Tag Archives: E-Factor

Basketful of Joy: Ballooning in India

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY reach for the skies and profile the mad world of ballooning while attending the Araku Balloon Festival

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Listening to tales of early explorers conquering the world in strange airships and watching their adventures on celluloid had always filled us with awe and wonder. Be it ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ or Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout crossing the Pyrenees in Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, nothing had captured our imagination like hot air ballooning. Verne’s first acclaimed novel in 1863 ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon’ involved travelling across Africa from Zanzibar to St Louis in a hot air balloon. With the 2009 animation film ‘Up’, our interest only piqued…

Internationally, ballooning as a sport started in the late 1960s-70s in France, UK & the US and then spread across Europe. In 1986, maverick tycoon Richard Branson did the first Trans-Atlantic crossing in the biggest hot air balloon ever and in 1991, he successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean, setting a distance and speed record of 6,700 miles and 245mph. In the late 90s, Branson ran the largest ballooning operation in the world and wanted to bring Virgin Balloons to India, but things didn’t work out. In India, ballooning seems to have taken off with regular events like Taj Mahotsav, Pushkar Mela and the Tamil Nadu Balloon Festival at Pollachi in January (in its fourth edition).

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One day, out of the blue, we got the perfect opportunity for a first hand experience, thanks to the Araku Balloon Festival. Organized by E-Factor and SkyWaltz, pioneers of ballooning in India, in association with Andhra Pradesh Tourism, it was a chance to see Araku Valley and its stunning landscape from a different perspective. We flew into Vizag for the 3-hour drive to Araku where a recently harvested agricultural patch had been painstakingly transformed into a tented luxury camp. On the eve of our maiden flight, we hung out with the world’s top balloonists for an inside look into this fascinating activity.

There seemed to be more butterflies flying around our stomachs than there would be balloons in the air. Though Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) recognizes ballooning as the safest aero sport, Chief Organizer Samit Garg reassured first-time flyers, “Ballooning is the simplest form of aviation. It’s like a parachute that operates on the simple fundamental of being LTA (lighter than air). It does not have an engine that might fail, nor a wing that could fall off, if the burner has a problem, there’s a back-up burner, if there’s a hole in the balloon, it is not going to burst. If everything fails, the warm air inside will get cold and the balloon will slowly descend to earth.” We laughed at his simple logic. “The only two things that can go wrong is if you’ve taken a bad call and flown in bad weather or the pilot is an amateur.” We were fortunate to be in the company of legends.

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“There are so few moving parts, what could possibly go wrong?” said Australian flyer Peter Dutneall in mock seriousness. He loved ballooning because it put smiles on people’s faces. Sixteen balloons from thirteen countries were taking part at the Araku Balloon Festival. Italian Paulo Bonanno, the world authority in burners, had been flying for 37 years. He originally made industrial textile machines and one day while talking to a friend on the phone, absent-mindedly doodled a round shape that looked like a balloon. On a wager, he made a balloon in 15 days. As he gained altitude with each try, one day he cut the rope and reached for the skies. Though he had flown across the world, this was his first time ballooning in India. “I’m 73 and plan to fly for the next 30 years,” he chuckled, chugging at his trademark pipe. “The only navigational tool I use is my nose.”

Ballooning is subject to good weather; one can’t do it when it’s too hot, so summers and rains are off limits. The season lasts from mid-Sep to mid-April. Josep Llado from Spain began by fulfilling his dream of exploring Africa by balloon. Thirty years later, he’s still not tired. “It’s freedom, you forget everything else,” he said. An India veteran, Josep had flown in Jaipur, Ranthambhore, over the Taj in Agra and above India Gate in Delhi. “Flying in India is very colourful and incredible, especially the landscapes and the people. When you fly over a city, people run to the roofs. When you land, they come in droves, always interested to see what’s happening.”

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Josep explained that the best time to fly is early morning or evening, as the wind is calm and the temperature cool, without thermals. For long distance flights or across mountains the ideal wind speed is 50 knots, but for short flights, within a valley, 6-7 knots is fine. Wind blows in different directions at various altitudes so one can change levels and pick another wind. That’s where experience comes in. You observe other balloons.

“It’s a bit old fashioned”, he laughed. If you burn less often, you begin to descend slowly. The pilot must always be conscious of what to do – don’t stray too far, watch out for power lines when flying low, land near a road. If it’s windy, you land a bit harder. It’s not important where you go; only the flight is important, so enjoy the flight.

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For Samit, the magic moment came in Germany in 2003 when he saw a hot air balloon for the first time while driving from Stuttgart to Frankfurt. On learning that it was a regular ticketed activity, he wondered why it couldn’t happen in India? Samit travelled to the UK, Turkey, France and Germany to understand how it’s done but India still didn’t have any laws to facilitate commercial ballooning.

After much deliberation with the DGCA and obtaining a NSOP (Non-Scheduled Operators Permit), SkyWaltz waltzed into the skies. Commercial ballooning in India took off on 1 Jan 2009. Rajasthan, with its forts, palaces, rugged Aravallis and steady tourist traffic was the perfect place to start. Headquartered in Jaipur, they soon spread to Ranthambhore, Pushkar camel fair and a permanent operation at Lonavala. They flew at Hampi Festival, Taj Mahotsav, Amaravati Festival and for a TV series for the Bedi brothers with balloon flights over 8 national parks.

