15 Countries and 9000kms. June/July 2016

After a challenging trip from Dubai, including a cancelled flight, a flight to a completely different city in Poland to where I wanted to be, an argument with the airline about getting to the actual place I was supposed to be, and then a massive traffic jam, I was happy to arrive in Wroclaw.

My friends met me at the airport and we went to the truck to see how the newly built balloon lifting system worked. I was very impressed with the design and ease of use. It will save a lot of back breaking work lifting the balloon into the truck.

The next couple of days was spent organising the last few things for the truck, making small modifications and getting everything in order for the trip. It was a big relief to know I would be on my way again. When the truck had arrived into Wroclaw almost a year ago, it was riddled with problems; broken gearbox and engine brake, leaky roof, faulty lights and electrical issues. I owe an enormous amount of gratitude to my good friends there, Piotr, Lukasz and Przemek and the many mechanics at Germaz and Polbus who worked on my truck. I was just lucky that the truck broke down there as I had the support network to get it back in working order again.

After leaving Wroclaw, the first stop was Bialystok, in the far north-east of Poland. The day was sunny and warm and I made the trip in good time. A large Hell’s Angels convention was going on somewhere in Poland. A huge group of them from Germany and Switzerland roared past on their Harley motorbikes, only to be seen again in the city of Lodz, stopped on the side of he road by a large number of police armed with automatic weapons.
Besides that, the 550kms was uneventful. The improvements they have made to roads in Poland since I first went there in 2003 is enormous. The roads were in terrible condition with huge grooves like tram tracks, formed by the combination of heavy trucks and poorly maintained roads. Now there is a good network of motorways and re-built roads.

DSC01312 DSC01313 P1000663

Bialystok is a special place for me as it is where my first European adventure started, working as a balloon pilot for a local company when I was 19 years old. The move to Bialystok was a crucial step in the broadening of my horizons.

I arrived in the late afternoon and picked up a few things which I had stored at friends’ places coming back from the flight in Belarus last year. An enjoyable evening was spent with friends and we talked long into the night.

I set off for Nemunaitis in Lithuania the next morning, to a small balloon meet. There was not a lot of traffic and it is an enjoyable drive through the many forests and blue lakes of the region.
Nemunaitis is a small, rural village, and home to a balloon club. There are small, rolling hills dotted with forests and farms in the surrounding area, in which the Neman River flows through.

My good Lithuanian friend, and workmate in Dubai, Donatas, came with his family to have a look. He arranged a car and trailer for me to use as no one had a licence to drive my truck. His friend Darius, crewed for me.
We had to wait for the wind to calm and I managed a short flight with five other balloons that evening, even managing to score second in that competition flight.

After packing up, we went back to the club to have soup, (cooked in a huge pot over an open fire) and a few drinks. It was great to meet both new and old friends.

DSC01314 IMG_0241 IMG_0248 IMG_0251 IMG_0254 IMG_0264

I headed to Donatas’ house close to Vilnius the next morning. We made a small modification to the balloon lift that afternoon and had a bbq outside on the porch that evening. All in all, very enjoyable.


Donatas took his twin boys to school the next morning, and I left for Sigulda in Latvia at the same time. The 350km drive was an easy one with not a lot of traffic around. I was really enjoying not having to worry about mechanical issues with the truck. It was the first time since Malaysia that the truck had run so well.
I arrived into Sigulda in the middle of the afternoon and contacted the local balloonist, Girts. He had arranged an event that evening on behalf of me. A couple of organisations were involved, one was an orphanage and the other worked with children suffering from illnesses.

Children started turning up at around 7pm. We were lucky with the weather as passing showers were clearing at that time. Two other local balloons came and we gave the kids a chance to see the balloons up close. We waited for the wind to die down before inflating, and gave all of them (around 50) a tethered flight. It was great to see the joy and enthusiasm of the kids around the balloons.

DSC01319 IMG_0278  IMG_0277 IMG_0282 IMG_0293

We then untied the ropes and flew across the beautiful town of Sigulda, a well known tourist spot, famous for its castles and beautiful valleys, rivers and forests. They even nickname it the ‘Switzerland of Latvia’. I followed the other balloon and landed on a farm after around an hour’s flight. Some local balloonists followed in their vehicle and took me and the balloon back to the truck. The days were long as the longest day of the year was just around the corner, we finished at around 11pm. We went to a local restaurant and had a good chat with the balloonists that evening. I parked up in the restaurant car park and slept in the truck that night.

