Rwanda to Zambia 6 July – 1 August 2017

It was an easy couple of days in Rwanda’s Capital, Kigali, catching up on lots of things, such as planning and blog writing. I found a big carpark close to the airport, which acted as a good base.

I left Kigali for the Akagera National Park. The road was easier than expected through the hills and I made good time. There was a problem with the phone network at my destination, which meant I couldn’t get hold of my contact, Emmanuel. I wasn’t sure I was even in the right village as there were no signs and it wasn’t marked on the map I was using. I asked a passing truck driver, who confirmed I was in the right place.

Emmanuel knew the approximate time of my arrival, and just as I started down the road, a guy waved out to me from a motorbike: it was Emmanuel.

We went directly to the school I planned to fly from. Emmanuel needed to get permission from the head elder that it was OK for me to visit. There are a series of protocols which must be adhered to when visiting schools. As we were driving there, we received word of more permissions needed by the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority needed. We got to the school, I had a quick look at the site, and then headed to the national park, about 45kms away. The Park Manager all ready had some dealings with the CAA, so took it up for me.

For the following five days it was back to the simple life, at the exit post inside the park. It was great to meet the rangers, guards and fence maintenance workers, (who walk 25kms a day making sure the fence hasn’t been broken). We cooked on an open fire and went for a couple of walks with the rangers. There was surprisingly a very weak internet signal, so I did have access to internet, albeit slow.

I hadn’t carried much food with me, so I went to the nearest village one morning, around 15kms away. There wasn’t much to choose from, only the very basics such as bread, milk, eggs, tomatoes, beans and rice. Funnily enough you can always seem to buy Coke or other soda drinks wherever you go.

One of the highlights of my stay was seeing a Leopard walking close to the post. It seemed to walk the same track just after sunset, but not everyday. I also saw Zebra, Warthogs, Waterbuck and lots of bird life.

It became apparent that I was not going to get the flight permission in time, so I had to abandon the idea of flying in Rwanda, which was disappointing after so much work had been put in over the past few months. I would probably have received the permission a few days after I left, but I was out of time.

I got permission to drive through the National Park, in the opposite direction to usual. One of the fence maintenance guys came with me. It took around 5 hours to drive through. It’s a beautiful location. I didn’t realise it was quite so hilly. We saw lots of animals, including elephants and giraffe. They have recently re-introduced rhino, but they are very rare to see. The track was rough in some areas, and it really felt like we were in the back of beyond. We only saw a couple of other cars the whole way. It’s a beautiful drive looking down on rivers, crossing plains and traversing hills. The park runs along the Tanzania border.

We arrived at the National Park Headquarters after dark. I met with Joseph, one of the management. We had an interesting dinner together in the canteen that evening.

I left for Tanzania early the following morning. The drive through the mountains on winding roads was beautiful, passing people busily working the rice paddies on the flats and through the many villages in the hills and mountains. There are also the impressive Rusumo Waterfalls on the Rwanda/Tanzania border.

The border crossing buildings look new and are very well organised. It was quite empty. I had to pay US$126 road tax for Tanzania because of the size of my vehicle, which I was a bit shocked about. They wouldn’t accept that it was a motorhome. The visa was easy to get and all up I spent around 1.5hrs on the border.

The road into Tanzania started OK, but it became a road with terrible potholes in parts. On one steep hill, two trucks had completely spun out and were blocking the road. It took around 1.5hrs until one of them could back up and let people through, (I’m not sure why it took so long to come up with that idea). At one point about 50 of us tried to push the truck, but there was no hope.

It was interesting to talk to some of the truck drivers. Being a truck driver in Africa is hard. Many were travelling from Arusha into Rwanda or Uganda. Some domestic drivers only get around $US50 a month.

I also met a Dutch diplomat from their embassy in Kenya.

I arrived into the town of Runzewe that evening after a tiring afternoon of driving through suspension-breaking potholes. I ate at one of the local street stalls and searched for a place to park up. The best place was a 24hr fuel station, so I asked the guys there if it was OK. They asked me to pay a couple of dollars a day, which was fine by me. One armed guard even sat outside my truck during the night.

I chose Runzewe to fly from after doing some research on wind patterns. I knew no one there, so I expected it to be a bit of an adventure. It’s a transit town of about 30,000 people with nothing very special about it, except it looked like a good place to fly.

I stayed for five days and whenever I’d walk down the street, I would always hear “Muzungu, Muzungu”, which basically means “Traveller” in most of East Africa, south of Kenya. It’s a common term used for foreigners.

I made friends with the owner of the internet cafe, plus the workers at the service station, and a number of shop owners. Everything was very basic, including the range of food. No one bothered me, but I certainly created a lot of interest wherever I went. I think it was rare for a foreigner to stay in town.

I worked on the flight permission with the Tanzania CAA, and they granted it a couple of days before the flight. I must say that they have been one of the best CAA’s to deal with in Africa so far, and I even spoke a number of times with the Director himself.

The day before the flight, I went and spoke to the police as a courtesy. They seemed to be all fine with it. Later in the afternoon, I met with the owner of the internet cafe. He was a teacher at the school I was going to take off from. He informed me that the police had been in touch with him and they wanted me to seek permission from one of the regional mayors. I called him, and he said that I should speak to someone even higher than him, as they wanted to inform the region that there would be a balloon flying. It was getting a bit crazy. I thought I would have to call the President of Tanzania next.

I called the next guy and told him what was happening. He seemed to be OK with it, but said he would be in touch later as he had his daughter’s graduation. As it was all ready 5.30pm, I wasn’t holding much hope. I decided that no one had actually been against what I was doing, plus I had the permission to fly, so I would just go and do it.

On the morning of the flight, I got one of the service station’s security guards to come and help me, (and fly with me). We went down the road and found a place to take off from. There was a cement works down the road and a good field just across from it. A number of security guards from the cement works were milling around, and a couple came over and helped out.

We got up and away without any problems just after sunrise. We travelled at about 25km/h. It was interesting to see the farmland around and how undeveloped it was. We flew over a number of huts. Most of the people were terrified when they saw the balloon and ran away. I can’t imagine what they were thinking. It really felt like we’d gone back in time, the area was so isolated with not many signs of modern development.

After around 45mins I found a place to land, and tried to stay away from the village as I knew there would be mayhem if I flew over it. I landed right by a track, (the only one since we’d taken off which you could get a vehicle down), about 500m from the village. A couple of minutes later you could hear the villagers coming down the track. I had no idea how they were going to react, and was pretty keen to get the balloon down. As it turns out they were very happy to see us, and I was very happy to have the security guard with me who could translate. A few hundred people came to have a look. We managed to get the balloon packed up and I asked one of the motorcyclists to take me back to get the truck, (which was left back in the field in Runzewe).

The track was not as big as I thought, but luckily just big enough to get my truck to get down. The motorcyclist dropped me off and I headed back with the truck and managed to find the balloon, still with many people around. A number of the guys helped to load the balloon. The whole experience was quite amazing.

Immediately after the flight, I dropped the security guard back at the service station, said goodbye to everyone there, and headed for Malawi, around 1500kms away, through the heart of Tanzania. The road was good tarmac for a hundred kilometres, before going onto a reasonable dirt road for another 50kms or so, before going on to good tarmac again. After the city of Tabora, I found the roading crew who were sealing the road going south, which meant the perfect road ended and it was onto a terrible, hard, corrugated, potholed road. It was not fun at all.

I managed to find a lodge to park up that night in Sikonge and had dinner in one of the restaurants there. It was a good place to spend the night and the locals were welcoming.

I knew the following day was not going to be fun. The aim was to get back onto the tarmac by the end of the day, 400kms away. The road was bad for about another 50kms before I was pleasantly surprised to have a smooth dirt road for about 100kms. It was a beautiful drive through a huge area hardly inhabited by people. I saw about 10 vehicles and five huts the whole way across. It really felt like I was in the middle of nowhere and I really enjoyed it. I could even travel about 80km/h.

All good things must come to an end though, and I again met the hard, rocky, corrugated, potholed road, which got worse and worse. I had to crawl through some parts, especially in the hills. The road was reduced to a single track and I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. I was alone in the middle of nowhere, bush fires sometimes right by the road, (it seemed the whole place was being burnt off) no phone signal, and on the worst road I’ve ever been on.

One of the air horns fell off, so I had to re-attach it with cable ties, plus I started to hear a strange knocking sound, which I couldn’t identify where it was coming from. The truck was really getting a bashing. There was some reprieve when I got to a more inhabited area after the hills. The dirt road was quite good for about 50kms, before turning back into a hard, potholed and corrugated road again. I assume they put fist-sized, (or bigger) rocks on the road to make it passable in the wet season. The road is so compacted and hard it doesn’t have any give at all, so the truck felt like it was shaking itself apart. I thought about reducing the tyre pressure, but I ran the risk of denting a rim.

A couple of times a wheel got caught in sort dirt on the side of the road, (avoiding big holes), and I would suddenly veer left and come to a stop. Luckily I wasn’t going very fast enough and it caused nothing more than an inconvenience. I would reverse and continue on my way again.

After a 10 hour drive, I was extremely happy to see the tarmac at the end of the day, and I stayed in the town of Chunya that night. There was had a very good and well supplied restaurant, so I enjoyed a nice meal that evening.

The trip to the border the next morning was very scenic. After a bit of a climb, there are amazing views of the valley below before reaching the city of Mbeya. You continue through more mountains before reaching the Tanzania/Malawi border.

The border crossing on the Tanzania side was easy, but due to a huge line at the bank, (to pay for road tax), I spent a good couple of hours on the Malawi side. A truck was trying to park, but got a leak somewhere in the power steering system, and dropped all its power steering fluid on the road. It took two guys using all their strength to turn the steering wheel for about 25mins to manoeuvre it into place. This meant that no one could come or go during that time as they blocked the whole road. Luckily it wasn’t too busy though.

It’s pretty easy driving heading into Malawi. The roads are good, some newly resurfaced. The driving is flat as you pass the very blue Lake Malawi. it’s a beautiful sight. You head inland after a while, and into the mountains and down a narrow valley, which enters a much wider one. I hoped to find a spot to park before dark, but I couldn’t find one, so headed for the nearest large town, Ekwendeni. I parked up in one of my favourite places: a service station. I paid the guards a few dollars to park there for the night. One of them even took me down to a restaurant for dinner. It was pitch black at that stage.

I made the trip to the Capital, Lilongwe, the next day. I was quite taken by Malawi’s beauty. I didn’t know much about the country before visiting, so was impressed by Lake Malawi, the mountains and natural landscapes. It was quite cold travelling through the mountains, helped by the low cloud and strong wind. I was even contemplating turning the heater on.

I arrived into Lilongwe in the afternoon and visited the South African High Commission to ask for information about applying for visas. The person was busy though, as all visa processing is done in the morning.

A friend of mine had arranged for me to stay at a family member’s guest house. He met me and led the way there, battling the rush hour traffic along the way. I had a good meal at their restaurant that night.

I headed back to the South African High Commission the next morning, only to be told that I would have to go back to my country of residence to apply for a visa, and there was no way around it. It was not the news I wanted to hear as it would meaning changing my whole schedule.

I went back to the guest house and decided to investigate the knocking sound coming from the truck. As it turned out, I couldn’t even lift the cab to get to the engine. It was completely jammed. A few guys tried to help me release it trying different methods for a couple of hours, but it wouldn’t budge. Fortunately there was a truck mechanic just across the road, and we decided we’d have to butcher the hooks which were stopping it from lifting. They were cut off with a grinder, but we still couldn’t get it up by the end of the day.

The owner of the workshop, Fletcher, said I could stay there the night if I wanted. We went to have ice cream with his friends in the evening and he returned something he had borrowed to another friend just outside of Lilongwe. On the way back, we ran out of petrol, so we had to wait for around an hour until his Brother came out with petrol.
He took me to meet his Fiance, who made us a very nice dinner. After dinner we went to a bar his uncle owned in ‘the hood’ and we played a few games of pool. It was a great place, and an interesting way to experience real local life. I wouldn’t go to the area alone I don’t think.

The whole next day was spent trying to fix the cab. We also spotted a crack in the chassis in front of the front wheel; very bad news indeed. I went with the mechanic to a market to buy welding rods and various items, and picked up a big welder from his friend. It was welded up, but I will need to get it properly fixed in Botswana or South Africa. The cab still wouldn’t close properly, but we managed to lock it on one side. It seems the chassis is slightly bent, but further investigation is needed. The road in Tanzania really took it’s toll.

Fletcher again took me to his wife’s place for dinner, and we played pool at the bar again.

We said our goodbye’s the next morning. Fletcher hardly charged me anything for the work. I was so impressed by everyone’s hospitality and willingness to help in Malawi.

I headed south to Nanthomba, a small village next to Liwonde National Park. I was due to fly there the next morning from the local primary school. I met with the Principal, a few teachers, and the Children in the Wilderness co-ordinator for the area, Christopher. I am co-operating with them in a number of countries in Africa. They do some great work in quite a number of schools, especially on environmental protection.

I checked out the take-off site, which was all OK. The kids kept me entertained, wanting to play various games. Lots of fun and laughs were had.

It was an early start the next day. Weather conditions were perfect for the flight. A number of people from the village came to watch. I arranged for one of the teachers fly with me.

Just after take-off, I was surprised the wind was moving quickly towards the national park, (1km away). It was the exact opposite direction to what I wanted. I climbed quickly as I expected the wind would turn back, which it did. The view of Lake Malombe and its tributaries, the Liwonde National Park and surrounding area, was spectacular.

I worked my way along the national park border. Many people in the area knew we would be flying, and even when very high, we could hear the yells and screams of the people below.

Everyone came out of the village as we flew low coming into land. People followed us across the fields until we landed. More and more excited people kept coming, and there were probably a few hundred by the end.

Christopher had borrowed a Landcruiser and arrived just as the balloon was packed up. We had lots of helpers to pack it away and load it. It was a fantastic experience.

We headed back to the school after and spoke to more than 100 kids about following their dreams. The teacher who flew with me also described what it was like to fly in a balloon. The kids were very attentive and interested.

After the talk, we packed the balloon into the truck and Christopher took me into the national park as he had arranged for me to stay a night there. I left the truck on one side of the river and was taken by boat to the lodge on the other side.

I was taken with some other tourists for a drive through the sanctuary that afternoon/evening. It was amazing to see the elephants especially, something Malawi is famous for, and especially Liwonde National Park.

We watched the sunset and did some spotlighting on the way back to the lodge. A delicious dinner was served when we got back. I stayed in a comfortable tent that night, and fell asleep to the sound of hippos not far away.

A 8am the next morning, I was taken on a boat trip down the river. We were lucky to see a herd of about 20 or 30 elephants coming for their morning drink. An awe inspiring experience. We also saw Hippos, Warthog, large crocodiles, and lots of bird life.

After two hours, I was back at the lodge and caught a boat back to the truck. I caught up with Christopher on the way out, and then headed for Blantyre.

I’d flown a passenger in Dubai on Christmas Day last year, Noel. He was the Mayor of Blantyre, (Malawi’s second largest city) and invited me to fly there. We’d been in communication for quite a number of months, so it was nice to finally meet him in his home city.

I checked out the launch site by the stadium as I arrived, and went into town to meet a couple of Noel’s friends at a restaurant. We had a great dinner. Noel arrived from Lilongwe later on.

I had a radio interview the next day with Noel and got things ready for the flight. I found a place to refuel the balloon. We thought we could do it from their pump, but it’s all programmed by the weights of their own tanks and couldn’t be bypassed. I decided to buy a 45kg bottle and decant it off site, (as it was banned for them to do it onsite). It was all done relatively easily.

I went straight to a TV interview after that, before going for a very enjoyable dinner with Noel and his friends after.

Unfortunately the wind was four times more than forecast the next morning for the flight. I managed to inflate the balloon with cold air, but it was getting quite wild, so I pulled out. Some kids from an orphanage came and were happy to see the balloon, even cold inflated. A well known singer was also there and did a few songs with the kids, and I also spoke to them about the project and ‘Dreaming big’.

I decided I would re-attempt the flight a couple of days later. It was an easy couple of days. I spent some time looking for a more sheltered site to take off from, which I eventually found at the Moneymen’s Club.

Unfortunately again the wind was too strong though, and much more than forecast. Blantyre is one of the most difficult places I’ve ever had to forecast for. It seems to have a mind of it’s own.

I met with Noel and another friend who had helped me out, Mphatso, for lunch, before heading to Lilongwe in the afternoon. I manage to find a Korean-owned hotel to park up for the night just before Lilongwe.

It was time to say goodbye to Malawi the next day, and on to Zambia. I was so impressed with the Malawian hospitality, and the warmth and friendliness of the people, as well as the beautiful scenery. It’s a very underrated country which should be on more people’s lists of places to visit.

The driving was very easy. The border was straightforward, though it could’ve been done in half the time if it weren’t for some tourists who had problems with their visas.

The drive was more or less across flat country side for a couple of hundred kilometres after the border, before crossing a number of mountains, running along the Mozambique border.

I had planned to stay in a town before the mountains for the night, but the town was much smaller than I thought. I kept going after dark and found a beautiful valley with quite a large river flowing through it. I stayed in a camping ground that night.

After a good sleep, I drove the final 250kms to the Capital, Lusaka. I was impressed by the order of Lusaka. On first appearance, Lusaka seemed more developed than many of the places I’d visited recently: Shopping malls, wide and well maintained roads, and a generally good layout.

I found a place to stay in the middle of town at Wanderers Campsite. It’s in a perfect location and I managed a couple of good walks around the central city since arriving. It doesn’t feel like a city of 1.7million people, though there are a number of areas where people live in huts and are quite packed together.

I’ll be heading to Central Zambia in the next couple of days to fly from a school in a remote location near Kasula, with the help of Children in the Wilderness. Flight permissions are being worked on and will hopefully come through soon.

Adventures In Africa 18 May-6 July

I’m way behind in blog writing, so this is a long one……

I flew into Alexandria, Egypt. in the middle of the night. I paid $25 for the visa on arrival and I got through the airport without any hassles. Everyone’s bag was scanned as they left the airport. Only passengers are allowed inside the terminal for security reasons.

I took a taxi into Alexandria, about 50kms away. It felt a bit like Need For Speed in a 1978 Renault 600. The driver could really push it. I arrived at the hotel at about 3am.

I headed to the freight agent, Consolidated Freight Services, the next morning. I was greeted by Fathy, a stocky guy, who looked like someone not to be messed with. Unsurprisingly, he had been in the military for a while. We did some paperwork and then went to a few government offices to get my passport stamped to show I had residency for one month, and get a translation done. It was all very chaotic and the person who needed to stamp my translation wouldn’t because he said he was the wrong person and we would have to come back the next day. Often arguments would break out and usually whoever shouted the loudest, won. Systems are not very ordered in Egypt.

I spent the rest of the day looking around Alexandria. What a feast for the senses! Something was always going on. It’s an incredibly busy place: lots of markets, street stalls, cars honking and general chaos. One thing which really stood out was the amount of rubbish on the streets. This isn’t a problem unique to Egypt, but I certainly noticed it after coming from Europe.

I had a tasty early dinner at a fish restaurant by the sea and walked to the Citadel of Qaitbay, a very impressive and beautifully restored fortress at the entrance to the harbour. Many families were out and about enjoying the evening.

I walked through the backstreets to the hotel. It feels very safe and I had no issues with walking around by myself.

