I flew into Mexico City, and hopped straight onto a bus to Veracruz, 400kms away. The altitude difference is 2250m, so there’s a long downhill section about half way into the trip. The deep valleys and old volcanoes are quite spectacular.
I arrived into Veracruz in the afternoon and walked from the bus station to the cheap hotel I’d booked. It had the biggest bed I think I had ever slept on. Veracruz is one of Mexico’s oldest and largest ports, founded in the 16th century by Spanish settlers. The historic central city has some beautiful old architecture, though a bit more investment into restoration would go a long way.
For the following
few days I was sorting out paperwork for the arriving ship with my
truck on from Colombia. Fellow overlanders Rodrigo, Carla and Tobias
were also there, so we did the clearance together. It was especially
good to have Carla, as she spoke Spanish well, so it made our job
much easier. There’s quite a myriad of offices to visit, which you
could complete in two days at best. We took longer because the ship
was delayed as it couldn’t get into port due to wild weather, so
not all the paperwork was ready. Plus you can’t be in a rush in
Mexico as nothing happens very fast.
It blew a gale on one of the days and the sea was very rough. I was hoping that my truck would arrive in one piece, as the waves were huge.
I changed hotels after a few days to a ‘4 star hotel’. It was more like 4 falling stars, (as that’s exactly what was happening to the stars in the reception; they were falling off the wall). I wasn’t complaining though as it was very cheap, so my expectations weren’t too high.
We all witnessed the great moment of our RORO, (roll on, roll off) ship coming in to port, and we all managed to receive our vehicles late the following day. I filled up with diesel and water in a fuel station that night, so I was ready for leaving the next day. I tried to find gas for the balloon also, but they didn’t have the right fitting.
I left in the morning, trying to find gas along the way. I went to a few gas filling stations, but none had the right refuelling fitting. I tried to explain to them that I wanted a 45kg tank, (which there are plenty of) and I would decant the gas from that tank into my tanks, as I had the fitting for it. This was a step too far to comprehend for most people, but I finally struck it lucky when at a gas station, a gas truck with 45kg bottles turned up, (after the attendant said that he wouldn’t be able to do it). I talked to the driver and he said that it was no problem, so I took one of the 45kg bottles and he helped me to refuel. He was extremely helpful.
With full gas, I made my way east towards Belize City,1200kms away. The roads were pretty good, though there were lots of tolls. The road is not very interesting, especially just after Veracruz. The road is almost dead straight for about 200kms. The land is flat and swampy, with lots of sugar cane and pineapples growing.
I stayed in a very quiet service station just after the city of Villahermosa that night. It had been a long drive that day, so I was happy to hit the hay that night.
I left early the next day, with an aim of getting into Belize. Traffic became less and less as I travelled east, especially across the Calakmul Reserve. I assumed they had made huge improvements to that road over the past years to increase trade and tourism. The Calakmul Reserve is home to quite a number of Mayan ruins. Due to its isolation, only 15,000 tourists a year visit those particular ruins. It feels quite isolated as you are only passing through thick forest for more than 100kms. It was a nice drive, and the asphalt road was good, (luckily with no tolls).
I crossed into
Belize mid afternoon. One of the border workers greeted me and took
me out of the line of traffic. He said that they give personal
service to overlanders. Foreign tourists with a vehicle have to pay
US$15 though. It’s written everywhere.
Everyone was very warm and welcoming on the border and I was through in about 1hr. If there was no one in the immigration line, it would’ve been much faster.
I spotted a nice, old-style restaurant just before the town of Orange Walk. I had dinner, and asked the friendly owner if I could park there the night. It was no problem. It was a great place to park, and very quiet.
The last 100kms or so to Belize City was easy. I was surprised at how good the roads were. The road is narrow, with no safety shoulder, but the surface is good. I arrived at Belize’s international airport, where I was staying for a few days on the base of the Air Wing of the Belize Defence Force. A friend of a friend had arranged it for me.
I was met by a Sergeant and he showed me around the base. The defence force base a number of their speed patrol boats there too. Their main role is narcotics trafficking surveillance, with the biggest problem area around the Mexican border.
I went for lunch at the terminal and managed to find a SIM card, which saved me a trip into town.
