Balloons in the Tron

We were keen on seeing the Balloons over Waikato. This was an annual festival celebrating hot air ballooning in the area. Hamilton, the capital of the Waikato region, was the central point of a week’s worth of events. We headed down on the Mana bus – a cheap and cheerful bus operator whose tickets start at $1. Two hours later we arrive in time for an early lunch and then we headed towards the river. The Waikato River dominates the centre of the North Island and the local city council have built a dual purpose cycle/walkway along the river side through the centre of town.

A very pleasant stroll ensued: passed occasionally by troops of cyclist or other tourists, the path paralleled the Main Street of town and it was strange to be only a block from the main thoroughfare and yet have the feeling of a bushwalk. We came to a halt on the south side of town.

The Tron

What is ‘The Tron’? The local council tried a few slogans to entice people to Hamilton:

  • Hamilton – The Fountain City
  • Hamilton – Where it’s happening
  • Hamilton – More than you expect

and after those dismal efforts one of the local radio stations decided to have a crack, running a competition to select a new slogan and ended up selecting Hamiltron – City of the Future, or just The Tron for short. It’s a little tongue in cheek.

My backpack was wearing me down, so we decided to Uber the rest of the way to the motel. We arrived without incident at the Argent Motor Lodge, and approached reception. The lobby walls were filled with plaques and certificates from and TripAdvisor saying how the hotel had a nine point five or was a Travellers Choice. Unfortunately we had arrived too early and our room was still being cleaned. We’d have to wait twenty to thirty minutes. We could have a newspaper if we wanted to pass the time? Instead we enquired whether there was any place to get snacks.

We were apparently equidistant between two sets of shops and so headed towards the set of shops which we were told had more variety. On the walk up the gentle rise Ange turned to me and expressed her hope that they had a bistro, I thought a pub for a quick beer would be a better option. Instead the block of shops consisted of two convenience stores, a vaping lounge, a laundromat, hairdressers (closed), fast food joint (closed) and a bakery with a line of people waiting for service.

A couple of men loitered outside the vaping lounge and another guy joined them, matter-of-factly relaying the story from a predominantly toothless mouth of how he got “locked up” the night before. Ange turned to me and stage-whispered “I don’t think there’s a bistro”. We got some chips and drinks from one of the convenience stores and headed back towards the motel.

Previously in Hamilton….

The local flavour of the neighbourhood reminded me of the last time I had gone to Hamilton. I’d gone down for the cricket (note to US readers: cricket is a game played similarly to baseball, which can take up to five days to play and usually ends in a draw) and we’d booked a hotel a short walk to the ground. We’d gotten out of the cars with our bags ready to check-in when we noticed a sign indicating that the entrance to the hotel was through the pub next door.

One of our number took the pause as an opportunity to put the book he was reading (a thick volume of the collected works of Shakespeare), into his bag. We opened the door to the pub and walked inside. The music stopped. All the patrons in the pub turned and stared. One of them had an arm off at the elbow. They didn’t quite drawl “you boys ain’t from around here, are ye? “, but it was certainly implied. I imagined if they’d seen the Shakespeare book we’d’ve been asked if we were “one of them learned folks that knows ’bout that readin'”.

Zuru Nightglow

The Zuru Nightglow was to be an evening of entertainment held at the Waikato University campus, with about 60,000 people expected to attend, free buses laid on by the local council, food & live music, balloons and all culminating in a fireworks display. It’d been held on the Saturday during the Balloons over Waikato event for the past eighteen years, never needing the backup plan of having it on the Sunday night… until now. After checking the weather forecasts the organisers made the decision to push it back, and as we sat in our room at the Argent, looking out the window, we could certainly see why. Near torrential rain started up mid afternoon and went well into the night. We decided that discretion was the better part of valour and ordered in delivery and watched NetFlix.

Morning Flying

We were up early though, and headed to Lake Rotoroa for the early morning mass balloon launch. The weather by then had cleared, with a smattering of clouds spoiling an otherwise pristine sky. Just as we arrived at the park beside the lake, the first balloon headed up into the sky and we were well informed over loud speakers that this was a special balloon with special instruments to let the other balloonists know how much wind there was and whether there were good conditions for flying.

We’d arranged to meet my cousin, who worked in Hamilton, at the park and we stood around and chatted as we watched various balloons being inflated. A gold coin donation would have allowed us to walk through one of the balloons as it was inflated with cold air, but we elected to watch from a distance.

Two other balloons took off, one a kaleidoscope patchwork of different colours, the other a beaver. There’s something vaguely surreal about a forty foot tall inflated beaver having a million BTUs flamed into his butt.

But the others remained earthbound, inflated and crewed but not going anywhere. We soon heard why. A lady had been giving a running commentary about each balloon as it was inflated – who the pilot was, where they were from etc., and she now mentioned that there was insufficient wind for the pilots to effectively fly. So basically the balloons that were there, and the ones arriving as we watched, would all just be inflated, stand for a while and then be allowed to deflate, be rolled up and repacked. A little disappointing! I wondered what would happen to the people who had spent $370pp to go on a balloon ride…

We resolved to head back to the motel and check out and then head to the Hamilton Gardens. My cousin graciously offered to hold onto our backpack until it was time to catch the bus back to Auckland, and also to take us back to the motel and then on to the Gardens. I love it when I can avoid expending energy getting to an attraction – it allows you to concentrate on enjoying being there.

