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Adrift Over the Napa Valley
Twelve of us are standing in a huge, open-topped, wicker-work "hamper" basket. Above us, the vast canopy of a hot-air balloon reaches into the sky, its top at the level of a 12-story building. As the pilot reaches up once more to open the gas valves on the frame that arches above his head, large flames shoot out of the metal burners with a roaring, whooshing, almost deafening cacophony, their heat radiating down onto our heads.
Those who have never experienced a balloon flight are trying hard not to appear nervous. Others, like myself, who have previously enjoyed the pleasure of ballooning, are more relaxed but still filled with an excited anticipation.
The roaring continues, and almost imperceptibly the basket seems to feel a little lighter and more springy under our feet. Slowly it lifts a few inches from the ground. Then a little more, and now, very slowly at first, we are picking up vertical speed. The second balloon is still on the ground but also firing up its burners as we slowly rise to see over the top of it. Behind us the bank of early morning fog is still quite a distance away. Great! We've made it. We're airborne at last!
Yesterday we had checked into the Silverado Country Club, one of the three finest establishments in the Napa area and a family favorite for San Franciscans. Silverado is the sort of resort every city should have within a two-hour drive. Set in beautiful surroundings it has an excellent golf course, accommodation that mainly comprises small, self-contained apartments, and every facility for a wonderfully relaxed family get-away. There are some things -- though very few -- for which even I will give up the luxury of a lazy sleep-in, and an opportunity to fulfill my passion for hot-air ballooning is one of them. The pre-dawn start is necessary as this is the time when there is least turbulence in the air, and the breeze if any, is at its gentlest. Strong wind and rain are the balloonists worst enemies.
At 5 am the roads around the Napa Valley are understandably quiet and although it is still dark, a faint glimmer of light makes the darkness a little less inky. Half an hour later we arrive at the hotel for our rendezvous with the pilots and over mugs of hot coffee we are briefed for the adventure to come. Then, as the first streaks of daylight ease themselves over the horizon, it's time to pile into the specially fitted mini-vans and head for the launch site.
I love America and the extremes of its terrain and scenery -- from rugged mountain ranges to the spectacular Grand Canyon, flower-filled valleys to vast, arid prairies. But when it comes to picture-book valleys, the Napa must be somewhere near the top of the list. On our way the previous day I was puzzled by the huge fans in the center of many of the vineyards. And this morning, as we came over a hill and drove into a bank of fog, I realized why they were there. Frost is the wine-maker's bete noir, and fog and frost can often be advance guards.
As we drove into the fog everything looked misty and romantic. The rows of grapevines now discernible in the strengthening light seemed to fade into a cotton-wool haze. Our driver and pilot-to-be were looking a little perturbed. Would the fog envelop our proposed launch spot?
Fifteen minutes later we had arrived at the first site. Our little caravan of mini-vans and equipment trucks formed a small circle. Everyone piled out. Pilots and ground crew went into a conferring huddle, then broke away and returned to the waiting, would-be passengers. The fog, they had decided, was too thick. We would try another site.
Our new launching area was twenty minutes away. Now things looked much better. There was no fog here though we could see a bank of it in the distance. The light was now quite strong and our pilots explained that if we could take off before the fog rolled in, it would have thinned out and broken up before it would be time to land.
Now the ground crew of "Balloons Above The Valley," the very expert and competent operators we were flying with, sprang into action. Baskets and canopies were downloaded from their trucks. Polythene sheets were spread out on the ground and balloon envelopes snaked out of their bags, then unfolded over the polythene base-sheets. Large petrol-driven fans were set up and with a staccato roar their engines rattled into life. Now the "business-end" of the balloon canopies were lifted open and cold air was blown in for the primary inflation.
Soon the balloons started to take shape on the ground. At first ours began to look a little like a beached whale. Then burners were set up alongside the fans and lit with a sound reminiscent of a mini tornado. The air blown into the canopy was also being heated, and slowly the pear shape of the balloon took its form.
Guy ropes at the far end of the balloon were held down by other members of the ground crew to counter the huge mass of hot air in the canopy getting too much uncontrolled lift. While all this was going on, the basket in which we were to stand was set into place on its side and wires and cables were connected to the canopy with military precision.
Increasing the flame on the burners, the pilot moved back into the basket, strategically placing himself for the next move. As the huge canopy was quickly taking its final shape, the ground crews eased the pressure on the guy ropes. The far end of the balloon began to gently lift off the ground, taking the basket into an upright position with the canopy almost fully inflated directly above it. It was almost time for us to climb in.
The pilot, already in the basket, gave the burners full blast. We could all feel the heat radiation as the balloon canopy above us started to expand to its maximum size. Then came the command we were all waiting for. "Come on board, two at a time, and use the foot-holes on the side of the basket." Everyone scrambled in as instructed.
The moment of take-off is always an exciting affair and once the balloon is on the move, burners are temporarily switched off to avoid too much acceleration. Once the roar ceases, the flight becomes the most gentle of experiences. One can almost hear the silence, only broken by the bark of a distant dog, the sound of a truck on a far-away main-road or a rooster trying to belatedly greet the foggy morning with an unconvincingly cheerful "cock-a-doodle-doo."
Below us the rows of vines stretch into the distance like columns of soldiers frozen in time. The vine-covered slopes of the NapaValley extend right to the base of the steeper foothills, and a river sparkles, reflecting the thin sunlight that is now just a little hazy from the approaching fog.
