Your Story: Floating over the Byron Hinterland
A SCREECHING iPhone on the bedside table wakes me with a start from the depths of sleep.
My first thoughts are hazy & disoriented as I scramble to shut off the alarm & gather myself.
It's pitch black dark. Our house & the neighborhood are silent, a rare occasion for a busy family like ours.
It's 4am on a Sunday morning & I can assure you this is not my usual wake up time.
My husband rolls over, wanting a good explanation as to why he has been woken up in darkness on the only morning each week he reserves for a little sleep in.
Trying not to give away much, I kiss him on the cheek & wish him happy anniversary as I sleepily stumble towards the kitchen to make some tea for us.
I have allowed us just enough time to wake up, have a cuppa & check on the kids before we get dressed into something warm, lock the door & drive off chasing the sunrise.
Luckily for us we don't have to travel too far from home & within 10 minutes we have reached Tyagarah airstrip, just on the edge of beautiful Byron Bay.
As we pull up, it dawns on my long suffering companion that he will not be keeping his feet planted firmly on the ground today.
While I am edgy with excitement, he is now slightly terrified & even a bit cranky at me for dragging him unaware into the next big adventure that I have been striving to tick off the bucket list.
Several other people shuffle around in the dark near a giant brightly lit shed; the air is alive with nervous anticipation.
The sun is still nowhere to be seen but we are called over as a group to meet the crew from Byron Bay Ballooning, led today by our pilot, Thomas Dattler.
Thomas is the 2011 & 2012 Australian Ballooning Champion, and has been flying balloons over the Byron Bay area for over seven years now.
Previous to that he was a flying instructor for airplanes.
This is a reassuring & impressive resume & I feel instantly relaxed knowing I am in good hands.
I am not so sure Aaron would have been swayed by anyone, no matter how qualified or experienced, but once he & Thomas start chatting I think he is about as relaxed as we can hope for.
Our group is split into two & bundled into some heavy duty looking 4WD's, one of which pulls the balloon behind us on a trailer.
To our delight as locals the weather has dictated that we will be flying from Main Arm, a small rural community just over the hill from where we live & that if the wind plays along we should be eventually floating above our house.
The air is cool & crisp & a light frost is just visible by the time we pile out into a cow paddock on one of the rolling green local farms this area is known for.
Thomas and the friendly ground crew set to work & prepare the balloon like a well-oiled machine.
It's a beautiful way to start the day & sunset is imminent so we all chip in to get our enormous, brightly-coloured carriage ready to go.
It's an interesting process to watch & I am awe-struck standing beside this oversized party balloon.
As the burners kick in we are given a briefing, details about the flight & safety instructions.
There is just time for the crew to set up a couple of cameras & take some shots of our excited faces, before we start to float gently just off the ground.
It feels like an outer body experience & I can't wipe the silly grin off my face, this has been a life-long ambition & it's finally happening!
I look over at my beloved expecting to see him white-knuckled and attempting to throw himself out of the basket but instead he seems relaxed and is looking around at the landscape he grew up in but through new eyes.
There is almost complete silence as we are all lost in the beauty of the lush countryside below.
The stillness of early morning & utter amazement is only broken by the occasional roar of the burner as we climb ever higher over the hilly terrain.
We continue to drift just above the roofs of farmhouses, follow winding country roads & drift amongst the banana plantations this area is famous for.
As we float gracefully above the rise the landscape changes & we can see the coast & the rugged looking mountain ranges that border our community.
The sun is soft & the colours of the sky are a mash of pastel pinks, blues and apricots, the most perfect day we could have imagined to celebrate our anniversary floating above the world.
Not only is Aaron looking relaxed, he loves the whole experience.
The gentle nature of balloon travel, the experienced pilot who guides us, coupled with the perfect weather & seeing the place we call home from a bird's eye perspective seem to have been the perfect combination & he is now looking over the edge comfortably.
As a group we chat quietly & point out different landmarks as the world below gets smaller & smaller.
Such a unique experience this is, I can't even put into words; why am I so far off the ground but feel so relaxed & carefree?
We decide to call our daughter, the early riser of the family, so she can go into the backyard to see us waft over suburbia, but the wind has a romantic surprise for us & changes course at the last minute.
We are now hovering over the Byron hinterland area of Coorabell & heading towards Bangalow.
We pass over the famous Crystal Castle & a little further down the road come across an all-night rave party, still pulsing away below us.
People scatter as we notice that clothing seems to be optional but we still manage to get welcoming cheers & waves from the die-hard partygoers.
Like a scene from a rom-com fate could not have planned our path more perfectly, when in a clearing we spy the exact spot we were married at, some 12 years earlier.
Everyone in the balloon gives a collective sigh & congratulates us on this special occasion.
Time is running out as we head full steam towards Bangalow in search of a nice soft piece of prime farming land in which to touch down on.
The world below is slowly waking up & we can see the odd farmer on the front porch with his morning coffee, watching as we sail past his cows.
This is the part where the ground crew really shines.
The balloon as it turns out has very little steering capability, apart from controlling the height we cruise at; the rest is up to Mother Nature herself.
Thomas & the crew on the ground are in constant contact about possible landing spots & the 4WD's scramble to chase us wherever the wind wants us to go.
Byron Bay Ballooning have verbal permission from many of the land owners throughout the area to land on their property but even still they always try to knock on the door & double check.
No luck with our first target so luckily for us the flight continues towards Nashua & Clunes, in the Richmond Hinterland.
The landscape below changes yet again & we find ourselves drifting silently over row upon row of macadamia-nut plantations, as the greenery becomes a more intense forest green & the soil a rich, fertile red.
There on the edge of a mighty nut farm is the tinniest triangle of land between the trees & a highway.
We all look at each other in amazement, wordlessly wondering if there is any possibility of landing a balloon this size on that little slice of grass that looks like a scrap compared to the rest of this sprawling farm.
Permission is granted & we are all reminded of our landing positions as we brace with our knees tucked against our chests in the bottom of the basket.
This is the first part of the flight where my blood is pumping a good deal faster than it was, but after a few bumps, it appears Thomas has done the impossible & landed the balloon perfectly.
We all chip in once again to pack up the balloon; a fantastic team building & fun experience in itself & then thank the farmer for having us.
As we head back in a convoy towards Tyagarah for a Champagne breakfast at the airfield we are all buzzing from what we have just experienced & even Aaron can't wait to do it again.