Hamilton Gardens

I’m not hugely into gardens, but it was a great experience for a variety of reasons. First of all the gardens are amazing. Fifty four hectares which used to be the town dump has been turned into a museum of gardens, showing the context, history and meaning of gardens by Dr Peter Sergel. What all that translates to are examples of different gardens from around the world. The plans for the future are pretty awe inspiring also, with the surreal and augmented reality gardens of particular interest.

Did I mention it was free?

The English Food Garden was a great representation, instantly recognised after our trip to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall.

After all Ange’s trips to Italy, she enjoyed the Italian Garden, and while my favourite was the Tudor Garden, it was great to recognise the Mughal architecture from my time in Rajasthan.

The best part was when we enquired at the Information Centre about the schedule and tickets for the cruise on the Waikato and discovered a  free charging station for cell phones. Just what you need when your battery is on 5% and you’re about to go on a 90 minute cruise!

The Boat

Very pleasantly surprised with the gardens, we decide that we have enough time to go on the sight seeing boat ride – $35 for ninety minutes. We head out with a recorded commentary which is entertaining enough. It mentions you can go up into the wheelhouse if you want to, so I make a mental note of that.

There are three crew, the captain who sits in the wheelhouse, separated from the main cabin by a low ladder of maybe three short rungs, a cafe worker serving coffee and pastries (Auckland prices) and another crew member further aft who I’m not sure what is doing but seems to be food related.

The river doesn’t have many users – I find out later from the captain that this is the only commercial operator on the river, though we do pass a group in inflatable dinghys and some guys jumping into the water from one of the bridge supports.

We’ve passed the centre of town when I notice that the cafe server has gone up to the wheelhouse. One of the ladies behind us says “we’re going to crash!” I look up and we’re headed straight for the bank. I glance up to the wheelhouse to see the captain lurch over to the wheel and yell “f@#k!”.

He slammed the engine into reverse, while the branches of the trees lining the banks start to scrape against the bow of the boat and the blue smoke from the engine wafts past us in the cabin. Everything moves slowly – not because of any “time dilation in an emergency” sort of thing, more because we’re on a boat and things just move slowly. We all stare at the bank as it gets closer, all making the mental calculations judging whether our forward motion will be arrested in time.

With a collective sigh of relief we start to pull back from the bank without having touched it: though a few freshly pruned branches do begin their travels downriver. Our backwards motion turns into a three point turn and we return to our normal course. The passengers all look at each other wondering what just happened. After a beat, the automated commentary comes back on, the equivalent of a nonchalant whistle and pretending that nothing had happened, which brings guffaws of laughter. The cafe worker goes back to her station, she doesn’t look upset or flustered at all.

After a little while I go up and buy a ginger beer as a pretence to chat. “Urrr… what happened there… before?” I ask casually as I hand over my money. She looks up and says that they had a power failure. “Ah” I say, nodding as if I understand. I go back to Ange and tell her what the cafe worker had said, but she doesn’t get it either. Power steering maybe?

Ten minutes later I decide to try my luck with the captain. I head to the little ladder and ask if it’s ok to come up. He’s very welcoming and I try some small talk to gauge his reaction. He seems friendly enough and not guarded or defensive at all and so I ask him what had happened earlier.

Apparently the power had failed and the captain had fixed it, assuming that the cafe worker would grab the wheel while he did so. She hadn’t and so the boat had decided that it wanted to head towards the bank. He said that he was the captain so it was his responsibility, which I thought was good. No throwing the cafe worker under the bus. So to speak. l told him it was a good recovery, and Ange joined us to get some more photos.

The view from the wheel house was definitely the best, and, in the captain’s words, not a bad office.

We thanked the captain for chatting and went back down into the cabin and I marvelled at his candour. You would not have gotten that level of communication anywhere else in my travels. Everywhere else would have been concerned about liability and being sued. The rest of the boat trip went without incident, and the lack of reaction to the incident made Ange speculate that maybe it happened all the time. We decided it was more likely just the Kiwi laid back attitude at play.

The boat arrived back at the jetty five minutes after the bus into town had left the gardens, which we found disappointing. The bus ran every hour while the boats took ninety minutes for a loop, so I guess it would be impossible to synchronise. We Ubered back to my cousin’s workplace and picked up my bag, grabbed something to eat at the mall and then went to the Mana bus stop, where the scheduled two hour trip then proceeded to take four and a half hours.


You can’t blame Mana for the traffic, but the upper levels of the double decker bus suffer from inadequate air con. Their advertising states that they have Wifi and air con, but both are pretty underwhelming even when they actually work. The poor people in the front row had the best views but were bombarded with the sun. It was so bad that for half an hour we saw them struggling with t-shirts and jackets, trying to fashion some sort of makeshift curtain to protect them from the unrelenting heat. Nope, no curtains on this bus.

I tried not to tell Ange what Google maps was telling me about the bumper to bumper traffic. Stop, start, stop, start. Temperature rising and only a pitiful trickle of lukewarm air coming out of the vents. I notice the bus driver playing a low-speed game of brinkmanship with a RV beside us as our lanes merged. We win this round, the RV giving way reluctantly and pulling in behind us, but they got the last laugh as we made an ill-advised gamble on moving into the fast lane twenty minutes later, only to see them inch past.

The lady beside me asked if the traffic was the norm so I had to explain I’m a relative newbie at Mana, but in general the traffic into Auckland is pretty bad. Especially on a long weekend, not that this was one. Eventually the sauna-on-wheels arrived in the CBD, and we escaped into the relative coolness of early evening in Auckland.

We’d seen some balloons, that’s true, but I feel that we missed out on the full spectacle of Balloons over Waikato. Maybe next year. Or maybe we’ll catch the bigger one in Albuquerque in the U.S – the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.