A balloon flight over Victoria’s renowned wine region has Dan Down praying to be back on terra firma at one of its exquisite vineyards… glass in hand.
The previous day had been spent in a rustic, rural dreamscape of orchards, vines and ruddy-faced country folk proffering their delicious produce, be it exquisite pinot noir or sparkling pink cider.
Now I was being rudely awoken from this pleasant pastoral dream some 1000 metres up at 5:00am, in a state of abject terror.
“Why is he waving at us,” I ask my wife. “He should be concentrating on what he’s doing!”
I’m gripping the edge of a wicker basket soaring among the clouds, looking at a young lad and a girl about 20 metres adrift in another tiny basket hanging under a comically small balloon, rising and falling with the air currents.
The chap looks like Phileas Fogg, laughing as he surrenders to the mercy of the winds in a distinctly Victorian-looking contraption. I manage a tentative wave back before reapplying my iron-like grip.
We’re spending the weekend in the Yarra Valley, staying at Balgownie Estate Resort, sampling the best food and wine in the region and capping it all off with a romantic sunrise panic attack among the clouds.
We’ve had our tastebuds courted by Balgownie’s executive chef Graham Taute with the winery’s delicious 2003 shiraz and steaks smoked with vine wood at the table.
Then, on a wine tour of the Yarra, we tried the refreshing citrus of Punt Road’s pinot gris among the orchards, got sidetracked from Yering Farm Estate’s pinot by its punchy pink lady apple cider in a splendid rustic farmhouse, and walked the beautiful grounds and winery of Chandon, enjoying a glass (or four) of sparkling in the sun looking out over the valley’s endless vines.
But at the end of the day I was really anticipating the early start to do something I’d never done before: a hot air balloon ride.
It all starts excitingly enough (or as excited as one can be at 4:30am), watching the colossal balloon and others nearby billowing spectacularly as they fill with heated air in a field.
Once aboard with my fellow flyers, blasts from the alarmingly close burner sends us rising rapidly up over the field and nearby forests, a cathedral of orange material towering above us. It’s exhilarating for a good couple of minutes, as silently we rise, save for the roar of the burner.
Then I have a realisation: I’m dangling in a basket hundreds of metres up, the clouds approaching and the man in sole charge of my life is blasting the life-saving canvas above me with a flame-thrower.
And then there is Phileas Fogg waving nonchalantly at me.
“Damn you, Fogg,” I feel like shouting, but instead I ask the pilot why the balloon doesn’t catch fire and send us plummeting to our doom.
“It’s got flame-retardant coatings,” he smiles back. “You’re perfectly safe.”
I look around and everyone else is enjoying the view, taking selfies and spotting glistening Melbourne on the horizon.
Relaxing a little, I look down to see the valley’s farms and wineries sail beneath us, miniature versions from the day before with toy tractors working the vines and a patchwork quilt of fields. The sun is rising and catching early morning mist in the Yarra Valley.
It’s only when we start to descend that I really start to enjoy myself, and then the landing becomes an engrossing game of radio chatter between the pilots as they discuss possible sites and changing wind patterns.
We could be forced to land anywhere, which is half the fun.
I’m hoping we’ll ditch into the priceless vines of Chandon to the amazement of drinking tourists. But our landing site is the grassy surrounds of an airstrip; we huddle down as a group in the basket as it hits hard and bumps along before coming to a stop.
“Ha ha!” I cry as I watch Phileas Fogg overshoot the mark. I wave at him enthusiastically as he’s forced to reinflate his little blimp and sail off into the horizon; he doesn’t wave back, people look at me strangely.
In the end, it’s all been deliriously good fun.
The details: Air Ballooning over the Yarra Valley
Getting there: The Yarra Valley is an hour’s drive from Melbourne’s CBD.
Staying there: Balgownie Estate Resort – Set on 30 hectares of vines in the heart of the Yarra, this resort has a spa, heated pool, restaurant and cellar door. The Spa Suites have great views of the valley (from $235 a night).
Eating there: Rae’s Restaurant Balgownie Estate’s on-site restaurant is a fine place to enjoy the winery’s best with excellent country fare in front of a fire and views of the vines.
Vines Restaurant – Located at Helen’s Hill in Coldstream, Vines serves the best of the Yarra in a fine setting.
Playing there: Global Ballooning – Flights are available over the Yarra Valley ($365 per person with breakfast) and Melbourne $440 per person with breakfast.
Australian Wine tour company – Tour the Yarra Valley’s best vineyards with an expert guide/driver.
Butterflies, wisteria and a maze, explore The Yarra Valley’s secret gardens