Float over the national capital at dawn, peering down onto Lake Burley Griffin, and the architectural masterpieces that ring it, with a balloon adventure.
There are few places in the world where you can stand in the basket of a hot-air balloon and peer straight down into the heart of a city, but look to Canberra/Ngambri/Ngunnawal’s sky on any fine morning and it’s likely to be decorated with balloons.
Drifting over Lake Burley Griffin, the view from a balloon is filled with national treasures and icons: Parliament House, the National Library, the National Museum and a host of other monumental national structures, looking like LEGO constructions from overhead.
On a breathless morning, the lake can be like a mirror laid out on the ground, reflecting the dawn colours of the sky. Look around and it’s likely that other balloons will speckle the view – sometimes one, sometimes two, drifting in tandem across the lake.
In pre-dawn darkness, passengers gather at a hotel near the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. From here, they’ll disperse to a ballooning launch site, of which there are around a dozen possibilities dotted around the lake and beyond, depending on the morning’s conditions. Even as the group mills, the balloon pilots are sending up smaller balloons, running micro-scale weather checks on wind direction and speed to determine the best launch site.
The prevailing winds around Lake Burley Griffin at this time of day are easterlies (even when there’s a westerly blowing up higher), so most launches take place on the eastern side of the lake. In the faintest of first light, the balloon is filled first with cold air and then hot – the burners blasting into action for the first time – until the balloon stands tall.
You climb into the basket and physics irrepressibly take over, with the hot air lifting you off the ground. Though this is the morning’s greatest moment of trepidation – it’s common to be nervous at this point – the take-off is gentle, almost imperceptible.
Close your eyes and you might not even know you’re airborne. Open your eyes and you’ll find the sun rising over the horizon almost in tandem with the balloon.
In moments, the lake at Canberra’s heart comes into view, soon expanding to take in the rest of the city. Depending on the wind, the lake and city might be as far as 300m below, or as near as 20m. The National Gallery drifts beneath, then the columned National Library, with the flag post atop Parliament House rising as if in competition with the tall sculptural loop on the National Museum across the lake.
Float above it
‘I can’t think of another parliament house in the world that you could actually fly right over the top of, and nobody would stress about it,’ says Balloon Aloft Canberra chief pilot John Wallington.
Away to the west, beyond the city’s long sprawl, rises the Brindabella mountain range, while immediately beneath you, walkers, joggers and cyclists swirl like electrons around the lake’s shore. If it’s autumn, the shores will be glowing with colour. Wherever you look, there’s something monumental and something happening.
Inside the basket, there’s the curious feeling of the day being wind free, regardless of the conditions, since the balloon moves on the breeze, aided by a blast of flame from the burner every 30 seconds or so – a loud exhale briefly disturbing the silence.
After around 45 minutes, the balloon approaches the western end of Lake Burley Griffin, and it’s time to get out of the sky. Landing sites can be anywhere large and open enough to fit a balloon – ovals, even schools – but typically you might come back to earth in parkland beside the lake.
On calm days, the basket will touch and settle in the one spot; on a windy day, it might tip to its side and drag briefly along the ground for a more exciting finish.
Air is released from the balloon, diminishing its lift, and out you climb, back on Canberra soil. You’re free to help fold up the balloon, or you can just tuck into the champagne or orange juice that welcomes you back to planet Earth.
Passengers meet at the Hyatt Hotel on Commonwealth Ave, pinched between Parliament House and Lake Burley Griffin.
Flights operate year-round; autumn brings the spectacle of Canberra’s changing colours.
Book flights through the operator, Balloon Aloft Canberra (balloonaloftcanberra.com.au).
Fitness: 1 out of 5
Fear factor: 2 out of 5
Expertise required: 1 out of 5
This is an edited extract from Ultimate Adventures: Australia by Andrew Bain, published by Hardie Grant Explore. Available in stores nationally now. RRP$45. Photography by Andrew Bain and others.
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