Sydney: Floating above suburbia in the sport of gods

By Graham Reid

A balloon flight gives Graham Reid a new perspective on the urban sprawl.

Sydney's skyline takes on a new splendour viewed from above. Photo / Tourism NSW
Sydney's skyline takes on a new splendour viewed from above. Photo / Tourism NSW

The American poet William Carlos Williams had an astute and true observation about travel: "I have discovered that most of the beauties of travel are due to the strange hours we keep to see them."

There was certainly some bleary-eyed beauty at Parramatta Park west of Sydney as night wheeled towards a red dawn to the sound of cockatoos and rosellas.

And on the way here - leaving a central city hotel at 4.30am - the streets were deserted. It sometimes seemed the sole sources of bright lights were the surprisingly numerous McDonald's outlets, which pierced the night with their golden-arched glow.

In the hour before dawn, a dozen or so cold but alert figures who had arrived at the park - the site of the original Government House built in the late 18th century - mingled in anticipation of what would follow.

Then with paperwork done - important waivers and orders for champagne breakfast on our return to Lachlan's Restaurant at Old Government House - we climbed aboard a bus for another drive to a deserted field in Baulkham Hills where our balloon awaits.

Hot-air balloons are a fascinating way to appreciate a landscape. My sole previous experience had been in the Atherton Tableland inland from Cairns and there, drifting above clouds, orderly orchards of pruned mango trees and on to a vista of green and brown, I was struck by the vastness of the view.

But this flight near Sydney is different: it is mostly over suburbs where dogs - alerted by a high-pitched sound from the gas tank - bark incessantly. They wake owners who come out to shut them up but, because they don't look up as we drift silently overhead, can't figure out what has set their animals off.

And so we float onward, around 250m off the ground and the streets beneath us create their own rhythms and patterns. Some look like songlines for white fellahs.

Over there is an oddly shaped, fan-like building (Parramatta Prison), here a church whose symbolic shape is only apparent from this height, and, in the distance, a white mosque and minaret pierce a bush-clad hill.

From up here, these western suburbs look like abstract art as the camera lens frames just a few streets or a baseball diamond.

On the distant horizon, the tower blocks of Sydney emerge above a haze of cloud.

Up here you can see who has a backyard full of car bodies, broken trailers and useless junk, the new developments that cut hard-edged lines in the rolling hills, and the piercing shaft of a motorway heading towards the heart of the city through the suburban sprawl.

Birds glide past and, for awhile, there is the powerful, sweet smell of a bakery. But mostly it is cool, odourless silence.

We drift on. Matt our pilot takes us down so low I can reach out and touch the tops of trees in a copse beside a stream. Herons take flight from a golf course. Horses and cows below are oblivious to us until there is a rush of gas to pull us up into low cloud again.

For an hour, we let the breath of nature take us where it will, followed by the shadow of our airborne selves.

Matt looks for a landing spot and calls the back-up van to meet us. We bend our knees as the basket bumps gently to earth behind a TAFE institute. Too-cool-for-school students pretend to pay no attention to the blue and yellow object deflating before them.

We happy passengers help roll up the balloon and dump it in the trailer. Then it's breakfast on the Garrison Veranda at Lachlan's.

Marie Antoinette - who had seen the Montgolfier brothers' aerial invention at Versailles around the time Australia's first governor was establishing his residence - considered ballooning "the sport of the gods", perhaps because, until then, only gods could look down on the earth from far above.

So we might perhaps add to what William Carlos Williams observed about travel: Sometimes it is the height from which we see places that reveals their beauties.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand offers more than 50 non-stop flights to Sydney every week from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, with connections available from all around New Zealand.

Balloon rides: See balloonaloft.com.

Further information: For general information on visiting Sydney see sydneyaustralia.com.

Graham Reid travelled to Sydney courtesy of Tourism Australia and flew with Balloon Aloft.

- NZ Herald

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