There was a lot of talk of how we'd get into the giant picnic basket with the barbecue on top, but we'd given little consideration to what happened at the other end.

"There's a door, I'm sure there's a door," asserted one of our group during the 4am shuttle ride from Surfers Paradise into the Gold Coast Hinterland for our balloon ride with Hot Air Balloon Brisbane.

Turns out there was no door, just a couple of footholds and an affable bloke called Wayne ready to help launch us into the basket.

As well as the sheer magic of getting the balloon — a 450-series, the biggest of its kind at 10 storeys tall — up in the air, the Hot Air Balloon crew also have to worry about weather conditions and where the best place is for the ruddy enormous thing to take off.


Getting to the launch site felt like something on The Amazing Race. Our driver, Scott, was in constant radio communication with the other balloon crews as they decided which farmer's paddock suited the conditions best.

Even more tricky, and really in the hands of the weather gods, is predicting where it was going make landfall.

Yep, it turns out that the pilots can raise the balloon up and down with the LPG burners, and have a little control via an air vent panel, but other than that, your journey is pretty much at the mercy of nature. The crew have to race ahead on the trot to be at the landing site when the balloon touches down.

Before we took flight we were told a couple of times that when it was time to come back down to earth, we should assume a brace position, holding on tightly to rope handles, our knees bent and our backsides firmly up against the padding in the centre of each side of the basket.

As we waited to board the balloon in a muddy field at the back of the small town of Beaudesert, we watched with growing alarm as a lighter balloon carrying two people and a pilot rocked back and forwards in the swirling wind, several staff hanging off the side in a vain attempt to stop it tipping over.

The trio had to clamber out of the now-horizontal basket, their departure put on hold until the breeze settled.

Our basket, however, which held up to 24 people plus a pilot, was steady as a rock; the staff work hard to make sure everything is balanced and that conditions are safe before takeoff.

It's incredibly physical work; lots of hauling, pulling and lugging (those gas canisters weigh at least 45kg and there are several per basket). The "envelope" of the balloon weighs a massive 450kg.

Ours was the first of four balloons to get up and away and it was a surreal feeling to look down and see the ground get smaller until fields looked like postage stamps and lakes like puddles.

Moving at about 20km/h we ascended to 3300m (the highest they climb is about 7500m), and in an hour we covered about 12km.

It's surprisingly noisy — I had imagined a lot of silent coasting but the burners were roaring away above my head most of the time.

The hour flies by (pun intended) and before long, the ground was rushing towards us, and we were instructed to get in that brace position, ready for landing.

Pilot Blake warned us that the pesky wind was still misbehaving and that it wasn't going to be smooth sailing.

We hit the ground with a big bump, bounced, then landed again before skidding to a stop and slowly, almost balletically, tipping on our backs like flailing tortoises.

It's not-uncommon way to finish a flight, Blake reassured us.

We lay there laughing our heads off before clambering out one by one and dusting ourselves off, as a herd of inquisitive cattle came bounding over to see if the basket was, in fact, a large bale of hay.

Then it was all hands on deck to help deflate the big yellow envelope and pack all 450kg of it into a huge blue sack — making packing down a tent look like a piece of cake by comparison.

It was brilliant. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. And then it got better. A Champagne breakfast at historic O'Reilly's Canungra Valley Vineyards is included as part of the A$250 package and, if you're lucky, you'll spot turtles and platypus in the creek at the back past the pretty jacaranda trees.

Our early morning start came during a whirlwind weekend on the Gold Coast that began with an easy 70-minute journey on the Airtrain from central Brisbane to Nerang Station where a Combined Limousine was waiting to deliver us at our hotel — the very slick QT Gold Coast — in Surfers Paradise as part of the Train and Transfer door-to-door service.

Then it was back on the train, this time aboard new local light rail service G:link to the impressive Q1 — a giant among many huge skyscrapers along the GC and one of the tallest residential buildings in the world at 322.5m high.

An ear-popping elevator ride, with a lift-shaft camera showing us the journey as it was happening on a screen above our heads, got us to the 77th floor SkyPoint Observation Deck and bar/cafe in less than 43 seconds.

It was a cracking day and we could see for miles along that famous coastline, over the city, and out towards the lush green hinterland, a reminder that we were in tropical territory.

The braver members of our group harnessed up and headed outside for a 90-minute SkyPoint Climb that took them along the glass crown framing the top of the tower, then up nearly 300 steps to its summit, reaching a height of 270m above the ground.

The rest of us took the safer option, which in this case involved yet another speedy descent, but this time the whims of Mother Nature had nothing to do with our landing.

Catch the Airtrain to paradise

Buy Airtrain tickets in advance and save up to 15 per cent on some bookings.

Channel your inner daredevil — take adrenalin-pumping rides, meet stars, superheroes and amazing animals and get wet 'n' wild at the Gold Coast's theme parks without breaking a sweat.

Pick up a family SmartPass — valid for 3, 5, 7 or 10 days — on Brisbane's Airtrain.

It's the easy ride.

Airtrain's Gold Coast Train and Transfer (Airtrain Connect) service will transfer you to your Gold Coast accommodation via train then private vehicle.
Airtrain's Gold Coast Train and Transfer (Airtrain Connect) service will transfer you to your Gold Coast accommodation via train then private vehicle.

As well as train and transfer travel from Brisbane Airport to your Gold Coast accommodation, park transfers and local bus travel, the Airtrain stops at stations near major attractions — Coomera for Dreamworld fanatics, Helensvale for Movie World and Wet 'N' Wild lovers, Nerang for Broadbeach, and Surfers Paradise destinations.

With balmy weather and more than 70km of stunning coastline, the Gold Coast is a scenic wonderland that boasts tons of sunshine and adventure.

Airtrain departs Brisbane Airport every 15 minutes (peak) and every 30 minutes (off-peak). It has ticket options to suit all of your travel needs.

Market taste

Gone are the days when you leave the hotel in search of something decent to eat - these days hotel restaurants are destinations in themselves. Bazaar, at the QT Hotel in Surfers Paradise, is inspired by a traditional marketplace and is a unique dining experience where guests are encouraged to interact with the chefs to find out about the food they're preparing. Nothing is labelled, so if you want to know what something is, you have to ask.

Much of the kitchen is open, so you can see into cool rooms with hanging meats, fridges storing huge, gleaming tuna and other fish, hotplates, pizza ovens and wok stations. There's every type of shellfish you can imagine on banks of ice and a wide selection of curries. Many dishes are made to order and there is a dizzying array of sweet treats for after — or before.

Getting there: Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Brisbane.

Airtrain's Gold Coast Train and Transfer (Airtrain Connect) service will transfer you to your Gold Coast accommodation via train then private vehicle. Earlybird saver discount available if you book online in advance.

Further information:
Gold Coast light rail
QT Gold Coast
Hot Air Brisbane