High Above The Hunter—is a Hunter Valley hot air balloon ride worth the early start?

Whether it’s from your car window or from your seat at your favourite cellar door, views over wine country are always beautiful. So can you imagine what you’ll see from a Hunter Valley hot air balloon ride?

It’s 3.30am. The temptation to hit snooze on the alarm is strong, but our excitement keeps our eyes open.

Today, we fly!

For the first time ever, Christina and I are making like Phileas Fogg* and hopping into a hot air balloon to explore the Hunter Valley from the sky.

After a hasty coffee in our room (thankfully the pod machine where we’re staying at The Lane Retreat understands the importance of an espresso this early) we make our way to the Rydges Resort Hunter Valley to meet our pilot from Beyond Ballooning for this morning’s flight!

*In Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days Fogg never actually travels by hot air balloon, but for some reason, his epic journey is synonymous with lighter-than-air travel.

Check out our video from our first ever hot air balloon ride!

What’s It Like In A Hot Air Balloon?

We arrive and check in at the Rydges, where Beyond Ballooning are based, and are split into our different groups. There are four groups of us this morning, based on numbers and weight.

It’s still dark outside when we head for our minibus that takes us to the departure point: a farmer’s field some way down the road.

Hot Air Balloon getting ready for takeoff

The Beyond Ballooning team bring out the giant wicker baskets we’re travelling in and explain how to get in. Ours is huge—able to fit two dozen people. At first we’re worried being in such a big group and in such a big basket will kill the romantic feel of the experience and then our pilot drops the bombshell.

They have the tiny two-person balloons for private rides, but the main downsides to them are how much more they move in the wind and how they bounce on landing.

The big ones that most people travel in are much more comfortable, and because you’re in your own little section, you hardly notice the other passengers, so romance isn’t lost!

After the fascinating process of inflating the balloons is over, we climb into our basket and before we realise it, we’re floating away on the early morning breeze.

I’m surprised at how quickly we gain altitude, soaring over woodlands and valleys, vineyards and homesteads like they’re models in a toyshop.

Why such an early start?

Hot Air Balloon over the vines in the Hunter Valley NSW

There are few reasons these balloon rides start before the dawn. One is that the air is cooler and so the hot air inside the balloon lifts more efficiently.

But also the air is calmer before the sun comes up. As the sun heats air it creates convection which in turn causes wind and turbulence, unsettling the layers of air. This makes the flight less predictable and less smooth.

Finally, there’s a simple logistics reason. Fewer people around means less annoyance caused by taking off and landing in fields, many of which are working farms and wineries. Not to mention light planes and helicopters, common in the Hunter, don’t generally fly in the dark.

What happens during the flight?

Hot Air Balloon over the vines in the Hunter Valley NSWHot air balloon and rainbow

After take-off, which can be a bit noisy and hot with the burners firing, the balloon floats peacefully on the breeze leaving you to enjoy the magnificent vistas.

The sun rises giving even more drama to the views—we even see a rainbow at one point.

There’s very little to do but marvel at the sight of one of Australia’s finest wine regions laid out beneath you with the Broken Back Range looming in the distance. It’s truly beautiful and you very quickly forget that you’re floating on nothing but hot air.

And although the pilot has no actual control on the direction of the balloon, they’re aware of different air currents that blow at different levels and directions, and they harness these winds that lead the balloon to its landing zone.

Our pilot Nathan guides us brilliantly down to our landing, skimming the golf course at Rydges and the tree line that fringes a field in Calais Estate. It’s been a journey of some 17km and lands with a bump (and then a couple more bumps) to see us safely on the ground.

What happens after the flight?

Hot Air Balloon over the vines in the Hunter Valley NSWHot Air Balloon landing in the vines in the Hunter Valley NSW

Once we’ve stopped moving, we climb out of the basket and Nathan takes us inside the deflating balloon. It’s almost as fascinating as the ride itself. You feel like you’re in a giant billowing aircraft hanger.

We help pack the balloon away then hop back onto the minibus for a short ride back to Rydges and breakfast.

In one of the event rooms here, Beyond Ballooning have laid out a long row of bain maries full of all the trappings of a solid hotel buffet. We grab coffees from the cart in the corridor, but then Nathan comes round with a bottle of Bimbadgen sparkling. How could we say no?

Mr & Mrs Romance inside a hot air balloon

So Is It Worth The Early Start?

In one easy word: yes.

Once you’re up in the sky with the landscape stretching away all around you, you forget about how tired you were when you first woke up. And the breakfast at the end really sweeps away any remaining cobwebs you may have.

Couple of pro tips:

– Because of daylight saving, shorter days and cooler mornings, going in winter means you won’t have to get up quite so early.

– Bring a hat. The burners on the balloon chuck out a lot of heat and it can get uncomfortable in the basket, especially if the pilot needs to do a prolonged burn.

– Wear comfortable clothing. It can be chilly first thing, but also getting in and out of the basket is a bit of a scramble. No short skirts, and sensible shoes are a good idea.

Mr & Mrs Romance next to a hot air balloonHot Air Balloon over the vines in the Hunter Valley NSW

We flew with Beyond Ballooning as media guests in collaboration with Bimbadgen Estate, but our opinions and experiences remain our own.

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