Lidojums ar gaisa balonu.

Lidojums ar gaisa balonu.

Lidojums ar gaisa balonu.

IMG_0297 IMG_0302

I headed off early the next morning to the city of Keila in Estonia, around 300kms away. There was a weather window which was fast closing and if I didn’t fly in Estonia that night, I would have to stay there at least a few more days for the weather to come right again. I had a very tight schedule and couldn’t afford to lose the time.
Latvia and Estonia are covered by large amounts of forest and it feels like you are almost constantly driving through trees.

I was met by my local contact, Valdur on the side of the road close to Keila. He worked in the press for Keila Municipality. He showed me around the town of around 10,000 inhabitants. The place was clean and tidy with a relaxed pace of life. Many people commute to Tallinn to work, around 30mins away. Keila has a very large hospital for the size of the town. It was built by the soviets during that period in case St Petersburg was bombed, and so would act as one of the secondary hospitals.

We met with the local balloonist, Kalev, in the evening. He gave me a quick briefing about flying in Estonia and we were off to search for a launch site. We decided on a place about 20kms away in a farmer’s field. The wind dropped off nicely and I took Valdur as a passenger, while Kalev drove my truck.
The area is very flat with farms and forest around. We could see the Baltic Sea and Tallinn in the distance. I flew almost the maximum distance I could before flying into Tallinn controlled airspace. Kalev and one of his crew he usually uses were there when we landed. We got packed up and headed back to Keila.

DSC01334 DSC01335 IMGP4540 IMGP4563 IMGP4576 IMGP4595

Kalev invited me to stay at his workshop/office. I followed him into Tallinn after the flight and stayed there the night. It was quite a large building where he kept his balloons and managed the businesses he had.

He came in the next morning and cooked up some bacon and eggs. Over breakfast, he told me some harrowing stories about his two year military service during the Soviet era, flying into Afghanistan by helicopter under the cover of darkness and setting explosives. He had definitely experienced things most could never imagine.

I went into Tallinn mid morning and met a friend of a friend, Maire, who was happy to show me around the city. Maire, a friend of her’s, and I spent an enjoyable day walking around the quaint old town and outer suburbs. It has a beautiful old town, and as it was perfect sunny weather, many people were out enjoying the warmth of the approaching Summer. Tallinn has a good flow of tourists, especially from cruise ships.

There are some interesting areas, such as the Kalamaja District, full of beautiful old wooden homes and a funky bar and restaurant area designed by artists.

It was nice to stop and do the tourist thing as I hadn’t had the time in previous countries.

DSC01349 DSC01354 DSC01362 DSC01363 DSC01380 DSC01385

I caught the slow ferry to Helsinki, Finland the next day. The ferry was surprisingly upmarket and comfortable, complete with shopping, restaurants and live shows. The booking and loading of the truck was all very straightforward and hassle-free. The ferry crossing took around 6 hours.

DSC01386 DSC01392 DSC01401 DSC01411DSC01409 DSC01412

The next couple days was spent arranging an event with UNICEF Finland at one of the refugee centres run by the Red Cross. I stayed at my friend’s place, Tuomas, with his family and caught up with his twin brother, Samuel. They have the closest connection of any twins I know. They do many things together and share exactly the same interests, both are doctors and balloon pilots for example. It was great to catch up with them again, along with other mutual friends in Helsinki, and share stories.
Before our event with UNICEF Finland, we met up and drove out to the refugee centre together. It was just outside of Helsinki at an old holiday resort. 166 Refugees were based at the camp, many from Iraq. The centre was closing within a couple of months of us being there and around 40% were being returned to Iraq, while others would be moved to different areas in Finland for settlement. I was impressed by the level of Finnish some of the kids could speak. Finnish is one of the more difficult languages and most kids had only been in the country for 9 months or so.

I was given a tour of the facility. Everything was clean and tidy. 2-4 people lived in a room and food was healthy but basic. Everyone was very polite and friendly. The Red Cross work on a shoestring budget to keep their centres going. The staff and volunteers are passionate about their work.

We exchanged postcards with the kids, there was face painting and activities for everyone. The balloon was kept as a surprise.

