ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY attend the inaugural Araku Balloon Festival in Andhra Pradesh, turning the spotlight on India’s latest trend
As the fourth edition of the Tamil Nadu Balloon festival took off this January at Pollachi with an international focus, all of a sudden hot air ballooning seems to be the hot new trend in travel. Besides trial runs in Amaravati, Agra and the Rann Utsav, the annual calendar now seems full with regular ballooning events at Pushkar Mela and Rajasthan thanks to SkyWaltz, one of the pioneers in the field.
Be it a balloon safari over the lush Sahyadri range at Lonavala and the rugged Aravalis above Jaipur or flights on request at Neemrana, Manesar, Udaipur and Ranthambhore, the main safari season (Dec-March and Sep-Nov) is busy with morning and evening fights. It seemed like the stuff adventures are made of, as we discovered for ourselves at Araku Valley.
“A hot air balloon is the only vehicle in the world without a steering wheel, motor and brakes. It’s crazy, meant for crazy people…” laughed Johan Vander Meiren from Belgium. We were in conversation with the world’s top balloonists at the international Araku Balloon Festival in Andhra Pradesh. 16 balloons from 13 countries were participating and all their heavy equipment had been air freighted and transported to Araku Valley. The added attractions were the special shaped balloons – Iwi the Kiwi from New Zealand, the sea horse shaped Neptuno from Brazil and Bee, manned by Luc de Wulf from Belgium.
After a press launch at The Park Hotel in Vizag and two nights of music ‘Sounds On Sand’ at RK Beach (where Luc gained notoriety as the ‘dancing balloonist’ for his antics on stage), we drove into misty Araku Valley in the Eastern Ghats. To host the international pilots and media, a specially designed camp with 40 luxury tents was set up at Bosubeda in a clearing amidst green paddy fields, bright yellow flowers and colourful flags fluttering in the breeze.
Organizer Samit Garg from SkyWaltz and E-Factor says: “Araku Balloon Fest is a unique tool to promote Araku Valley as a tourism destination and highlight its lush landscapes and waterfalls, fields and valleys, eco-friendly environment and friendly people. We came here three weeks ago scouting for a campsite. A farmer, who was about to harvest his crops, agreed to lease this patch. The whole camp was set up in days! We hope after this event ‘Araku’ will find a place in the minds of travellers.”
Johan had clocked a thousand flights in Europe and has been flying over the historic cityscape of Bruges for the past 12 years. During winter, day temperatures are constant, allowing longer flights over the Alps. “In today’s age, everything is programmable or as per a schedule. Hot air ballooning is not. You float on nature. That’s the reason I still enjoy it.” His hometown Beselare or ‘Village of the Witch’ has a witch festival and he’s currently developing a balloon shaped like a sorceress!
Luc confided he found inspiration from his grandfather who often talked of flying. “I made my first balloon when I was 10 by heating a piece of plastic with a hairdryer.” Luc has ballooned in Israel, Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico and Dubai. “When you land, the people are so friendly, we’re treated like kings. A balloon ride is something special and often booked for a birthday or anniversary.
Imagine, it’s sunset… a nice landing place – we set up a pop-up café with champagne, cheese, and cheekily ask our passengers ‘Didn’t you do this yesterday evening?’ They wail ‘No’! ‘Exactly!’ Everything isn’t commercial. We spend a whole fun evening together. Why go to a café or bar when I meet so many people through ballooning?”
After dinner, we retired early for our morning tryst. By dawn, the camp was abuzz with pilots getting their gas cylinders filled with nitrogen. Karimulla Syed from Guntur, the only balloon pilot from Andhra Pradesh, was overseeing the fuelling operations. “We don’t have propane in India, so commercial LPG cylinders are used and pressurized with nitrogen,” he explained. Though non-motorized, the balloon is still an aircraft, so requires registration, licenses and permissions from the DGCA, Airport Authority of India and local Air Traffic Control. Karim started ballooning as a hobby and has flown 800 hours across 15 countries.
It was a short drive to the launch site and the atmosphere was electric. Numbered jeeps rolled onto a grassy clearing and each passenger was given a boarding card with the number of the allocated balloon. We caught up with other participants while they were unloading baskets, setting up equipment and inflating the colourful balloons.
Paolo Bonanno from Italy has 37 years of ballooning experience and is the leading authority on burners. He chugged at his trademark pipe and looked up ruefully at the grey sky. “By rule, the maximum permitted wind speed is 10 knots. The perfect condition is no wind on the ground and soft wind in the air. The landing is most important. We fly for pleasure and avoid taking risks”. His partner Nicole added, “There’s a popular saying – ‘Better to be on the ground and say I wish was in the air rather than to be in the air and say I wish was on the ground!” Their words seemed as dark and foreboding as the low hanging clouds but we laughed.
Paolo originally made automatic machines for industrial textiles and created a balloon just to win a challenge. Back in 1980, there was no concept of ballooning. For 2 years, cops followed him around to confiscate his balloon! Now 73, he planned to continue flying for the next 30 years, Paolo said with a twinkle. He had flown in Sri Lanka and Philippines, but this was his first time in India. At Albuquerque, the organizers said he couldn’t smoke in the fields, so he lit up the moment they were off the ground. “No Pipe, No Fly,” he tapped his badge and chuckled.
Spaniard Josep Llado from Ultramagic started 30 years ago with a balloon trip across Africa. Be it Albuquerque in USA, the world’s biggest ballooning event with 650 balloons, or a small event like this, each has its own charm, he explained. “It’s freedom – you forget about terrestrial problems”, he laughed. “We’re in an era where we like to control everything. With ballooning it’s very difficult, but you can adapt. There are different wind directions at various altitudes so you can change levels. Early morning or evening is better for flying, as the wind is calm and the temperature cool, without any thermals, making it easier to control the balloon.”