I spent the following couple of days looking around Belize City. It used to be the Capital of Belize until 1970, when a hurricane almost wiped the place out. They shifted the capital to Belmopan, though many were reluctant to leave as there was almost nothing in Belmopan. The government were paying people to go, as well as giving land to new settlers. However, there are still a large number of embassies and government buildings based in Belize City.
There are some beautiful old wooden buildings. People speak English, as Belize used to be a British Colony, so it was easy to navigate around. Life is laid back and no one seems to be in a rush.
I had a meeting with the Deputy Director of the Belize Civil Aviation Authority. He was very supportive of what I was doing and gave me flight permission, pending a permission that I’d need to get in Belmopan.
Happy with that, I headed to Belmopan, to Heart House, an organisation serving children in the Salvapan community, run by a couple from the USA, Carol and Dave. They provide a drop-in centre for kids, which includes providing meals, education programmes, and various community based activities. While I was there, they were in full swing arranging Christmas presents for parents to give their children. The Parents would come in. pay $1, and they would be able to choose something.
I had a drive around Belmopan the next day. With a population of only17,000, it’s a very small Capital City. It seems a bit disorganised, with a not very apparent town centre.
I also got the truck cleaned and the tyres rotated.
The next morning was spent in the municipality applying for permission to use the park. It seemed relatively straightforward, but as the day went on, it became apparent it wasn’t. I was calling them every 30mins in the afternoon because the flight was planned for the following day. I used every contact I could find to push it through. Carol and Dave were great, and we found a local MP to help us. In the end it was all down to the City Administrator, and he finally agreed. It was after-hours by the time I got the permission. The Deputy Director of the CAA was also co-ordinating with him and both worked more than an hour overtime for me, so I was very impressed by that.
The community all knew about the balloon flight the next day, and around 150 kids came to watch over the course of the morning. I managed to tether around 30 kids before taking off. I had to wait for the CAA to come down to give me the flight permission letter. Two men came down and checked on what I was doing. They were very interested.
Kids and adults alike had never seen a balloon before, so it was something that really brightened their day.
I took Dave with me on the flight. The cloud was broken, so it was nice to be on top of the clouds and see the sun. The winds were perfect and I managed to fly right back to the launch site, and landed only 3m from where I had taken off from.
It was handy to land back there, because a lot of the community came to help us pack up, which was a lot of fun.
I said my goodbyes and headed for the Guatemala border, only 1.5 hours away. Border procedures were straightforward, though I did have to walk across the bridge into Guatemala to get some photocopying done of documents. There were also a number of official fees to pay, and I had to change money at a terrible exchange rate by some money changers.
It took about 1.5hrs to cross the border.
In Guatemala, I drew out some money from an ATM and kept driving to Rio Dulce, (200kms away), arriving there after dark. Security can be an issue in rural Guatemala, so I was recommended Rio Dulce as a good place to park. Funnily enough, it is also well known for drug lords, with a large amount of narcotics being trafficked through the area. It was quite common to see people openly wearing guns there.
Again I parked in a service station, then headed for Guatemala City. The road is good, single lane each way, but it’s busy. The road is like a truck race track. A lot of heavy traffic travel on the road between the port at Puerto Barrios and Guatemala City. Some trucks were overtaking me in crazy manoeuvres, travelling at at least 130km/h.
I arrived into Guatemala in the afternoon and went to my friend’s workplace. Oscar is one of only two balloonists in Guatemala, so it was nice to meet him. We had a good chat over the afternoon, and went to the most popular restaurant chain in Guatemala that night, Pollo Campero.
I was planning to look around Guatemala City the following day, but more and more friends turned up at Oscar’s office out of the blue. Everyone was supposed to be working as it was a Friday, but we ended up socialising all day and well into the night. At 6pm sharp lots of firecrackers were set off. On December 7th every year, people in Guatemala burn pinatas of the devil as part of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It symbolises the Virgin Mary’s triumph over evil.
The continuous sound of firecrackers lasted for at least 20mins. It was quite an event.
The next day I went to the famous historical town of Antigua. There going was slow as an accident had happened earlier. Arriving late morning, I strolled around the beautiful town, surrounded by volcanoes. It’s renowned for its Spanish colonial buildings, many of them restored following a 1773 earthquake that ended Antigua’s 200 year reign as Guatemala’s colonial capital.