13432408_10154258580214127_2055757644921695259_n 13450054_10154258576024127_6651410743094015131_n 13450321_10154258576789127_1978957165048681467_n

I inflated my balloon first, and Tuomas followed with his balloon after. We both flew from the centre, much to the delight of everyone present. (The original plan was to do tethered flights for the kids, but it was a bit too windy. Samuel and Tuomas went back to do it a few days later).
The surrounding area was beautiful to see by air. I flew one of my friend’s girlfriends as a passenger. We could see out towards Helsinki and the Baltic Sea, as well as take in the sights of the many small lakes and forests around us. My friends who crewed for me, Pasi and Visa, were interesting in their own right. Pasi has an impressive collection of exotic cars and is involved in all sorts of interesting projects. He brought out his gold painted Cadillac and was following my truck during the flight. Visa is also known as ‘Rocketman’ He straps rockets to his feet, and with a wingsuit, he flies. Take a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmbmfCIg8eQ

We were late finishing as we were flying late. The sky never gets completely dark in Helsinki at this time of year. It was 2am by the time I got to bed.

DSC01421 DSC01422 DSC01426 DSC01428 DSC01431 DSC01433

After going to the UNICEF Finland office the next day, I headed to the port to catch the ferry to Stockholm, Sweden. The ferry was quite large, and because it was going to be an 18 hour trip, I also got a cabin, (somewhere in the bowels of the ship). It was comfortable and had an an ensuite. The trip to Stockholm was a very pleasant one and I enjoyed the live entertainment on board.

DSC01441 DSC01452 DSC01454 DSC01457 DSC01472 DSC01473

After a good night’s sleep, the ferry pulled into port. I drove directly to one of the local balloon companies, which a friend of mine owns. I refuelled the balloon, bought a sim card and made arrangements for the flight over Stockholm that evening.

One of the local balloon crew members drove for me, and I flew alongside a commercial balloon. We took off from a park close to the city centre, and flew the length of the city. Stockholm is a beautiful place to fly over with its picturesque old town. The place is also a bit challenging to fly, with a lot of buildings, forest and water around. The evening was stunning and I really enjoyed the flight. I landed on a small track just outside the town of Sollentuna. My crew couldn’t find me easily, so it was a bit of a late finish.

DSC01492 DSC01495 DSC01500 DSC01503 DSC01505 DSC01506 DSC01507 DSC01511 DSC01512 DSC01516 DSC01524 DSC01534

I made the 500km drive to Oslo the next day. It was not a difficult trip, again with a lot of forest and lakes around. I arrived into the town of Ski, close to Oslo, that evening.

I spent most of the next day planning, before a couple of friends, Stina and Stian, came from Oslo in the late afternoon to help out with the flight. After a bit of searching, we found a place to take off from next to a shopping centre.

DSC01542 DSC01551

We flew across the town of Ski and could see the mountains and Fjords around Oslo in the distance. Not a lot of ballooning is done in Norway and the area where we flew is the easiest place to fly closest to Oslo.

The farmer was not the happiest where we landed, but I managed to talk him around and he was quite OK by the end. He had had problems with skydivers damaging crops in the past. There weren’t many landing options due to crops in nearly all the fields. I was happy to see a field which had been cut for hay.

I went back to Oslo that night and stayed with Stina’s family that night.

DSC01558 DSC01560 DSC01562 DSC01563 DSC01570 13473847_10157125320335374_1972672549_n

I had an enjoyable next day looking around the beautiful city of Oslo. I went out to see the impressive Olympic ski jump and walked around the central city and port areas. The weather was showery and not so warm, but it was quite bearable. I got around by metro, which worked very efficiently.

DSC01581 DSC01583 DSC01585 DSC01593 DSC01596 DSC01600 DSC01602 DSC01611 DSC01615 DSC01618 DSC01619 DSC01627 DSC01635 DSC01631

I made the 650km trip to Denmark the next day. There are some really beautiful spots along the way; small seaside villages, large forested valleys and very blue lakes. I crossed back into Sweden and continued all the way to the south of the country to the very impressive Oresund Bridge, between Sweden and Denmark. The bridge is 8km long, before it runs into a tunnel, which is 4kms long. At 108Euro for my truck to cross the bridge, it is an expensive piece of road. It cost 2.6 Billion Euro to build, but when they charge that much for a trip, you would think they will get their investment back in no time.

DSC01642 DSC01659

I bypassed Copenhagen and went directly to the town of Ringsted, which is the designated UNICEF town for Denmark in 2016. I was kindly invited to stay at the family home of some locals, Rikke and Martin, whom I had never met before but was in touch with as Rikke was arranging the school where the flight would take place a few days later.
They looked after me very well and showed me around the town, a small and friendly place right in the middle of the island of Zealand.

