time, I thought, to cause myself acute embarrassment with a panic attack and a leap over the side while the basket was only centimetres off the deck.
We met pilot Nick and ground crew Sean and Thor at Dome and filled out a breakfast order for later, as we waited for 14 other passengers to arrive - a breakfast together back at Dome afterwards is included in the price of the Liberty Balloon Flights package.
Then it was onto a mini bus and the ubiquitous 'Troopy' chase vehicle with trailer, heading north towards a launch paddock near Jennapullin.
Nick explained there was a gentle breeze from the south east at lower altitudes and a slightly stronger breeze from the north east at higher altitudes - perfect for hot-air ballooning because height would determine which direction we travelled.
Naomi and I and a young couple who came up from Katanning the day before, jumped in the 'Troopy' with Sean and Nick who explained balloon pilots - commercial and private - who flew at Northam had arrangements with farmers throughout the district allowing them to use certain paddocks to launch, depending on which way the wind was blowing, so they could drift back to the town.
Hang on, private hot-air balloon pilots?
We had to ask.
"Oh yes, there's a number of private pilots who have their own balloons and who bring them out in the mornings to fly, there might be some this morning," Nick said.
But when we reached the launch paddock beside the Northam-Goomalling rail line, the two other balloons being prepared for lift off were also commercial passenger flights.
When you think 'wicker basket', many also think 'fragile'.
But everybody had to chip in to lift it off the trailer and its weight was welcome reassurance of its sturdiness.
The basket was tipped on its side so the balloon - big enough to hold 43,000 cubic metres of hot air - rolled up inside it, could be carefully spread out across the paddock.
Nick and his ground crew directed the unfurling by passengers and then busied themselves connecting the ropes from the balloon to the basket and setting up two industrial fans driven by petrol motors to pump air into the balloon.
The balloon has to be partially inflated using the fans before gas burners can be ignited to start to fill it out with hot air, otherwise there is risk the flames could set the heavy-duty nylon balloon fabric alight.
As the balloon filled and rose, it tipped the basket back upright and a strong rope was used to tie it off to the 'Troopy' bullbar, just in case.
The basket is divided by partitions into three sections along its length, with gas bottles for the burners and pilot in the centre section.
Each end section is also divided into two by longitudinal partitions, so our flight with 16 passengers meant four people in each cubicle.
According to Nick, up to 20 passengers can be carried, but it would be a relatively snug fit for five in each cubicle.
There are no openings in the chest-high sides of the basket so there is no elegant entry or exit.
There are toe holds up the basket sides at each end and the ground crew provided plastic steps to assist passengers climbing in and out.
As was demonstrated on our flight, the ground crew and other passengers are prepared to physically hoist a passenger over the side who is not capable of climbing in on their own.
The lesson from Naomi's and my experience is wear something warm - although it is no colder up in the air than on the ground - but comfortable and loose, rather than stylish and tight.
Once we were aboard Nick ran through the emergency landing procedure - basically, face outwards, bend knees, brace against the central partition behind you and hang onto rope handholds in front.
Then the burners roared - the moment of truth had arrived.
The basket rocked gently, the tether rope pulled tight, Nick leaned over the side and released the quick connector, we were off, rising silently - apart from intermittent short blasts of roaring burners - chasing the two balloons that had drifted past just before we lifted off.
I felt absolutely no urge to bail out over the side.
There was no mini-panic attack like in a plane.
Instead, as in that classic 'Darryl' line from the movie The Castle, you could "feel the serenity".
I was too fascinated watching the people, vehicles, paddocks and level crossing below us rapidly shrink into miniature to be concerned about heights.
As we climbed the sun appeared over the horizon bathing the basket and us in it in a warming yellow glow minutes before it started to thaw shivering bystanders waving below.
Nick explained the balloon rotated slowly in one direction when rising and rotated in the opposite direction as it descended which, I found, initially made it difficult at first to work out where we were and which direction we were travelling.
Eventually the CBH Avon silos came into view on the horizon as a landmark to get my bearings from.
Our course, determined by wind direction and height, generally followed the Mortlock River back towards Northam.
There was no sensation of speed unless you looked straight down, no wind in the hair because we travelled at the same speed as the wind.
At one point we flew over a CBH grain train which seemed to maintain position directly underneath us until it slowed for a signal ahead of a siding.
There was no sound - other than an occasional blast on the burners and human voices in the basket - the train horn and road traffic noises were too far below to reach us.
Nick told us we were travelling at up to 65kmh at an altitude of up to 2000 metres above sea level - some 1600m above the ground.
Approaching Northam was interesting, because only Nick knew where he intended to land.
We were descending gently coming in over the Great Eastern Highway, the Northam race track was out to our left, the recreation ground further off but still out to the left, the trotting and greyhound racing tracks away to our right and house roofs starting to appear not that far below us.
For a time it seemed we were headed for a splash down in the Avon River right in the centre of town.
Then we dropped out of the north-east breeze and descended low enough to pick up the south-easterly.
Slowly the balloon rotated and we began drifting back low over the cemetery and lower again over the highway, where we could now hear the traffic and the air-horn blasts from a road train driver watching us through the windscreen.
The other two balloons were already down in the sheep paddock off Katrine Road when we came over the fence line beside the highway.
One balloon was already deflating with the canopy spreading out across the available landing area and there were people and vehicles attending both balloons that further restricted the potential landing area for us.
The challenge for Nick was to clear a group of trees directly in front of us and then drop us to the ground immediately, before we ran into the other balloons further up the paddock, but he was up to the task.
We gently brushed the foliage on the top of one tree and descended softly into the available space, with a touchdown so delicate it was barely felt, with not even a sway or a bounce of the basket.
Obviously impressed, ground crewman Thor told Nick it was the softest balloon landing he had ever seen.
We all climbed out - as inelegant as climbing in - and Nick pulled on a rope which opened a circle at the top of the balloon letting the hot air out and it subsided gently to the ground.
By the time we had helped roll the balloon up, lifted it to our shoulder and in a sort of conga line, shuffled up to the basket and stuffed our bit of balloon in before heading back to repeat the process several times over, we were all shedding jackets, coats and beanies in the morning sun.
By 9.30am we were back at Dome and I was a hot-air ballooning convert - joining Naomi in raving about the experience to still-dubious friends and family on social media.
'Know-it-all' that I am, I expertly played down their concerns about having a panic attack as a wicker basket suspended beneath a nylon balloon held aloft by nothing more than hot air, left the ground.
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