We’d gone to Hamilton to see the balloon festival (Hi Yonita!) and had gotten up early to see the balloons take off in the morning. Seeing the balloons stand up and three of them actually fly (weather wasn’t good at altitude apparently) was cool, but when we found out that Albuquerque had 300-500 balloons instead of the 10 we’d seen, we figured the balloon festival would be pretty amazing.
Despite the eye watering price we also agreed that a unique vantage point would be achieved by heading up in a balloon. So we booked our tickets in February for the October 2019 festival. They said on the ticket that we’d need to check in before 5am, and the research we did indicated that traffic to the venue was a concern, so we wanted to leave early to make sure we got there in time. A lot of $$$ at stake!
We rang a taxi company from the Howard Johnson requesting a pick up from the hotel at 4am. We figured that we’d have a 30 minute buffer for traffic and the trip was supposed to take 30 minutes so we should be ok. Well, as ok as we could be after getting up at 3:30am!
We were at the front door of the hotel at 3:55am, wrapped up warm and ready to go. The sky was the deep black of the middle of the night – no pre-dawn orange even hinted at. At 4:10am I started frowning. No taxi and our buffer was starting to disappear. I headed to the reception desk and asked to borrow their phone.
The original call to the taxi company had been answered by an automated machine, but the details had been confirmed, so I had been comfortable that it was all OK. My return call explored the automated system looking for a way to actually talk to a human. No joy, so I figured I’d try to order another cab. Around 4:15am a cab pulled in and we bundled in.
The cabbie made good time and there was no traffic to speak of – I guess the warnings about congestion applied to those who were going to just watch the ascension. Oh well! We got dropped off at 4:45am at the bus and taxi drop off point and we looked around. Not many people in the dark. I knew it was quite a walk from the drop off point to the check-in desk, so I was steeling myself for a hike in the pitch black. Just then a lady in a golf cart pulled up and asked if we’d like a ride. I asked if it would be free and she said “Yup” and so we jumped aboard.
It turns out that the organisers knew it was a long way from the drop off point to where people needed to go, so a fleet of golf carts shuttled people from the entrance to the check-in desk. Before we knew it we were at the check in desk and it was just flicking over to 4:55am.
After checking in, we were assigned to a balloon and given the name and code for the balloon we’d be flying in. The code turned out to be the coordinates of our spot on the field where we’d take off from.
On the wall there were pictures of all the balloons that Rainbow Ryders were taking up. They’re the only company you can go up with so they have a monopoly on the rides.
Outside the tent was the collection point where we would need to be at 7am – we’d have to find the stick with our code on it and then we’d be collected and taken out onto the field. I looked at Ange and she looked at me and we thought about getting up at 3:30am, about the stress of getting the cab so we could get to the Balloon Park on time by 5am and now we were being told that we weren’t going to be needed for another 90 minutes.
I could see why they sold a VIP package where they let you wait in a warm tent and fed you breakfast while you waited – although if you’d pointed me to a quiet spot with a couch or bed I would have happily gotten another hour of sleep!
Instead we checked out the rest of the park. There were basically three types of store: a food place, usually serving some sort of burrito; a clothing/souvenir store featuring llama wool; and on the side closest to the field, recruitment trucks for the Albuquerque City and New Mexico State Police Forces.
Kind of weird – I wasn’t sure whether they recruited anywhere large groups of people congregated or whether there was something which made balloon enthusiasts particularly law-abiding.
We made sure to be at the collection point at the required hour and waited in the dark with the other riders. The excitement level was rising, but as time ticked by there was an undercurrent of worry. By 7:30am some of the other groups had been lead away but it wasn’t long until our guy came up, checked us off and lead us towards the field.
We made short work of the walk to the balloon, seeing some of the other balloons in various stages of inflation, but focusing on getting to our balloon so we could start the ride.
Our pilot Sheldon greeted us on arrival and walked us through the ground rules for what would happen and how to get onboard. He then got the balloon standing up and gave the go ahead to get on. I didn’t need asking twice and jumped in, turning to help others. Ange didn’t need any help and scrambled in after me.
And then we were away. I was used to airplane flights where the lift is generated by speed, so it was a little disconcerting when takeoff consisted of one second you were earth bound and the very next second you felt the balloon part company with the ground and you were up and flying. No transition at all.
It was quite magical ascending into the sky. Sure there was the roar of the burners, sporadically punching hot air into the balloon, but apart from that it was very quiet apart form the hushed conversations and Sheldon giving a running commentary on what was going on.
I must admit to being in a state of childlike wonder, still brought on just looking at my photos of the event months afterwards. The high sides of the basket made you feel physically safe even if you weren’t good with heights, but the vantage point of being so high gave a drone type view but you were actually physically there.
Sheldon ensured everyone got a view in every direction, or maybe it was just so he could look in every direction, either way he kept turning the balloon which was fine at the time but a little nauseating in the movie.
