8 March 2000, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

We got up at 4:30, a little bleary for our sunrise balloon ride. We got dressed, packed the bare essentials of camera gear in our fanny packs, and headed to the front of the hotel to wait for the bus to arrive. It arrived at 5:10, nearly full, and all twenty of the people already there were retired Americans. In addition to the passengers were the bus driver and the balloon pilot. The bus drove south out of Alice Springs then off the main highway, then off the paved road altogether. Chris and I were sitting in the back on a seat that had lost all of its padding. We felt every bump in the road, and there were lots of them.

After about twenty minutes of these bumps, the bus stopped. There was already another bus ahead of us, and the crew from that bus were releasing a helium balloon to check wind speed and direction. After the balloon was out of sight, our pilot got on the bus and asked "Where are the ones we picked up at the Plaza?" We raised our hands, and he motioned for us to follow him off the bus. We were directed to the lead bus, which had only ten passengers. There were plenty of seats on this bus, and the padding was better. We were happy.

The buses continued down the same bumpy road, much easier to tolerate in the new bus. After about five more minutes, it left the road and headed into a grassy field. The field was much smoother than the road had been. About two hundred yards from the road, we stopped and everyone piled out of the bus. It was still very dark, but the horizon was beginning to lighten just a bit. The bus driver and pilot dropped the basket off its trailer, then stretched the balloon out on the ground downwind of the basket.

Jason, the pilot, got all of the passengers to stand at the basket, and, together, we turned it perpendicular to the wind. Then we tipped it over so that the top of the basket pointed at the balloon that was stretched out on the ground. Once the balloon was secured to the basket, Jason asked for two volunteers to hold the mouth of the balloon open while a gasoline-powered fan blew air into it. I volunteered, and so did a woman from Oxford, England who was there with her daughter. It took about fifteen minutes to get enough air into the bag to heat it. I was allowed to let go of the mouth, then.

Gas jets quickly heated the balloon, which rose, eventually setting the basket upright. The pilot and twelve passengers climbed in, three passengers in each of four compartments. A photographer snapped quick pictures from both sides of the basket. The bus driver gave us our instructions for landing (bend your knees and hold onto those straps). Then, with a few more bursts of flame from the burners, we were up. The basket felt very secure; the walls were about four feet high, and the floor was very sturdy. The flight was unbelieveably smooth as we glided just eighty feet above the unusually green plain. We stayed at that height, approaching a low hill -- low, but higher than we were. Jason smoothly increased our altitude so that it seemed as if we were riding up the hillside. We were about ten feet over the hill at its peak.

Ours was the first baloon to rise. As we headed west, we looked back and saw the horizon brighten, then saw the sun peek over it as the other balloons rose behind us. After grazing the hill, we ascended to about one thousand feet, giving us a wonderful view of the MacDonnell Range and Alice Springs itself. We also had a spectacular view of the sunrise. There were clouds just above the horizon, but the sun shown brightly as it came up. It had soon cleared all of the clouds and we were treated to wonderfully long shadows stretching west from the trees below us. There were very few landmarks in the vast green and red plain. We did see a propane processing plant, a prison, a power plant, a railroad, and a highway.

After a about thirty minutes, we were getting close to a landing field frequently used by the balloon company. Jason took us down, "aiming" for a clearing. I looked down and saw movment around a bush. I said, "Look, there's a rabbit." We were higher than I thought, though, because, as we looked, a larger "rabbit" jumped out from under the tree and the two animals started hopping around on their hind legs. They were kangaroos! We think they were a mother and her joey. They continued to hop around as we flew over them, giving the passengers on both sides of the basket a good look at them.

As we got closer to the landing zone, the wind pushed us a little bit to the right, putting a tree between us and our landing site. Jason kept the balloon up a bit, but had us brace and duck as we went through, not over, the tree. Looking back, we could see that we had taken an eight-foot branch out of the tree with the basket. Seconds later the basket touched down, dragging about fifteen feet before coming to a stop, tilted at about a thirty-degree angle. We all leaned toward the side of the basket that was off the ground, and within a few seconds the basket had righted itself, and our ride was over.

As we waited for the balloon to deflate and the bus driver to find us, Chris and I had a chance to talk to Jason. He has been piloting balloons for years; he even flew them in Canada for while before returning to Australia. When I asked him if he still enjoys it, he paused and thought, then said "I like going up. The landings aren't as much fun as they used to be." We continued to wait for the bus; the driver was having a hard time locating us. He finally arrived and promptly put us to work.

Jason and the bus driver organized the twelve of us along both sides of the balloon bag and we lifted the edges in toward the middle, folding the bag over and over until it was in a long strip about eighteen inches wide. We worked our way up the bag as the driver forced the air out of the fabric towards a large hole in the top. The bag was finally emptied and folded, then we all helped load it into a big tarp bag, forcing more air out as we went. When the balloon bag was finally piled into the bag bag, the bus driver lifted Chris, his reluctant volunteer, onto the top of it and she stomped around on it for a while, forcing the last of the air out.