After a few hours of looking around, I continued towards Escuintla, the location of my flight the next day. To get to Escuintla, you have to pass Volcan Fuego, one of the most active volcanoes in the world at the moment. It erupts everyday, and is common to see ash and smoke being thrown into the air. You can also see the path of the pyroclastic flow from June last year. It killed 190 people. I drove through the area where it came down. The area is decimated. The road still needs to be repaired and temporary bridges have been put up.
I looked for a good take off site in Escuintla. Things were a bit complicated in Guatemala, so I decided to do a fun flight there with Oscar. It would be his first free-flight of a balloon in Guatemala. He had only done tethers before. Not many people have free-flown balloons in Guatemala before.
After quite a search, I found a place at the back of a windscreen repair workshop to launch from the next morning. It was quite tight width-ways, just enough to fit the balloon. Barbed wire covered the tops of the boundary walls, so there wasn’t a lot of room for error. The security guard looking after the place was an old guy, and quite a character.
I went to a shopping centre down the road for dinner, and parked in the empty area where I’d be launching from that night.
Oscar came the next morning from Guatemala City. There was a bit of wind around, which wasn’t surprising given the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. This creates a katabatic flow, especially early morning, which, on a normal day, slows and reverses as the sea breeze kicks in over the morning. I wanted to get out of the town before the wind slowed down too much. We waited about 20mins before inflating. Sure enough the wind slowed and became more stable.
I took off quite fast to get over a tree. We were moving 20km/h almost instantly. Oscar was amazed by it all. We were both really happy to be airborne in Guatemala for the first time.
We continued west, out of Escuintla. The katabatic flow was quite shallow. If I went up 200m, the wind almost stopped. I stayed in the fastest layer to get to a farm further down. The area where we were flying was difficult to access as it was between two major roads.
There were interesting mounds in one area. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they were built by the Mayans. We flew over lots of bushed areas and sugar cane plantations. After 1.5hrs, we made it to a large sugar cane farm, where I landed. The wind was getting lighter and more unpredictable, so I was happy to get there.
Farm workers and their families came in big tractors soon after we landed. I deflated the balloon on a track and they helped us pack it. They were very friendly.
We left the balloon, and one of the workers took us on his tractor to the main road so that we could hitch-hike back to the town to pick up my truck. Luckily for us a public van was going past, so we took that. It was going right past where we had taken off from, so it was perfect.
We picked up the truck and headed back to the balloon to pick it up. I was happy to see it was still in one piece when we got back. After we loaded the balloon, a car turned up. They were private security/police. They were responsible for security of the area and asked us what we were doing. They were friendly about it, but I did wonder where it was going to lead.
They informed us that it was a red zone, (which is a high alert level zone). Just two months before, the owner had been shot only 100m from where we had landed, so tensions were high in the area. There are various underworld dealings and dodgy happenings in that part of the world, so you never really know what territorial disputes may be happening, or who’s patch you may be on.
They only asked for our names and what we were doing. They were really interested in the balloon and the project.
The also told us that the area was being monitored live by satellite, and they even saw us approaching. It is monitored because sometimes people come and purposely light the sugar cane on fire for fun, destroying whole crops. When sugar cane ignites, it can be quite explosive and spread quickly. I was surprised at how high tech they were.
After a few photos, we were on our way. It was quite an enlightening experience.
We had a great breakfast at the most famous breakfast place in town, and then headed back to Guatemala City.
I caught up with some other friends for dinner that evening and watched the largest fireworks display of the year with them. It is put on before every Christmas by Pollo Campero. It was a spectacular display which lasted 30 minutes.
I looked around the historic centre of Guatemala City the next day. A big Winter festival was going on, and the centre was packed. I had an enjoyable time looking around.
In the evening I caught up with a couple of Oscar’s friends at a bar in one of the newest part of Guatemala City. We had a good laugh.
Before arriving in Guatemala, I had found a website, Guatemala Skies. It was run by a guy called Alex. I asked his advice about airspace and flight permission, and He was very helpful. He invited me for a flight on his Cessna 206, which I more than happily accepted. Early the next morning, we flew out over Lake Atitlan, between the 22 volcanoes, and out to the coast for breakfast at an airstrip the Guatemala Aeroclub owns. He also let me fly it for some of the way, which was quite a lot of fun. The airstrip was like a resort, an amazing, well kept place. We were the only ones there.