During my stay I went into a school, (of which Martin was the Deputy Principal of) and spoke to a couple of classes about the project and following their dreams. We also exchanged postcards. They were a very enthusiastic bunch.
Another highlight of my stay was a tour around the global distribution centre for UNICEF. The building is huge and nearly fully automated, and was paid for by the Danish government. About 50% 0f UNICEF’s aid goes through there. It was interesting to find out more about UNICEF’s work, processes and challenges.

DSC01670 DSC01673 13461325_10209477677288930_46919606_o IMG_0338 DSC01675 DSC01677 DSC01678

I delayed the flight by a day as it looked too windy. The weather was not very easy, but I decided to do it in a calm spot at the end of a weather front the following day.
It was still lightly raining on the way to the flight, but I could see weather was improving. A couple of local balloonists, Niels and Nanna, came out to give me a hand. There was a little wind during inflation, but not too bad. The take off was easier than expected. We flew across the town and into the countryside. The clouds were opening more and more during the flight and I could fly higher. We flew for an hour, landing just before controlled airspace started. A local TV station were following to capture the flight:


DSC01694 DSC01695

DSC01698 DSC01699

From there, I headed for Kiel in the north of Germany. I had a flight there as part of the Balloon Sail event during the Kieler Woche celebrations, a huge sailing regatta.

I made it in good time, (after crossing yet another 108Euro toll bridge), registered for the event and prepared for the flight. A friend of mine joined me for the flight and we joined around 20 other balloons floating above the skies of Kiel. The direction we flew was perfect, the sight of all the balloons crossing the harbour and boats below was spectacular. The weather was hot and sunny and we landed in a field about 10kms from Kiel. A local crew person followed us in their car and took me back to the truck to pick it up. I then drove back to the balloon to collect it.

DSC01706 DSC01712 DSC01715 DSC01721 DSC01726 DSC01728 DSC01735 DSC01738 DSC01748 DSC01753 DSC01755 DSC01760 DSC01763 DSC01771 DSC01773 DSC01780

I did much the same the next day in the evening. The flight direction was very similar. The farmer where we landed brought out drinks for us as we arrived. What service!

All in all the Balloon Sail was a great event and it was nice to meet a lot of German balloonists and member of the public, who were very interested in what I was doing.

I made the trip south to the town of Borgholzhausen. I planned to do a flight there with my friend, Sina and her daughter, Eva. The weather became very unstable though and we didn’t manage to fly, though I did inflate the balloon before a thunderstorm came rolling in. I stayed there a couple of days and they decided to follow me to Holland, where I would do my next flight.

I flew alongside the local balloon operator, Bas Ballonvaren. Bas is a friend of mine and the largest balloon operator in Holland. It rained all day but the weather magically cleared and the sun came out right before we were due to fly. It was a spectacular flight with Sina and Eva over Apeldoorn and Deventer. We flew over the flooded Ijseel River, where a lot of rain had obviously fallen recently. The flat expanse of Holland was broken up by the cities, villages, rivers and farms around. A number of wind turbines were dotted around the place, and were also the highest features of the surrounds. I lined up a farm close to where the other balloon had landed. A young farmer came over and said that he would use his tractor to take us out as he didn’t want us to risk getting stuck. It was very nice of him. The ground was firm and the risk of getting stuck was low I thought.

Sina’s Husband and Son came over to help pack the balloon away and we parted ways once it was all done. I headed back to my friend’s place and we had a very enjoyable evening sitting around an open fire with the pilots and crews as they came back from their flights around Holland.

13518154_985350394905163_633905874_o DSC01794 DSC01799 DSC01804 DSC01809 DSC01812 DSC01816 DSC01824 DSC01819 DSC01825 DSC01837 DSC01841

I drove back into Germany to the city of Dusseldorf the next day to catch up with friends. It was a great couple of days looking around Dusseldorf and catching up on planning work for coming flights.

I took the train to Essen on the second day to meet with one of the project’s supporters, DB Schenker. They are the second largest logistics provider in the world and have helped me with discounted freight and provided me with a tracker. It was really interesting to talk to them about how they work. I consider myself lucky to meet with them as they are all very busy people.

DSC01850 DSC01872

It was a 260km drive back up to Hoek Van Holland, Holland, to the place where I had first seen the truck; at the motorhome specialists, Camperbouw. They made all the modifications before the project started and the truck sent to Australia. With the truck coming back there, it just competed a very big circle half way round the world and back again.