I went back to the government department to get the translation stamped the next day. It was all done in around an hour, so I went to check out the famous Alexandria library. Just before I entered, Fathy called me and said that the Egypt Car Club weren’t accepting my carnet because I was from New Zealand and the truck from Australia. This was fairly big news as it would mean I couldn’t enter Egypt. I went straight to their office and we decided to go to the Car Club the next day.

I changed hotels that night to a very cheap one, only US$8 a night. That night I plugged in the hot water cylinder to have a shower. I went back later to see if it was warm and got quite an electric shock from the tap. It was a nice wake-up call. I decided I’d move to another hotel the next day.

We took quite a drive to the other side of Alexandria to the car club the next morning. We discussed things for an hour before realising that it was all a big misunderstanding. They thought the truck was registered in New Zealand and the carnet, (the passport for the truck which I must have to enter Egypt) was from Australia. On the truck’s registration certificate, it only says Queensland, it doesn’t mention anything about Australia, so they assumed Queensland was in New Zealand.

Once this was established, they said they would approve it and the process of importation could carry on.

On the way back to the office, Fathy got a call from the Car Club to say that they called their boss in Cairo and he still wasn’t going to accept it unless I get an official letter from the Australian Automobile Association, (AAA). I was pretty annoyed at this stage. I sent an email to the AAA and they were very helpful and sent me an email that night to confirm the carnet and he registration of the truck. They also thought the whole thing was ridiculous and made an official complaint to the International Car Club, who govern the car clubs and manage the carnets.

The new hotel I moved into had a beautiful view, and was a bargain for only $11 a night. It wasn’t very quiet though. From 6am until past midnight, you could hear cars honking their horns constantly; Just a part of Egyptian life.

The next day, the Egyptian Car Club finally approved to guarantee my carnet. It was quite a relief.
I went to look at the very impressive Alexandria Library. It can hold 8 million books, has 4 museums and a conference centre.

I went to the port later to sign a few things, before Customs went over the truck, (which I wasn’t present for). While I was waiting at the port, one of the top port Generals came through with a media crew in tow. A couple of the fans weren’t on, so he yelled at someone asking them why they weren’t turned on, (I assume, as he was speaking Arabic) and very quickly the fans were plugged in and humming away.

I checked out of the hotel and caught a taxi to the freight agent’s office the next day. I was taken to the port by another staff member to do the final clearance on the truck. After quite a bit of waiting and more offices to visit at the port, I was finally taken to the truck. It was great to see it had arrived in one piece. I drove the truck to the traffic police to get an Egyptian number plate and get it registered. More waiting was involved while they took a scratching of the chassis number and all sorts of other things. While I was waiting for my agent to finish, I got talking to an Egyptian guy who had been living in Italy for most of his life. He said he’d been trying to get his Italian registered car out of the port for days and even he was exasperated by the Egyptian system.

Also while I was there I looked through my truck to see if anything had been stolen. Sure enough, quite a few things had been taken: tools, an air hose, a water hose, even an umbrella. I was warned about it before I shipped it. Everyone blames everyone else and it isn’t worth complaining about. They had gone through the whole truck. Luckily nothing of great importance had been taken, but it was more than $1000 worth of stuff to buy later in Cairo.

At the 11th hour, I was finally free to go, just a bit more waiting at the port exit and I was free at last. The next day was the start of Ramadan, and I was extremely lucky to get it out before then. During Ramadan, office hours are shortened and people generally work slower.

I fuelled up and headed for Cairo. I argued at the toll booth just outside of Alexandria about the ridiculously expensive cost of the toll, around $30 or so. I had no idea how many more toll stations there were going to be, so I went and spoke to the boss. He spoke a bit of English and said that it would get me down to Luxor. I thought it was reasonable, so paid it.

I managed to get to 6h of October City that night, just before Cairo. I found a hotel to stay in. It was too hot to stay in the truck and I wasn’t sure how secure things were there.

I headed across Cairo the next morning to stay in another hotel. To my surprise, the pyramids were close to the main road heading into the city. They are an impressive sight.

Coming from the west side of Cairo, you are greeted by many, many poorly constructed empty buildings. It’s common for buildings to collapse in Egypt as there are many illegally built ones. I’m not sure what the story was with all the empty buildings though.

The hotel I stayed in was owned by the military, so security was high. Guys with machine guns were at the front and everything was inspected going in. It was a very safe place to park the truck and stay for a few days.

In the evening, I met up with a pilot friend of mine, Hatem. He took me to New Cairo City, which is very nice and well organised and planned. Both Cairo and Alexandria suffer from overcrowding. They are wanting to build a huge, new city to the east of Cairo to try to alleviate some of this pressure.
We had a typical Egyptian dinner and it was nice to talk about old times when we used to work together in Turkey.

I went to the Sudan Consulate the next morning. I was told it opened at 9am during Ramadan, but it opened at 10am, and didn’t actually open until closer to 10.30am. It was complete chaos. No order and lots of yelling. Luckily a lady from South Sudan who had emigrated to Australia after being granted asylum, helped me out. When I finally got to the front of the so-called line, I was told I needed to get a letter from the NZ Embassy to verify my passport.

I caught a taxi to central Cairo to the NZ embassy. I was the only one there, it was very quiet. The complete opposite of the Sudanese one. They wrote me a letter on the spot and I quickly headed back to the Sudanese Consulate. I was finally given the application form, filled it in, gave it back, they looked at it, called me back, I paid for it at a separate booth, then went back to the original person to show the receipt. Finally, after a wait for 2 hours, the visa was issued. I was happy it could be issued on the same day.

Most of the people there were from Sudan and Egypt and were getting business related things done. Only a few people actually wanted visas. I had an interesting chat with the Australian lady, her friend, and a couple of other South Sudanese people.

The Australian lady’s friend was a man called Joseph. He was a refugee with a UNHCR passport waiting to be accepted as a refugee in another country. He’d been waiting in Cairo for 4 years all ready. He said when the fighting broke out and the government collapsed in South Sudan, he had to leave as quickly as possible, or else be killed. He had to leave his Parents behind, as they were not mobile enough to escape. They were subsequently killed as the rebels move through. He walked to Khartoum and was then moved to Cairo. It’s unimaginable what they had been through.
He had helped to set up a school for South Sudanese refugees and invited me to visit the next day.

With much relief, I received my visa at the end of the day and caught the metro back to the hotel. The metro works very well in Cairo. I caught it again in the evening to catch up with a friend of a friend who had started intercultural children’s workshop programmes in schools in Cairo. I also met the youngest person to have walked around the world. Needless to say, it was an interesting evening.

I headed to Tahrir Square the following morning and checked out the very impressive Egyptian National Museum. I’m not a museum person, but it was impressive. Full of ancient artifacts. The highlight was seeing Tutankhamen’s mask and other items he had been buried with. It was worth visiting just for that.

I also caught a taxi to the citadel and went inside the huge mosque where Mustafa Pasa is buried. The view from the Citadel is spectacular. You can see the whole way across the city, to the Pyramids.

The walk through the backstreets to the metro gave a good insight of how local life is.

I met up with Joseph at the school in the early evening. The kids were on holiday, but I was introduced to some staff members. A few kids were there preparing decorations for their graduation, which was a few days later. I was taken on a tour. The school is located in a modified apartment block. The rooms are very small, and I was amazed that there were up to 50 kids in a class. I’m sure learning conditions were challenging. They have high demand for their school, as there are a large number of South Sudanese refugees. Sometimes teachers go without salaries as not everyone can pay the school fees. All in all, it is a very difficult situation. I hope to be able to help them somehow after travelling through Africa. The school survives on the bare minimum.

That evening I travelled across Cairo, closer to the Pyramids, which I would visit the next morning. The good thing about Ramadan is that when the sun goes down, everyone goes to eat for about one hour. This leaves the streets virtually empty. I cruised across Cairo without any issues at all.

The pyramids were more than impressive. I took a horse and cart around them and got a great view. There weren’t so many people, which made it nice. The only downfall is that you are constantly asked by local hawkers to buy things, so you can’t experience it in peace. The police are going around all the time, and even took some guys away who they saw were trying to sell me something.

After the Pyramids, I made the long drive south towards Luxor, through the heart of Egypt. I really enjoyed the wide, open spaces of the desert. I decided to stay in Egypt’s old capital, Sohag for the night. I found a cheap hotel on the edge of the city.

Leaving the next morning, it was amazing to see the difference between the Nile River valley and the desert. It’s like two different worlds, lush and green in the valley, and arid and lifeless outside. You can see how much of a lifeline the river is for everyone living along it.

I continued up the Nile, and then into the desert to Luxor, arriving there in the middle of the afternoon. The only problem with travelling on the road along the Nile are the speed bumps. They are everywhere and not clearly marked at all. It is hard to take in the scenery when you’re constantly on the lookout for huge suspension destroying speed bumps.

After arriving at the hotel, I called my friend, Mahmoud. a local balloon pilot. He took a taxi boat over to pick me up to go to the West Bank. He took me to a restaurant for lunch, even though he was doing Ramadan. He insisted on me eating though, which was very nice of him. It was scorching hot, around 45deg. To do Ramadan in that heat is quite something.

I went for a tour of the incredible Luxor and Karnak Temples at night. It’s completely mind-boggling to think how they built them and the history behind it.

It was an early start the next morning to catch a balloon flight with one of the local commercial balloon companies. The plan was for me to fly there, but we ran out of time as we were still waiting for military approval. UNICEF Egypt and I had fought hard to get the permission, but unfortunately it was not to be.

I enjoyed the balloon flight over Luxor, looking towards the Valley of the Kings, across the city and the sunrise over the Nile. I’m not often a passenger, so it was nice to take in the sights.

After the flight I was taken for a tour around the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Kings. The artwork inside the tombs was impressive. It was also interesting to see where Tutankhamen had been found.

We were finished early. The sun was blazing by the time we’d finished, so it was an easy day for the rest of the day. Mahmoud invited me in the evening to his place for a delicious Egyptian traditional dinner with his Family.

I headed south to Aswan the next day. I thought it would be an easy drive through the desert, but I was stopped at a police checkpoint for more than 30mins, and then asked to backtrack 30kms to take another road. The police said there were no police on that 250km stretch of road, so they didn’t want to risk my safety.

The road was very scenic along the Nile, but I couldn’t enjoy it much because of the ridiculous number of nearly invisible speed bumps. There were literally speed bumps every kilometre, or sometimes less.

The valley along the Nile is fertile, with all sorts of fruit and vegetables growing. Life is basic and people work the fields by hand.

I arrived into Aswan in the late afternoon and found a cheap, but nice hotel to stay in.

I caught a taxi to the Traffic Court the next morning. In order to leave Egypt you must have a document from the Aswan Traffic Court stating that you have no fines. If you don’t have it at the border, you’ll be sent all the way back to Aswan, a 400km drive.

I was told the court opened at 9am during Ramadan, but it actually opened at 10. Just before 10, I asked someone where I had to go. The guy happened to be the guy I needed to see, so he took me into their air conditioned office, while everyone had to go around and wait out in the heat. He was extremely helpful and arranged everything for me. It took 30mins, most of that time was spent waiting for the final person to sign off to show up.

I refueled and headed out into the desert. There isn’t much to see, a lot of sand, and in one area, a whole lot of piles of rocks. I would like to know what had formed them. It was 45deg and was hoping not to break down. The road is perfect and it was easy driving.

I decided to take the new border crossing, which opened earlier this year. The other way involves taking a ferry across the Nile and going through Abu Simbel and Wadi Halfa.

I arrived at the border in the late afternoon. I thought the border would be closed for the day, but it turns out it’s open 24hrs, which I was very pleased about.

I entered the border with a Sudanese guy, (the only car I had seen on the road for 200kms). He was very nice and we went around the myriad of offices together. If you want to see bureaucracy to the extreme, you should try to take a foreign car across an Egyptian border crossing. There are no computers and everything has to be done with lots of papers and stamps. They love stamps there.

I was surprised Customs only took a two minute look through the truck as I had heard they usually go through everything with a fine-toothed comb. I handed the Egyptian number plates back and got the necessary paperwork done.

The border was closed for three hours during Iftar, (the breaking of the fast at night), so there wasn’t much to do but wait around and talk to people.

When the guards came back, it took one more hour just to get my passport stamped at Immigration. I hung out with the Sudanese guy and the border guards inspecting all the bags as people came off the bus. All the bags are unloaded and guards looked through all the luggage. I asked why they had to look through every bag. The guard replied, “Because we don’t have an X-ray machine”.

We had a good laugh with them while we waited.

I was finally allowed through the Egyptian side of the border. I was very wrong to think that the Sudanese side would be easier, in fact it was worse. They didn’t even let me in for at least 45mins because they had no idea how to treat the truck, as a passenger car, bus, or foreign truck. Eventually they treated me as a passenger car. I was assigned a fixer and we went from office to office.

The head of the traffic police was particularly helpful. A lot of the guys don’t even wear a uniform, so you don’t know who is who. He was just wearing a football shirt.

There was another two hour break for eating. I talked to one of the police for some of that time. A lot of people had warned me about security in that area, so I asked him about it. He said that it was very rare to have problems and in general it was quite safe around there. This was echoed by nearly everyone I spoke to. I was even told that people are so hospitable there, that you can stop by anyone’s house and they are obliged to look after and welcome you.

The border is chaotic. Again, everyone has to take their bags out of the bus. Many of the passengers are traders, so buses are packed to the brim. I asked another of the Customs officers why they had to take everything out. He replied, “To calculate the items for duty tax”.

My truck was hardly looked at once again, which I was happy about.

My fixer was having a very difficult time getting a crucial stamp from one of the top officials. When the helpful Head of Traffic Police saw that I was still there, he asked why things were taking so long. The fixer explained the situation, so he went in to bat for us and basically told the official to stop making life so difficult for us and stamp the document. Thank goodness for friends in high places.

The fixer did an amazing job and had the patience of a saint. He was going round and round in circles for hours. I couldn’t have done it without him. Apparently the problem was that they wouldn’t accept my carnet de passage for the truck, they wanted their own temporary import form filled in also. This somehow caused complications. They said that they hadn’t had any overland travellers like me as the border was still knew. I knew a motorcyclist from the UK had passed through that border a few weeks before though.

I had heard of horror stories of people paying hundreds of dollars at the Sudan border, but I only paid around $30 for the fixer and all the fees.

I finally left at 4am, a marathon 11 hours to get through the Egyptian and Sudanese sides. I drove for a bit thinking there might be a safe place for me to park, but there was nothing. After almost falling asleep at the wheel, I decided to park in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road to sleep.

I slept for about 6 hours and continued on my way.

The newly built road is perfect, and almost no one uses it. There are no shops, fuel stations or many signs of civilisation, except for the odd quarry here and there. I saw about 10 cars in 300kms.

You meet civilisation again at the town of Dongola, but even then it is pretty sparse. It’s amazing that people can even live there. The Nile provides the life source again, though there is nowhere near the same amount of agriculture than in Egypt. They are still suffering from a drought and you can see quite a number of dead camels and livestock around.

The United Arab Emirates have some irrigation projects. A huge one was being built in southern Egypt. Some have failed all ready though. The environment is so harsh and people generally live in mud brick houses.

I arrived into Khartoum at the end of the day. It was strange to see such a built up area again after crossing hundreds of kilometres of small, basic towns. My map wasn’t good and I had to ask for directions. I definitely discovered more of Khartoum than what I was bargaining on. It was good that Iftar coincided again. The streets were packed just before, but when you hear the prayer call, nearly everyone leaves the streets and goes to pray and eat. I crossed Khartoum with ease. Along the way, people stop you on the street and hand out water and food. You are obliged to take it. It’s a very nice gesture of sharing.

I found a hotel, (after searching for quite some time) by the airport.

I went to the Ethiopian Embassy the next morning to get a visa. Things were very ordered and calm there. It was issued a couple of hours later without too many difficulties.

I got a sim card and called a cousin of a friend of mine there. We caught up at a cafe for late lunch and was taken to his friend’s place, where I parked up for the night. We had a great traditional dinner, had a very interesting chat about life in Sudan, and they took me on a tour around Khartoum in the evening. After, we went to a popular tea bar for men only. Everyone sits around in groups, smokes sheesha and drinks tea, coffee, etc.

Sudan is a conservative country and Sharia Law exists there. Nightclubs and alcohol are forbidden. Over 5 million live in Khartoum, famous for where the Blue and Whilte Nile Rivers meet. Khartoum is relatively organised compared to some of the other cities in the area. The new part of Khartoum has some beautiful, modern buildings. One of the most interesting shaped buildings is a hotel/office building built by Gadaffi.

I went to register the following morning, (all foreigners must register withing three days of arriving into Sudan). More chaos ensued, but I managed to get registered in about 45mins. Many, many people were there getting various legal things done. I was surprised to see many more women than men there. Generally, men have priority over women while waiting in a line.

I left Khartoum and headed for the Ethiopian border. I was warned not to buy any food or drink off the streets along the way as there was a Cholera epidemic, which especially runs rife through the South Sudanese refugee camps. An article came out about it in the BBC the next day.

The road to the Ethiopian border wasn’t too bad, except for about 50kms of terrible road just before the border. People seem to live a difficult life in the villages dotted around. Not made easier by the influx of South Sudanese refugees and the pressure on the limited infrastructure that that brings, not to mention medical problems. Two of the main jobs I saw were people tending to herds of goats or camels, the other was collecting water from streams or wells.

I was surprised to pass through a heavy shower close to Ethiopia, after being in such dry, hot conditions for thousands of kilometres.

I arrived at the border just after dark. The border was closed, but the Customs officers kindly let me stay in their compound so I would be safe for the night. The officers usually sleep outside on stretchers, but there were impressive thunderstorms around, so they took shelter in a nearby building. I had a surprisingly good sleep considering there were two electric generators whirring away on each side of the truck.

Amazingly, I was through Customs and immigration in less than 30 minutes. Considering the horror entry procedures, it was a pleasant surprise.

An Ethiopian border fixer had attached himself to me. I let him do his thing and gave him a few dollars at the end. It does speed up the process and he helped me get a sim card also. I was through the Ethiopian side in 45 minutes.

From the relative flat of Sudan, you head straight into hills and mountains in Ethiopia. Things are suddenly more green and there are people everywhere. You almost always see someone wherever you are. They drive stock up the roads, so you are constantly avoiding people and stock. Ethiopians seem to be industrious workers. Everyone was out in the fields ploughing and tending to them. Everything is done by hand, or with the use of Oxen. Not a tractor or machine was in sight. It was also the first time I had seen wood and grass-roofed huts rather than mudbrick houses.

I was warned of kids throwing rocks at passing vehicles, but it never happened.

The road climbs a fair way onto a large plateau. The scenery is stunning: mountains, greenery, and a very traditional way of life. People wave out as you drive past.

I stopped in Bahir Dar that night, on the shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. It was quite amazing to think I had driven the length of the Blue Nile.

I had freshly caught fish for dinner in a restaurant on the shore of the lake that evening. It was a nice way to end a long day of driving.

I arranged a boat trip the next morning to a few islands with monasteries on. They are some of the oldest in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is mainly Coptic Orthodox and has a very long tradition, since the 4th Century.

It was nice to go out on the boat and experience the lake and islands. We stopped off at three islands and marvelled at some of the amazing paintings which decorate the churches. One of the churches dated back to the 13th century.

After the islands, we visited the source of Lake Tana and had fresh fish on the shores close by.

After an enjoyable morning, I drove to the town of Debre Markos. The main roads are almost all asphalted in Ethiopia. I had to stop for a time along the way as they cleared a truck which had gone off the road earlier in the day. The road is windy and hilly for a good part of the trip.

