Lance Richardson surveys the patchwork of farms, gardens and suburbia on the western frontier of Sydney.
I'm fairly certain Phileas Fogg was never forced to get up at 4.30am and that his 80-day journey around the world was never broken by the agitation of an alarm clock (although it was also fictional). Nor do I recall a pre-dawn car chase in which a group of men stop periodically to observe the flight trajectory of a small black balloon. Whatever else Jules Verne subjected his characters to, this was not on the list of indecencies.
Yet here I am, standing in a field before breakfast. By the time we find a suitable place for launch, we've migrated from the urban fringes of Sydney to rolling farmland. The red threads of sunrise have cooled, though dew remains thick on the ground.
Forty minutes ago, I was comfortable in the Camden Valley Inn dreaming of the palatial bathtub. Now I'm watching the balloonist, Martin Moroney, blast hot air into what is called an "envelope" - the balloon element made of nylon - so 16 of us can sit in a wicker basket underneath and float over the beds we inexplicably left behind.
Of course, once we're in the air, this cynicism evaporates just as quickly as frost above the flame. With a sudden whoosh that feels like falling upwards, we break away from the ground of south-west Sydney and a bird's-eye view of staggering beauty is revealed. Sometimes it takes an early-morning jolt to the system to open your eyes.
The Macarthur region is unique for its confluence of city and country. As we ascend on air currents, it's possible to see Sydney's skyline on the horizon and - with a small turn of the head - a patchwork of a carefully tended fields that lead to the boundaries of the Nattai and Blue Mountains national parks. Macarthur sits between these extremes. Most closely identified with Campbelltown, it's often treated as a pit stop on the Hume Highway rather than a destination in its own right. This is a shame, because there's more to see here than petrol stations and suburban sprawl.
The area takes its name from the pioneers of Australia's wool industry, John Macarthur and his wife, Elizabeth. Their first flock of sheep was established in 1795 and even now agriculture and industry remain a driving force in the region. Residents of the inner suburbs enjoy the vogue of farmers' markets where "farm" is a vague and sanitised concept.
Here, farmers' markets mean exactly that: where Belgenny farm opens its gates to the public and market stalls are set among stock horses, olive trees and men churning butter. Kids take tractor rides to the cemetery down the hillside.
As we drift aimlessly over streets and patches of trees, the balloon gives a perspective of Macarthur and greater Sydney that's impossible to gain from anywhere on the ground. The city seems enormous and yet oddly compact. At one point, we float above a retirement village and an elderly woman waves a walking stick at us. "Lucky bugger!" another woman yells from a car just before we float across the Nepean River into a grove of eucalypts, where a kangaroo grooms itself in solitude.
Accompanying the vista is Moroney's commentary. He alternates historical facts about the area with stabs at humour. He moonlights as a celebrant, he says. "We also do scattering of ashes. We're thinking of doing cremations next." Then he lets off a burst of flame into the balloon like the boom-tish of an ironic cymbal.
A balloon flight forces you to stop and take measure of a place (and its people) but you don't always have to wake at 5am to discover something new in your backyard. A good example of how attractions in this part of the city are often overlooked is the Mount Annan Botanic Garden. Driving along the South Western Freeway towards Canberra, it's easy to mistake the fenced-off scrub alongside the road for unremarkable bush. What you're mistaking is the outer perimeter of the largest tended garden in the country. More than 400 hectares of dairy farmland have been transformed since 1988 into an expanse of floral preservation. Wollemi pines, a tree painted blue, sculpture by the Paakantji artist Badger Bates and gardens designed to teach better sustainability practices sit side by side in an enormous driving circuit.
There are daily tours of the garden and climbing into ranger Ron's car for a personal tour is an exercise in strange juxtaposition. Once the personal bodyguard of Kerry Packer, his conversation veers from the ecological value of a dead tree to anecdotes involving dead politicians. This is another thing about the area that's easy to miss: just because a man wears, for example, a ranger's uniform, doesn't mean he hasn't been stuck in a darkened lift with a Labor prime minister.
By lunchtime, my capacity for surprise has been well and truly exercised but there's one more in store. At Harrington Grove Country Club, an unassuming restaurant harbours chef-hat aspirations. Opel Khan's restaurant Bibendum - the Latin equivalent for "time to get sloshed" - serves tuna carpaccio under an upturned martini glass. Such theatricality would more commonly be seen in the inner city but Khan has different ideas. "All the top restaurants in the world," he says, "they're always outside the city centres."
Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Macarthur Tourism.
The Macarthur region is less than an hour's drive south-west of Sydney's central business district.
Camden Valley Inn has a variety of accommodation options. Standard rooms with two double beds cost from $140 a night ($160 on Saturdays). The executive room with spa and king-size bed costs from $250 a night ($310 on Saturdays). Phone 4655 8413, see camdenvalleyinn.com.au.
Things to do
Balloon Aloft has weekend dawn flights over Camden Valley. They cost from $299 a person for an any-day ticket (web price). Precise departure times are confirmed the evening before, see balloonaloft.com.
The Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan, is open daily. An entry fee of $9 a car applies. There are free motorised tours most days. Phone 4648 2477, see rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/annan.
Belgenny Farm is open annually for markets on Mother's Day, Father's Day and the second Sunday of November, see belgennyfarm.com.au.
Bibendum Restaurant by Opel Khan is at the Harrington Grove Country Club and is open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner and