It’s 3.30am and I get a call from the operations manager that we are a go for my first hot air balloon flight. At that time of the morning, I’m barely together, but I manage to wake myself up to the adventure of what’s ahead. And so I make my way down to base to meet the pilot Kevin, who will be taking me and 11 other people 4,000 feet up into the clouds, overlooking the scenic interior and coastline of Fiji.

Going out on a hot air balloon requires specific winds and weather conditions. So, to determine our take-off point and flight path, our veteran American pilot fills up several normal-sized balloons with small, blinking LED lights inside so that he can observe all of the conditions.

We stop at three different places to observe the conditions and soon find ourselves in this small Fijian village about an hour’s drive inland from Nadi. Deciding this is the spot, our ballooning team quickly unpack the giant balloon from a crazily-small bag, which once blown up will reach 11 stories high!

Once the balloon is laid out, Kevin, as if from the movie Rocket Man, climbs on and cradles his three giant gas tanks, lighting up a giant 6ft flame that, with the assistance of a high speed fan, will get the balloon up right and airborne in no time.

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As we all load into our compact corners of the balloon, I can’t help but feel relief at being a tall individual, meaning that the safety railings are at a comfortable height. And then it’s lift off! With the flames’ heat toasting the back of my neck (I’m glad I opted for the hat), take off is a unique floating sensation, as we rise slowly but steadily, Kevin keeping us stable so that we can all take in the sights.

Kevin then informs us that we are the first hot air balloon riders in the Southern Hemisphere to see the sun rise and start the new day. And, wow, it’s an amazing sunrise. Not a bad way to start the day!

Next we start to climb higher to clear the jungle-drenched valleys, but, just as I’m about to peek over the mountains, our trusty pilot announces it’s time to pick some flowers. Are you serious? The thought crosses my mind that perhaps good old Kevin has been at the helium…

But no, with us all inside, the basket is slowly lowered right smack into the middle of a giant blossoming tree so that we can pluck flowers right from the very top. It’s as unique an experience as I can remember. Newly-boosted by flower power, it’s then full throttle and we burn our way up to 4,000 feet and start drifting away from the mountains and towards the ocean.

Emerging from the mountains we really get to appreciate all of the natural beauty that Fiji has to offer. Now in full-on relaxation mode, we fly with the wind, looking down below at rivers running through the small, isolated villages.

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In the distance we can spy Fiji’s famously picturesque islands dotting the inviting blue ocean. Going over each of these small villages, the little kids heading to school in all directions shout up their welcome of “Bula, bula!”towards us. Indeed, so many “Bula’s” fill the air that I can’t even figure out which one is coming from who. Luckily, they don’t seem put off by my American attempts to return the greeting.

Cruising along, with the rising sun casting a giant shadow of our balloon along the face of the mountains, Kevin then gives us the heads up that we will be landing soon. With no regular place to land, due to changing wind conditions, this means keeping an eye open for an empty field, which he quickly finds.

We assume the landing position and swoop down into a dead cornfield, suddenly coming to a stop with a skip and a jump as we land safely back on solid ground. To save the team picking up our one tonne basket, Kevin then gives it one last blast of heat to lift it back up and place all of us conveniently in the back of the truck.

To say thanks for landing on someone’s land, the team then give the landowner a 10 pound bag of rice, which will last them for months, following on from the original French tradition of always giving a bottle of champagne to whoever owns the land you end up on. You wouldn’t say no to that!

No doubt about it, this whole experience, from start to finish, is one of the coolest things I have ever done. There aren’t many rushes that can beat floating high through the sky like a real-life magic carpet ride.

The damage & the details: Hot air balloon flights with Adrenalin Fiji (Ph: +679 675 0061, cost from $475 FJD (AU$250), including pick up and drop off.


Photo: Thinkstock, TNT