The KiwiTravelWriter falls in love .. again!

As if in slow motion the basket gracefully falls on its side and the journey is over. We burst into laughter as we gaze, from our backs, up into the sky that only a moment ago we were floating in

“When the wind blows in your face, something different is about to happen,” we’re told. It’s true and when the wind blows on our faces we change direction during the best morning I’ve had for ages. It’s so good I fall in love – in love with hot air ballooning. It is such fun even clichés fail me.

At 4 30am I was woken with a phone call.

hot air balloning in Canterbury New Zealand
hot air ballooning in Canterbury New Zealand

“It’s on, the weather is perfect, and your transport will be at your door in 20 minutes. It takes an hour to reach Methven, (1025 ft above sea level) home of Aoraki Balloon Safaris and close to Mt Hutt ski fields. Meeting with others who have driven from Christchurch or stayed overnight, we’re given overshoes, have our names and weights recorded and divided into two groups. A short bus ride takes us to the Methven Show grounds where we’re to be launched air balloon over village

Already the excitement is building and our group of eight or nine strangers are talking freely with each other. We’re all virgin balloonists and are anticipating a great time. Unlike many tourist ventures, on this we get to assist with the preparations. Some drag the traditional wicker basket (willow cane and rattan) from the trailer while I help unfurl the colourful giant balloon from an impossibly tiny bag: even the basket seems too small for us all. The balloon is now stretched out on the ground, a Kiwi and Swiss traveller hold open its mouth and two huge fans begin blowing.

Slowly the multi-coloured nylon takes shape and our excitement continues to grow. We are all taking photos – recording the time for future memories – and finally it’s full – so full in fact that there is around eight tons of air in it. Now to heat it – apparently this is what makes it rise – and guess it’s why they call them hot-air balloons. Our pilot directs the roaring jets of flames into the mouth without burning it and shortly the balloon is moving. It rolls slightly to the right, back to the left, centres itself, then as we let go it leaves the safety of the ground to do what a balloon does best – it flies.

As it hovers above the creaking basket we climb aboard, are given safety instructions for landing (facing forward holding the rope handles and bent knees,) and, are given the last chance to bail out.  No one wants to disembark, the heat is turned up and off we go.

hot air balloon over village

Rather it’s up we go. Magic. Cool cool cool. What else can I say? It is at this moment, as the ground falls away below us, that I fall in love. I’m having a natural high and I know I’m addicted with this first rush. Although I watch the other balloon, I am too preoccupied with my own experiences.

The world looks very different from up here; it’s quite different to a plane because of the lower altitude and speed. A local is taking a photo of us from her terrace but it seems most of the other 1000 villagers are still asleep on this crisp clear spring day. A dog is barking, magpies are chortling, hares and sheep flee, cattle stare, and the Swiss traveller breaks out some genuine Swiss chocolate to share. Perfect. He, like many of the others flying today, was given the flight as a birthday gift: one couple were celebrating their wedding anniversary.

The South Islands’ snowy-backbone, the Southern Alps, provide a perfect pristine backdrop for our 360°views. New Zealand’s highest mountain Aoraki-Mt Cook can be seen in the distance along with beautiful braided rivers. Across the productive, but dry Canterbury Plains, the port town of Timaru and the Pacific Ocean are clearly visible. I click my camera frequently: the rest of the time I’m awe-struck. No wonder parts of this scenery was used in the Lord of the Rings ( And, am I the only person in the world not to have seen the movies?)
All too soon the gas is getting low and it’s time to land. We have been watching the chase vehicle following us and our pilot points out the landing spot, and reminds us of the landing position. The lower we get to ground the faster it seems we’re going. Then, cattle staring and even following us, we skim over the final fence, more air is vented and we land in an empty field. One little bump, back up into the air briefly then we land.

As if in slow motion the basket gracefully falls on its side and the journey is over. We burst into laughter as we gaze, from our backs, up into the sky that only a moment ago we were floating in. Although we have landed, the adventure is not quite over. The farmer and our chase vehicle are driving towards us and we have a balloon to pack. With more laughter we roll our bodies along it to expel the air, and then squeeze it back into the very small bag. It fits. The traditional ballooning breakfast: a glass of good kiwi bubbly or orange juice, coffee, croissants, jam, cheese and fruit.

The farmer gets a bottle of bubbly to take home. As a child lying on my back, and watching clouds drift by, had whetted my appetite for flying like a bird. This, surely, is as close as one gets.

Facts and figures

The balloon is 81 feet in diameter – 93 feet high;

Holds 245, 000 cubic feet of air;

The air is heated with LPG

Balloons always fly east to west, the circular direction of the world’s major weather patterns.

The balloon and basket were made in South Dakota, USA

Brief history of ballooning.

Paper-makers Joseph and Etiene Montgolfier, who were looking for new applications for their product, made the first hot air balloon, in France. The brothers made a balloon from paper and fabric and it rose when put over a flame. They first tested it with a rooster, a duck and a sheep – under the orders of Louis XV1. The brothers never flew. The first flight with people was in Paris in front of Louis and Marie Antoinette while outside France the first was ten months later (Sept. 1784), by an Italian in London.

