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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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On The Road Again – Europe

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We travel back into Slovakia tomorrow and head to the Capital, Bratislava. We have an event with UNICEF Slovakia there on Thursday.

Into Europe

It was a busy few weeks arranging permissions before our events in Turkey. The balloon regulations are quite strict in Turkey due to there being a lot of commercial ballooning. This is a good thing, though it means a lot of work to get approval to fly or tether a balloon.
A few UNICEF staff came from Ankara to film the balloon in Kapadokya. It was quite a feat to get the permission as it has been quite a few years since a foreign registered balloon had flown there. The Director of the Civil Aviation Authority in Kapadokya was very supportive. It also made it easier that I had flown there for a couple of years previously.
I went with the UNICEF staff to get a few shots for filming and showed them the flying area.

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We arrived early the next morning at the company I used to work for, Kapadokya Balloons. We had arranged for all the company balloons and I to take off together. The weather was perfect and we all went off to find a suitable take-off place.
It was great to get into the skies above Kapadokya again, especially in a small balloon. Most of the time I had only flown a big passenger balloon for 24 passengers there. We flew for around an hour with 60 other passenger balloons over the famous Kapadokya landscape of fairy chimneys and interesting rock formations. We had people filming from two other balloons and a nice video should be coming out soon.
The following week was spent going over final details for our event with UNICEF in Ankara. It was more difficult to get the permission to inflate the balloon and keep it on the ground than it was to get the permission to fly in Kapadokya. It was just a matter of following the process though.

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We drove from Kapadokya to Ankara a day before we were due to have our event. I met briefly with UNICEF at their office when we arrived, then went to have a look at the city. Ankara is quite a hilly city with a population of around 4.2million. It is a busy place and has a typical city feel to it. It was fun to explore the inner city and see what made the city tick.
We all met at UNICEF the following morning and made our way to Ataturk Kultur Merkezi. The site is in central Ankara where Ataturk gave his famous speech for the 10th anniversary celebrating the independence of Turkey.
The last of the stage and seating was being set up as we arrived and I went ahead and helped to prepare the balloon with a few keen helpers. The wind was on the limit for inflation, so I was a little anxious. The forecast was for it to calm down as the morning went on though. Looking at weather maps beforehand I was confident that it would. It was a beautiful sunny day.
Around 150 children turned up at around 10.15pm and I started to inflate the balloon. The wind calmed as predicted, though there were a few gusts to contend with.
While the balloon was inflated, kids enjoyed making postcards for us to pass on to other kids along our route. A few musicians from a local orchestra played on stage, which added a nice atmosphere.
I kept the balloon up for around half an hour. After deflating it, I went to talk to some of the kids and see the postcards they had created. Some of the artwork on the cards was really impressive and the messages quite meaningful. The idea behind the postcards is to create a friendly global community by sharing postcards between children in different countries.

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Once they had finished their postcards, they helped me pack the balloon. Some of the kids had disabilities and were really happy to get involved. We took photos together and they thanked us, before returning to their buses and heading back to school. Everyone was very pleased with how the event went.
I stayed two more weeks in Kapadokya before making the 1200km trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. The road is good, a large part of it being a toll road. The only part where there was a lot of traffic was in Istanbul. Crossing the Bosphorous in Istanbul marked the start of the European leg of the project. It is funny to stop and think sometimes about the ground that has been covered during the project so far. It makes the world feel both big and small at the same time.
Trucks generally outnumber cars on highways in Turkey, though as I was getting closer to the Bulgarian border, it seemed the only vehicles on the road were late model BMW and Mercedes cars.

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The border crossing formalities at the Edirne border crossing were much easier than expected. The Customs officer on the Bulgarian side was very surprised I had a balloon with me. He gave me a smile and said I was OK to go. The Immigration officer asked me why I was travelling around the world. I just said “Why not?”
I stopped 150kms before Sofia, at a fuel station just outside the city of Plovdiv. It will be great when they finish the 4 lane highway from the border to Sofia. The roads are largely good, but there are some rough parts. People said the roads in Bulgaria were horrible, but I don’t think they know the state of the roads further east.
The last 150kms to Sofia was easy on a four lane highway, probably built by the Russians during the soviet period. I went directly to a hotel by the airport where my old crew member, Des, was staying.
Des had stayed longer looking around Europe and Russia than expected and had asked to join me again. I was happy to have him back.