After a tasty breakfast, we took off again and headed back to Guatemala City on a slightly different route. It was fantastic to see the ocean, mountains, volcanoes and lakes. Volcan Fuego was in good form and sent off a plume of smoke and ash while we were flying.
It was a fantastic experience, and very generous of Alex.
While in Guatemala, it was interesting to get some insight into narcotics trafficking in Guatemala. Small planes litter the border areas especially. Just two days before, another aeroclub airstrip had been used for an emergency landing of a narcotics plane. The smugglers left the plane and ran off into the night. The security there let them be as the smugglers are often heavily armed. It gives you a good idea of the money involved with drugs when planes can just be left. I remember back in Ecuador seeing a Gulfstream private jet that had been abandoned at the airport. The Air Force there have a whole hangar of abandoned planes, which amazingly they are not allowed to sell.
I left Guatemala City after the flight and aimed for Mexico. I had nearly 1500kms to get to my next balloon flight. The road to Escuintla was good, but got worse after, with bad potholes in unexpected places. Traffic is heavy, and there were some long delays for roadworks, especially close to the Mexican border.
I was happy to arrive at the border just before sunset. The border formalities were easier than expected. I already had the Mexican vehicle temporary import permission from before, so it was very easy to cross back in, and saved a lot of hassle. It is valid for 10 years.
I was sent on my way after an inspection of the truck and I stopped at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. There were only truckers there and I got a bit of insight into their lives.
I parked there for the night. It was in the middle of a forest, so it was very quiet.
I continued north the next day, eventually joining back onto the road I had been on going to Belize, (but going the opposite direction). That part of Mexico is narrow, so I could see the Pacific Ocean on one side, and then a few hours later, the Atlantic Ocean. I went through a big Customs checkpoint along the way. It was more complicated than the border. The truck was searched and it took them about 30mins to verify everything in their office. In the end, they also sent the truck through the X-ray machine. They were very thorough. All was good in the end, but it took about 45mins for everything to be completed.
There were some big roadworks happening just outside of Coatzacoalcos. There was only a short delay in my direction, but in the opposite direction, it was backed up for over 20kms, with no sign of anyone moving. They must’ve been stuck for hours and hours. Luckily it was nowhere near as bad when I past the same section going towards Belize.
I parked up at a truck stop just before a toll booth on the long straight that night. I asked a policeman where the best place to park was as there were a lot of people coming and going. He directed me to a safe place, and I had a good night’s sleep.
The final 500kms to Teotihuacan, (close to Mexico City) was easy the next day, arriving there mid afternoon. I was being hosted by my friend, Guto, and the balloon company, Volare. I caught up with Guto and his Family that evening and had a nice dinner.
I had a spectacular flight in a commercial balloon the next morning with Guto. I was parked right next to the balloon launch field, so it was very nice to get out of bed and into the balloon. Teotihuacan is the most popular place for ballooning in Mexico. Teotihuacan is a vast Mexican archaeological complex northeast of Mexico City. Running down the middle of the site, which was once a flourishing pre-Columbian city, is the Avenue of the Dead. It links the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun.
It’s amazing from the ground, and even more amazing from the air. Conditions are also perfect for ballooning.
The following couple of days was spent with Guto, looking around the area, as well as looking around the archaeological site. We also went into Mexico City on one of the days to celebrate Guto’s Wife’s Birthday.
We had arranged for local kids to come down to fly in my balloon. They were taking a while to come, so I decided to do a free-flight first before coming back to the launch site to fly the kids. Conditions were perfect and I had a great 40 minute flight, landing back at the launch site again. I flew the excited kids. Even though they see balloons quite often, they never had the chance to fly in one, so they were extremely happy.
After the flight, I caught up with another balloonist, Javier. He owns a thermal airship company and was doing some testing. He invited Guto and I for a flight. It was great to see how a thermal airship worked. They are very rare, and the one we flew in was the largest commercially produced one, for 6 people.
I left for the 2800km trip to Albuquerque, USA, that afternoon. The road was easy and I drove into the night, stopping at a big truck stop to sleep. It was more of the same the next day, on double lane highways the whole way, which also meant more tolls. I don’t mind paying tolls if the roads are good, which they were.