The work wasn't over yet. We had to load the basket onto the trailer behind the bus, then lift the balloon bag onto the trailer in front of the basket. It took thirteen of us to get the basket loaded (the bus driver backed up the trailer as we lifted the front of the basket), then all fourteen of us to heft the three-hundred kilo (660-pound) bag onto the trailer. Finally, our work was done. We loaded onto the bus and headed for our champagne breakfast.

We arrived at a clearing beside the highway, waited for the last bus to show up, then dug into buttered bread, chicken drumsticks, quiche, and chocolate cake. Oh, and champagne. At first, the champagne was mixed with grapefruit juice, but, after a while, we were drinking the straight stuff. The balloon pilots and bus drivers became waiters, making sure everyone was fed, and no one's champagne glass was less than half full. We debated about buying the souvineer photo, then decided to go ahead. Then it was time to load onto the bus again for the ride back to our hotel. When we got back, it was 9:30am, and the restaurant was full of people eating breakfast. We had been up for five hours.

Back at our room, we rested for a while, recovering from the effects of champagne consumed early and on a nearly empty stomach. Around 10:30, we headed off to downtown Alice Springs. Our primary target was Todd Mall -- not a mall in the American sense, but in the European and Australian meaning; it is a street lined with shops and cafes, but closed to traffic. It is two blocks long and two blocks wide. I dropped off our film from that morning at the same store I had used the night before. It would be ready in an hour.

Next, it was off to the art gallery we had visited the previous evening. We were interested in two Aboriginal paintings, and we looked them side-by-side to decide which one to buy. After comparing them, looking at the colors used, the subject, and the over-all look, we decided to buy one that depicted mimi's (night spirits) butchering a dugong, a type of large fish. It sounds gruesome, but the subject is really a very small part of the overall painting, and there's no gore. The picture would be shipped to us in California and would arrive sometime in April. We also bought some postcards and a gift (no clues) at the gallery, then headed on down the mall.

We knew we were going to need fly nets to keep from being irritated into insanity by the booming fly population. We found some at a hat shop. We also found a very nice oiled kangaroo leather hat -- like a cowboy hat -- that I bought for sun protection. The nets fit over any hat and hang down to our shoulders. We would test them out the next day at Uluru. Chris found some clothes and fabric to buy. She also found a book of Aboriginal art to help inspire her in the studio. By then, the pictures were ready, so we picked them up.

I went back to the car to drop off our packages. While I was gone, an Aboriginal woman approached Chris with her hand out as if to shake hands. Chris took her hand and said "Hello."

The woman held onto Chris's hand and said "I'm hungry."
Chris said "You are? Don't you have some friends or family who can give you some food?"
The woman said "No, you have money."
Chris replied "I don't have any money to give you."
The woman then said "But you're going to buy things!"
Chris finally managed to pull her hand from the woman's tight grip and said "I'm sorry, I don't have any money for you" and walked away.

After that we had some lunch, and started our tour of Alice.

There isn't much to see in Alice Springs. We headed to the north end of town where there is a hill that gives a good vantage point of the whole town. It is called Anzac Hill as a memorial to the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps soldiers who died in WWI, WWII, Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

From the hill, we drove south to the Alice office of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The RFDS has operated since the 1930's providing medical service to all of rural Australia. Now, they operate forty-five airplanes and cover over seven million square kilometers. The Alice office is part museum, part communications center. We saw a ten-minute film about the service, heard a brief lecture about the history, looked into the radio room, and toured the museum. On the way out we stopped at the gift shop to buy a couple of gifts.

The only other Alice-area attraction that sounded like it might be fun to us was MacDonnell Siding, a train museum. It is south of town and looked pretty deserted when we arrived. We walked in and found no one in the gift shop/ticket office. We waited a couple of minutes, shouted "Hello!" a couple of times, then went on into the museum. Several minutes later, a woman emerged from another part of the building and allowed us to pay our admission.

The displays were fairly interesting, telling the history of the railroad that connects northern Australia with civilization. After looking the museum over, we ventured outside to see the restored trains. They haven't been restored much. You can't get into them or on them, and there is no information near the trains to tell you what they are or why they're there. After looking around for a few minutes, we decided to leave them to the flies and left. It's probably more interesting between April and November when you can actually ride on one of the trains. Otherwise, we can't recommend it unless you're a real train buff.

It had been a long day, so we headed back to the hotel, got ready for dinner, then headed out yet again, this time to Ristorante Puccini, a highly-rated Italian restaurant just off Todd Mall. We arrived a few minutes early for our 6:30 reservation to find the restaurant empty of customers. We were seated by a very friendly young man who took our drink orders (a nice Australian Shiraz wine) and chatted with us for a few minutes. Within twenty minutes, several other parties had arrived, and the place began to take on a more public atmosphere. The restaurant was nicely, if inconsistently, decorated, with contemporary chairs next to Queen Anne tablecloths and Victorian credenzas. The young man who seated us was replaced by a waiter who helped us with our orders. The food was excellent and we couldn't help but indulge in coffee and dessert. We were stuffed by the time we left.

Back at the hotel once again, we packed and prepared for an early departure the next day. We were about to go farther into the Outback -- to Uluru and Kata Tjuta.


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