Marie Antoinette is on record as having said, “It is the sport of Gods”. The traditional bottle of champagne was given to the farmer on whose fields the balloon lands was not so much for the joie de vivre of today, but to stop the farmer attacking these strange and uninvited creatures with pitchforks.

NOTE: this article first appeared in the Christchurch Press some time ago

Longboats, bats and beds in Mulu National Park: Malaysian Borneo

A day in a longboat then sleeping in the best bed I’ve ever slept in was my introduction to the World Heritage  Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.

Gunung Mulu World heritage Area
Gunung Mulu World Heritage Area

My adventure started with a 4-wheel-drive trip from Miri (I’d been at the fabulous Borneo Jazz Festival) during which we travelled along back roads, through oil plantations, over potholes in the snake-like, gravel road, over bridges, and on two vehicle ferries  until we reached Marudi some 2 hours later.

We're off
We’re off

Planet Borneo  had arranged an early lunch for us, then, after a safety briefing, we boarded our longboat – home for the next five or six hours – a journey time that’s water level dependent.

A local woman on the boat tells me she did this same trip some 20 years earlier. She and her family were attending the opening of the national park and had gone up the wrong tributary  and spent the night on the boat lost in a side stream! I’m expecting our local boatman to know exactly where he’s going on this curvy watery highway and that we won’t need to get out to push it through any shallow parts.

During the boat trip (on which many of the locals slept!) I saw monkeys on the riverbanks, some small hawk-like birds, the beautiful white herons and a couple of pairs of hornbills. We didn’t get lost, but we did hit a submerged log once, and had motor issues briefly. At our only toilet stop – at a small village – our bags are moved together and covered – it is obvious rain was imminent. I put my camera in its waterproof bag and get my plastic poncho ready – five minutes later its on as the tropical rain hits. We still have over an hour to go and soon we passengers transfer to two smaller boats to cope with the shallower water while our luggage remains in the original traditional longboat.

I’m one of two westerners on board, and because we’re larger, where we sat is vital to the balance! I sit where I’m told and stay still especially when we go through small rapids.  Travelling along these three rivers, each one smaller that the previous one has certainly been an adventure which few travellers experience – and that alone is a recommendation! I love to get a little off the well-worn trails. (I returned to Miri by plane  – 30 minute trip)


At about 6pm , after leaving Miri about 9am, we arrive at the Royal Mulu Resort happy to check in and remove our plastic ponchos. I’d have been even happier had I known this was to be the home of the best bed in the world!  Next morning, over breakfast, one of the others in the group said, “I want to marry those pillows” so it was not just me who loved sinking into the soft luxury of the beds. I even looked under the sheet to see what the secret was … a lovely thick topper pad.

The Royal Mulu Resort is being upgraded and their website says:

The 101-room Royal Mulu Resort in Sarawak, Malaysia is set to be rebranded as the Mulu Marriott Resort & Spa in late quarter 4, 2014. With an ethnic design resembling longhouses, the resort rest on 15-foot wooden stilts rising over lush vegetation and linked by a series of walkways. Each guest rooms comes with its own balcony overlooking the scenic Melinau River, and modern amenities such as flat screen TVs and high – speed Internet access. 

The resort will feature an all new lobby lounge with open-space business center and library. Guests can dine in all-day, three – meal restaurant with an outdoor seating for al fresco dining. A private dining room and bakery / deli will be located next to the restaurant, while a riverside bar completes the resort’s F&B service.

Other recreational amenities will include a new spa, an outdoor swimming pool, gym and Activity Center, meeting facilities, and Marriott Kids Club. The resort can even arrange exciting outdoor activities such as night cruise, rafting, kayaking and jungle hiking and many more activities available at Mulu National Park –” 

Just so long as they don’t change the mattress and pillows I’ll be happy with whatever they do!

I sleep in the best bed in the world
I sleep in the best bed in the world

After dinner, it was great to have a good nights sleep as the next day we had some 26ks to walk, about 300 steps to climb, and a boat trip, as we explore the area, visit some caves, meet the locals, and watch the bats on their evening, syncronised, aerial display.

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Monsoon nights in Malaysia

Excerpt from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad (Available as an e-book)

I’m publishing this excerpt for a friend who sails to  this wonderful island today.

Monsoon nights on Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia

“Paddling along the water’s edge crabs scurry away at my approach, ducking into the safety of their holes and when I step off the beach I’m absorbed into lush forest. Something scuttles into the undergrowth in front of me and I freeze: there are scorpions and other biting things here and I have no shoes on. Moments later, when nothing else moves, I carry on, watching where my feet land. Climbing over exposed roots and dirt I see nothing dangerous and in minutes reach Coral Bay, the other side of the island. Sitting under a tree I watch palm squirrels, with their reddish bottlebrush tails, chasing each other up and down palm trees with amazing speed and agility: this beach too is deserted, except for a man playing a flute.