I passed through a massive thunderstorm just before reaching Debre Markos. I had never drive in such wild weather. Visibility was almost zero and the wind and torrential rain was something to behold. The road flooded in parts and one village I passed had become a river. It was a relief to get through.

I parked in a hotel’s carpark that night.

The last stretch to Addis Ababa the next day traversed the Great African Rift, an amazing valley which runs from Israel to Mozambique. I went from 8000ft, down to 3500 ft, then back up to 8000ft again. The road was amazing, though the surface was rough and in need of repair. Some of the road was slowly subsiding. It was a slow 1.5hr drive down, and then up.

I arrived into Addis Ababa late in the day and checked into Louvre Hotel. They had kindly offered me a few night’s stay for free, arranged by Bram, the owner of Abyssinia Ballooning.

I caught up with Bram in the evening. I had got in touch a few months before asking for help with flight permission. He is a balloon pilot from The Netherlands, and has the only balloon company in Ethiopia. I had never met him before, so it was good to finally meet after so many emails. He’d helped a lot with arranging my logistics in Ethiopia.

I was feeling worse and worse that night. Very lethargic and some stomach problems, so the next day I took it easy before my flight the day after.

I left with Bram’s crew at 4.15am to cross Addis to go to Cheshire Services, a home for disabled children, just outside of the city. Around 50 children came out to watch us prepare the balloon and fly. It was great to see the smile on their faces. They wouldn’t often get the opportunity to see different things in their own facility.

I floated out of the facility and into the countryside, crossing huts and small farms. The flying was easygoing, though I had to be careful where I landed. There aren’t many roads around the place, and the phone service was out for some reason that morning, so I had no communications with my ground crew.

I landed less than 10kms away next to a track, and was wondering how the crew would find me with no communications and rolling hills around. Some of the locals came over and I was happy that one of them could speak English. It is never sure that you will be welcome or not, and that area is not a common one for Bram to fly over during his tourist flight operations. The locals were very good though.

They helped me pack the balloon, which was appreciated as I still wasn’t feeling the best.

I was trying to get them to arrange a donkey and cart to take the balloon out to the main road, when I heard a vehicle coming down the road. It was the crew. I was very impressed.

We loaded the balloon and headed back to the hotel.

The rest of the day was a quiet one as I was still low on energy and not feeling 100%.

With the help from a couple of Bram’s team, I went shopping the next morning for a few things I needed, and got a refueling adapter made up at a workshop. I also got the truck cleaned and had a final dinner with Bram. It was nice to be based in Addis for a few days to catch up on things. I’d driven 4000km in the previous 10 days, which was quite heavy going.

I departed the hotel in the middle of the next morning.

Just on the outskirts of Addis, I suddenly saw the truck’s temperature gauge go shooting up. An old foe had returned: my radiator. I stopped and saw coolant squirting out the side. Luckily for me it happened in an industrial area and two mechanics who saw me stop were more than happy to help me. They probably thought they had hit the jackpot with a foreigner in need of repairs. They got the radiator out and we walked about a kilometre to get it repaired. They put it in again. A couple of Bram’s crew stopped by to make sure all was OK and negotiated with the guys for payment. I only got slightly ripped off.

All done in 3.5hrs, I was on the road again, and still managed to get to my intended destination of Awasa that night. Driving in the dark in Ethiopia is not fun though. There are no reflectors and almost no road markings. People and stock can pop out at anytime.

I found a cheap hotel and had a very good sleep that night. I was feeling much better also.

I looked around town and bought a few things the next morning, then made my way towards the Kenyan border. Just outside of Awasa, the road turned from nice asphalt to a trail of destruction. The road was completely ripped up, for it to be asphalted one day. It was 200kms and 8 hours of driving hell. Because I had to travel so slowly, I could really get a taste of local life. People live with no running water or electricity. It was quite populated all down the mountainous road. Kids especially were yelling at me “You, You, You, You, money, money”. I was just hoping that the radiator repair would hold, as I was really in the middle of nowhere and I would’ve been mobbed by people I’ve I’d broken down. Aid is not always a good thing, especially if you are onto the second or third generation of aid recipients.

I finally caught up with the road sealing crew close to the town of Finchawa. It was then on to perfect, sealed roads. What a dream. It must make a huge difference to the villages when they suddenly have a sealed road running through. Everything becomes much closer. Not so many years ago, there were not many good, sealed roads, so I was counting myself lucky to be coming through Africa now when you can drive almost the whole way from Egypt to South Africa on a sealed road.

I looked for a place to stop just before Finchawa. I saw a perfect spot just off the road on top of a hill with a beautiful view to the valley below. I pulled in. It was all ready dark at that stage and I waited outside a few minutes to see if anyone would turn up. Sure enough, a group came from out of nowhere. The head guy could speak English. He was very kind and said it was no problem for me to stay. Luckily I saw only as they were leaving that they were carrying huge machetes.

A few stayed behind a bit longer and we spoke by hand gestures. It was very funny.

I left early the next morning. The landscape became more open and the roads more straight, (and in perfect condition). I made good time to Moyale, the Ethiopian/Kenyan border.

The border crossing was relatively easy. A fixer helped me out. They are about to open new border facilities any day now. The old one is a bit disorganised, but manageable, especially on the Ethiopian side. There were no issues and I was through to Kenya, along with many trucks and trailers carrying maize, also crossing at the same time.

I got an East African Visa in Kenya, ($100 for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda). Customs was easy. They even waived the $40 fee after hearing I’d only be in Kenya for 10 days. They treated me more as a transit vehicle.

I headed into Kenya, and was finally driving on the left side of the road again. It was the first time the truck had driven on the left side since Thailand. Very nice it was.

The road in Kenya was excellent and more or less straight. The easiest I had had it since Sudan. 30Kms out of my destination of Marsabit, I noticed the truck’s temperature going up again. I got out and had a look. Sure enough, the radiator had a slow leak. I was happy it hadn’t happened on the terrible road the day before. I nursed the truck to Marsabit and found a secure hotel. The area is well known bandit country. A couple of weeks before, a truck had been highjacked close to Marsabit.

Luckily for me, there was a mechanic right next to the hotel. The mechanic was very good and got the radiator out in no time at all the next morning. We went down the road to get it repaired. The guy who repaired it was very old, and his equipment was just as old. It was very interesting to watch him work.

When the radiator was back in, I drove to the other side of town to a famous overlander’s campsite, Henry’s Camp. I was the only one there, but I was quite happy to spend a relaxing evening in the quiet location. They cooked me up a delicious home cooked dinner too.

I made the 550km trip south to Rongai the next day. An elephant right next to the road caught me by surprise just outside of Marsabit, along with a large number of Baboons.

Many people are nomadic in the area, so you see them herding their camels, cows, or goats. You also see more traditional clothes. The women especially have some very ornate clothes.

One of the most common things you see is people collecting water. It’s a daily activity for most.

The road was relatively flat and easy all the way to Isiolo, not much traffic either. The last bit of sealing was only finished a few months ago I was happy to hear. It used to be a terrible road apparently.

After Isiolo, there’s quite a climb and the area becomes more green. It’s more inhabited too. Various crops are grown, including quite a number of tea plantations.

I took a supposed shortcut, but I don’t think it turned out to be much of one. The road was unsealed and in pretty bad shape, so it was slow going.

The highlight of the trip was crossing the equator. In fact I crossed it three times as I zig-zagged along it.

I stopped at Nakuru to buy a few things, before continuing on to Rongai.

I was met by the owner of the 4000 acre farm, Hamish. He had dinner prepared when I arrived. My flight was planned to fly from a school which they had supported, (they help 7 schools in the area). I got the contact from a supporter of the Flying High For Kids Project, Henri. I had flown him in France a couple of years ago. He liked what I was doing, and his company based in Paris, Alma Capital, donated some money to the project to help with some of the running costs. Alma Capital had also donated money to one of the schools in Rongai, Vanessa Grant Girls’ School, a semi private school for girls. The school has a big emphasis on striving for excellence, and is well known for it.

I was put up in some accommodation on the farm, rooms usually for overseas volunteers who help at the schools.

I spent a quiet couple of days catching up on planning work and looking around Rongai and the farm. The most urgent thing that had to be organised was the flight permission. After 4 months of communication, it came down to the last hours to get the permission. I even had to find someone in Nairobi to pay for the permit and receive it on my behalf. He received it literally in the last few minutes. Having a good network of people is crucial to the project. A big thanks to Cor at the East African Aeroclub and Willy Potgeiter for helping me pull it together.

The weather was perfect on the morning of the flight. Three Schools and just under 1000 kids came to watch the balloon take off. There was lots of yells and screams from the kids as I took off with one of my ground crew from Dubai, Isaac. He is from Kenya and made a special trip from his town to help out.

Winds were light and we slowly crossed the town. Rongai is right in the Rift Valley and the surroundings are beautiful and green.

Many people waved out and were amazed by the balloon as we flew over.

I landed on the other side of town in a huge field. A large number of people followed us from Rongai and greeted us at the landing. I was asked many questions, and one father even gave me his baby to hold, Everyone was very excited.

A driver from the farm came with his Landrover, and we managed to fit the balloon on it to go back to the truck.

There was quite a buzz around town as we drove back to the truck parked at the school. Lots of people were even calling me by name.

After loading the balloon, I had a couple of hours rest before heading to Gogar Primary, and then Vanessa Grant Girl’s School, for a talk.

About 100 kids, (2 classes) packed into a classroom at the primary school. They were very enthusiastic and asked lots of questions after I discussed with them my story and encouraged them to follow their dreams.

I headed down the road to the Girls’ school and spoke to all 400 girls in their newly built auditorium. The official opening will be in a couple of months. They also asked lots of questions, and I think many of them have a bright future ahead. They are some of the lucky few who are able to have a top quality education. The entry standard to the school is high.

I had dinner with Johnny and his Family, (who live on the farm) that night. Johnny is the main driver behind the development of the 7 schools in securing funding and planning. He helped to arrange my visit also.

7 families live on the farm, and around 800 workers work there in different industries, including flyfish construction, plant rearing, dairy production, and stock breeding. All the white people living on the farm were born in Kenya and go out of their way to contribute to the community. They are the main employer in Rongai.

Johnny also had friends visiting from the east who own a huge tea plantation, which employs around 8000 workers.

We had a very nice meal and a good chat.

After packing up the next morning, I went to the girls’ school to pick up some postcards which the girls had made. I also said goodbye to Johnny, who was there for a meeting.

Just as I was leaving the farm, I needed to drop a USB key off to Willy, the one who had helped with the flight permission a couple of days earlier. Willy lives with his Wife, Nicola, on the farm. I had a look around the truck before I went in and noticed a few drips coming from the radiator.

I mentioned to Willy that I’d be heading into Nakuru to get the radiator fixed again. He was having none of it, and got his mechanic to take out the radiator while we had lunch together. Talk about good luck and great hospitality. Their nephew, Stan, was also visiting.

The radiator had just come out when we finished lunch. I went in with the mechanic, Edward, to Nakuru in one of Willy’s Land Rovers. I was sick of fixing the radiator, so we searched for a replacement. Unsurprisingly, we couldn’t find one, so we went to a workshop which made them from scratch and ordered one. They said it would take 5 hours to build; very fast I thought.

Because it was the end of the day, they said it would be ready by the following midday. The owner of the shop was a woman, and she really knew what she was talking about. It was great to see she was right into it when every other place was run by men. She ran a very successful business.

We went back to Willy’s and had a great dinner. They put me up for the night in one of their guest houses. They often have guests, so it was no drama for them. The room was amazing, all made of mud brick and very comfortable.

I went back into Nakuru with Edward the next day and picked up the new radiator. The design was much better. They also fixed my old one to be used as a spare. I was very happy to open a new chapter with a new radiator, hopefully a much more positive one than the last.

We installed it back at Willy’s, with the help of Stan and Willy. A couple of modifications had to be made for it to work, but it fit in the end.

The day was getting on, so Willy invited me to stay another night. It was a quiet night in, in preparation for a long driving day the following day.

I left at round 9am. The road to the border was hilly, and there was a bit of traffic. I was stopped at one of the police checkpoints. The policeman said I was driving too fast, though I refuted it. He said, “What do you have for me?” I replied, ‘Happiness and a smile”. He seemed to like that response and let me go.

I travelled up the beautiful Rift Valley for some of the way. Michael Jackson songs were being played on the radio as it was the anniversary of his death. ‘Heal the World’ seems to have more meaning when you are actually driving through Africa and watching children collecting water and carting it on their heads.

I arrived at the border in the middle of the afternoon. The border crossing was quite ordered and relatively new. Quite a stark difference to the commotion just a couple of kilometres back where rallies for the upcoming elections were being held.

I was through in 1.5hrs. I had to pay $180 for COMESA insurance. I did have insurance, but just not that one. I wasn’t sure if I was being ripped off or not. The fee seemed reasonable for the size of my truck.

I was surprised at how quiet the Ugandan roads were, almost no one on them, and in good condition, except for the vicious speed bumps in every town.

Uganda is generally flat, so driving was easy. I made it to Mbale that night and was happy to see a huge field especially for parking trucks, and parked there the night.

I travelled the last few hundred kilometres to Gulu, in northern Uganda, arriving there in the middle of the afternoon. The road was good and I was surprised at how swampy Uganda is. It also explains why they have some of the highest cases of Malaria in the world. There is a noticeable lack of large scale farming. It’s possible they are still trying to get back on their feet after the war with the LRA, which ended in 2009.

I met up with a friend of a friend, and we did some errands that afternoon. It had also been arranged that I would park at his compound. My friend, and fellow New Zealander, Geoff, arrived from Kampala that evening. I met his Fiance, Miriam, and her daughter, Blessing.

Geoff has been doing some great work helping Miriam’s village and surrounding districts. He tries to get involved with many projects, and raises awareness for causes like Nodding Syndrome, a mysterious disease, mainly found only in that part of the world.

The following day was spent organising our event. We had an interview with the local radio station at 8am, and then spent a good part of the day on the phone and writing emails. The Uganda Civil Aviation Authority kept wanting more and more documents for the flight permission, some of them quite pointless. Even though they had been notified 4 months earlier, they left everything to the last minute. We met with the Regional Police Chief, and his Deputy that afternoon. They were really nice guys and were very supportive of what we were doing. They had just finished a meeting with many of the top military and police representatives in the region, brokering a peace deal after a fight had broken out between 2 tribes a little further west, resulting in a few fatalities.

We tried to gather all the last documents for the permission the following day, but we ran out of time. We had to delay our event by one day. Everyone was very understanding though. We visited the regional military commander and his deputy at their headquarters in the afternoon. They were also very supportive. There were many conflicting requests from the CAA, the UCC, the military and the Principal Air Traffic Controller at Entebbe Airport. In the end, the Principal Controller and the Deputy Regional Military Commander went into bat for us to cut all the ridiculous bureaucracy. It was so good to get the permission after so much effort.

I also picked up a gas fitting which I had made at a workshop on the side of the road. I am gaining quite a collection gas re-fueling fittings for all sorts of connections.

Once we heard we received the permission, we headed for Te Got, around 70kms from Gulu. The road was quite bad for the first 20kms, but after that the dirt smoothed and it was pretty easy going.

We arrived just on dark and checked out the school where the launch site was.

The tiny village where Miriam comes from was just up the road. There is no running water or electricity. The huts are made out of mudbrick with woven grass roofs. They are comfortable and are naturally well insulated.

Dinner was served and we talked around the fire under the stars.

It was an early start to go for the flight. We set up the balloon with the help of some locals. More and more kids and people from the village turned up as we inflated. Weather conditions were perfect, with a light fog.

I flew Francis, a relation of Miriam’s. It was good to have someone who knew the area, spoke the language, and was fit enough to help me out when I landed.

The flight was amazing, over the wild, seemingly untouched countryside. We flew over a number of small villages. Some ran away from the balloon as they had no idea what it was, (Later in the day we met someone who ran away. They thought it was a bomb!)

We flew over one of the few hills in the area. It was really magical with the light fog around.

One of the issues was access to landing places. There weren’t many tracks around. Luckily I spotted one, and a field with very long grass was right next to it. Francis asked a farmer if it was OK to and there. He was more than happy.

A number of villagers came over to see this strange object which came from the sky. We had a lot of laughs as we packed up. My crew turned up. I borrowed their Toyota Hilux for the retrieve. They were from Hope for Humanity, and did an excellent job in getting to the balloon and helping out.

The track was quite rough in parts in the way out, but the driver knew what he was doing. He had been a professional driver for 10 years and I’m sure he had had some challenges in his time.

We headed back to Awere Primary School and shifted the balloon into the truck.

I then went with Geoff, Miriam and Francis to speak to a couple of classes in the school. We spoke to the kids about following their dreams and asking about what they would like for Uganda.

We did the same at Awere Secondary School and Odek Primary School. It was great to speak to so many kids and see how life was for them.

Odek Primary is where the infamous leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, went to. He is from Odek. They still haven’t found him, even after the huge global appeal a few years ago.

After Awere Primary, we went to a facility for children with Nodding Syndrome. It was sad to hear how some of them were mistreated by their family and communities. Their health and symptoms improve significantly once they are in the facility’s care. Some come in not mobile, and leave walking. Most are in their care for one year. Like most health and education facilities in Uganda, it is severely underfunded. It doesn’t get any support from the Government and is largely funded by a doctor from the USA.

Just behind Miriam’s family’s land, is the rock where Kony went during the war to get his ‘power’. He is regarded as superhuman in the area, and is said to have special powers, and could even make water flow from the rocks at the top of the hill.

We climbed to the top just before sunset. It’s a steep, but short climb.

It’s an amazing place. I could definitely see why Kony went up there. We spent a good while enjoying the views of the surrounding area, and the sunset.

A goat was killed earlier in the day, and we had a very nice meal that night. Miriam told us some hair-raising stories of the time during the war with the LRA, which lasted until she was 16. If they saw something strange moving at night while they were having dinner for example, they would abandon their huts and run into the bush and sleep in the grass for the night. It seemed that happened on many occasions.

She also said that fighter planes flew so low, that the grass would move from their wake. They would cover their toenails and fingernails with grass because they were told that the pilots can see the light reflecting off them in the dark as they slept in the grass, and they risked being attacked.

She even had to flee with her sister after an LRA member came across them sleeping in the grass. They weren’t shot, because the soldier was going to attack a nearby army camp. If he killed them, he would be found out. Thousands were kidnapped during the war and they were lucky to get way.

They were incredible and terrifying stories which I couldn’t even begin to comprehend, made even more real as we sat in the open under the fire, right at the place where it all happened.

We headed back to Gulu the next morning. I re-fueled the balloon from a 45kg tank, with a bit of backyard mechanics involved.

Straight after that, we went to a school and orphanage, 24kms out of Gulu. We were invited to go there by a man from Denmark, Jesper, now living in Gulu. He has been supporting the school, which was started last year by an ex-LRA soldier. The kids gave us a great singing and dancing performance, and Geoff and I spoke to them after.

I was taken on a tour of their very basic facilities. They need at least another $3000 to make the facility better. Some of the classroom floors are just dirt with no desks or chairs.

We headed back to Gulu on motorbike taxis after, and had a last dinner with Geoff and Family.

I set off the next morning, for the 825km drive to Kigali, Rwanda. The drive to Kampala was easy, with little traffic. I took some dirt roads to bypass Kampala, which weren’t too bad. After the bypass, there was a lot more traffic, and it became more hilly. There were quite a number of passing lanes thank goodness, as there were a lot of slow trucks.

I reached Lyantonde that night and stayed in the carpark of a nice hotel. I only paid about $6 to park.