The second balloon is now airborne and climbing up past us. We were first off, so he wants to go higher. But have no great aspirations in that regard. The view is far too beautiful. We are now drifting over palatial ranch-style homes, set far back from the prying eyes of passing motorists. But no-one can keep any secrets from our intrepid group of hot-air balloonists. The view from the balloon basket reveals all. Well, almost. Because as we float above the vineyards that are now bordering onto forest and meadow, the fog is getting closer.
Everyone in the basket is enthralled to the point where very little is being said, other than the occasional "oooohs and aaaahs." Those who have never ballooned before are completely won-over, while those who had previously been initiated into the wonders of this gentle past-time, smile the quiet smile that goes with an unspoken "Marvelous, isn't it ? Didn't I tell you ?"
The canopy has cooled and we are slowly and almost imperceptibly losing height. One of the passengers suddenly points over the side and calls out "Look! Under the trees! Deer!" Our eyes follow the direction and, sure enough, a small herd of deer is taking cover under a tree. Not much escapes an observant balloonist.
Burners suddenly roar into life again, and the uninitiated get a little fright. Im glad Im wearing a hat. Tall people should do this to avoid scalps being toasted by the heat radiating from the propane burners. For a few seconds nothing happens, then the balloon begins to lift. The pilot explains that this is the time it takes for the hot air created the burners, to rise to the top of the balloon. Only then is real lift exerted.
As we rise, a slight wind is felt which surprises the "first-timers" until the pilot explains that this is the shear-factor. Balloonists have no control over the direction of their craft. They are able to control the height of the balloon to within a matter of inches, but the only way they can hope to alter direction is to find a layer of wind that is blowing in a different direction to the layer below it.
As the basket is lifted from one layer into the next, the directional control is the stream of breeze that carries the huge upper canopy. That means that for a moment the basket is being dragged through a different-direction layer of breeze just below. It also explains how the bank of fog, traveling at a level other than that in which we were situated, could creep up on us. We go into, and then through the bank of fog. It is an eerie but wonderfully surreal feeling. Then we are out and over the fog bank, floating over a vast canopy of cotton wool. The sky above is now bright blue and the sun is warm. Our pilot switches off the burners and suggests that we look at the fog bank so that we can see it "melting."
And that is exactly what is happening. Minute by minute the fog appears to be thinner as the suns warmth takes effect. Now we can see outlines of trees and vineyards through the haze. Ten minutes later it has almost gone. Another ten minutes and there is no trace of the fog. The burners have again been fired to maintain height, and a very faint breeze is carrying us towards the hills. The walkie-talkie radio crackles into life. It is the chase-van that we can now see below us. The time has come for the pilot to think about descending.
Our pilot talks to the chase-van and tells him in which field he is going to land. First, he makes sure there are no power lines in our flight path. These are the greatest threat to balloonists and if unseen, cause the greatest number of ballooning accidents. But our skilled pilots are experts, so there is no problem.
Our "skipper" reaches to a tethered cord that runs up into the balloon canopy. He pulls on this to open a flap at the very top allowing some of the hot air to escape. The burners have been turned off, and we drift lower at a gentle rate. A tree looms up. We will have to rise above it or hit, so the pilot again gives the burners a short burst. The balloon lifts, just enough to comfortably clear the tree. In front of us is the meadow he has targeted and the chase-van is already there, its driver and crew members standing in the field.
Now the pilot tells us to "brace." He explained that it is essential that we bend our knees and get low in the basket in case the wind tips it over. Now we are three feet from the ground. Now it is two. The basket brushes the tall grass and, with a judder, settles, drags, settles, drags and settles again.
The ground crew run over and hold the basket steady. Had this been the last flight of the day, the balloon canopy would be deflated by use of the "parachute" and the canopy folded and packed into a large nylon bag before everything being loaded onto the vans trailer. But today the crew is busy exchanging our expended gas cylinders for full ones, and as we pile out, another group of passengers from a second van are approaching the balloon basket for their ride. We wish them a good flight, and the balloon again fires up its burners with its new cargo of enthusiasts. We, happy and exhilarated, head off in the van to a late breakfast and a glass of champagne, the traditional toast that follows whenever possible, every balloon flight anywhere in the world.
To visit the Napa Valley is an enchanting experience on its own, but to see it from a balloon will add an extra and quite sensational dimension to your impressions of this picture-book-pretty part of Northern California.
To Book Your Balloon Flight
Balloons Above The Valley
5091 Solano Avenue, Napa, California 94558
Tel: (707) 253-2222
Fax: (707) 258-8889
Toll free from USA: 800 GO-HOT-AIR (1-800-464-6824)
Best time to go
Spring and autumn are excellent though winter flights can also be outstanding. Very hot or unstable weather increases the risk of turbulence and decreases the chances of getting into the air. Balloons are never flown on wet and/or windy days.
You will be instructed to check with the ballooning company the night before you are due to fly and again in the early morning for last minute confirmation. If there is any risk at all, good balloon operators will cancel the flight rather than take chances. When that happens never get annoyed, instead feel grateful that the operator has enough sense not to put you at risk. You will get another chance and an alternative date at no extra cost.
What to wear
Wear loose, comfortable clothes and firm rubber-soled walking or sports shoes. Make sure you wear a wide-brimmed hat or anorak with hood. I always wear layered peel-off sweaters as it can be very cold in the early morning and then quite warm as the day progresses. Keep your camera strap around your neck. Dropping cameras and videos over the baskets sides is a real possibility and a risk not worth taking.
You are going to be making a very early start, so will need to overnight in the Napa Valley. We heartily recommend The Silverado Resort 1600 Atlas Peak Road Napa, California 94558 Tel:(707) 257-5440 Fax: (707) 257-5407