I spent 2.5 days there making a few adjustments. The door for the balloon’s compartment was widened, the satellite dish taken off and the fridge taken out. I almost never used either. It was great to get the few adjustments done.

DSC01886 DSC01888

I rented a van to go to England and caught the ferry across to Harwich. The truck was going to be a hassle to park and drive around London, though renting a van also meant I would still be driving on the wrong side of the car. It would’ve been my chance to finally drive on the left hand side of the road for the first time since Thailand. It was not to be though.

I had a good night’s sleep on the ferry and drove straight to London after arriving, 130kms away. I stayed with a friend, d’Arcy, who I had met in Dubai a few months ago. He has his own very interesting projects and travels around the world, dedicating his life to a world without extreme poverty for everyone. He also runs a programme, Teaspoons of Change, which raises money to eradicate Polio. He is a communications specialist with an aim to help get things done. He is definitely a doer rather than a sayer.

I spent one day looking around London with friends, including watching a Euro Cup match at a typical London pub. It was an interesting time to be in London as news of the Brexit was still quite fresh.

DSC01915 DSC01918 DSC01919 DSC01927 DSC01930 DSC01946 DSC01951 DSC01961 DSC01978 DSC01981

The original plan was to do a flight over London, but the wind looked too windy on one day, then not enough on the next. I decided to do a flight from a village close to Abingdon instead. d’Arcy and I set off at 4.30am to the Dog House Hotel in Abingdon. A number of balloonists came out to greet us, which was a pleasant surprise given that the flight had only been arranged the afternoon before. One person had even driven 1.5hrs just to see the balloon.

The weather was sunny, cool and calm, so we took to the skies. We flew directly over the Abingdon Airbase, which is used as a logistics airport, and to the west side of Abingdon town. The winds were perfect for flying over Oxford, so I decided we would keep going and fly all the way across the famous city, well known for its top level schools and universities. We saw some amazing public schools with manicured lawns, golf courses, equestrian centres and the like. Some cost 30,000pounds a term to go to.

I lined up a cricket field in a small town just outside of Oxford. One of the local balloonists, Bradley, volunteered to drive the van for us. A young, keen pilot, he was happy to help out. He was there at the same time as we landed. The only issue was that the gate to the field was locked. A passing local who came over to look at the balloon with her young daughter, managed to track down the local council who had the key. Unfortunately they were still closed. We decided to lift everything over to the car, which was fairly good exercise for all of us.

Just as we brought the last part of the balloon across to the van, a guy turned up with the key! We all needed the exercise anyway.

We went back to the Dog house Hotel and had a very nice breakfast, before heading back to London. The traffic was surprisingly light and we headed into d’Arcy’s work, close to Kensington Palace.

DSC01993 DSC01996 DSC02007 DSC02011 DSC02012 DSC02014 DSC02015 DSC02017 DSC02020 DSC02021 DSC02026 DSC02028 DSC02029 DSC02030

We said our farewells and I drove the 170kms or so to Harwich to catch the ferry that night.

DSC01891 DSC01898

The ferry crossing was uneventful and the boat arrived into Hoek Van Holland at 8am. I took the rental van back, picked up my truck and headed south to Belgium.

I had an issue with the lift while loading the balloon, so I had to find a workshop to fix it. I managed to find one through advice of others. It turned out the company were one of the best in the business in making specialised trailers and fitting boxes on trucks, so were used to out of the ordinary work. They were very busy, but said they would stay open after hours for me, which was extremely good of them. Three hours later we managed to get everything sorted. I worked on it with them and they even offered me beer as we worked. Excellent service.

A friend of mine, Jeroen came to the workshop during that time. He was arranging the event in Belgium for me. We went into St Niklaas to have a late dinner. St Niklaas is a beautiful city with around 70,000 inhabitants. It boasts one of the largest main town squares in Europe, which is also perfect for launching balloons. Unfortunately we couldn’t use it as it was set up for the Euro Cup, so Jeroen had arranged the event to be in Stekene, not far from St Niklaas. The Flanders region of Belgium also has one of the highest densities of balloonists in Europe. You can often see balloons flying in the evening.