I departed at 9am and headed for the border. I filled up with diesel before the border, as it’s more expensive in Rwanda. The area became much more mountainous, with a few good climbs. There was also less vegetation and the ground was much more dry, even drought-like.

Border procedures were easy. The Customs officer on the Ugandan side was amazed by my ‘house on wheels’. It took just over an hour to clear both sides.

The road follows a valley full of tea plants on the Rwandan side. The road is in perfect condition, and there’s not much traffic. I only hit traffic close to Kigali, and it was quite heavy heading through the city. I headed for the airport to see if I could meet with the Civil Aviation Authority, and get a sim card. It turns out it was a national holiday, but I spoke to the duty manager and they gave me the persons mobile number I was looking for.

I was also recommened a hotel carpark to stay in. I went there, and the security guards kindly let me stay there for the night, (without telling the management).

It’s been a quiet cuple of days; a good opportunity to catch up on blog writing and planning. I had a constructive meeting with the CAA today, and I will have a decision by tomorrow about flight approval. Fingers crossed……

The Balkans 23 April-18 May

What a few weeks it has been! It’s great to get back into the project again.

The last 6 months have been spent planning, (and saving money) in Dubai, flying for Balloon Adventures Dubai.

I arrived into Ljubljana early on the 23rd of April, where I was met by my friend, Dejan. He’s been looking after my truck at his place in the spectacular mountains in the north of Slovenia. He’s been starting my truck once a week to keep it ticking over, plus his house has become a warehouse for me as I’ve been sending various packages from all over the world of things I need for the project.

It was a quick two hour stop at Dejan’s, before driving through the mountains into Austria. As I crossed into Austria, the truck’s engine stopped, and I though to myself, “Here we go again”. Luckily I had a fair idea of what had happened, (to do with the changing of fuel tanks). I manually primed the fuel and the truck burst into life again, much to my relief.

The rest of the drive to Stubenberg Am See, in south-east Austria, was uneventful. I had arranged for the balloon to have its annual inspection done at a friend’s business, Flaggl Ballooning. We pulled the balloon out and went through all checks. There were no issues, so after a quick catch-up over an apple cider, (famous in that area) I was on my way again to Croatia, via Slovenia.

The cost of tolls for vehicles over 3.5t in Slovenia are a killer. The good thing is that the roads are perfect, (which I would certainly hope for after handing over so much money). I crossed the Croatian border at around 9pm. it was the first border I had had to cross by truck for a long time, as for the past year I’d mainly been in the Schengen area. The border was empty and the officers there were interested to hear abut the project.

I arrived into Varaždin an hour later and managed to park up at a service station, just down the road from where I would be taking off early the next day.

I got up at 6.30am and headed to Varaždin Aerodrome, where one of the local aircraft mechanics, Zoran met me to let me in. The flight had been arranged at the last minute. Originally it was going to be a couple of days later closer to Zagreb at a balloon festival, but after seeing the forecast I brought the flight forward and got permission to fly from the aerodrome. The guys running the aerodrome were very accommodating and the Zoran helped me to inflate the balloon. His boss, Rajko, had told the local media, and a newspaper reporter came along for the flight, much to his delight.

20170424_075855 20170424_080941

Varaždin is a city on the Drava River, in northern Croatia, known for its baroque and rococo architecture, including the 17th-century Sermage Palace. The city has a population of close to 50,000. We flew over the southern part of the city and along a canal, which was part of a hydro-electric project.

20170424_081602 20170424_083522

Many of the fields had crops in and it was tricky to find an empty one, but I managed to find one close to the canal and a good road. The reporter phoned Rajko, and he kindly came out to pick us up. We went back to the truck, collected it, then went back to the balloon to pick it up.

20170424_083703 20170424_091138

Rajko was keen to show me their facilities at the airfield. It was well set up with a sealed runway, hangar and facilities. They were investing quite a bit of money into upgrading their flight school. The airfield had been a military base during Yugoslavia times.

20170424_114947

After saying our goodbyes, it was on to Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 250kms away. The road was very easy across the plains of northern Croatia. There was a lot of big machinery working the thousands of acres of open fields.DSC02899

I made good time and arrived at the Bosnian border mid afternoon. Border formalities were relatively straightforward. The only hold up was buying insurance.

I was interested to visit Bosnia as I had heard so much about the terrible war which had occurred there. I remember seeing it on the news while I was at school. The war ended in 1995, but there is still some underlying tension between the three ethnic states.

After crossing the bustling border town of Gradiška, I was surprised to see a perfect four lane highway starting just outside it, all the way to Banja Luka.

DSC02886 DSC02893

Banja Luka has a population of around 200,000. It lies on the River Vrbas and is well known in the countries of the former Yugoslavia for being full of tree-lined avenues, boulevards, gardens, and parks

I met up with the one and only balloonist in Bosnia, Igor. Weather was looking good that afternoon, so he managed to get permission to fly, given from the local international airport. I also had to talk to the Bosnian Civil Aviation Authority before I could fly to make sure I had all the right documents.

Igor and a friend of his, Mihajlo, came to help me. We were racing against the setting sun. I was keen to fly that evening as I knew bad weather was on the way and I wanted to fly in Serbia and Montenegro before it came.

We drove around looking for a suitable launch site. It took a long time as nearly all the fields were full with crops. After driving around for quite some time, we were surprised to see a huge, perfect field to take off from. A man was mowing the lawn and Igor asked him if it was OK to take off from there. He was very excited about it and was more than happy to open the gate to let us in. Word got out of our arrival and many of the local villagers came over to have a look.

We got the balloon up in record time, as there was only around 40mins left of daylight. I offered to fly the lawnmower guy, but he offered it to the local cafe owner, Danijela. We took off into the setting sun. It was an easy 30 minute flight over the surrounding farms. The mountains and Vrbas River were behind, and the Croatian mountains in the distance in front.

20170424_191400 20170424_191408

We landed in a small village around 5kms away, much to the excitement of the locals. The owner of the field was really keen to help us. A friend of Danijela’s arrived in his early 90’s Mercedes, along with Igor. We packed the balloon away with the help of the locals and I was taken back to get the truck. There was a problem with the gearbox of the Mercedes and he couldn’t stop the car without a lot of hassle, (involving a lot of engine revving and crunching of gears). Somehow I could relate to his mechanical issues….

I picked up my truck, along with Mihajlo. It looked like everyone was having a very sociable time. The lawnmower guy kept on offering me whiskey. I had to decline as I had to get back to the balloon as it was all ready dark at that time.

We went back to the balloon, loaded it with the help of the very helpful locals, and went back to Danijela’s cafe for a beer with about 15 locals. No one had seen a balloon before, so they were all very interested to know about it.

20170424_215227

Igor, Mihajlo and I headed into Banja Luka after and had a very tasty traditional meal of Ćevapi.

Igor met me the next morning, we re-fueled the balloon and then I was off to Belgrade, Serbia, 330kms away, (via Croatia). Even though I was only in Bosnia a short time, I was really impressed with how friendly and hospitable the people were there. There are many hidden gems in Bosnia well worth visiting.

The driving was easy going to Belgrade, and the borders too. For the first time I saw refugees, on the Serbian side of the border with Croatia. A few hundred had made a derelict building their home. It was the only sign of refugees I saw in the whole of the Balkans, (at least in any great number).

DSC02897 DSC02903

I arrived into Belgrade in the middle of the afternoon. I met two local balloonists, Sasha and Zlatko. We searched for a launch site on the edge of the city. We ended up launching from a carpark of a large distribution centre. It was a little windy, but it calmed down enough as it got closer to sunset.

It was a beautiful evening and the sun shone on Belgrade behind us. Sasha flew with me, one of only three balloon pilots in Serbia. He is an accomplished air force pilot and test pilot, flying Mig 21’s in missions during the Bosnian War and Kosovo conflict.
We flew over the huge plains which surround Belgrade. A number of villages are dotted about the place. One of the villages was an old agricultural one from Yugoslavia times. The local football club were having a party and were yelling at us to land there. On the other side of the village was a large Roma commuity. It was amazing to see how they had constructed some of their houses.

20170425_191752 20170425_195349 20170425_195429 20170425_200320

We landed just before sunset, close to a main road. A farmer and his son came and helped us pack the balloon up. Zlatko arrived a little later. We had flown quite a distance, so he had quite a bit of driving to catch us. I went with Zlatko to pick the truck up and went back out to pick the balloon up. Most people don’t have a truck licence and can’t drive my truck, so it was the best way to do it.

We went for a very nice dinner serving typical Serbian food with Sasha, his wife, and Zlatko. It was a great way to end the day.

The next day I knew would be a long driving day, covering 500kms to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. There is only a short section of motorway, the rest is through the mountains, between Serbia and Montenegro.

DSC02904 DSC02907

I drove through the centre of Belgrade, (which I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to do given the size of my truck. Belgrade is an interesting city, with around 1.3 million inhabitants, the largest city in the Balkans. Some areas look in disrepair, others are super modern. It is still very much developing after the Yugoslav times. It still needs a lot of investment to bring up the infrastructure. There is one very new and modern area, funded mainly from the Middle East so I heard. I would like to have spent more time to explore it all, I’m sure there are many interesting nooks and crannies.

DSC02910 DSC02911

Leaving Belgrade, I headed into the hills, and then the mountains. The road is one lane each way, so once you get behind a bus or truck, you’re stuck there for a while. I was happy to take in the sights. It is quite a climb before you get to Montenegro. Snow had fallen the week before and there were still pockets of snow by the road. The day was sunny and warm, so it was probably the last sign of snow at that level until next Winter.

DSC02917 DSC02922

The road through the mountains is beautiful, passing lakes, forests and villages. I often saw shepherds with their flocks of sheep too.

DSC02926 DSC02928

The Montenegro border was easy to pass. The Customs officers had a quick look in the truck, and I was on my way. Soon after the border, there is a big climb up a mountain around 1500m high, then down into a very deep valley, all the way to sea level. The road is incredible, with many tunnels, sharp bends, sparkling rivers and amazing views.

DSC02936 DSC02939 DSC02944 DSC02945

As you get to the end of the road, a massive bridge is being constructed across a deep valley. This will eventually become a motorway through to Serbia and will cut lot of time off the trip. The drive definitely won’t be as interesting though. It is still quite a way from being finished though.

The trip from Belgrade to Serbia took nine hours.

DSC02946 DSC02954 DSC02957 DSC02960

Montenegro has a small population of around 600,000, 200,000 of those live in Podgorica. Montenegro is popular with holidaymakers. It has more than its fair share of beautiful beaches, dramatic mountains and historical sights.

In Podgorica, I was met by some local balloonists, Vojo and Nikola. They took me into the city for dinner with some other balloon club members that evening. It was nice to meet such a keen group of balloonists.

I was led the next morning to a take off site, just outside of Podgorica. We went with about 10 other club members. We found a spot and I took off with one of the members as a passenger. Their club’s balloon was out of service and it was a shame we couldn’t fly together.

DSC02963 DSC02968

Winds were light and I was in the middle of the largest vineyard in Montenegro. I got permission to climb to 2000ft from Podgorica Airport. We enjoyed the views of the impressive mountains around and Lake Skadar in the distance, the largest lake in South-Eastern Europe. It was a nice, easy flight. I managed to find a field between the grape vines. It was not a long drive to my truck, and we chatted after loading the balloon.

DSC02970 DSC02971 DSC02972 DSC02974

Vojo and Mikola had volunteered to come with me to Albania to help later in the day. We left at around midday. The border crossing was a bit of a mess as they were renovating it. There wasn’t a lot of movement for cars and trucks. I had to squeeze between two trucks with millimetres to spare.

DSC02977 DSC02978

There was a last minute scramble to get the final permission to fly. Just as we entered Albania, it came through with the help of an Albanian balloonist and the local paragliding community.

We headed for the town of Bushat, in northern Albania. I only chose to fly there as it looked like a nice, easy place to fly, at least from Google Earth, (what a handy tool it is).

We arrived quite early and had a spare couple of hours. I had discovered a water leak somewhere in the camper. I managed to find it with Vojo, but it was nothing that could be fixed there.

DSC02984 DSC02988

It was still windy, but I was fairly confident that it would calm down. We went to look for a launch site. We found one next to a hill range. There were lots of good fields, the only problem was a stream between us and them. All the bridges looked not strong enough to carry my truck. We kept following the road and finally managed to find a good bridge. We saw a young guy leading his horse. We stopped and asked him if it was OK to take off from the field. He only spoke Albanian and despite our best efforts, we couldn’t get our message across. He thought we were wanting to get to the next town. He went away, but a minute later came back. He got his phone out and called someone, then handed it to me. It turned out his Sister lived in the USA, so he had called her by Skype. Modern technology is a great thing: There we were in a tiny village in Albania, speaking to someone in the USA, to get a translation in Albanian. She spoke perfect English and he got quite excited when he found out what we wanted to do. He happily led the way to his field.

We had to wait for the wind to drop as it was still quite windy. Most of the village came by to have a look once word got out. Everyone was very welcoming. One of the boys could speak a bit of English, so I asked him if he’d like to fly. I needed him to be my translator when I landed.

20170427_185833 DSC02991

Once I felt the wind dropping a bit, we got the balloon out. The inflation was a little windy, but just as we were taking off, the wind dropped off completely. I couldn’t believe how quickly it stopped. I was expecting a fast and tricky flight, but it was a very easy one down the valley. We had great views of the plains, surrounding hills and out to the Adriatic Sea.

DSC02994 DSC02997 DSC03000 DSC03006

I landed just before sunset. A number of kids ran across the fields to greet us, followed by adults. They had never seen a balloon before and were amazed by it.

Everyone happily helped to pack the balloon, and the father of the boy who flew with me took me back to the truck. A number of people from the village had stayed around the truck until I came back. I picked up the original guy we spoke with, and headed back to the balloon to pick it up.

20170427_192308 20170427_192452

One of the guys from the village where we landed could speak perfect English. I asked him where he learnt it, he said from video games. I was surprised. His name was Xhorxh, (George) and aspired to be an opera singer. He gave us a great rendition of ‘Ave Maria’ while we stood in the middle of the field in the dark. It is great the people you meet during a balloon flight.

We took the original guy back to his place after loading the balloon. He invited us to have dinner and stay at his place the night. Unfortunately we had to get back to Podgorica. I was so impressed by the warmth and hospitality of the people we encountered in Albania.

We had a much easier time through the border as it was late at night, and got back to Podgorica at around 11pm, feeling very tired. It had been a long day.

There were a few days until the event in Kosovo, so I caught up on quite a bit of planning work for the project. I also got the water leak fixed at a workshop.

I left Podgorica at 8am and headed back to Albania. The computer system at the Albanian Immigration had crashed on the border just one car before me, so we waited for more than 20mins for it to come back online. When it didn’t, they decided to do everything manually. I was happy I was at the front, as quite a queue had formed by the time I left.

DSC03009 DSC03015

The roads in Albania were surprisingly very good. The only issue I had was from a person minding their cows on the side of the road. One of the cows ran out at the last minute and I just managed to stop before hitting it.

DSC03018 DSC02983 DSC02980 DSC02982

I couldn’t believe the motorway they had built through the mountains to Kosovo. The mountains are hard rock, so a lot of blasting must’ve been involved. There was hardly any traffic, so it was very easy going and I enjoyed the views. There will be a toll on the road eventually when it is all finished. They only have to finish some double bridging.

DSC03024 DSC03033 DSC03043 DSC03045

I had some issues getting into Kosovo and was called into the Chief Customs Officer’s office. He wanted to know what I was doing and I explained about the event with UNICEF Kosovo that I’d be part of the next day. He asked me to buy insurance, and then come back again. When I came back he said that usually I would need to fill in some paperwork, (a bit like a temporary import permit). Everyone is supposed to as they have had problems in the past with illegal imports, but he said I wouldn’t have to as he used to work for UNICEF and a number of his colleagues too. He let me go and wished me good luck.

I arrived into Prishtina at 1.30pm. There was a lot of traffic around. I found the UNICEF office, with some difficulty. The streets were extremely small and I just managed to get the truck through. The powerlines were very low hanging and I think I had centimetres to spare in a couple of places.

DSC03049 DSC03051 DSC03054 DSC03055

I had a meeting at the UNICEF office and went to the site of the event which was going to be the following day. All was in order. I also had to call the airport to confirm the flight. The flight permission was quite difficult to get. The air space is managed by the Kosovo CAA, the UN and the military. It took about 6 weeks to get the permission and was the first official permission given for a balloon as far as I am aware. The duty manager of the Air Information Service was very helpful and said that everything was in order for my flight.

I walked around the central city that evening. It is quite a busy place, and there is a very nice walking street. There are still a number of foreigners around. Looking at the number plates of the cars is interesting. There are quite a few military ones around from KFOR and EULEX for example. I also saw German and Belgium military vehicles too. There used to be around 50,000 troops based there, but now only 5000 peacekeepers are left I was told. The place feels very safe and I didn’t see any sign that there was a war, (which finished in 1999). It is nice to see that Prishtina is a thriving and vibrant place.

DSC03060 DSC03062 DSC03058 DSC03068

I met at the event site the next afternoon. Speeches were given, children gave performances and played games. We were really lucky with the weather. It was a beautiful day and probably the only good weather window we were going to get to fly the balloon for a number of days.

DSC03084 DSC03082 DSC03088 DSC03091

At least 500 people were at the event and all excited to see the balloon. I called Air Traffic Control before the flight and got permission to take off. I asked the controller if there were any specific instructions. He replied that he didn’t know how to control a balloon, so I could do whatever I wanted in the area assigned to me. Nice and easy, I was happy with that.

The balloon was inflated, much to the delight of the kids. The wind was changing direction a bit during the inflation, but my very new balloon crew, (volunteers from UNICEF Kosovo) did a good job and we got it up without too many hassles. I kept the balloon on the ground for a short time before lifting off, accompanied by lots cheering from the many kids. No one had seen a balloon before. It was a real thrill.

DSC03096 DSC03098 18362741_1458785230855706_1644142295_o DSC03101

Flying to the south of Prishtina, many people were yelling out to me from the ground. There were more and more new houses the further south I went. It was amazing to see how many new subdivisions there were. A couple of UNICEF staff followed me and they did a good job of keeping up. I landed by the last available road before it got a bit tricky.

DSC03102 DSC03105 DSC03110 DSC03112

A number of kids ran over from the nearby houses and asked me what I was doing. They were between 7 and 11 years old. The older ones spoke very good English. Some of them went to an American international school. I was very impressed by their initiative and willingness to help. We packed the balloon up in no time at all.

DSC03116 DSC03122

One of the UNICEF drivers took me back to pick the truck up, some of the kids were still there when I returned. We loaded the balloon, said our goodbyes, and I headed out of Prishtina towards Macedonia.

I stopped at a restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It turned out to be a very nice restaurant; a nice way to finish my time in Kosovo.

I made my way to Skopje that night. The road is single lane each way, though a motorway is under construction and will go all the way to Skopje. In Kosovo, It was surprising to see glamorous looking hotels and restaurants in places you wouldn’t expect them to be in. One of them had about 10 stretched limousines parked outside.

The Macedonian border was the only place where Customs really inspected my truck, (not too intensely though). All was good and I was back on my way, arriving into Skopje at around 10pm.

I met a local balloonist, Boris, at 6am the next morning. He is one of only two balloonists in Macedonia. I was keen to get in the air as I knew there was bad weather coming later that morning, and the flying slot would be the only good one for a number of days.

We inflated the balloon with the help of a friend of Boris, and off we went. It was perfect flying conditions. We got a great view of the whole of Skopje.