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From branding, tethered flights, corporate group events and destination marketing to experimental breakfasts and proposal flights (somebody held a 100 ft long banner with the message ‘will you marry me’), ballooning is indeed special … Today, the market has grown so much that SkyWaltz flies three baskets full every morning at Jaipur. In the last nine years, they have flown over 35,000 happy customers.

The next morning, the pilots left early for the launch site. Numbered jeeps carrying baskets, cylinders and other equipment rolled in. Karimulla Syed from Guntur, the only balloon pilot from Andhra Pradesh with 800 flying hours across 15 countries, was coordinating the setup. Paul Macpherson, chief of operations at SkyWaltz, was busy checking if any balloonist needed anything.

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We had all been designated balloons and were given boarding passes. A huge crowd had assembled to see the drama unfold. It was overcast. “If it’s foggy, it means no wind, which is good,” said Paulo. “The ideal condition is no wind on the ground and soft wind in the air. The maximum speed permitted by rule is 10 knots,” he added.

Rick Astral and John were rigging up Iwi the Kiwi, a special shaped balloon that won many admirers. Rick, who calls himself ‘the cheeky Kiwi’, was a self-professed cowboy who had flown over the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. Setting up nearby were Swiss flier Marc Blazer, Kevin Chassa, whose mother was the first female balloon pilot in France and Izzati and Atiqah Khairudin, Malaysia’s first female hot air balloonists.

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Their father Captain Khairudin, smitten by his first glimpse of a hot air balloon on a train journey in Switzerland, returned home to become Malaysia’s first balloon pilot. His daughters helped him organize the annual Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in 2009 and after his death in 2012, took over his mantle.

The sisters love the unpredictability of ballooning – the inability to control the direction or flight route, leaving your fate to nature, following the wind and letting it take you to unknown places. Flying a hot air balloon is different from any other aircraft because you can never plan where you will land. Once on a cross-country flight across nine states in Peninsular Malaysia, they landed in a palm oil plantation. First the workers ran away and came back with machetes as they thought it was a bomb. When they saw people inside, they thought they were gods! “Ballooning is so universal – no matter your age, race or where you come from, the reaction is always one of excitement.”

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“But it’s not as glamorous as it seems”, they chimed. “You sweat buckets, there’s heavy lifting and you need a team – it’s not a one-man (or woman) show!” The nylon-polyurethane envelope weighs 100kg, the basket about 60kg and 50kg each cylinder. It takes a crew of four 20 minutes to set up. A balloon can cost around 30,000 to 100,000 Euros.

The Bee, a special inflatable balloon purely for display, was the first to dance in the air, as Luc de Wulf from Belgium wielded it expertly. After growing up on his grandfather’s stories on flying, he made his first makeshift balloon at 10 by heating a piece of plastic with a hairdryer. Luc started ballooning in 2005 and after Israel, Lebanon, Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico, Dubai and flying over the Alps in winter, this was his first experience in India.

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We were assigned to his fellow Belgian Johan Vander Meiren, who had clocked a thousand flights in Europe and has been flying over Bruges for the last 12 years. “We cannot steer, so we float on nature,” he shouted over the din of industrial fans inflating the balloons. The burners fired up and after instructions to bend our knees on touchdown, we hopped in.

With a loud whoosh, we were off, rising above a patchwork of green, yellow and golden fields in a valley ringed with mountains criss-crossed with streams. After the initial whoops of joy, we settled in and savoured the 15-minute ride and the sight of other balloons on the horizon. The touchdown was really smooth. Johan radioed the ground staff and we lowered carefully into an open field where we were greeted by an excited group of farmers, children and bystanders.

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Yet, we were all unaware of another spectacle about to unfold that night – tethered flight and night glow! In a large ground, the balloons lit up each time the burners fired and the swarming crowd gasped. A lucky few got the chance to get into a balloon and experience a tethered flight. Little kids clutched colourful balloons on strings as if dressed for a fancy dress party. Later that night, we celebrated our success with dancing the local Dhimsa to the beat of tribal drums by the campfire.

On account of its sheer size and geographic diversity, India has the potential to be a top ballooning destination. However, weather and wind patterns are critical and you need vast open spaces for landing, so plateaus score over coastlines. Places like Varanasi and Hampi can rival Turkey or Myanmar. Ballooning is big business in Cappadoccia where 50-60 balloons take off each day but it took them 27 years to get there. In India, the tough part is done and the administration, the trade and customers are all aware of ballooning. As Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Once you have flown, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been, and there you long to return.”

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 27 May, 2018 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

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Up, Up & Away: Ballooning on the Horizon

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY attend the inaugural Araku Balloon Festival in Andhra Pradesh, turning the spotlight on India’s latest trend 

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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.

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“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.

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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!

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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“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!”

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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.

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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.”

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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…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
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

The Park
Beach Road, Vizag
Ph 0891-304 5678 http://www.theparkhotels.com

APTDC/AP Tourism
Hotels at Vizag, Rushikonda, Araku, Ananthagiri, Tyda
Ph 0891-2788820, 1800 42545454
http://www.aptdc.gov.in

Balloons Only

Hot Air Ballooning Festivals

Tamil Nadu Balloon Festival (10-16 Jan)
Ph +91 95000 90850, 94882 54204
Email tnballoonfestival@gmail.com
http://www.tnibf.com

Pushkar Fair (28 Oct-4 Nov)
Ph +91 8130925252
http://www.pushkarmela.org

Araku Balloon Festival (14-16 Nov)
http://www.arakuballoonfestival.com

SkyWaltz/E-Factor
Ph +91 9560387222, 9560397222
Email goballooning@skywaltz.com
http://www.skywaltz.com

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.