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