DSC03133 DSC03129 DSC03132 DSC03134

With a population of around 620,000, it is a long city, stretching 27kms. It is a perfect place for ballooning as it’s nestled amongst mountains. Mt. Vodno, with a height of 1066m, stands over the city.

We flew low over the Vardar River, then climbed to an altitude of 3000ft and saw the snow-capped peaks past Mt Vodno. It was a terrific view. Boris was a good guide to have along.

We spotted an area which was good for landing and spent the last part of the flight at low level waking everyone up in one of the nicest subdivisions of Skopje. Boris’ friend was at the landing and took me back to the truck.

DSC03135 DSC03136 DSC03141 DSC03143

The rest of the day was spent with Boris. We had a traditional breakfast, watched a bit of the Skopje Marathon which was going on, (it was more entertaining to watch some of the annoyed motorists being inconvenienced by it), and then went to his hotel where I caught up on work.

Later in the day we went to an area close to the central city which is full of restaurants. Rain had just passed and people were out enjoying the sunny afternoon in the outdoor restaurants. It was a more traditional looking area with older buildings. The area had a lot of character and the streets were all tree-lined. We had a delicious early dinner and chatted about a wide range of topics. Boris grew up in Skopje and seems to know nearly everyone, so our conversation was often interrupted.

Boris showed me around the central city in the evening. It was incredible to see the difference between the central city and the outer areas. A massive amount of money had been spent on statues, fountains, bridges and buildings. It didn’t quite go with the character of the city. Not all the locals are happy with the extravagant spending. It seems the city spent a huge sum of money on the centre and forgot about the outerlying areas. All in all, it is pretty amazing, though looked all a little confused and over-the-top.

20170507_182347 20170507_183046 20170507_184506 DSC03147

There had been violent protests in Skopje just a week before, but I saw no sign of it. The place felt safe and it was business as usual. Macedonia has had a complicated history. It was part of the Ottoman Empire for Centuries, then the two World Wars came along, before entering into the Yugoslavia socialist era. The country only gained independence in 1991. It feels as if people are still trying to find their identity as a country. I got the same feeling in Bulgaria too.

We walked through the old quarter dating back to Ottoman times. Many small, cobbled streets with shops and restaurants. Lots of hidden places to explore.

DSC03148 DSC03149 DSC03150 DSC03154

There were many Turkish tourists. A big football game was going on between two of Turkey’s largest teams, so the restaurants and bars were packed with people glued to the TV screens. I felt like I was in Turkey.

DSC03158 DSC03160 DSC03163 DSC03166

It was an early start the next day to get to a school to inflate the balloon for the kids. It had been arranged with the help of UNICEF Macedonia. The weather window was short as showers were due, so I was keen to get going.

The whole school filed out, (around 600 pupils), class by class and watched with amazement as the balloon inflated. They’d made signs promoting peace and unity and they excitedly waved them as the balloon went up. I flew the school principal on a tethered rope, which the kids found very amusing. After lots of photos, the balloon was deflated and I packed the balloon away with a number of boys who were very keen to give me a hand. There was a light shower just as we were packing the balloon.

DSC03181 DSC03182 DSC03183 DSC03187

After the balloon was packed away, I went into a class of 12-14 year olds and I talked to them about the project, my dream of being a balloon pilot, and encouraged them to follow their on dreams. The also shared with me their dreams and asked lots of questions. It was great to meet the kids, and hopefully inspire a few too.

Boris and I had lunch with a few of the UNICEF staff after, and then it was time for me to drive the nearly 700kms to Thiva, close to Athens in Greece.

DSC03188 DSC03194 DSC03197 DSC03198

The drive was relatively easy. A new motorway is being built to the Greek border, but for now it is still the old road, (which isn’t bad). Macedonia is a beautiful country with pristine lakes and mountains. They are also famous for their wine, and I passed through a large wine growing area in the south of the country.

The Greek border wasn’t too much of a hassle and then it was on to a very easy three lane each way motorway all the way south. While the driving was easy going, the paying of the many expensive road tolls was not.

I pulled off just before sunset and stopped in Raches, a picturesque village by the Aegean Sea. I found a restaurant and relaxed after a busy day.

DSC03201 DSC03207 DSC03210 DSC03213

The place I parked up that night was perfect, just a few metres from the sea on a quiet road. The full moon looked spectacular as it rose over the bay, and I fell asleep to the breaking waves.

DSC03214 DSC03215

The drive to Thiva the next morning was straightforward and I arrived there at Midday. I contacted the local balloonist, Vasilis and stayed at their aerodrome for the rest of the day. I had maintenance to do on the truck and checked that everything was working in preparation for my trip in Africa. It was good to work inside a hangar as it was a hot and sunny day.

DSC03223 DSC03231

We went into Thiva the next morning to meet the Mayor of the town. He gave us permission to use an empty space for our event the next day. We did some errands and looked around Thiva in the afternoon, and had a traditional Greek meal that night.

Vasilis, Niko, (Vasilis’ friend) and I headed into town the next morning and got the balloon prepared with the help of some more than willing locals. A couple of classes of children came from the local school to watch us launch. They all watched with interest as Vasilis and I took off.

DSC03236 DSC03239 DSC03241 DSC03243

All the schools had been told the balloon would be flying and I managed to get quite close to two of them. The kids were yelling and screaming for us to land there. We flew low over some of the houses, to the amazement of some of the locals living in them.

DSC03245 DSC03247 DSC03249 DSC03253

After around 45mins, I found a place to land. The field had been harvested, and there were Poppies everywhere. After packing the balloon, two army officers came over and asked what we were up to. I knew there was a military camp just outside the town, (and was making sure to avoid it during the flight). They were surprised to see a balloon in the sky. They were not overly worried, but more inquisitive. We had a chat for 10mins before they departed.

DSC03255 DSC03257 DSC03259 DSC03261

I took the truck for a wash and got the oil changed in the gearbox and back diff. I also got them to do a quick mechanical check as it would be the last time before being shipped to Africa. The guys were very helpful, and it was the first time I’d met a hipster mechanic!

DSC03262 DSC03263

I headed for Athens that afternoon and met with the shipping company. The streets were narrow and packed with cars and I had a terrible time finding a parking place.

I was told by the shipping company that I could have no personal belongings in the truck when it was shipped, so I had to go and buy a big suitcase so I could pack my stuff, (which I wasn’t so thrilled about). The rest of the day was spent sorting the truck out and getting it ready to be shipped.

I took the truck the next morning to the port. I was met there by my Customs broker, Nikos. He had helped me the day before and we got along well. I was happy for him to do all the port formalities and take care of the paperwork. It seemed they still relied heavily on paperwork surprisingly. After a few hours it was all done and the truck was left in the port, ready to be shipped a couple of days later.

DSC03270 DSC03271

Nikos took me back to the office in his Smart car. Amazingly we managed to fit my two huge suitcases and both of us in his tiny car. It would’ve been a good advertisement for Smart to show just how much it could carry. We went to the shipping office to sort out the last couple of things before Nikos took me to the airport.

DSC03275 DSC03276 DSC03280 DSC03282

Overall, my impressions of the Balkans was excellent. Some people warned me to be careful before I went there, but everyone I encountered was warm, hospitable, friendly and welcoming. The scenery is stunning and there are many hidden gems to discover. It is also very cheap. I would highly recommend a visit if you haven’t been there.

The ship is running a few days late getting into Alexandria Port in Egypt, so it is a good opportunity to catch up on many things I’ve been delaying.

I have no doubt the next leg of the trip will be the most challenging, but luckily I like a good challenge!

On The Road Again Soon!

It may not seem a lot has been happening with the project, but it is quite the opposite in fact. Fervent planning has been going on in the background over the past few months, getting ready to take on the Balkans and East Africa. The project will start again on the 23rd of April.

The original plan was to travel the Balkans last November, but after some weather research and talking to locals, it became apparent that weather probably wouldn’t be suitable then, hence the reason for joining both the Balkans and African legs together. All going well, (and if the truck behaves), it will take until the end of October to complete both legs.

We have interesting and exotic places to visit on the route, such as Prishtina, Kosovo and Luxor, Egypt and Gulu, Uganda and Blantyre, Malawi, to name a few. We hope to inspire thousands of kids to follow their dreams over the course of our travels.

One exciting development has been teaming up with Children in the Wilderness, (CITW), a non-profit organisation supported by Wilderness Safaris. It is an environmental and life skills educational programme which focuses on the next generation of rural decision makers, developing environmental leaders who are inspired to care for their natural heritage so that they become the custodians of these areas in the future. By exposing children to their wildlife heritage, CITW aims to create a network of learning sanctuaries that uplifts and cares for our children and conserves our planet.

We will be visiting different schools and villages throughout Africa in co-operation with CITW, and encouraging them to follow their dreams.

We also have plans with UNICEF offices in Kosovo, Montenegro and Egypt. I have taken a back-step with UNICEF in Africa as it gives me more flexibility and freedom with the overall project.

I’m looking forward to getting into the project again. It has felt like quite a while since the project’s European leg last Summer. I’ve been flying commercially in Dubai over the Winter and saving money to continue with the next part of the project. A big thanks for the continued support from Kubicek Balloons, DB Schenker, Alma Capital, Platinum Heritage and Balloon Adventures Emirates.
I also owe a big thanks to Bhavna Bhikajee and Wendy Jorgensen who are helping with PR, communications and logistics. The African leg in particular is a huge logistical operation and I am happy to receive their support.

France to Slovenia – August/September 2016

After five very busy weeks of flying commercially in the Dordogne Valley, (France), I was keen to get back into travelling again. I left St Cyprien at 9am and drove almost non-stop to Chateau d’Oex in Switzerland, 750kms away. The drive was a generally easy one, electing to take the easier toll roads rather than the slow, windy back roads. The tolls definitely add up, especially driving a truck: It cost over 200 Euro in all.

My only hiccup during the drive was in Lyon. The turn-off I needed was closed, so I ended up going through the middle of the city. They are doing major upgrades to the main highway running through Lyon, which will be great when finished. In the meantime, it will cause a lot of headaches for residents and anyone passing through.

The road leaving France, heading into Switzerland and the Alps, was especially picturesque. The engineering behind it was impressive too, with many tunnels and bridges.

dsc02328 dsc02329 dsc02331 dsc02333

Crossing the Swiss border wasn’t a problem and I continued around Lake Geneva and into the Alps.The road between Bulle and Chateau d’Oex was one lane each way and became very windy. The views passing between the mountains were spectacular.

I arrived into Chateau d’Oex at 6pm and searched for the local balloon company. Luckily the woman who I had been in touch with, Celine, was just leaving the office and invited me back to her house, where I met her family and a couple of friends. It was a perfect evening to sit on the balcony, chat, and watch the sun set over the mountains.

dsc02334 dsc02340 dsc02342 dsc02344

I had dinner at a restaurant and parked and stayed at the balloon launch site that night. Chateau d’Oex is well known for its balloon festival in the middle of Winter, which is still on my to-do list.

I was woken by banging on the door the next morning. It was the local pilot, Raphael, who had come early. He had seen the forecast and decided we would need to take off from another site, 30 minutes away. We travelled the windy road over to the next valley and set the balloon up at a quiet airport. There is an amazing number of airports in the area. They were used for training by the Swiss Airforce, but most are now civilian. All the runways are sealed and in very good condition. We took off from the runway at Zweisimmen. It was the first time I had taken off from a sealed runway, it was a bit of a novelty.

dsc02350 dsc02353

We slowly climbed to 7000ft and got a great view of the alps, including Mont Blanc and most of the other tallest peaks. The visibility was amazing, so we really got lucky.

dsc02355 dsc02356 dsc02358 dsc02359 dsc02362 dsc02364

The wind was slower than forecast, but in a good direction. We descended into the next main valley and used the valley flow to float down the valley, above the pine forests and villages. It is an amazing place to fly. We landed in the town of Rougemont, which is very typically Swiss with many large chalets. We had to be very careful in which field to land in. We could only pick a field where the grass had just been cut. I have never been to a place where grass is precious like gold. There are only a few months a year when it grows and can be harvested, so the farmers take great care in looking after it. The fields are immaculate and they even helicopter cut grass from the mountains to be stored. Grass is used during Winter as feed for cows. The cows are typically Swiss, complete with bells which clang whenever they move: A beautiful sound while flying across the valleys.

dsc02365 dsc02367 dsc02369 dsc02373 dsc02377 dsc02384

We packed the balloon and left it in the farmer’s field. Celine came to pick us up. She took us back to Chateau d’Oex so we could pick up Raphael’s car, and then drive to my truck, which was left at the airport. We went back to the farm, picked the balloon up and continued to Chateau d’Oex.

We were hungry, so had fondue and wine for lunch on a perfect Summers day surrounded by mountains. Life doesn’t get any better than that.

dsc02385 dsc02389

dsc02387 dsc02395

I left the truck at Celine’s place and caught the train to Geneva that afternoon, around 2 hours away. The train trip through the mountains is spectacular. They use a special type of train as the gradient is very steep. It must’ve been quite a feat of engineering when it was first built decades ago and really opened the Alps up to the outside world.
I changed to a normal train in Montraux to carry on to Geneva.

I spent an enjoyable couple of days at a friend’s place in Geneva, checking out the local sites, sounds and tastes of the area. I also had a meeting on one of the days, which was my main reason for going there.

dsc02398 dsc02399 dsc02404 dsc02414

I returned to Chateau d’Oex, picked up my truck and drove to Zurich to catch up with friends, before continuing to Andwil, another 80kms from there. On the way a rider came off his motorbike just one car infront of me as he was exiting the motorway. Unfortunately I was all ready passed by the time he came to rest and there was nowhere to stop. I saw others stop when I looked in my rear-view mirror, so he was well looked after. It was quite a spectacular fall as both he and the bike flew through the air.

dsc02415 dsc02417 dsc02418 dsc02420

I arrived at my friends’ place, Stefan and Rebekah, at around 8pm. Stefan was still out flying, so we had dinner when he got back and planned the flight we were going to do the next morning in Liechtenstein.

It was an early start. We put my balloon in his van and his balloon in a trailer, and we headed for Vaduz.

The area where we planned to take off from was a large valley with interesting local weather conditions. It can blow a gale in one place and be completely calm in another. Wind can also increase and drop off very quickly, so we had to pay close attention. The wind comes down the valley from the Alps and flows out to Lake Constance.
We found a nice field to take off from and had a relatively easy inflation. Stefan instructed a student in his balloon, and we flew alongside each other.

dsc02421 dsc02426 img_0204 img_0208

We flew low over the Rhine river, criss-crossing between Liechtenstein and Switzerland. We eventually left Liectenstein and passed the town of Buchs in Switzerland. We then climbed to 7000ft to admire the endless mountain peaks of the Alps on one side, and the fog over Lake Constance on the other.

dsc02439 dsc02447 dsc02450 img_0220 img_0241 dsc02454 dsc02456 dsc02457

We eventually crossed into Austria and descended to land in very light winds in a neighbourhood in the city of Feldkirch. I spotted an area perfect for the size of the balloon. I came in low over the roof and a 60’ish year old lady came out, and much to her surprise, saw me a few metres above her roof. I asked if I could land there. She could speak English quite well and said it was no problem. I landed right by her table and chairs in her back lawn and she went inside and brought back a cup of coffee on a tray. It was an amusing situation for both of us. We chatted and had coffee, (while the balloon was still standing above us) while I waited for my crew member to arrive, (Stefan’s Father).

dsc02463 dsc02466 dsc02471 dsc02472 dsc02473 dsc02476

When he arrived, we moved the balloon to a better area and deflated the balloon. The neighbours even came out to help us. It was great entertainment for everyone.

Stefan also arrived later to help out. He had a similar landing down the road.

We said our goodbyes to our new found friends and went down the road to pick up Stefan’s balloon. All in all it was an amazing flight, and my first international one. It was great to pass through not only 2, but 3 countries. Very unique.

dsc02477 dsc02481

We crossed the border into Switzerland and headed home. I went out flying on a commercial flight with Stefan that evening closer to Zurich. It was a beautiful evening for it.

dsc02484 dsc02487

I was a couple of days ahead of schedule, so the next morning I decided at the last minute to take the train to Dusseldorf in Germany, (550kms away). Some very good friends of mine were having a pre-wedding party. I was disappointed to not attend the actual wedding, so this was the next best thing.

I arrived 6hrs later and had a great evening celebrating in an old German pub just outside of Dusseldorf.

I returned to Switzerland the following day and arrived in the evening. I chatted with Stefan well into the night.

I left for Italy early the next morning. I delayed my start, as a big thunderstorm was passing and the rain poured down.

I stopped by Austria on my way, (even though it wasn’t on my route) to fuel up. It is 20 euro cents cheaper a litre there for diesel than it is in Switzerland and Italy. When you have to get 450 litres of fuel, it really adds up.

The weather improved and the road through the Alps was enjoyable and incredibly scenic. You can’t help but marvel at the engineering behind the roads there, so many tunnels and bridges to pass. For quite a big part of it, it is one lane each way rather than a motorway, so if you get caught behind a slow truck, you are stuck with it for a long time. I didn’t mind though, I just enjoyed the sights of the beautiful mountains and blue lakes around.

dsc02494 dsc02501 dsc02507 dsc02508 dsc02511 dsc02513 dsc02519 dsc02522

I crossed into Italy and took the ring road around Milan. I’ve been to Europe many times, but I had never made it to Italy, so I was looking forward to checking it out.

The road between Milan and Cesena was very easy, but also boring as it is very long and straight for a few hundred kilometres. I was happy not to be travelling in the opposite direction as there seemed to be a traffic jam every few kilometres.

I turned off at Cesena and headed through the Apennine Mountains towards the region of Umbria. You can immediately tell when you leave the toll road, as the road condition suddenly deteriorates. The road was good all the way, thought it definitely needed to be re-surfaced in many parts.

dsc02524 dsc02527

I passed the impressive city of Assisi, well known for Saint Frances. It sits on the side of a hill where the huge basilica sits dominantly.

My final destination was not far from there, a house owned by my workmate and Director of Balloon Adventures Emirates in Dubai, Peter.

On arrival, he told me to get ready quickly as there was a village party. It was a thank you to the locals for the work they had done in the previous week for the village festival, which always draws large crowds. The villagers give their time for free to man stalls and make the whole event work. All money raised goes towards village projects. A great concept.

We met some of Peter’s friends at the dinner, which was held in a marquee. The village is famous for snails. One of Peter’s friends showed me the process of preparing and cooking the snails. They had designed the whole process themselves. It was all quite interesting.

We had a huge dinner, including good wine, and later Rakia. I have never eaten so many snails in my life. It was a great introduction to Italy.

Over the next few days Peter showed me around the area. I was surprised to not see any sign of the large earthquake which had struck just 1 week earlier, (only 50kms away) and had flattened a whole village with the loss of 240 lives.

dsc02532 dsc02534 dsc02535 dsc02541 dsc02547 dsc02548

The area is very typically Italian, with old villages, Roman ruins, vineyards and of course good food and wine. The Basilica of St Francis is especially impressive inside and out, but not excessive, as St Francis was well known for being a simple man. The shear size of it if you look from a distance is amazing though.

Exif_JPEG_420

Exif_JPEG_420

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I flew with Peter’s assistant, Ela, on the second to last day. The winds were very light. After flying round and round for just over an hour, we landed just across the road from where we took off from, between two rows of grape vines. We could pick the grapes right off the vines. The harvest was not far away. The balloon was moved just a few metres and deflated in a big field. Nice and easy. One of Peter’s crew helped us. He was in his 50’s but was an ex-model and bodybuilder; a big and strong guy.

dsc02550 dsc02551 dsc02552 dsc02553 dsc02556 dsc02559 dsc02564 dsc02568

I looked around Perugia that evening, an impressive city with lots of narrow streets and a huge main city gate, built many centuries ago. I met up with Ela and her friends, and we had an enjoyable evening looking around the old town.