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I arranged to park in the hotel’s carpark for my few days in Sofia. I met with UNICEF at their office the next day and we went to look at the park where our event was going to be the following day. Sofia is an interesting city and you can still see many of the old apartment buildings left from the soviet time. On one of my walks, I spotted graffiti on a railway overbridge which read ‘Welcome to Sofia – City of Beer, Girls and Graffiti’. There is certainly a lot of the latter.
The Bulgarian people are very friendly and hospitable. After I visited UNICEF, one of the project’s supporters, DB Schenker, arranged a taxi for me to go to their office, which was out of the city. The tracker I have from them needed new batteries and to be reconfigured. The workers there were great and I spent a few hours with them. I was also on the phone to a technician in Germany for an hour making sure all was OK with the tracker.
One of the workers then took me to the metro station. It was quite a way back to the airport and the last few stations of that line had just been opened the day before. Everything was sparkling new.
Des and I headed to the South Park the next morning and helped set up for the event which was due to start at 10.30am. Our focus for the event was to promote giving children a voice to be heard, especially to speak out against violence. It was a family event and planned as a school holiday activity.
The weather was good, however the wind was gusty and much more than forecast. I had confidence the wind would stabilise though. It did, but it did make for a breezy couple of inflations of the balloon. There was a dance squad there who were showing off their skills and teaching children dance moves.
We encouraged kids to come and touch the balloon and get a closer look before I inflated it a second time. The wind was completely calm and I kept it inflated for quite a while.
There was quite a bit of media coverage and the event was covered by all the main TV stations. One of them even did a live broadcast from it.
Many children, (and Parents) came to thank us after the event and everyone was very happy with how it went.

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Directly after, we drove 200kms to the town of Sopot, the paragliding capital of Bulgaria and the place where we would be flying the next morning. Some local balloonists drove from the coastal town of Varna with their balloon and met us there that night.
We all went out early the next morning to go flying. We found a suitable field and took off together. It is an easy place to fly with big fields bordered by mountains on one side and hills on the other. After taking in the scenery for around an hour, we landed just past a typical Bulgarian village. A lot of people were waving as we flew over.
The other balloonists invited Des and I to go paragliding with them, (as they were also paraglider pilots). We jumped at the chance and later that morning we were in the air again soaring above the mountains. The area is popular with paraglider pilots around Europe as there is a chair lift which takes you almost to the summit of one of the mountains. The chairlift was built during the Soviet period as an escape route for the surrounding towns. Sopot used to have the largest arms factory in Bulgaria. It is still there, but much of it is no longer in use. It still employs around 800 people.
We had a celebratory lunch in the early afternoon. Ballooning and paragliding before lunch is pretty good going. Later in the evening we were treated to a typical Bulgarian dinner at one of their friend’s houses. He was a 72 year old and quite a character. During the soviet time he was a tractor and combine harvester operator.
We said good bye to our new balloonist friends the next morning. The weather wasn’t nice, so we decided to stay in Sopot another night.

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Our next stop was Bucharest, Romania, around 300kms away. We left early the following morning and made our way across the mountain pass to the old capital city of Veliko Tarnovo.
On the way, we experienced four seasons in one day. First it started out warm in Sopot and we admired the blooming flowers, before heading into snow in the mountains, then rain on the other side.
Veliko Tarnovo has a castle with large walls around it. The town itself is set in a beautiful area with valleys on two sides of it, (the same valley in fact) with a river flowing through. In the old town the original buildings are well kept. There is a lot of interesting public art work on walls and obscure places, (a concrete block was made to look like an accordion for example).

