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