The church in the town centre has huge steps, and dozens, (if not hundreds) congregate there to drink and chat. It is a great atmosphere and there is no sign of anti-social behaviour. Everyone seems to drink in moderation. I drove back to Peter’s at around midnight.

Exif_JPEG_420

Exif_JPEG_420

I departed for Ljubljana, Slovenia, the next morning. The 650km drive was quite an easy one. After the Apennine mountains, it is flat until you reach Slovenia.

dsc02578 dsc02580

I bought a sim card once I reached Slovenia and co-ordinated my flight the next morning. I had to bring the flight forward to the next morning because it seemed to be the only time with good weather. I ended up going past Ljubljana, to the famous tourist town of Bled. The original plan was to fly just outside of Ljubljana, but my friend, (who was going to help me) wasn’t going to get back from his holiday until the following afternoon. I got in touch with the local balloon operator in Bled and went there. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the final details of the flight location, as I only spoke to the agency and not the pilot who was flying the next day, so I decided to return 60kms back to Ljubljana where I knew I would be able to fly.

dsc02582 dsc02585

After asking some locals, I managed to find the local airfield and parked up there for the night. It was 11.30pm by the time I arrived.

I got up at 7am. Because the flight was arranged at the last minute, I didn’t have anyone to help out, so I set the balloon up myself and went for a flight. It was the first time I had done it since I was hour building to attain my commercial licence 14 years ago. I really enjoyed it, though it does require a bit of heavy lifting and technique to inflate the balloon.

I flew across the cropped fields and could see Ljubljana in the distance. There are hills and mountains around and I had a nice, easy flight. I landed just past a police dog training centre, so lots of dogs were barking as I flew over.

dsc02591 dsc02592 dsc02594 dsc02596 dsc02600 dsc02601

After landing, a farmer came over in his tractor. He was about to pick up the hay bales in the field I had landed in. It was a very short conversation after he realised I couldn’t speak Slovenian, but he said, “No problem”, so that was enough for me. I got on with packing up the balloon and he got on with loading hay bales. It was quite a hot day, so I worked up quite a sweat.

I left the balloon in the field, walked a few kilometres to the truck, came back with it and loaded the balloon on.

dsc02604 dsc02610

I caught up with my friend, Avi, that afternoon and he showed me around the local area, including a visit to another airfield and having a look around the hangar.
I stayed at his place that night.

The next morning I had booked the truck in at a local mechanic’s through a friend of a friend. It turned out that they didn’t have the right equipment for my truck as they mainly dealt with cars, but they looked after me very well and arranged another place for me to take it.

As it turned out that place couldn’t do it either, so I took it to another place, then another place, and finally I found a place who could take my truck. It was a mechanics tour of Ljubljana.

The guys I left the truck with were great and really knew their trucks. They take care of all the Slovenian Army’s trucks, as well as Ljubljana’s public buses and a number of ambulances. I gave them a list of things to do and said I’ll be back in 7 weeks to collect it. They said that that was fine, and off I went.

dsc02612 dsc02613

I got picked up by another friend, Dejan, and we went to have dinner and picked up his girlfriend, Marina, from work. They showed me around Ljubljana that night. Ljubljana had a visionary mayor a few years ago, who invested in restoring many of the rundown looking buildings in the old town centre. The old town looks great now and it attracts many visitors. It is especially nice lit up at night.

We had a really enjoyable evening and I stayed at their place that night.

I got picked up by a friend of a friend the next day who had helped me out with finding a mechanic. We had lunch together, before returning to Avi’s place to do some planning for the next leg of the project. He recommended a number of places to fly through the Balkan States and he gave very useful advice about the area.

I was dropped off at Ljubljana’s very small airport that evening by Avi and flew to Dubai via Belgrade that night.

I’m flying commercially in Dubai until the 3rd of November. In November, I’ll travel through the Balkan States to Greece. From there I’ll catch a ferry and drive all the way to Dubai. The schedule is tight, but manageable.

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.

DSC01316

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:

http://www.tveast.dk/artikel/newzealandsk-ballon-globetrotter-besoeger-ringsted

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

On The Road Again – Europe

DSC00118

The flying season in Dubai is coming to a close and I’m looking forward to be getting back into the project again on the 1st of June.

A lot of planning has been going on over the past few months. It has involved a lot of emails, phone calls and a few trips to Poland and Czech Republic to tend to my balloon and truck. I even made a quick trip to New Zealand to pick up truck parts, which I then took to Poland to install in the truck. I’ve spent a lot of time and money on the truck to fix many of its problems. It couldn’t have been done without a huge amount of help from my friends in Wroclaw.

From the 1st June until the 30th of September we will be visiting the following countries, (in this order):

Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, UK, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Andorra, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Italy and Liechtenstein.

Later in the year we plan to travel through South-East Europe and onto the Middle East. I had a meeting with the Head of Communications for UNICEF Middle East and North Africa yesterday here in Dubai and we are all ready planning a  few events in this area later this year and for 2017.

Keep a look out on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/flyinghighforkidsproject for details of dates and exact locations.

Poland and Belarus

After a few weeks of catching up with friends while waiting for the truck to be fixed, I decided to go to a balloon festival in Minsk, Belarus. It was a last minute decision, so a lot had to be organised in a short period of time.
Firstly I spoke with UNICEF Belarus and we came up with a plan to set up a tent and kid’s activities at the festival. UNICEF helped me out by sending an email to the Belarus Consulate in Berlin, stating that I was going there with the UNICEF Balloon and asking if they could process my application quickly.
I then got in touch with the consulate and asked them if they could issue me a visa on the spot as I was only passing through Berlin. They were very helpful and arranged an appointment for me outside of normal consulate hours. I sent all the necessary documents to them by email. All had been arranged by email on the Friday and an appointment was made at 4pm the following Tuesday afternoon at the consulate.

Luckily the plane was on time when arriving into Berlin from Turkey at 2.15pm on Tuesday. I passed through airport clearance quickly and caught a bus to the ‘S Bahn’ (over ground metro) to get to the other side of Berlin. From the station, it was a 1km walk to the consulate. There was a light rain, so I was a bit wet by the time I arrived at 4.02pm.
One of the staff let me into the consulate and I handed over all the necessary documents. The consul said the visa would be ready in 20 minutes and it would be issued for free as it was a visit for UNICEF, (I had written a letter to the Ambassador asking for it previously and he granted it). It saved me 120 Euro for the visa and express processing.
I was out of the embassy at 4.30pm and happy to have the visa in hand. If they hadn’t been able to issue it then, my whole schedule would’ve been made very difficult.

I stayed at a friend’s place that night and caught a bus to Wroclaw the next morning. The truck’s gearbox parts had just arrived from Australia when I arrived at 2pm that afternoon, so there was no way they were going to put the gearbox back together and bolted back to the truck, (originally I was hoping to take the truck to Belarus). I had all ready foreseen this problem and had arranged a rental van so I would drive from Wroclaw to Bialystok, then the balloon would be transferred to a convoy of Polish balloonists travelling to the festival.
Everyone was relieved to see the right gearbox parts at last. Six different used parts from various wreckers in Poland had been sent to see if they fitted, but none of them did. In the end, the only option was to order new parts from Australia.
P1000875 P1000876
I left at 8pm that night and drove for six hours straight, to Bialystok in the north-east of Poland. I stopped just outside of Bialystok at a truck stop and slept on the front seat of the van for a few hours before heading into the city centre where I would meet the other Polish balloonists heading to Minsk.
Three balloon teams arrived shortly after and we transferred my balloon onto two of their trailers with their balloons. The rental office was just across the road, so I returned the van and we were on our way to the Belarus border, only 60kms away.
P1000877 P1000878
We got word at the border that the fourth team had broken down on the way. We waited around 1.5 hours for them as they had to replace one of the engine belts. In the meantime the rest of us had a drink and filled in time.
We passed through the Polish side of the border easily, but the Belarus side was a different story. The border guards weren’t exactly sure what to do with four vehicles, 5 balloons and 15 people. The biggest issue was getting the Temporary Import Permit for the balloons. Belarus is famous for its strict Customs processes, and it didn’t disappoint. Photos were taken and forms had to be filled out again and again. It also didn’t help that my balloon was spread over two trailers which added to the confusion. The woman dealing with us was very good about it and she said it would’ve been easier if they had been warned before we came.
After four hours we finally got through, but it wasn’t the end of the waiting. Each vehicle had to get an electronic road toll tag, which we were told would take 30 minutes per vehicle! It turned out to be not quite as bad as that and we were heading for Minsk just over an hour later.
P1000880 P1000882
The 300 or so kilometres to Minsk were good, ranging from dual carriage highway to one lane each way. The area is very flat with villages and forests dotted throughout, with quite a number of swampy, peaty areas.
We made good time and we reached Minsk at around 8.30pm.
P1000884 P1000898
One of my friends had made a booking at a hostel, so we dropped our luggage off there and we headed out to see the Minsk nightlife.
At that stage I still didn’t have a vehicle to transport my balloon during the festival. It was going to be too difficult to retrieve the balloon with two vehicles, (as it had been transported from Poland). Luckily one of the Polish crew had some good friends from Minsk. She asked her friends if they would be my crew and lend me their car during the event. They happily agreed and said they would rent a trailer to put my balloon on also. I was really impressed by their generosity and willingness to help out.
The next morning we transferred to the hotel the balloon festival provided for us. I had a room to myself and it was very comfortable. A general briefing was held that afternoon and we were shown the places where we could and couldn’t land, and other useful information, (we weren’t allowed to land in military bases for example for obvious reasons). I also had a meeting with a couple of staff from UNICEF Belarus and we discussed what was going to happen during my stay.
The first flight was scheduled after the briefing, so everyone headed to the launch area at Minsk 1 Airport. I was lucky to be given five local crew members, the most crew I had had for a long time. It was great to have them as they provided local knowledge as knew all the shortcuts. None could speak English very well, but with the combination of my knowledge of Russian and their English, we could get by.
Minsk 1 is an operational airport, so all the cars had to be checked by security before we drove in. There was quite a back-log of cars and it took over an hour for everyone to get in. I saw that we probably weren’t going to fly that afternoon as it was very windy, so instead of waiting in the queue, I went to refuel, as my tanks weren’t all full.
By the time we got back, everyone was through and we entered the airport very easily.
P1000922 P1000925
Quite a crowd had gathered, but unfortunately it was too windy to do anything. A few balloons inflated for the crowd and the pilots wrestled with their balloons in the gusty conditions for a few minutes.

Minsk was a pleasant surprise for all of us. There are a lot of nice buildings with numerous parks for people to enjoy. The roads are wide and I don’t think we got stuck in a traffic jam during our whole stay there. Overall it seems a pleasant place to live, and definitely worth a visit.
Belarus sometimes gets a hard time for its political situation, but speaking to the locals, many seem content with how things are run. The President has gained more popularity over the past five years, especially with the younger voters.
P1000905 P1000913 P1000916 P1000927 P1000915 P1000909
It was an early morning the following day as we headed to the briefing. My Russian wasn’t good enough for a lot of the technicalities, so I had to confirm some of the details with English speakers.
We were one of the first in the line to enter Minsk 1 Airport, so got through without much of a delay. The flight was delayed for a short time due to gusty winds, but once it settled, all 50 or so balloons took to the skies.
P1000931 P1000935 P1000936
We all flew south of the city, past many large apartment blocks and a hospital, before flying over open fields and patches of forest. We crossed an air force base where many helicopters and large cargo planes were parked, including 3 of the world’s largest helicopters, the Mil 26.
P1000940 P1000943 P1000945
After crossing a sizable forest, I spotted a field for landing. Our ground crew were there when we arrived, (which I was very impressive about seeing they had never touched a balloon before that morning) and we packed the balloon away and headed back to Minsk to Refuel.
P1000947 P1000950 P1000953 P1000958 P1000959 P1000964
A staff member from UNICEF Belarus met us at Borovaya Airfield in the north of Minsk where the air show was being held. After visiting many entrances and talking to numerous policemen, we were allowed onto the airfield. The weather was perfect, so quite a crowd was all ready there.
We went to the UNICEF tent which had been set up. Kids were all ready there drawing and colouring in pictures. Once they were finished, they were given gifts, such as fun books showing them how to wash their hands properly.
P1000983 P1000978
I was ushered over to the main stage to give a speech about the Flying High or Kids Project during the opening ceremony of the air show. Many people were surprised to see a New Zealander there with a balloon.
Back at the UNICEF tent, my crew and I were introduced to the UNICEF staff. I shared postcards with the kids and talked to some of them and their parents. They were all very fascinated with balloons and the project. A few of the UNICEF staff mentioned to me that it was a great opportunity for them to be out in the community because a lot of their work is done on a government level.
One of the interesting things at the airfield was an outdoor aviation full of planes and helicopters from the Eastern Block. It was really interesting place to look around for me as I have quite an interest with aircraft from that area. I even got to go inside a decommissioned Mil 26 helicopter, something I had always wanted to.
P1000986 P1010011
We watched some impressive helicopter races where two helicopters would take buckets filled with water around an obstacle course. The fastest one with the least penalty points won.
P1010035 P1010037
The rest of the day was spent at the UNICEF tent talking to various people and watching the aircraft displays. Over 400 kids came to colour in and draw pictures over the course of the day. Some didn’t want to leave when their parents told them it was time to go. It was great to see so many kids enjoying themselves.
P1010026 P1000977 P1010040
In the early evening, and after the old AN-2 aeroplanes had finished flying, it was time for 10 balloons, including me, to inflate for the crowd and fly out. Just as we were taking off, 40 other balloons, (who had taken off from Minsk 1) were also approaching. We all flew together across a built up area, and over a large forest where many Dachas were located. Dachas are small lots of land which were originally given out in the Soviet era to government workers and the elite as a reward. It is still common to see them in East Europe and people often spend their summer weekends there.
I was wondering where we were going to land as there were few options. I targeted a field around 5kms away and managed to get there. My crew were again waiting at the field. We quickly packed the balloon and went to the city centre where we were due to do a balloon night glow show.
P1010038 P1010042 P1010044 P1010045 P1010047 11733304_10203075821695645_1899864962_n
It was a bit breezy, but around 10 of us managed to put our balloons up and entertain the many thousands who had turned up to see the balloons glow. The burner’s flame make the balloons look like colourful light bulbs.
We were all feeling quite tired by the time we had finished.
11749320_10203075821215633_2021359853_n 11759062_10203075822815673_1653791505_n
After I got back to the hotel, I was told that the flight had been cancelled for the next day due to storms in the forecast. I went with a couple of Polish crews to a local bar to celebrate the success of the day, and our last night in Belarus.
We packed the next morning and attended the awards ceremony, then it was time to say goodbye to my crew and depart Minsk and with the four crews to Poland.
P1010051 P1010052
A Belarusian pilot invited us to his balloon club at an airfield in Grodno, the second largest city in Belarus, just across from the Polish border. We arrived at the end of the day and we were treated to quite a spread of typical local food and drink. The club was in an airfield hangar and used to be a paratrooper training centre. Some of the training equipment was still there, and they offered us to try it out. I had a go on something which looked like a flying fox on a rail and was used to train jumpers how to land properly. It was good fun.
P1010056 P1010059 P1010062 P1010064P1010065 P1010057
A few of the guys also tried out the banya, (Sauna) and ran out to take a dip in the river when they got too hot.
After a few hours, and feeling quite happy, we were on our way back to Bialystok in Poland, only around 60kms away. The border crossing leaving Belarus went much more smoothly, and we only spent around 1.5 hours there. A huge thunderstorm passed overhead as we got our passports stamped and filled out our departure papers. It bucketed down with rain, but luckily we were under cover.
We arrived into Bialystok after midnight, unloaded my balloon into one of their garages, and then stayed in a hotel with one of the teams. They were conveniently heading back to the west side of Poland, so I caught a ride with them to Warsaw Airport the next day.
I can’t give enough thanks to my good balloonist friends in Poland. They really went out of their way to get me to Minsk and back. Doing this project, I have been really humbled by the generosity of so many people who believe in what I do and are so willing to help out.
I am now in France flying commercially over the stunning chateaux in the Dordogne Valley until early September. It is good to get some money in the bank again, especially after the cost of fixing the truck’s gearbox!
More news to come soon…..

Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine

We left Bank, Hungary mid morning for the 200km trip to the Slovakian Capital, Bratislava. The trip was uneventful and we got there in good time. We found a cheap hotel, relatively close to where our event with UNICEF Slovakia was to be held, and checked in.
P1000056 P1000058

After a late lunch, I walked to the UNICEF office to discuss last minute details of the event, and spent the rest of the afternoon there.