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It was raining when we first arrived, but it stopped after we had something to eat at a local fast food restaurant. We had an enjoyable few hours walk.
Later in the day, we continued on to the border town of Ruse and managed to find a very reasonably priced restaurant. We parked up in the suburbs and had a view of the soviet-looking town with many buildings all crowded together.

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We crossed the Danube River and into Romania the next morning. The bridge is tolled, (6 Euro for us) and we passed the Romanian Immigration and Customs on the other side without any problems.
The final 90kms to the airfield we would be staying at was an easy drive. The southern part of Romania is very flat.
We met the Director of the Bucharest Aeroclub and he showed us the facilities when we arrived. A local balloonist had arranged for us to stay in the accommodation there. We were very impressed with the whole setup. We sampled the local food with one of the airfield workers later in the day.
We will do a fun flight here on Saturday. The flight will be for fun as it is Easter here this weekend and it was too difficult to arrange an event. On Sunday or Monday we will travel to Chisinau, Moldova to prepare for our next event on Wednesday, which even the Prime Minister is said to be coming to…

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Lots More Adventures To Come

Preparation for the European leg of the project is well developed. It has been a busy couple of months in Turkey, a lot of phone calls have been made and many e-mails sent.

It was nice to get away for a few days to the south of Turkey with my Girlfriend. On the way there, we got caught in a large traffic jam as a new electric cable was being put up across the valley. A small truck that sold local sweets was just ahead of us and set up shop. He did a very good trade. The truck next to us was giving coffee to anyone who wanted it. There was a good sense of community spirit.
Once there, we managed to park right next to the Mediterranean Sea for the few days. Two days in Mersin and one at Kizkalesi.
The number of Syrians displaced by the war was very noticeable. There were many. You can also see many Syrian registered cars. It would be interesting to know how they have adapted to life in Turkey.
The weather was not great for the first couple of days, but it was a perfect 19deg and sun for the last. We then headed back to Kapadokya where it was -3deg and snowing. It turned out that snowfall was the biggest they had had in nearly 30 years.

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I have also done a couple of flights here giving pointers to a junior pilot. It was nice to get into the skies over Kapadokya again. It is a spectacular place to fly.

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Most of my stay here has been spending hours sitting in front of a computer though. It was expected as organising the European leg of the project is quite involved.

I have recently been to Ankara to meet with UNICEF Turkey to go over the events we are arranging. There are some strict rules regarding balloons in Turkey, so we’ve worked a lot with the Civil Aviation Authority over the past few weeks to make sure everything is correct. The plan is to free-fly here in Kapadokya on Monday, then tether the balloon in Ankara on the 17th.
While in Ankara, we even checked out a few indoor venues to see whether they would be suitable in case of inclement weather. None of them had enough ceiling clearance for the balloon though.

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We have confirmed events with other UNICEF offices also, (a mixture of free-flying and tethering) in Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria. I am still working on events in many more European countries. The rest of the mainly southern European countries will be covered next time I come through here after I have travelled through Africa

The rough European schedule for this year is below:

Turkey: Until 20/3
Bulgaria: 20/3-5/4
Romania: 5/4-11/4
Moldova: 11/4-17/4
Ukraine: 17/4-22/4
Slovakia: 22/4-24/4
Hungary: 24/4-17/4
Slovakia: 27/4-30/4
Austria: 30/4-3/5
Czech Republic: 3/5-8/5
New Zealand: 8/5-18/5
Poland: 18/5-28/5
Belarus: 28/5-2/6
Lithuania: 2/6-6/6
Latvia: 6/6-9/6
Estonia: 9/6-14/6
Finland: 14/6-21/6
Sweden: 21/6-27/6
Norway: 27/6-2/7
Denmark: 2/7-7/7
Germany: 7/7-15/7
The Netherlands: 15/7-21/7
Belgium: 21/7-26/7
Luxembourg: 26/7-28/7
France: 28/7-20/9
Switzerland: 20/9-25/9
Andorra: 25/9-30/9
Spain: 30/9-6/10
Portugal: 6/10-13/10
Spain: 13/10-20/10

More news to come soon….