We prepared for the flight the next morning and caught up with a friend of mine for lunch. Jeroen and I took the truck to a mechanic to check the brakes, which weren’t working as well as they should. It turns out air was getting into the brake lines somewhere, so it is something I will have to take a closer look at down the track. In the meantime, the air in the lines will have to be bled every now and again. The guys at the workshop were great, and they did the work all for free! I was really impressed with Belgian hospitality.

DSC02032 DSC02034 DSC02037

In the evening, It was great to see 9 other local balloons and a good number of people came out to have a look and show their support for the project. Having 10 balloons provided a nice spectacle for the public. I exchanged postcards with some kids and answered questions for the media present. There was a nice feeling to the event.

Jeroen also managed to arrange a local, well known actress to come out, Joy Anna Thielemans. She is especially popular with teenagers.
Most of the balloons took off together. My target was to fly across the town square of St Niklaas. I managed to do just that, and we waved out to the people as we crossed the city, before landing on the other side. It was a great flight over the Belgian countryside. We could see Antwerp and Brussels in the distance, including the huge port area, and the North Sea to the west. A large number of wind farms were dotted around the place.

We finished quite late and had Jeroen’s Brother’s Girlfriend, Lien cooked us a dinner at 1 in the morning.

DSC02040 DSC02042 DSC02050 DSC02052 DSC02054 IMG_0409 IMG_0410 IMG_0416 IMG_0418 IMG_0419 IMG_0423 IMG_0425 IMG_0428 IMG_0431 IMG_0433 DSC02063 13614980_10153678304236024_8009172946846992004_n

I headed south to Luxemborg the day after and dropped into Brussels Airport to pick up a friend of mine, Anna, who is a balloonist from Poland. She happened to have a layover in Brussels for a day, so I was happy to have her along to crew for me for the flight in the evening.

We reached the town of Schieren in the tiny country of Luxembourg in the middle of the afternoon. I didn’t realise how beautiful Luxembourg is. There are many spectacular valleys, lakes, forests and mountains. It is well worth a visit, and it won’t take you long to see all the sights because you can drive across the whole country in an hour.

We checked out the town of Schieren in the afternoon and met up with Nico, the owner of the local balloon company, in the evening. He had three passenger balloons flying, so we tagged along.

The winds were very light, so we didn’t fly too far. We got a good overview of the country with its many valleys and towns dotted around. At one point during the flight, a 747 plane flew not too far away from us as it was on approach to Luxembourg Airport. Quite a buzz.

Nico’s wife came to pick us up and take me to the truck so I could drive it out to retrieve the balloon. It had become a common routine around Europe as not many people I knew had truck licences, or wanted to drive a right hand drive truck.

DSC02069 New_Zealand_16-07-07DSC02075 DSC02082DSC02083

Anna went back on the train to Brussels, while I continued to the south of Luxembourg, dropping in on a friend along the way, before heading towards Haudivillers, close to Paris, to a friend who works at a balloon company there.

I arrived in the afternoon and spent a quiet afternoon catching up and preparing for the flight the next day.

DSC02099 DSC02101 DSC02103 DSC02105

We left at 4.30 the next morning, along with 3 other commercial balloons to a town 1 hour away.
The four of us took off and flew for around an hour. Two of the pilots were Australian, who I had met while flying the balloon a couple of years ago in Canberra. It is funny how small the ballooning world is. I followed my friend, Clement’s balloon over the largely flat expanse of farms and quaint village of St Claire-Sur-Epte. Nice, easy flying. Clement and I landed together and managed to put my balloon on his balloon’s trailer to take back to the truck.

DSC02108 DSC02110 DSC02111 IMG_0449 DSC02115

I drove back to their base at Haudivillers before continuing on to Paris. I was a bit apprehensive to take the truck in to Paris, but it turned out to be not a problem at all. I was invited to the Paris Polo Club by some project supporters that afternoon, and then kept driving south that night towards Spain.

I stopped for the night in a large, packed and noisy truck stop. I was lucky to find a park.

After a surprisingly good sleep, I kept going south towards Spain. It was quite a haul to the city of Zamora, around 1100kms. The driving was relatively easy and the road through the Pyrenees Mountains quite impressive. It had been a while since I had driven through real mountains. Many tunnels and bridges to traverse the high mountains and deep valleys had to be built on that road.

