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