I reached the USA border in Laredo late in the afternoon. Leaving Mexico was quite easy. I cancelled the vehicle permit and paid the bridge toll. As I got to the middle of the bridge, I realised that I didn’t see Mexican immigration anywhere to be stamped out. I asked a driver next to me, and he said it was just by the toll station. There was quite a jam at the bridge as it was rush hour and there was no way to go back. I asked a US police officer who was walking through traffic what to do. He just said to keep going and ask the border officer.
It took about one hour to get to the front of the queue. The border officer said not to worry about it. He asked a few questions and sent me for an inspection of the truck. I parked in a bay and the truck was inspected. Not a very thorough one surprisingly. I was led to another building to get an entry stamp from immigration. It was relatively straightforward and all the border officers were very nice. I was wondering how the entry into the USA would go, and it was much easier than expected.
Arriving into Laredo was like stepping into another world, straight onto a wide freeway with bright lights from all the famous USA chain stores. I left Laredo and kept going north. I pulled over at a small, rural service station that night.
When I walked into the store there, it was like a typical scene from a US movie. Two policemen, one very big, one very small, deciding on which candy to buy.
Everyone was very nice and helpful, and it was no problem for me to park for the night there. You could really feel the Winter chill kicking in, after the hot weather from the south. In the space of 1 week, it felt like I had gone from Summer to Winter.
I continued the long drive the next day. There was a small stretch of hills, but it was generally crossing the large Texan plains. I stopped at Walmart to buy a couple of things along the way.
On the radio, the only stations I could find were either classic Mexican songs, or Christian evangelists, (usually asking for money every 10mins). Sometimes a country music station would come along. Regardless, not many good listening options.
I was generally travelling on good secondary roads, which were single lane each way. It was nice to not have to worry about unexpected potholes or rough patches of road.
The number of oil pumps is incredible, as well as the vast expanses of cotton fields. They both go for hundreds of kilometres. The cotton harvest was just finishing, so large bales of cotton were in the fields ready to be picked up.
I was surprised by the large amount of new oil wells and pipelines going in, especially in southern Texas.
I parked at the back of a shop in the small town of Tatum, just inside the New Mexico border. It was the first cold night, with a biting wind. It was around -2deg.
I finished off the final few hours to Albuquerque the next day. I left just on sunrise. It was entertaining to pass through Roswell and spot all the UFO related things.
I stopped in a town just before Albuquerque to go to a friend of a friend’s workshop. I wanted to get a couple of small things looked at, to do with the heating system especially. We managed to sort out the biggest problem, which I was happy about.
I arrived into Albuquerque in the afternoon, and parked at Guto’s friends’ place, Naomi and Eddy. I had some tyres delivered to their place. My tyres are extremely difficult to find, but the USA is one of the few places I can buy them. My old tyres lasted amazingly well, last bought in Poland. I drove all the way around Europe, East Africa, and The Americas. Sometimes on very tough roads.
They were finished though, so I was very happy to get new ones fitted the next day, especially as icy conditions further north were not far away.
I also went to a truck workshop after that to get a few small things seen to. The prices in the US are horrendous. I can’t afford much when the hourly rate is US$120/hr!
I caught up with a friend, Troy Bradley, for dinner that evening. It was great to meet his family for the first time too. Troy holds the most balloon records in the world, and it was a great evening of storytelling.
I flew alongside the local commercial operator, Rainbow Ryders, the next morning. Troy is the Chief Pilot there. Naomi and Eddy came out to help me, and I took Eddy with me on the flight. As it was just a couple of days before Christmas and the school holidays were on, there was no chance to arrange an event, (though I did try). We had a great fun flight across Albuquerque though. I did a splash ‘n dash in the Rio Grande River, (touching the water with the balloon’s basket). We also spotted two porcupines as we flew low over trees. I never knew that porcupines climbed trees.
After climbing and getting a nice overview of the area, I landed in an empty lot. Naomi was there when we landed. It was a perfect flight.
We had a big breakfast after and I went to Albuquerque’s famous balloon museum in the Afternoon. Well worth a visit. Albuquerque is arguably the balloon capital of the world. Every October it hosts a famous balloon festival. I was there around 14 years ago and witnessed 850 balloons flying. Quite a sight!