The wind and waves are building up when I return to Long Beach hours later and with the tide now high, men are pushing boats further up the beach and the rooster’s long tail blows over his body as he struts on the sand in front of the restaurant.

That night, as I sit under the net canopy on my bed feeling like an Elizabethan woman in a four-poster, the rain starts. It almost drowns the loud calls of the geckos, the singing lizard. I’ve been told to count the number of their calls; seven or more refrains and luck will be mine. Tonight the only gecko that’s audible is the one who lives under the eaves of my one-room chalet with its million dollar views. I count one, two, three and four. His song always peters out after three or four calls, no luck for me tonight. Despite the noise of the storm I sleep well and wake to a changed landscape. The path leading to the toilet and shower area is a river and I dare not walk without sandals – in fear of biting, stinging, creepy-crawlies hidden in the rushing water.

For 48 hours we are bombarded with non-stop torrential rain, thunder, lightning and wind. The rain-dimpled beach is rearranged. Little creeks flood, gentle slopes and pathways become waterfalls and rivers carrying a variety of rubbish: the generator fails and palms sway, looking like umbrellas on a windy street. A green wheelbarrow, a large blue plastic drum, a palm-tree trunk and a two-metre long monitor lizard are swept along in the violent rush. While the rubbish hurries out to sea and the wheelbarrow is rescued, the monitor lizard escapes the waves at the last minute, nonchalantly walking back up the beach, looking like a staunch, bandy-legged, bull terrier and his head sways side to side, his tongue exploring the air.

As I watch, a metre of sand is sucked out to sea. Rocks are now visible where smooth sand once lay and the constant noise of the wind sounds like planes taking off so we have to talk loudly to be heard. I order rice for breakfast and local coffee made with sweetened tinned milk. I’m sure the kitchen staff are male despite their female clothes: Mr Rooster joins me for breakfast and three tomcats fight.

The pounding rain bounces and splatters up and down on the ground, almost looking like a musical score for sound waves. It’s writing a percussion symphony of sound, light and action, the only string instruments provided by swallows who dart back and forth, enjoying the rain, soaring and then with a sudden folding of wings, swooping in a fearless free-fall. It’s a dramatic interlude and I sit on the bottom step and absorb the wild atmosphere as waves lick my feet.

While others spend the day in bed, writing and reading and sleeping, I’m too excited to do anything but sit in the eye of the storm. Asia has honed my ability to spend hours doing nothing, not even the writing I’d planned. The owner of Shake Shak was right; I have caught the island disease. ‘It’s fatal’ he’d said, ‘you may never leave here.’ The Lazy Virus he called it and I’m happy to sink into its inertia, it hardly seems possible that at times I’ve been so busy that I’ve cleaned my teeth while sitting on the toilet.

The owners struggle to fix the generator, divert water that pours through the restaurant and still cook meals. They remain cheerful and between tasks someone provides background music on a well-worn guitar: their repertoire is small, the words often different to the original, but we join in, even me with my flat voice.

Despite the storm some holidaymakers have come down the beach for dinner at our restaurant. After they’ve eaten, the tide has backed the creek up; creating a swirling body of water they have to cross. We, the Moonlight guests and staff, give them advice. ‘Here’s a raincoat,’ Khaleck, Moonlight’s owner says, as he rips a hole in a black rubbish bag.

‘Don’t go down there, stay away from the waves.’

‘Use the trunk as a bridge.’

‘Come back three feet, it’s shallower there.’

‘Hold hands as you go through the water.’

We shine torches as they attempt to get through the water and debris, retreating when it gets too deep, something floats past, or brushes against a leg. A man walks across the palm-tree trunk that lies across the rushing water, his arms are stretched out like a high-wire artist and his success inspires his partner to try. She’s halfway along the temporary bridge when the log rolls. She is soaked, up to her waist in the swirling water and instead of continuing she comes back through the flotsam and jetsam to our side. Shortly afterwards, the waves subside momentarily and she makes a successful dash to the accompaniment of our cheers.

The next morning sunrays make sporadic forays into Long Beach and it seems the monsoon is nearly over. As soon as that thought appears, the rain comes back with vengeance and, for another day and night, the torrential rain continues while we share a celebration.

Naoko, a Japanese woman, also travelling on her own, celebrates her birthday. The kitchen produces a cake for her. We push tables together and sit in candle and lantern light, enjoying the fun and laughter that surviving a storm has produced – periodically a cry of horror emerges from someone as a rivulet under the table changes course and flows unexpectedly over their foot. Sand, that forms the floor covering, is washing through the cracks in the wood, while a decorative waterfall has formed halfway up the stairs: we name it the Moonlight Cascade.

Over coffee and cake, we’re told tales of shipwrecks, murder and pirates and how the beach was renamed. They tell us it used to be called Ghost Bay and locals would rarely come here; we hear about a refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people and I’m told that young men who work in the tourist trade find it hard to find ‘good Muslim girls’ to marry.”

© Heather Hapeta

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