I picked up my Ukrainian visa the next day and spent a good part of the day at the UNICEF office again.
We arrived early the following day for our event with UNICEF Slovakia. There was a little more wind than forecast and heading directly to Austria, which was only a few kilometres away, (the plan was to fly in Slovakia, not Austria!). After sending some helium test balloons, I observed that the wind turned back towards the city, as forecast, so we continued to set up.
A children’s dance group came later and performed a few energetic performances while the balloon was being inflated. After a few photos, I took to the Slovakian skies, waving back to the crowd as I left.
Ascending quickly, I found the wind to take me over the city. Three air traffic control stations had to be contacted: the international airport in Bratislava, radar control, plus a military airport. The wind speed was quite fast, 50km/h, and I encountered occasional wind shear. Along with navigating an area I hadn’t flown in before, it made for a very busy flight.
P1000061 P1000062

The views were spectacular though. Flying over the historic orange-roofed buildings of the old town and getting a birds-eye view of the Bratislava Castle was very special.
I flew out of the city and the military airport gave me permission to fly into their airspace, which was just as well as it would’ve been difficult to land before due to there being so many crops.
P1000063 P1000067

I spotted one of the few grassy fields in the region and descended to land. I was approaching at 30km/h, so prepared for a fast landing. The landing was fast and took around 100m, (using almost the whole field) to stop. My crew were there at the landing, which was quite impressive given the speed I was going. One of the crew, Matej, was a local balloon pilot who drove 200kms with his family to help out. It was a big commitment on their part which I was very grateful for. Des was there and a couple of UNICEF volunteers helped out also.
P1000071 P1000070

We landed close to a small Austrian border crossing, so Des and I continued north to the checkpoint as that was our next country to visit. The border crossing turned out to be a barge across a small river, quite a unique border crossing. We loaded up and crossed in a few minutes and continued to the main motorway and on to our next location, Krems An Der Donau. It was a very easy drive and a few hours later we were there. A local balloonist and his family met us at the local aero club, where the flight was going to be taking off from.
DSC_0052 P1000074

I met with the air traffic controller and he briefed me about the flying area. Showers came in that afternoon, but as forecast, the sun came out at the end of the day, so we inflated and took off. The scenery was quite dramatic as the evening sun shone on the fields of bright yellow Canola flowers and dark rain clouds, (which had just passed). I landed in a small village and my crew met me on landing.
IMG_2129 P1000092 P1000101 P1000105 P1000107 P1000108

We went back to the aeroclub, had dinner and a chat, and celebrated two flights in two countries in one day.
Next morning, we travelled north towards the Czech Republic. The back roads of Austria are a pleasure to drive through and we passed many sleepy villages along the way. It was a public holiday, Mayday, so things were extra quiet. We crossed into Czech Republic and arrived into the small town of Jaroslavice around lunch time. Some friends of mine, (Magda, Jirka and Anna) were going to be there for a wine festival and invited us along, so it was a good opportunity to experience some Czech village culture. There were 500 different wines, but I couldn’t drink as we were driving to Brno later that day. The alcohol limit for drivers in the Czech Republic is zero. Everyone enjoyed the traditional singing and dancing. I think everyone from the town turned up to enjoy the festivities. The relatively small hall was certainly packed.
P1000123 P1000126

Later in the afternoon, we headed to my friends’ village, just outside of Czech Republic’s second biggest city, Brno, to stay there for the night. We then moved to Magda and Jirka’s apartment in Brno the next morning.
Magda’s father works as an electrician at the National Brno Theatre. He invited us for a private tour around the 130 year old building. It was an amazing place; you could really feel the history. It was ornately decorated with beautiful paintings and elegant stair cases. The seating was multi-tiered and the theatre had a capacity of around 700 people.
One incredible thing was that all the back stage mechanics were almost 100 years old. The whole stage could go up and down, rotated or moved. It was highly technical, especially for something a century old. They said there was no need to modify the mechanics as it was well maintained and still worked very well. It was a case of ‘don’t touch what ain’t broke’.
We had lunch and met a friend of Des’s that afternoon. We then walked around the city, including visiting Brno’s biggest and oldest cathedral which stands atop a hill overlooking the city.
P1000134 P1000144 P1000169 P1000176

I decided with a local balloonist friend of mine, Jan, to fly that afternoon over Brno. We travelled to the launch site late that afternoon. Flying conditions were perfect, so we inflated and lifted off, Jan flying his balloon and me flying mine. We had a perfect flight straight over the middle of the city, including the Old Town and National Theatre where we had been earlier in the day. It is something special to fly over beautiful historic cities in a balloon. I would recommend it to anyone.
P1000188 P1000193 P1000195 P1000200 P1000202 P1000203 P1000215

We landed just 100m apart from each other on the outskirts of the city, just before sunset. The two ground crews were there as we landed. We all then went to a birthday party of a local balloonist and were up until the small hours of the morning at a restaurant in the middle of a forest on the outskirts of Brno.
P1000218 P1000225

I went to the Kubicek Balloon factory the next morning. Kubicek Balloons have been a great supporter of the Flying High For Kids Project and donated the balloon for the cause. The balloon was taken into the factory for some small maintenance work.
I then took the truck across the city to a mechanic to sort out a couple of small issues, such as balancing the wheels and replacing a battery terminal. I was there for the rest of the day and left the truck there overnight.
After picking the truck up the next morning, I headed back to the Kubicek Balloon factory to pick the balloon up. I hung around the factory for the rest of the afternoon before heading back to have a final dinner with Des. We were going our separate ways that night. Des has been great to have on the trip and it was a bonus to have him back to help out between Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
P1000226 P1000229

I left Brno just after dusk and made my way to Prague, I had a plane to catch to New Zealand at 6am the next morning. I arrived into Prague around midnight and met Jan again. He studies and works in Prague and had arranged for me to park the truck at a colleague’s car park. He showed me the way to the car park, and then we walked back to his place. By that time it was around 1.45am and I had to catch a tram and bus to the airport at 2am.
There were quite a number of revellers coming back from their night out on the tram, but three policemen were on board to keep things in order.
After a few hours at the airport, I was jetting towards New Zealand via Frankfurt and Singapore.
My week in New Zealand passed quickly. I had to do a mandatory balloon flight review, renew my pilot medical and meet my accountant, as well as catching up with family and friends.
On arriving back to the Czech Republic, it was straight into preparing for a flight over Prague. Jan and I found a perfect launch site, right next to the river in the middle of the city. We managed to find the owner’s phone number, but he wasn’t answering his phone. I searched for a second take off place by looking on Google Earth, and then took a tram to make sure it was suitable and seek permission to use it.
The area was much more difficult to find than it looked on the map, but after climbing a couple of steep hills and walking along a couple of kilometres of railway lines, I finally found it. I spoke to the owner of a nearby children’s camp, who said it probably wasn’t a good idea to take off from the field due to ownership issues, but to go 500m down the road to another place. After checking it out and making sure it was good, I headed back to Jan’s place, happy that a place had been found.
At around 6.30pm, the owner of the first choice of launch site by the river called and said that he is sub-leasing it to another person. I then called that person and they were happy for me to use it.
We got up early the next morning to do the flight. Travelling through the usually busy streets of Prague is easy at 6am. Some UNICEF Czech Republic staff met us to give us a hand to put the balloon up. By 6.30am, I was floating over the beautiful historic city of Prague. Flying over the old town was quite special with its old churches, narrow cobbled streets and magnificent buildings.
P1000242 P1000245

Continuing to the outer edge of the city, I left the air traffic control zone of Prague’s main Airport and into the control zone of a military airport. Both were very good to deal with.
I flew over a huge TV mast and into suburbia. There are some beautiful old mansions scattered around, plus a mix of soviet-style looking buildings and modern apartment complexes. I landed at a park on the very edge of Prague, coincidentally right by a school. Some of the kids came over to have a look and helped pull the balloon over to a better area to deflate.
P1000246 P1000253 P1000255 P1000256 P1000261 P1000267

Jan and a friend of his arrived around 10 minutes later. Neither of them knew how to drive a truck, so they followed in their car and took me back to the launch site to collect the truck. The only problem was that it was rush hour, so it took over an hour to get back.
We returned with the truck and packed the balloon. Luckily for us, a tough looking guy was walking past when we needed a hand to load the basket into the truck, so he happily gave us a hand to load it.
We returned the truck back to where it had been parked and headed for the UNICEF office. We met the whole UNICEF team there and we chatted with them for a bit before going to lunch with the Chief Executive and one of the Communication staff who had been a big help.
P1000276 P1000278

After saying goodbye to Jan the next morning, I headed north to Wroclaw, Poland. The road started out as a perfect dual carriage highway, but turned into a normal road through the hills with a lot of trucks. It rained for quite a bit of the way, which made for slow going. I wasn’t in a hurry, so I didn’t mind too much.
My balloonist friend, Piotr, met me in Wroclaw and he arranged for me to park the truck at his Uncle’s work. We went into the city to have lunch with a couple of other balloonists.
We met at one of their apartments located in the tallest building in Wroclaw called Sky Tower. It is the tallest building in Wroclaw and the views across the city were amazing.
That afternoon was spent catching up with more friends.
Piotr and I went to his Uncle’s work place, Germaz, where they sell, service and assemble vehicles. One of their newer projects is selling bullet proof and light armoured vehicles, mainly for the African market.
They did a few small things on my truck for free, which was very generous of them.

That afternoon we went to the local zoo to see a relatively new marine exhibition. We got in a few minutes before closing time and spent over an hour there. I hadn’t been to a zoo for a number of years, so it was fun to go.
P1000293 P1000302

Later that evening my friend, (Bartosz) and I travelled to his city in the centre of Poland, Wloclawek. I went with the truck and he took his car. We were going to inflate the balloon for a children’s picnic being held that weekend.
Just after we left Wroclaw, I heard a strange sound coming from the truck. I pulled over and thought it was just my spare tyre that hadn’t been tied down properly. I continued further and found that the noise was getting worse and worse and the gear changer started vibrating. It got so bad that I couldn’t drive in 5th gear and had to drive in 4th gear for the rest of the trip.
I arrived around midnight. Bartosz had arrived an hour earlier and picked me up from the local aero club, where I left the truck.
Bartosz found a truck workshop, so we went there the next morning to see what the problem was. After driving it, they confirmed that it was as I had feared: A problem with the gearbox. The workshop called the Mercedes dealer in Lodz, the biggest city in the area, over 100kms away. Mercedes own Mitsubishi Fuso, so they are the go-to people if I have mechanical problems. Mercedes said to come in and they would take a look.
I left for Lodz immediately and drove there with 4 gears.
P1000310 P1000311

On arriving at the Mercedes dealer, they told me there was some miscommunication and they wouldn’t be able to see the truck for nearly a week. I wasn’t very happy to hear this news, but there wasn’t anything more to do than to turn around and go back to Wloclawek. I called a balloonist friend of mine in Lodz, (Radek). He came to meet me and we both went back to his place for dinner and a catch-up. We hadn’t seen each other for a few years.
He decided to come back with me to Wloclawek that evening and to help with the balloon inflation the next day. We got to Bartosz’s house at around 1am.
Bartosz’s wife, (Gosia) and their two children came with Radek and me to the children’s picnic the next day. The fire department were doing a demonstration for the children when we arrived.
The weather was a little windy, but we were at the top of a hill sheltered by trees, which created a calm area. We inflated the balloon up for around 20 minutes. We were very lucky to do so given the wind around. We encouraged the kids to come and help pack the balloon up. They were all very keen, so we had many small helpers who happily stuffed the balloon back into its bag. Putting the balloon back into its bag is always the kids’ favourite part.
P1000316 P1000318 DSC_0112 P1000319

We all got up early the next morning to go ballooning. Bartosz is teaching Gosia to fly, so he wanted to give her a lesson. He didn’t have much time as his doctor’s shift started at 9am, so the plan was to do a quick flight in his friend’s balloon across the local air field to practise a take-off and landing.

We were all done by just after 8am and headed to Lodz to drop off Radek and go to Gosia’s parents’ place for lunch. I’ve spent an Easter and Christmas at their place and you can be guaranteed that you will be stuffed with large quantities of the best quality food.
Their lunch didn’t disappoint. Polish hospitality is excellent.
The forecast for that afternoon was looking perfect for flying, so we headed back to Wloclawek, got my balloon out and took it for a flight. Another local balloonist joined me in his balloon and we had a perfect flight high above the Wloclawek area. The region is very flat and Poland’s biggest river, the Vistula, winds its way through it. A lot of the land is used for crops, but there are also quite a number of forests dotted around. Wloclawek’s is supported by a number of large companies, including a large chemical factory which supports a lot of events and community groups.
We flew for around an hour and landed on a farm driveway between two crops.
P1000331 P1000345

I headed to Wroclaw the next morning and got their without any issues.
The following day was spent trying to find mechanics. Lucky my friends in Wroclaw, Piotr and Lukasz, have a lot of connections and we ended up taking the truck to a guy who only specialises in gearboxes. The only problem was that they didn’t have the tools to take the gearbox out of the truck as they usually only deal with cars. Luckily Piotr had a friend at the PKS, which used to be the state bus service, and is now private/state owned. They operate a large number of public buses.

The gearbox was taken out by PKS the next day and sent to the gearbox workshop. It turned out that it wasn’t easy to find parts as the truck wasn’t built for the European market, and it didn’t seem to share any similarity with Fuso gearboxes in Europe. Andrzej, (the owner of the gearbox workshop) said he will look around for some second-hand parts.
P1000357 P1000361

It is lucky the problem happened in Poland. If it happened in Western Europe, they probably would’ve said to buy a complete new gearbox, (the price for a new gearbox is a cool $25,000).
By fixing the parts with either new or used, it should cost between $2000 and $5000; Still a lot of money, but much better than $25,000.
When it became apparent that the truck wasn’t going to be fixed in a short space of time, I had a dilemma: I was supposed to be in the Donetsk Region, 2000kms away on the other side of Ukraine a few days later. We had planned an event with UNICEF Ukraine for children and families displaced by the war.
Piotr kindly agreed to lend me his van, which was a huge favour considering it was 2000kms away and only 80kms from a war.
We loaded the balloon and everything into the van. One of Piotr’s balloon crew members, Lukasz, agreed to drive the van and help as support crew. I was happy to have him along.
We left just after midday and headed for the Ukrainian border, around 500kms away. The roads in Poland are amazing compared to how they were 12 years ago. They have built motorways and resealed many of the old, rough roads. You can now drive at 140km/h on perfect motorways across Poland. A lot of road construction is still going on, but the main routes are mostly built.
We arrived at the Ukrainian border in the late afternoon. There was a long queue of Ukrainian cars on the Polish side, but we could go through the EU lane which only had a few cars. The Ukrainian’s must’ve had to wait for hours to get through.
We went through the Polish side without any problems. It wasn’t too bad on the Ukrainian side either, though we had to wait for over an hour.
The Ukrainian immigration officer couldn’t believe a New Zealander wanted to come into Ukraine. She exclaimed to all the other people waiting in line, “why would he want to?”
Very few foreigners are entering Ukraine at that border crossing at the moment, only a few Polish. She told me in no uncertain times that I should only stay in the Ukraine for 18 days and I was only allowed one entry, as stated on my visa. She was speaking Ukrainian, but 90% of the Ukrainian language is the same as Russian, so I could more or less understand.
All in all we were through in about 2.5hrs, which was pretty good.
P1000365 P1000367

We weren’t sure of the road condition in Ukraine. It turned out it was mostly motorway until Kiev. A lot of investment had been made for the Euro 2012 Football Cup, which Poland and Ukraine co-hosted.
I was thinking to stop somewhere to sleep, but Lukasz was happy to keep driving as the road was very good. We stopped just outside of Kiev at 2.30am, having covered nearly 1100kms from Wroclaw. We slept in the van at a service station. I slept on the balloon and Lukasz slept across the front seats.
P1000374 P1000373

We got up at about 8.30am, had something to eat at the service station and travelled the last 60kms into Kiev to meet with someone from UNICEF. We had a bit of time before the meeting, so drove to the Antonov aeroplane factory to see if we could see anything. I have always been interested in Antonov. We drove around the perimeter of the huge facility, but couldn’t see anything as there were many obstacles in the way. We could only see some very big hangars and offices. The facility looks like it has seen better days.

I had a 30 minute meeting with the UNICEF officer, bought a sim card, and then called my Ukrainian balloonist friend, Sergiy, who had helped to arrange various permissions. He gave me directions where to meet him at his balloon club, which turned out to be very close to where we had slept the night before.
P1000381 P1000387

There was quite a crowd at the balloon club as some other balloonists from the UK were also visiting, Phil and Allie. I had met them in New Zealand quite a number of years before, so it was an unexpected place to meet again. The local Ukrainian balloonists had put on a very nice lunch and we talked for the rest of the afternoon.
We headed out later that afternoon to fly. Five balloons went out, including me. It is an easy place to fly. That part of the Ukraine is very flat with huge fields around. Some are cropped, but there were still many which were just grass. A small river wound its way through the landscape, and Kiev was in the distance. We got a good view from 1100m above the ground.
P1000388 P1000395

I landed after 45minutes; Lukasz and Sergiy were there to meet me. We had a traditional champagne celebration for the passengers back at the balloon club, before finding a place to stay for the night on the outskirts of Kiev.
We picked up Sergiy the next morning and headed for Svyatogorsk in the Donetsk Region, around 700kms away. Lukasz and I were surprised at the very good roads. We made good time until we got just past the city of Kharkiv, close to the Russian border. There is an 80km section of road between Kharkiv and Svyatogorsk which is quite rough. There is a small city called Izyum where the roads are in desperate need of repair. Lukasz did a good job of avoiding the sometimes very large potholes and we arrived into Svyatogorsk in the middle of the afternoon.
P1000412 P1000415

After finding our hotel, (which turned out to be a bit of a challenge, but some helpful locals pointed us in the right direction) we met with a few UNICEF staff at the event site to discuss details about the next day. The site was right next to the river and on the opposite side to Svyatogorsk’s famous monastery. We spent 45mins going over details before returning to our hotel.
Lukasz and I went for a walk around the small town. The general population live in typical soviet-style flats. The town is located in the middle of a forest, with tall pine trees surrounding the town. People were out enjoying the warm evening, kids played football and older men played backgammon outside.
P1000424 P1000425

Svyatogorsk is one of the holiest places in Ukraine with a population of around 4500 people. There is a large church and monastery nestled into the hills, which many people visit each year. It is also a holiday town which boasts many hotels and resorts, which seemed to be well occupied. You would never know there was fighting between the Ukrainians and Russians only 80kms away.

We went to have a look at the monastery and church the next morning. Unfortunately for Lukasz, he wasn’t wearing long pants, so wasn’t allowed enter. Instead, he went for a walk while I went for a look inside. The church is quite impressive with beautiful paintings and decorations. A bird aviary stands behind the church and the monastery is to the side and runs up a hill. The public is not allowed to go into the monastery, (not on the day I was there at least).
I decided to climb a hill behind the monastery to a lookout where a huge statue of the Russian Revolutionary, Comrade Artyom, is placed. I read recently that last month, Ukraine’s President signed a bill into law that started a six month period for the removal of communist monuments and the mandatory renaming of settlements with a name related to communism. Maybe his statue won’t be there for much longer.
P1000429 P1000430 P1000431 P1000433

As soon as I started on the dirt path climbing up the hill in the forest, I was attacked by a swarm of large mosquitoes that stayed with me the whole way up. I went as quickly as I could. Luckily they left as soon as I reached the top. The view was really nice at the top, which overlooked the town and surrounding area. Besides the town, everywhere seems to be natural with almost no other signs of human development.
I headed back down the hill quickly to once again avoid being attacked by mosquitoes, and then walked to the hotel to get everything ready for the event that afternoon.
P1000439 P1000438

As we were departing for the event, Lukasz went to turn on the van, but it wouldn’t start. Luckily he is a mechanical whizz, so he got to work seeing what the problem was. A security fuel cut-off switch had been installed recently, so he checked it. It seemed to be a combination of things and after about 15 minutes, he managed to get it going. A big relief.

There were many children’s performances at the event showing both traditional and modern dance, as well as musical acts. Children did chalk street drawings and other fun activities. It was a great family event promoting the UNICEF Ukraine campaign ‘Words Help’. The campaign aims to explain to parents and caregivers how to help children who have signs of stress or witnessed traumatic events. Quite a number of people living in the town now are refugees from the nearby fighting.
The big surprise for the children was the balloon, and the aim was to fill it with kind words and good messages.
P1000451 P1000452

We were lucky with the weather as big showers had developed over the course of the day with associated gusty winds. I managed to pick a gap in the weather, so we inflated the balloon in calm conditions between two showers. We received a brief shower during the event, but it poured with rain an hour after the event.
The kids were really excited to see the balloon and I kept it inflated for half an hour so everyone could get a good look. I was told not to fly there given the security situation.
A number of kids came to help pack the balloon and really got into it. It was a real pleasure to bring a smile to kids’ faces, especially as some of them may have gone through traumatic experiences recently. It is the main reason why I do the project and it brings me the greatest satisfaction.
P1000461 P1000467

We think over 4000 people attended over the course of the event, almost the whole town, so we were very happy with the turnout.
We had a celebratory dinner with Sergiy that evening. Most of the UNICEF staff moved on directly after the event, either back to Kiev or to other areas in the region where they were doing work.

