The Sunday on 22nd February 2015 was planned five days in advance. An early morning ride in the hot air balloon sounded a mix of adventure, suspense and exhilaration to us. A half an hour ride was an experience beyond the limited quantum of time.
It started with Bertha, Kalyani, Garima, Varun, Piyush and myself reaching the Kaliasot Dam at sharp 7 AM. A VIP guest had arrived before us and so the balloon took off with them before we reached the balloon. The VIP syndrome plagues the whole country everywhere, it seems! We decided to be part of the second ride due about 45 minutes later. And that was an under statement. Taking the next ride meant following the hot air balloon for wherever it would land, for the next ride would start from that place. It could practically get taken anywhere by the wind and that was an acceptance and patience we started our experience with. While the balloon flew majestically and gracefully over the Chichli area, we kept following it around the fields in that area. The green fields, the variety of birds, the artistic trees, we were enamoured by it all. The peace of the countryside and the pleasant weather transported us into a world which took us away from all that the world meant to us until then.
Before I continue, I must introduce hot air ballooning. There is a huge balloon which is like a parachute and has a basket fixed to its lower end by metal strings.
The basket is a very sturdy jute basket reinforced by wooden planks at the base. There are burners in the balloon, a little above arm distance, if you are standing in the basket. LPG is used for these burners (not propane or butane as mentioned on the Internet). A small handle which the pilot pushes can ignite the burner and a huge flame rises and fills the inside of the balloon. When this flame rises, people in the basket also feel the heat on their arms and face, although not substantial and not discomforting really. When you want to rise, you fire oftener and when you want to descend, you don’t fire and also open the window at the top of the balloon to release the warm air. The window is operated by the pilot by strings. Once you have taken off, the height is controlled by the pilot through the flame mechanism. The wind direction decides your direction of movement or the horizontal movement of the balloon. The catch is that the pilot still can manoeuvre or decide the direction, which I guess is the art of flying a hot air balloon. The wind it seems moves in different directions at different levels. So, the pilot can adjust the height to get the wind of a particular direction somewhat. There isn’t too much for your assertiveness, but you can balance with nature and sort of negotiate slightly. That is the suspense bit and the interesting bit for the pilot too. The speed of the balloon is determined entirely by the speed of the wind! The pilot never feels in control of the balloon completely and is working on dynamics of flying in terms of direction, speed and height. This whole mechanism gives the experience a rawness and thrill no other way of flying can.
Coming back to our day being described, we followed the balloon with longing eyes over the fields, waiting for it to descend. It seemed to move almost not at all sometimes. The balloon usually is taken up to 800 to 1000 feet and so it is quite below the level an aircraft flies at. The balloon finally landed, the pilot making sure that it did not land in the fields but rather in the open space. The VIP syndrome continued and two vehicles with beeping red lights rushed to where the balloon had landed, picking the ‘fancy’ VIP with the usual VIP decorum. We almost ran to the balloon and mounted the basket. The expanse of the balloon seemed to convey open tempting arms of welcome and we accepted the gesture with equal warmth and longing. Getting into the basket which is about 4 feet high is made easy by making slots along its wall to get a foothold and to get in by way of climbing over a wall. One stands within the basket and the pilot creates the flame which whoozes and goes up. The sound is like a muffled or gentle roar which does not scare you, rather impresses you. When this happens a couple of times, we start moving up. This moving up is so gentle that it is smoother than a dream and more beautiful than being whisked off by someone’s arms! You keep moving up and the gentleness astounds you, the wind around you makes you feel as free as a bird and the world starts getting smaller beneath you.
Our pilot was Ritu Yadav, a beautiful, thin strong woman whose forearms defined strength and were a contrast to her delicate demeanour. She handled the flame and strings deftly. As we moved over the outskirts of Bhopal, we flew over small rural dwellings with cow dung cakes looking absolutely beautiful and the housing raw and basic.
The fencing around the houses was made of stones stacked over each other and roofs thatched, reinforced by plastic sheets. There were cows, goats, hens and dogs in some houses and few plants grown in some. There was one house with a solar panel on its roof in the middle of nowhere. The village was Dhulia Umar or something and on quite a rocky land but lot of area green too. The balloon flying over the villages caught the attention of people, especially children. They would run on the ground below, waving and screaming. In a balloon, it was possible to wave back and be audible, if loud enough. The trees, fields, houses and people look distant and small and yet not too far. The balloon permits one to fly, rather cruise through air without walls around in a natural way.
It is the perfectly natural way to fly and be more enjoyable. The pilot was now looking for a place to land. She was happy with the wind, the balloon having moved about 7 to 8 kms in half an hour. The land distance moved by the balloon was about 13 kms. The landing she said would not be simply getting the balloon down, rather we would have the balloon pulled down by the villagers by dropping a rope. That sounded exciting. The pilot shouted to the people below to hold the rope and pull. We were a little high up from the ground in an open rocky area. A couple of young men ran and one of them caught the rope. He pulled at it, we almost touched the ground, but he could not sustain the hold and the pull and abruptly left the rope. This gave us a jolt and I could feel a sudden push on my right knee. A second later perhaps, our basket had hit the ground and toppled sideways. Our reflex made is held on to the side of the basket, which turned out to the the best thing we had done! Everyone was safe, no injuries, just that toppling and falling within the basket. The pilot got busy handling the balloon after confirming that we were fine. We came out of the basket on our hands and knees facing the crowd of villagers who had gathered around us. They looked at us as if we had dropped right down from the skies. The man who had pulled at the rope confronted us with a victorious look and asked what we would have done if he did not hold and pull the rope! We thanked him and took his picture, which made him beam from side to side.
We asked the villagers the name of the village and the pilot called the ground people of the team to reach us. The ground people have their vehicles by which they reach us, pick us and take us to our cars. They do this four times a day, twice in the morning and twice in the evening, following the balloon, then getting the message sometimes from the pilot and finding the exact way to reach the balloon. Quite an ordeal or quite an adventure depending on how you look at it. The pilot got down to deflating the balloon, wrapping and folding it up and separating the burners and basket and putting in the truck the ground team had got.
Our balloon team did a photo session with the villagers, specially the children and then got into another truck of the Municipal Corporation. We were 13 kms away and it took us some time through the forest area and then a narrow semi built road, to reach the highway. We stopped for a cup of tea at a Dhaba on the highway, which served us ginger tea cooked on an earthen Indian burner (chulha). By this time we were friends with the pilot and Mr Ritesh Sharma, the local organiser of the ride and exchanged our attitudes and special moments on the flight. It was an enjoyable experience which happened one Sunday morning, creating a beautiful memory forever.