I had dinner with the Bradley Family again in the evening. Troy’s son, Bobby, taught me the finer points of American Football. It was another interesting evening.
I stayed at Naomi and Eddy’s place that night. Their garden is amazing, full of Christmas lights and inflatables. It looks stunning, and is a real labour of love which they do each Christmas.
I headed for Canada the next morning. My next flight was planned for a place close to Ottawa, 3400kms away.
Taking the Interstate from Albuquerque across the Midwest was as easy driving as it gets. Huge, flat plains to cross, with cropped fields as far as the eye can see. It follows the old Route 66. I crossed from New Mexico, into Texas, on the first day, and parked outside a Dairy Queen in Groom, Texas that night.
I drove across Oklahoma and stayed in a huge empty carpark in Springfield, Missouri, the next night. It is for sure the strangest place I’ve spent a Christmas Eve.
Funnily enough, I was heading for Springfield, Illinois the next day. It was Christmas Day and when I arrived mid afternoon, the only place open was an Ihop Restaurant. I was seated next to a guy who was completely out of his mind, constantly talking to himself. I was trying to make sense of what he said, but couldn’t. The restaurant was really busy. The manager came and sat at my table for a minute and apologised. They had been trying to get him out for 5 hours. Amazingly, he did get up and go by himself about 10mins before I left. It did take him a while to get out the door though. You could clearly see the relief on everyone’s faces. They gave me free dessert for putting up with him. It was a Christmas Dinner to remember for sure.
I parked outside a Penny’s store in an industrial area that night, just across from a Mitsubishi Fuso dealer, who I wanted to visit the next morning to look for parts.
I headed across to the dealer early the next morning. They didn’t have the parts I was looking for, and were generally useless. I have only found one good Fuso dealer in the whole world, (in Nevsehir, Turkey) the rest have been overpriced with terrible service.
I didn’t hang around, so I continued north, across Indiana and into Michigan, where I spent the night in Flint, close to the Canadian border. I had a good steak there that night.
The border crossing the next day was interesting. I didn’t want to do what I had done in Mexico and not get an exit stamp. I asked the guy in the toll booth before leaving the USA where it was. He said it was just behind me. So I parked the truck on the side of the road and walked over to the building that he’d pointed out. I couldn’t find anything there, only no entry stickers. Then a policeman at a guard’s post angrily came out and asked what I was doing. I told him, then he angrily pointed to where I should go. Maybe other officers had seen, and even more were coming out where I was supposed to be going. I asked one of them where I could get my passport stamped. He was much nicer and said that I didn’t need one and just go across to Canada. It was quite surprising.
I drove across the large bridge crossing the St. Clair River to Canada. There was a 15min wait to get in, but nothing compared to the traffic jam waiting to enter the USA.
The Canadian border guard had never had a vehicle enter which was from outside North America, so even he said he had no idea what to do. He sent me to the main border building.
I was just pulling up outside a small building, when a whole lot of officers jumped out looking very worried. It turned out that they thought I was going to crash into their building! (which I thought was completely ridiculous given I was only driving at about 10km/h). I had no idea that there was anyone in there. I think I had interrupted their morning coffee as nothing was going on.
I told them that I wanted to enter Canada, so they told me where to park the truck, (about 10m from where I was) and I went inside. It was so quiet, all of the Immigration and Customs Officers were free. I handed over my passport to one, then he asked me to go back and wait in the line, (even though there was no one), so I did. Then 2 seconds later he called me up, and sent me to the Immigration officer sitting next to him. He then took my things and put them on a shelf behind him and asked me to take a seat, which I did. After a couple of minutes, another guy sitting next to them gets up, (who was also doing nothing) and gets my things from the shelf. A minute later he calls me over and stamps me in. This is when I overheard that they thought I was going to crash into the guard’s post.
I asked if I needed anything a permit for the truck’s entry. He said that there wasn’t and I was fine to enter. I thought I was in a Monty Python sketch. The whole situation was completely ridiculous. Bureaucracy to the extreme.
I was happy to be out and driving into Canada. I stopped in London that night and dropped in to Canada’s largest commercial balloon operator to say hello. Not much was going on there as there was no flying for a few months due to it being Winter.
