The first time I met champion balloon pilot Vincent Dupuis I was disappointed.
Certainly not because of Dupuis himself - a delightful Frenchman who has twice been world champion in ballooning. No, the disappointment came from the weather conditions early that morning, which put paid to our scheduled hot air balloon flight. Dupuis was in Canberra to take part in the annual Balloon Spectacular and I was to fly in his basket and get photographs for the paper but because of the strong winds, it was deemed too dangerous to take to the skies.
Two years later, we were reunited and enjoyed a perfect morning flight, not over Canberra, but in his home country over some beautiful French countryside.
Vincent operates his hot-air ballooning business, Air Adventures, in the town of Bellenot-Sous-Pouilly, in the Burgundy region, three hours' drive south east of Paris. It was here, that my wife and I and two companions, made the ascent on a beautiful September morning. It was our friends' first flight and they had been very anxious but by the end of the 90-minute journey, they were hooked.
The previous evening, following a picturesque drive from Paris, we had enjoyed a five-course meal in the gorgeous Chateau De Chailly, situated on the outskirts of the village of Chailly sur Armancon. There was much discussion over dinner, accompanied by the local wine, about what to expect on the flight. Vincent preferred to launch the balloon from the grounds of the chateau, which has been turned into a hotel and is surrounded by a lush, undulating 18-hole golf course.
The next morning, as the sun rose over the fairways, he went about the business of inflating the balloon envelope with a little help from his passengers. With everyone safely on board, we slowly rose over the imposing sight of the beautifully-restored, 45-room chateau.
As we drifted across the grounds and with the township about to slip underneath us, the valley's rolling hills came into view. With the occasional bark from a dog and a wave from some of the local early risers, we floated over the town and headed for the hills. As we drifted along, our friends were pleasantly surprised that we were not flying too high. Skimming across the tree tops we were given a commentary from Vincent about the area and its history and were entertained by the deer dashing for cover as the sound of the burners broke the morning silence.
After passing fields, dotted with plump Charolais cattle, we approached the A6 freeway, much to the entertainment of motorists who gave us the occasional wave and toot of the horn. Balloons are an amazing platform for photography and all on board were busily recording the flight either on their phones or - in my case - something more sophisticated.
I found myself so caught up in taking still and video images, that I probably didn't take full advantage of the peaceful flight. But I do have lots photographs to look back on.
Our flight took us over quaint villages and the odd chateau or two and as the 90-minute flight drew to an end, we prepared ourselves for a landing in a random paddock on somebody's farm.
With knees bent and our backs to the landing spot, we slowly came to a scraping halt after a couple of gentle hops and I think I heard a few sighs of relief as we came to a stop.
With the envelope lying in the field, it was safe for us all to jump out and help pack up, which included expelling the air from the balloon and stuffing it back in its bag.
With that all done, and the basket back on the trailer, Vincent set up a table in the paddock, pulled out some glasses from a picnic basket and cracked open a bottle of champagne to toast a successful flight.
- This year's Canberra Festival Balloon Spectacular runs from March 9-17.
- Graham Tidy travelled at his own expense.