DSC02150 DSC02157 DSC02161 DSC02163

I stopped just before Valladollid at a roadhouse for the night, and continued into the city the next morning. I had lunch with a local balloonist, and then picked up a friend, Hugh, from Valladollid Airport. He offered to help me out in Spain and Portugal. We continued on to Zamora that afternoon and met with the local balloonist, Andoni, at the take off site we would use the next morning. We parked there for the night and spoke to two middle aged men who lived next to the field and told them what we were up to. They were funny guys, one of them a truck driver. They recommended that we didn’t park in the field as someone could come along and light the grass on fire!, (the grass was tinder dry) He said it wouldn’t be the first time. We thought that was pretty good advice, so parked on the road.

It was a 6am start the next day. I wanted to be extra early as the wind was supposed to pick up. Hugh and I inflated the balloon and flew off together, leaving the truck in the field, (hoping that no one would come along and set it on fire). The wind was 35km/h a couple of hundred feet up, so we were moving along at a good speed. We flew across Zamora and could see the huge old fortress on the hill in the middle of town. We also flew across an old prison and large river, before continuing out into the rolling fields of the surrounds. I decided to land in a huge field close to the village of Pereruela, which had just been cut for hay.

We packed the balloon and Hugh stayed in the field to watch it, while I went to look for the farmer and to hitchhike into town to get the truck. Everything looked shut, including the paddocks which all had padlocks. All the fences were barbed wire and even the fence posts had nails sticking out of them at the top. I had never seen that before on a farm. It dawned on me that it was not going to be easy to get the balloon out with just 2 of us.

I walked down the road and tried to hitchhike into town. Everyone just stared at me as they drove past like I was the most crazy person in the world. Luckily the day before, Andoni offered for his Father to come and pick me up, as he was working. As I was not having much luck catching a ride, I decided to give him a call.
The father arrived 20mins later and kindly dropped me off at the truck.

I arrived back at the field and had all ready sent a message to Hugh to say to start taking the tanks out and walk them to the road, about 100m away. There was no option but to lift everything over the fence. The fences were unusually high and the nails sticking out of the fence posts meant we couldn’t even rest anything on top of those. After quite a struggle and some creative thinking, we managed to get everything over.

I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to meet the owner. I’ve found through experience that the way a farm looks is proportional to the personality of the farmer. It turned out I was right; 2 men did turn up and were not too happy we were there. Hugh managed in his Spanish, (he is from New Zealand, but temporarily living in Spain) to appease them. They left us to it and we got on with the job.

DSC02172 DSC02175 DSC02180 DSC02182 DSC02184 DSC02186 DSC02188 DSC02193 DSC02194

We headed for Braganca, in Portugal that afternoon. The area turned from rolling hills to higher mountains and the drive was a nice one. At only 130kms away, it didn’t take long to get there.

We went to a friend of a local balloonists’ place. He said he would show us around the town, and the place where we would take off from the next day, Braganca Castle. The castle dominantly sits atop a hill. We walked through the castle and admired the view of the city below from the top.

We went to a local bar after and met the local balloonist, Luis. We had an enjoyable couple of hours talking about local life before heading to a hotel, (which they kindly put us up in). They picked us up in the evening and took us to a local restaurant famous for its steaks. It didn’t disappoint, the steaks were enormous and we were all very full by the end.

It was an early start the next morning. We transferred my balloon to Luis’s pick-up and drove to the castle. The weather was perfect, no wind, cool air and blue skies. It was amazing to fly from the castle and over the city, which sits in a basin surrounded by mountains. The wind was slow and we had an easy flight to the other side of the city. A plane from the local airline came and buzzed us as we landed. Luis and the guys were there on landing and efficiently packed the balloon away.

DSC02208 DSC02212 DSC02221 20160713_062054 20160713_063107 20160713_063514DSC02234 DSC02236DSC02239 DSC02240 13706215_1379385505411428_1205938091_n DSC02239DSC02240 13705267_1379384772078168_949841798_n

After saying our goodbyes back at the hotel, we were on our way again. I had to travel 1000kms back to France. I dropped Hugh off in Burgos and managed to get a fair way into France that night, stopping at 1am in a rest area. I was happy not to be going in the opposite direction as there was a serious crash at the top of the Pyrenees Mountains. The traffic was backed up for kilometres, the whole way to the bottom of the mountain.

I left at 7am that morning and finished off the final few hundred kilometres to St Cyprien by lunch time. I’m spending my 7th Summer flying commercially for a balloon company here. After all, I need to work every now and again to pay for the project.

I’ll be here for 5 weeks before continuing on to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy and Slovenia.

DSC02245 DSC02256 DSC02248 DSC02250