Ballooning as a sport started in the late 60s and grew in the early 70s in the UK and US before spreading to other places. Josep had flown over Kilimanjaro, India Gate in Delhi and the Taj Mahal at Agra, besides Jaipur, Pushkar and Ranthambhore. “Flying in India is incredible and very colourful. As you fly over a city, people throng the roofs and there’s always a big crowd when you land. In Africa, there are photographic safaris over lions or elephants. In Burma, you fly over temples. In Capadoccia, Turkey, ballooning started in 1992 and today is a big business catering to hundreds of tourists. India is huge, like a continent, and I’m sure there will be fantastic panoramic places for ballooning. We hope Araku will be our favourite!”
“There are so few moving parts, what could possibly go wrong” – piped in Peter Dutneall with characteristic humour from Down Under. His balloon was called Zoz. “Not ‘coz it’s from Oz, it’s my registration number!” he said. “What I love about ballooning is that it puts smiles on people’s faces”. The wind had stopped and the smiles were coming back on. Huge industrial fans had inflated the balloons and burners fired them up with hot air. Last minute instructions were handed out – clutch the ropes inside the basket, bend the knee when landing, hope for a soft touchdown!
Josep was the first to fly out, followed by Marc Blazer from Switzerland, Izzati and Atiqah Khairudin, the intrepid ballooning sisters from Malaysia who run the annual Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, Kevin Chassa from France (whose mom was the first female balloon pilot in France) and Rick Astral and John who fly Iwi the Kiwi. Rick, who relocated from New Zealand to Santiago, is candid. “There’s so much stress in life, ballooning is all about enjoyment. I’ve flown the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, even landed in an airbase to shoot against some F-16s. I was a Cheeky Kiwi who just wanted photos of balloons in dramatic places!”
As our pilots fired up with a loud whoosh and hiss of fire, we clambered into our baskets and were off, waving at the screaming crowds below. We rose above the mesmeric patchwork of green and gold fields, noticing streams and grey blue hills that ringed the valley and other vibrant balloons mid-air. Now and then, a paramotorist swooped around us in hypnotic curves. Farmers stopped their work and children waved agog!
Ballooning was as much about the flight as a foolproof exit plan. One had to watch out for low hanging powerlines, forests and hilltops. The most important thing was a flat patch of land and proximity to a road for the crew to easily recover the equipment. Our smooth landing could put an Airbus to shame as we headed back to the camp for breakfast, jabbering about our experience.
The day was free to visit the Tribal Museum and Coffee Museum in town, Araku’s coffee plantations and tribal hamlets. Near waterfalls like Chaprai, local women sold barbecued chicken and fish on wooden skewers. That evening thousands of locals and tourists converged at a large ground to witness the Tethered Flights and Night Glow balloon spectacle. Later, the party continued at the camp, with lilting folk tunes and an energetic Dhimsa dance, performed by women of the Nookadora tribe.
Kaushik Mukherji, consultant for AP Tourism, explained that Araku was one of the many wonders in Andhra Pradesh. “There are temples with floating pillars, ancient Buddhist sites and 500-year-old Dutch cemeteries. We’re creating different holiday experiences for different customer segments and an event calendar from October-March. There’s horseracing on the beaches at the Vizag Stud Million while the Yacht Pentagonal in mid-Feb will be one of its kind in Asia.”
On our return, we stopped by at the fascinating Borra Caves, discovered by British geologist William King in 1807. Deep in the bowels of the Ananthagiri Hills, we encountered the most incredible stalactites and stalagmites besides formations, created by the subterranean Gosthani river. Roadside stalls sold ‘Bamboo Chicken’, cooked in hollow stems “without oil or water”. At Vizag, the brand new Fairfield by Marriott, just off the Araku highway and near the airport, was the perfect base for our local explorations. We also got our fix of local Andhra cuisine – Nellore chepala pulusu (fish curry), Gongura Mamsa and desserts like pootharekelu.
A befitting tribute to Vizag’s maritime history, the INS Kursura is a fascinating museum inside a retired Russian submarine. We drove north to Rushikonda Beach, the Buddhist sites of Thotlakonda and Bavikonda and the port town of Bheemli. Not far from the ancient Dutch cemetery, it was startling to see the same Gosthani river descend from the Araku hills and flow into the sea. Life had come full circle, like a giant hot air balloon…
Araku is 112km/3 hr drive from Vizag via Simhachalam and Srungavarapu Kota. Borra Caves is a 6km diversion off the main road to Araku and 30km before it. Bheemli is 30km north of RK Beach in Vizag.
Where to Stay
Fairfield by Marriott
KSR Prime, R&B Junction, Marripalem, Vizag
Ph 0891-668 8999 http://www.marriott.com
Beach Road, Vizag
Ph 0891-304 5678 http://www.theparkhotels.com
Hotels at Vizag, Rushikonda, Araku, Ananthagiri, Tyda
Ph 0891-2788820, 1800 42545454
Hot Air Ballooning Festivals
Tamil Nadu Balloon Festival (10-16 Jan)
Ph +91 95000 90850, 94882 54204
Pushkar Fair (28 Oct-4 Nov)
Ph +91 8130925252
Araku Balloon Festival (14-16 Nov)
Ph +91 9560387222, 9560397222
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 12 January, 2018 as the cover story in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.