There’s nothing like being up in the air in a brightly-coloured balloon, gliding through the sky while enjoying the sunrise. The thrill and excitement are manifold if you happen to be floating over Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India. I am part of the first-ever hot air balloon festival organised by Uttar Pradesh Tourism and executed by E-factor Entertainment.
But before I took in the thrill of flying I spent some time exploring life around the famous ghats of Varanasi. The fact that it was Dev Deepavali, one of the most auspicious days in the Hindu calendar, only added to the fervour. The ghats were decked up with hundreds of oil lamps dancing gently in the evening breeze amidst sounds of conch shells blowing, the smell of incense sticks, the clang of cymbals, and the rhythmic chants of Har Har Gange. It’s a sight to behold. I ended my evening with a serene boat ride on the Ganga followed by a lip-smacking dinner at Fort Guleria, a magnificently restored 18th-century riverfront hotel.
Up, up and away I go!
For someone like me who doesn’t have a single adventurous bone in her body, the idea of being in a small basket in the sky is a bit daunting. What if a sudden storm or gust of wind tosses my balloon into oblivion? There is no seatbelt, lifejacket, or parachute on hand. There’s not even going to be a well-groomed routine pointing out the nearest emergency exit.
Nonetheless, I am up and ready for my exploit before the crack of dawn at 4:30 am. Why 4:30? Hot air balloons fly at times of day when the winds are least and the air is stillest. That includes early morning as well as later in the day before dusk. Any flights in between those hours are uncommon. “Strong winds are not good for hot air ballooning. A heavy gust can cause the balloon pilot to lose control of the vessel. You could go careening into trees and other sharp obstacles that can pop the balloon. Landings might be rougher, which can cause injuries. There is less wind in the early hours of the morning,” explain Hitesh, our pilot. If you are nervous about hot air ballooning (like me), an early morning flight is best. That way you won’t have much time to think about it. Your brain and body are still waking up and anxieties don’t get a chance to take hold.
Much before take off it’s interesting to watch the crew unload the wicker basket from a trailer and spread the giant balloon (now flat) across the damp field like a picnic blanket. It is then inflated with the help of a motorised fan. The last step is the pilot setting off the jets to fire up the balloon, as excited passengers gather around the basket to capture the scene on their phones. It’s exhilarating, to say the least.
Finally, when the moment arrived to step in and the basket lifted gently off the ground, I was pleasantly surprised with how gentle the take-off was. No wobble or even a tremor. Just a surreal, dreamlike flotation that teases us away from the earth. After waving at the crowd that had gathered to watch us fly and taking countless photos of the now dwindling landscape, I finally settle to appreciate the unobstructed panoramic views of the ghats in all their undisturbed beauty. The stunning temples, picturesque villages, and sweeping greenery make you appreciate how vast and vivacious Varanasi really is. And when the sun’s first rays set the waters of Ganga aglow it’s impossible not to feel moved by the beauty. I almost felt like a celebrity waving out to the kids and elders gathered on their terraces to catch a glimpse of the mysterious flying basket.
After almost 30 minutes of enjoying the views and pointing out to distant landmarks my time in the sky was coming to an end and the pilot began scouring for a suitable place to land. While I was busy gripping the ropes in the basket and bracing for a bumpy landing the balloon planted itself in a barren field with nothing more than a little jolt. And just like that my first hot air balloon ride came to an end.
NOTE: Hot air ballooning in Varanasi will be conducted as an annual affair in the winter months. Prices will range between Rs 12,000 and Rs ,15,000 approx. Currently, there are hot air ballooning opportunities in Pushkar, Goa, Agra and Meghalaya.
Tips for your first hot air balloon ride