We headed back to Kiev the next morning. About 60kms out of Svatogorsk, we hit a big pothole and got a flat tyre. The rim was badly bent and the tools that we had weren’t able to take the wheel off. We stopped a couple of locals passing. One elderly man who stopped to help was very tall and lanky. He must’ve been over 2m tall. A family also stopped to help out.
Military trucks were passing in convoys carrying supplies to the fighting south of where we were, especially diesel tankers. We thought something must’ve been happening as there were many of them. We found out later that a major gun battle took place that day. 32 people died close to Donetsk city, (100kms away). It was the worst fighting that they had had in recent times. When you see the troops and vehicles going to the front line, it makes war very real.
P1000497 P1000495

After around 45 minutes or so, we were on our way again. We stopped at the city of Izyum and looked at the large soviet war memorial. A convoy of trucks and soldiers had also stopped for a break in the same car park.
P1000499 P1000507 P1000513 P1000511

We continued on to the city of Kharkiv, not far from the Russian border. It looked like a nice city with wide tree-lined boulevards and interesting architecture. A lot of tram lines were being replaced, which desperately needed doing as a lot of them were in very bad condition. I’m not sure how the trams stayed on the tracks they were so old and uneven.
We had a nice meal and made our way to Kiev across the large, flat, cropped fields of Eastern Ukraine. The police checked our documents more carefully going towards Kiev than they did going the opposite way. A couple of the officers asked Lukasz to blow towards them so they could smell his breath to check to see if he had been drinking, then interrogated him whether he had been or not. No need for fancy alcohol detection devices here. I was told later that it is a big shame for a Ukrainian police officer if he gets his alcohol detection device out and the person hasn’t been drinking.
P1000543 P1000542

Sergiy showed us to the UNICEF office close to the middle of Kiev, and then went home from there. One of the UNICEF staff, Olha, showed us a couple of the famous sites in Kiev. We didn’t have much time as it was all ready evening and we were leaving the next morning. I was interested to see the 62m high Motherland Statue, a huge statue built in the soviet time. Many people from Kiev aren’t keen on it as it is a relic from the past, and are not happy that it has the Soviet Union coat of arms on its shield. It is one of the most impressive statues I’ve seen and must’ve been quite a challenge to build.
We dropped Olha at her place and Lukasz and I had dinner at a typical Ukrainian restaurant which was dedicated to old Ukraine. The décor was very interesting with bright yellow wall and many old photos and newspapers. There were lots of good traditional Ukrainian dishes.
P1000567 P1000581

At around 9am we left our hotel and started the long drive back to Wroclaw.
We decided to stop in the city of Rivne for a late lunch and also to exchange money. Prices are still quite cheap in Ukraine. Fuel is around $1 per litre and you can buy a good meal for $5. We ended up staying for a few hours. It was quite hard to find a place to change our Ukrainian money to Euro, but we managed after about the 6th bank. The economy is very regulated, so tight rules apply to currency exchanges.
We had a good meal and then went for a walk around the central city. A lot of people were out and about. It was a hot day and people were enjoying the sunshine. There were a lot of nice parks, one of them was full of sculptures. It seemed like not a bad place to live.
P1000591 P1000594

We got to the Ukrainian border in the late afternoon, where a very long line of cars greeted us, and there was no EU channel. We thought we would be in for a long wait, but we got through in just over an hour. We were processed on the Ukrainian side, then had to wait in another long line on the Polish side for at least another hour. We had no issues and no one seemed to mind we had a balloon in the back of the van.
P1000606 P1000608

The rest of the drive to Wroclaw was easy and we arrived at around 1am.
When I arrived back, the truck’s gearbox issue was no closer to being resolved. Six parts had been freighted to the gearbox specialist and all hadn’t fit. I could see that it was not going to be fixed in a hurry, so I decided to visit a number of friends. I’ve been coming to Europe at least once a year for the past 12 years, so it is like a second home to me. Over the past 3 weeks I’ve been to Germany, Turkey and Poland. My exact route was:
Wroclaw – Leipzig – Kapadokya, (I caught a return flight from Leipzig to Kapadokya), Berlin – Slonsk – Czestochowa – Bialystok – Krzyzany – Warsaw – Wroclaw.
After three weeks I am still waiting to find the right parts for the gearbox, but we hope to have a final decision in the next couple of days. Luckily I had planned for a stop in Poland, so I am not too far behind schedule.

Here, There and Everywhere

We prepared for the balloon flight, planned just outside of Bucharest, during the day and went out in the middle of the afternoon with Dan, a local balloonist, and Ducu, a member of the Romaniei Aero Club (who kindly hosted us).
We headed to a field around 15kms away where Dan would sometimes fly from. It was quite breezy when we arrived, so I decided to wait a bit as it was forecast to slow down. There was a church service going on a couple of hundred metres away and we could clearly hear it. It was Good Friday, so many people were attending. The wind died down slightly and I decided to fly. The inflation was the windiest I had done for a while, but I was up for the challenge. We took off in about 12kts and flew directly over the church. I took Ducu with me, a keen glider pilot and hoping to be an instructor at the aero club. I thought it would be good for him to experience ballooning also.

DSC03914 DSC03916

The fields were wet as there had been a lot of rain recently. Puddles covered many fields and I was beginning to wonder how easy it would be to find a place to land. One other area to be avoided was the nuclear research facility, directly on our flight path.
The area is very flat and the fields are huge, most of them being cropped. We could see Bucharest 15kms away and we flew over a number of villages. After around 45 minutes I saw a perfect field for landing in, close to a good road. We had an easy 8kt landing and Ducu and I packed the balloon. Des and Dan found us after around 30 minutes. They were quite a way behind as we were travelling with some speed. We loaded up the balloon and headed to a restaurant for a celebratory dinner.

DSC03922 DSC03928
The next day we were dropped off in Bucharest by Ducu and a couple of other aero club members. They were on their way to see their families for Easter.
Bucharest is a very pleasant city to walk around, especially in the spring time. Many people told us to watch our belongings in Eastern Europe, especially in Romania. We haven’t felt unsafe during our entire travels, especially not in Eastern Europe.
You can still find many soviet-style buildings on the outskirts of Bucharest, but as you get closer to the centre, the surroundings are much nicer. There has been more investment in infrastructure in recent years. Though there is still some corruption, gone are the days where mafia ruled the roost.
As with many ex-communist countries, there are wide streets and many statues. The large number of parks makes the city a pleasant place to live.

DSC03944 DSC03965
Des and I walked around the old town for a good part of the day and explored all the back streets. There is some interesting architecture, especially the massive parliament building, ordered to be built by the infamous communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. It is the second largest building in the world, and the heaviest. It is so heavy it is sinking a number of centimetres each year. Many of the locals hate it as it is a symbol of past oppression. A large part of the city centre was demolished to make way for it.
After a day of wandering the streets, we headed back to the aero club by bus and tram. There is a military base next to the airfield; one of the guards came to question us as to why we were walking past. It was standard procedure and not intimidating. He was a friendly guy and we chatted a while as nothing much was going on there.

DSC03952 DSC03942

The next day was Easter for the Orthodox Church. Dan came at around 10am with Easter eggs and wine. It is tradition for people to hard boil eggs, paint them and eat them on Easter Sunday. Dan’s children had painted them the day before. We enjoyed the homemade wine he had brought, and we had a relaxed Sunday.
We headed off relatively early the next day and planned to be in Chisinau, Moldova at the end of it, around 500kms away.
The road is good and relatively flat until the border. We didn’t have too many problems at the border. Coincidentally a worker from UNICEF Moldova was also crossing at the same time and helped with translation. The top brass on the Moldovan side asked a lot of questions about why we were entering Moldova, why we had the balloon, etc. One of them was very understanding and helped us out and made the process simpler. They had never seen a balloon come across the border before, let alone an Australian registered truck. The whole process took over two hours, not helped by quite a queue of cars entering Moldova.

DSC03978 DSC03981
The landscape became hillier in Moldova. Many people were enjoying the warm weather and the public holiday by having barbecues in the forest on the side of the road. I have never seen so many people barbecuing before.
We arrived into the capital, Chisinau, in good time and parked the truck in a carpark in the middle of the city, which UNICEF Moldova had arranged. We decided to stay in a cheap hotel, Hotel Chisinau, just down the road as it was more convenient. The hotel is almost unchanged from when the Soviets ruled. It is like a living museum, complete with old furniture and even old rotary dial phones. It was the first hotel built in the city and has 80 rooms. The hot water took about 15 minutes to arrive at the tap. If there are more people staying, it comes much faster we were told. Well worth a stay if you want a blast from the past.

DSC03991 DSC04113
We met the local balloonist, Sergiu that evening, and he took us to the local shopping centre for something to eat.
I met with UNICEF the next morning and we went out to the site where the balloon event was planned for the following day. Sergiu also met us in the small town of Budesti, just outside of Chisinau. I spent the rest of the day at the UNICEF office catching up on work.
It was an early start the next day as I had a live TV interview at my truck at 8.10am. It went well and I returned to the hotel to prepare for the event and keep a close eye on weather forecasts. UNICEF met us at 1.30pm and we all went to the school where the event was to be held. We were greeted by a large number of excited kids. Final preparations were made and the event started with performances and speeches. It was attended by a large number of children, as well as a number of government officials, including deputy ministers of various departments. The Prime Minister wanted to be there, but a last minute meeting came up, so he had to put in his apologies.
I couldn’t be at the ceremony as I was being grilled by the Civil Aviation Authority. They were making sure all my documents were up to date and the balloon was safe to fly. They were very thorough, all was in order though.

DSC04016 DSC04022

We had to wait for quite a while for the wind to die down. Luckily UNICEF brought balloons and kites, which kept kids entertained. I gave a speech to the kids about following their dreams, answered questions from them, exchanged postcards, and there were quite a number of media interviews.
The wind finally dropped at around 6pm, so we promptly inflated the balloon and took off. We had to be careful to avoid a military base, but more importantly the breakaway state, Transnistria, (around 8kms away), currently occupied by Russians. We were told to definitely not land there as no one knew what the outcome would be if we did. The wind direction was towards the area, but luckily I managed to find a good wind direction to stay away from it.
A number of the kids had to leave the event to go home for dinner, but when they saw the balloon flying over, they came out yelling and cheering, making quite a noise.

DSC04033 IMG_1430
Sergiu and I flew for around 40 minutes. We were on the departure path of Chisinau Airport, so we would occasionally get an airliner flying over us. One pilot seemed surprised to see us and asked the control tower whether we were allowed there. They replied that all was OK and the pilot gave his regards to us as he flew 1500ft above us.
We landed on private property by a main road. Des and a couple of Sergiu’s friends found us easily. The gate was locked, but luckily the caretaker was there and let them in. We packed the balloon and headed back to Chisinau for a barbecue and good homemade wine with a few of Sergiu’s friends. Many Moldovan’s make their own wine. Every good household should make 1000 litres of wine, so we were told.

IMG_1454 IMG_1487 IMG_1473 IMG_1381 DSC04041 IMG_1508
I walked to the UNICEF office for a TV interview at 11am the next morning. I stayed there a few hours to finish off a few things from the event, then spent the rest of the afternoon looking around Chisinau.
You can feel that Chisinau still has a bit of a hangover from its time in the USSR. It feels a bit Central Asian, but a lot of progress is being made. There will be a big upgrade of the main street this year and you can see new buildings going up here and there. There are beautiful tree-lined streets and a stroll around the city on a warm early Spring day was enjoyable. Lots of people were out enjoying the sunshine.

DSC04053 DSC04061 DSC04070 DSC04096
I found a great restaurant that night which served big steaks. I hadn’t had one in so long, so it hit the spot.
Sergiu met us early the next morning and escorted us out of the city. We took the same road out of Moldova as we had come in. The exiting of Moldova was relatively straightforward: I think someone had recognised us from when we entered, which made life easier. There was quite a line to enter Romania. People and cars with EU passports went through relatively easily though. I asked the border guard when it was our turn what the hold up was. He said it was just bureaucracy and we could’ve gone into the EU line as the line we were in was generally just for Moldovan’s.
We continued into Romania and found someone at a petrol station just after the border to change my Moldovan money. The man who changed it was very well dressed and didn’t look short of a penny.
We followed the Romania/Moldova border for some time and were stopped by police along the way. The policemen were very polite and spoke good English. They checked all our documents to make sure all was in order. They were fascinated by the visas in my passport and took photos of them all. We talked for a while about our adventures and posed for photos before heading on our way again. Romanian police used to be very corrupt, but there has been a big crack down in recent years aided by undercover officers. When they were stopped, and if the officers could be bribed, they would in turn arrest them. It was a very effective deterrent.

IMG_1572 DSC04133
We drove the rest of the day across plains, and later the Carpathian Mountains. The houses in the north-east of Romania were especially interesting. They look like they were built for small people and look half the size of a normal house. I would have to duck to go through the front door I think. You can also see large houses or multi storey tower looking houses where Gypsies (or Roma People) live. They are transient people, so come and go as they please. Some of the houses look very impressive on the outside, but there isn’t much on the inside we were told. Romania is famous for their Gypsy population. They get a hard time across Europe, but we didn’t have any issue with them.
We travelled across the region of Transylvania, well known for Dracula. We weren’t close to the famous Bram Castle unfortunately; however we did see Hotel Dracula.
We stopped at a roadhouse close to the town of Beclean for the night. It rained for most of the night and I was glad not to be driving in it.

DSC04127 DSC04129
The rain had stopped the next morning and we were on our way again. The main roads are good in Romania, and most of Eastern Europe. There has been a lot of investment by the EU on road infrastructure. Gone are the old days where main roads were potholed, uneven and not being maintained.
The road along the north of Romania was a mixture of hills and plains. We stopped in the town of Satu Mare for lunch before we crossed into Hungary. There we had the worst tasting chicken schnitzel you can imagine. Eating cardboard would’ve been tastier.
There was quite a line of cars at the border, which started to move faster once the a few more border guards came back from lunch. We caused a bit of chaos at the crossing as they had to actually process us. Nearly all the cars, (and occupants) were EU registered, therefore could easily pass through as only their passports needed to be looked at. They needed to open a 3rd car lane because of us. We were taking a while to process because the truck needed to be checked out of Romania.
It was surprising to see that there was no Hungarian border post. Once we were through the Romanian side, we were into Hungary. The good thing about reaching Hungary is that there are open borders around Europe after that, which saves a lot of time and hassle.
I decided to take the back road instead of the motorway to Kosice in Slovakia. The motorway is a lot more expensive and 60kms longer. I found a petrol station to pay the road tax, which was quite a bit more complicated to buy than I think it needed to be.
The back road is good and quite scenic. We passed a very nice hilly area with vineyards in the North-East of Hungary, famous for the wine they produce.

DSC04146 DSC04150
We reached Slovakia in the late afternoon. I stopped at a petrol station on the outskirts of Kosice to buy road tax. Fortunately the police had stopped there at the same time, so were able to help me buy the appropriate road tax.
We found a hotel to stay at on the edge of Kosice. Des stayed in the hotel, while I stayed in the truck. We were staying for a number of days, so a hotel is much more comfortable.
I left for Bratislava by train the next morning so I could apply for my Ukrainian visa at the consulate there. The trip was pleasant across the north of Slovakia, running along the High Tatra Mountains. After arriving into Bratislava five hours later, I walked to a cheap hotel just outside of the old town.

DSC04154 DSC04155
I met with UNICEF early the next morning and we discussed the two upcoming events in Slovakia, (Kosice and Bratislava). After sorting out details, one of the staff there offered to help me apply for my visa. We took the bus to the Ukrainian Embassy and did the necessary paperwork. Usually standard processing for a Ukrainian visa takes two weeks, but after hearing about the project and seeing the letter of introduction from UNICEF Ukraine, they agreed to process it in 10 days for the same price as standard processing. They mentioned it was a really nice idea and a good cause to take the balloon to the Ukraine and were happy to help out. It was very good of them as usually regulations are very strict and I was pleasantly surprised at their willingness to help.
We went to a bank to pay for the visa, then travelled back to the consulate to show the receipt, just as the consulate was closing for lunch at 12pm.
From there, we took the bus to the place where the event is due to be held in Bratislava on the 30th of April. I was happy with the site on the bank of the Danube River, just across from the old town.
I did a bit more work at the UNICEF office and then walked to the railway station to travel back to Kosice.

I visited the local balloon company in Kosice the next day to make sure all was in order for our planned flight a couple of days later. It turned out I had met the balloonist, Arend Jan, a number of years earlier, so we caught up and shared stories. Arend showed me the flying area and briefed me on the local weather conditions. He also showed me the launch site so I was familiar with it.

We took the truck to a workshop the next day as there was a funny noise coming from the back. They spent a few hours looking at it to make sure all was OK. They were very friendly and interested in our story. Luckily one of the mechanics spoke good English. He said that they would do the work for free as they thought the cause was a good one. We were very appreciative and left the workshop feeling very humbled by their generosity.

IMG_1735 IMG_1743

I met two UNICEF staff at the launch site that afternoon, and then continued to look around the old city.
In the middle of the old town is a beautiful old church, surrounded by quite a number of streets with historic buildings. People were out enjoying the sunny afternoon, some were walking while others enjoyed the local cuisine sitting at outdoor tables.
I found a relatively new developed area called Steel Park. It seemed to be a good hangout for young people. There were a number of skateboarders along with a bunch of people practising Capoeira accompanied by music. It was an enjoyable afternoon’s stroll.

DSC04158 DSC04171 DSC04180 DSC04190 DSC04195 DSC04187
We headed to the city centre early the next morning and started to set up for the event. A number of kids came at around 9am and were kept busy creating postcards promoting peace. I will take them to Ukraine in around 5 weeks.
The weather was perfect and I started to inflate the balloon at around 9.15am.
The kids were excited as we took off into the skies above Kosice. I had a local trainee pilot with me. We flew directly along the old city, where I had been walking the afternoon before. I then climbed higher to find another wind direction to avoid the mountains. We flew into the next valley and found a place to land after around 45mins. The landing speed was 10kts, but relatively easy.
Des and a couple of helpers from UNICEF were there on landing, so we packed the balloon and headed back to the take off place to drop off the UNICEF staff, then we dropped by Arend’s place to say goodbye. We didn’t stay long as we needed to travel 250kms to Hungary to our next event.

DSC04212 IMG_1749 IMG_1761 DSC04210 DSC04203  DSC04197

The drive to Hungary was easy, over hills and plains. It was interesting to see the intensification and mechanisation of farming in the area. Not so long ago horses and carts were still common to see and farming was done by families in small plots. Now you can see big tractors sowing huge fields of wheat and other crops.
It was an enjoyable drive and we reached the village of Bank, (north Hungary) in the late afternoon, just as a number of balloonists were going out to fly. It was a small event for Hungarian balloonists to practise their balloon competition skills for upcoming events. We didn’t fly, but we went with my friend, Zoltan, to the target he had set up. We spent a couple of hours watching the balloons get as close as they could to the target, and then sampled the local cuisine that night.

IMG_1773 IMG_1764
It was a quiet day after. I caught up on work I needed to do, then in the afternoon went out to fly. The weather was again perfect and 5 balloons were flying. Zoltan had invited a number of kids from the local kindergarten to come and look at the balloon. They happily climbed inside and enjoyed seeing how it all worked.
I took off and flew to 4000ft. I didn’t know where the target was, but eventually spotted it. I worked my way towards it and eventually dropped my improvised marker 84cm from the target. Feeling happy with the result, I landed soon after. Des and another local crew member weren’t far behind. A couple of locals also kindly helped us out.
The next morning was spent looking around the village of Bank. It is a great place to relax. There are good restaurants and a lake to enjoy a stroll around. A model boat competition was going on, so I spent some time watching the boats weave around a course they had set up, testing their navigation skills.

P1000037 IMG_1821 P1000043 DSC04257 P1000046 P1000052
I went ballooning again the next afternoon in a Hungarian made balloon with the most experienced pilot, and his Son. We had a fun flight flying over a number of villages. Many people ran out of their houses to see us fly over and many kids asked us to land in their backyards. I even saw one kid climb a tree to try to get closer to us. We landed after around 1hr in a huge field.

DSC04261 DSC04264 DSC04265 DSC04268 DSC04254 DSC04276
We travel back into Slovakia tomorrow and head to the Capital, Bratislava. We have an event with UNICEF Slovakia there on Thursday.