Other balloons were around us and Sheldon made sure to keep track on who was where, telling us to let him know of any other balloons that we thought he might not know about, but the field itself was like a collection of hackey sacks slowly coming towards us.
There’s something called the Albuquerque Box which makes the Festival unique – it’s where two streams of air flow operate over the field. One, closer to the field, goes from North to South and then a little above that is another air flow moving from South to North.
This means that everyone taking off can move en mass towards town and then, by increasing altitude, double back on themselves and head North. This meant we got a great view of the field. The Box came in handy when we came to do our Splash and Dash.
Splash and Dash
By dropping in altitude, we came back into the southbound airflow, and Sheldon used that to bring us to river level so that the bottom of the basket just touched the water. He didn’t dip it so the water actually came into the basket (who wants wet shoes?) but just enough to touch and go – splash and dash.
It was amazing looking across at water level and seeing three other balloons sitting on the water, mist in the background, before the burners came on and we ascended again.
In the distance the field sent a steady stream of balloons skyward, obviously staggering them so all 350 didn’t go up at once. It kind of felt like being on that San Francisco street when Sony dropped all those coloured balls down it. But on both a larger (balloons vs balls, sky vs street) and smaller (fewer balloons than balls) scale.
So we returned to the northbound stream and continued our journey.
The sun peeked over the mountains to the northeast of Albuquerque, illuminating the balloons below in a golden light. Below us balloons queued for their turn dipping into the Rio Grande and Sheldon used the opportunity to talk over the radio with the ground crew, talking about where and when we’d be landing.
A little dismayed by the thought of the trip being so close to the end, some of the passengers started asking some questions: figuring to sate their curiosity while we were still in the air. Sheldon gave good answers and used a slight lull to put his collection of air and balloon themed playlist to good use.
I checked with him later on how high we’d flown; he thought we’d peaked at 1500 feet (his altimeter showed feet above sea level so in the picture it’s showing 6295 feet, or 1295 feet above ground level). That’s about three Washington Monuments.
Another balloon was nearby and Sheldon indicated that we’d be “eclipsing” them. All of us could see why: with the sun behind us our shadow fell on their balloon.
We started to drift lower, making out details of the houses below. Some people were having breakfast outside and waved as we came lower. We could see some of the other balloons landing already, so we knew our time was coming to an end.
Sheldon pointed out some of the more unusual balloon designs: my favourite was the Christ the Redeemer one. I saw it before Ange did so turned to her with eyes wide and told her that I had found Jesus. She was stunned that I had had a religious conversion before guffawing after I pointed out the balloon.
Sheldon announced we’d be landing soon and had picked out a building site next to a school, which another balloonist had already landed in, so he refreshed our memory on the landing procedure and we headed in.
We came gently down and landed with hardly a tilt before the basket firmly planted itself. Sheldon got some of the larger folk to hop out while the ground crew got closer and then we pushed the balloon to a flatter area. One of the ground crew had a chat with the operator of the heavy machinery nearby and cleared the situation with them.
And then there was nothing to do but for Sheldon to open the aperture at the top of the balloon to let the hot air out and for the slowly collapsing fabric to be corralled.
Some nearby kids were fascinated by the balloon and joined the ground crew in flattening out the balloon ready for folding, but we were being entertained by Sheldon as he gave toasts and poured us mimosas.
A little challenge he gave us was to catch the cork as he popped open the wine. I caught the first one and stood to one side as he popped the second. Our prizes were a stylised representation of a balloon complete with basket underneath made out of the cork and wire top. Something for a Christmas tree or a mantle perhaps.
Once the wine was drunk, certificates and badges distributed and the balloon safely stored away in the trailer, there was nothing left to do but to clamber aboard the van and head back to the Field. The ground crew rode in the basket in the back of the trailer and as we passed the school all the kids waved and cheered, which I think made the ground crews day.
Once we got back to the field it felt like we’d missed a party. Not because of left behind garbage, but the trampled grass and collective relief of a departed crowd that you can detect in retail staff as they pack down.
We’d decided to check out the Balloon Museum which sat at the southern end of the field which involved a lengthy walk along most of the length of it, the end of which were the tents of the vendors selling balloons, baskets, gas cylinders and other assorted ballooning equipment. They all looked very fancy!
The path from the field to Museum wasn’t well marked but we navigated it with the help of some bystanders. The museum cost $6 to get in and turned out to be amazing value for money.
The exhibits did a really good job of discussing the history of ballooning and historically significant adventures in ballooning, complete with detailed illustrations of arctic escapades. My photos don’t do the Museum justice, it’s a really well curated spot, well worth the visit. It’s just a little way out in the middle of nowhere!
We ended up borrowing the receptionist’s phone to order a cab back to our hotel, getting in around noon but already having had a full day of excitement.