I stayed in a truck stop that night, before continuing on to Toronto to meet a friend for lunch the next day.
I continued further north that afternoon and stopped in the picturesque town of Cobourg for the night, parking up on the lakeshore of Lake Ontario. As the sun went down, there was an amazing mist that formed and I watched thousands of Canadian geese come in to land on the lake with a bright red sunset. It was a magical experience. It was really cold that night, but luckily the heating system in my truck worked well.
I made my destination of Sandown by mid afternoon the following day. Sandown is a tiny place between Ottawa and Montreal, and home to one of Canada’s most experienced balloonists, Wild Bill, and his wife, Sandy. I was due to fly there the next day. The place looked beautiful with ice and snow everywhere.
The invited me into their home, where we had dinner, exchanged ballooning stories, and watched a movie. A good way to spend a cold night. Bill also showed me around his balloon workshop. He makes all sorts of balloons there. Sandy holds quite a few balloon records.
Three balloons, including mine flew the next morning. I flew a local boy eight year old boy, Felix, with me. It was cold, but spectacular. The fields had all sorts of patterns formed by the ice and snow.
I flew around 50mins before landing in a place easily accessible for the crew. Access is an issue when there’s snow and ice around, so it is good to be kind to the ground crew in those situations.
We packed up quickly. It was a luxury to have so many crew on hand, all local balloon enthusiasts. After picking up Bill, (both our balloons were loaded onto the same vehicle), we had a great lunch with all three balloon teams at a restaurant after the flight.
The truck wouldn’t start the next morning, and there wasn’t enough charge left in the batteries to get the engine heater going, so we jumpstarted it without too many issues.
I visited the camper heater service centre in Montreal that afternoon. It was their last afternoon of working before they shut for a few days over the new year.
I told them what the problem was and we did some troubleshooting, but they were too busy to fix it. I asked the mechanic what had to be done, so he told me, and I fixed it. It took a few hours but the fix worked.
I stayed in a hotel that night, which was a nice change from the truck. It was New Year’s Eve, but I was too tired to go out to do anything.
There had been a lot of fresh snow overnight, and road crews were out the next morning. They cleared the snow quickly.
I headed north, towards my final destination of Halifax. I knew temperatures were going to get really cold over the next day. I made it to Edmunston that night, about half way between Monteal and Halifax. The temperature was -18 when I arrive, with a windchill of -30.
I parked up at a truck stop, figuring that would be the best place to be if the cold temperatures affected the truck.
The temperature was -23 with a windchill of -40 overnight. I got up at 4.30am to get everything going again, but even only after 6 hours things were frozen up. The cabin and motor heater started but it was always shutting down as I think the anti-freeze was freezing and blocking the lines. There was a big front-end loader driving around clearing snow, so I asked if he could bump-start me. He agreed, so we hooked up my truck with a chain. I had done it many times before, (Mongolia and China came to mind) but never at such low temperatures. It is not great for the engine.
I had it in 3rd gear, but it wouldn’t start. It had always started in 3rd before, so I was concerned. After going around the yard a few times, he stopped. He only spoke French, (it was still in Quebec) and told me to put it into 5th for higher engine compression. Sure enough, it started. It was a huge relief. I thanked him and we parted ways.
I arrived into Halifx that evening and parked at a balloonist’s workplace. It was with some elation that I had arrived, as it had been the target all along. It meant the official route of the project had been completed.
The next few days in Halifax was spent catching up on various things, like laundry and shipping. On the day of taking the truck to the port, the truck didn’t want to start, (as it was too cold).
I asked the guy who was also staying at the same airbnb as me if he could help to push it. The house was on a hill, but there was still about 20m of flat to get it to the hill, so I could bump start the truck. We couldn’t push it ourselves as there was a bit of a dip, so I flagged down a couple of guys driving by and asked if they could also help. Just at that moment a police car happened to be going past, so he said that he would stop the traffic coming up the hill. With 3 pushing, the truck started easily. It all turned out very well. There’s never a dull moment with my truck!
The port drop off was very straightforward, the easiest I’d been to. The ship is due to leave on the 12th for Antwerp, Belgium. I’m flying to Poland on the 11th, and will be in Belgium to meet the truck at the end of the month. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying the sights and sounds of Halifax and Europe.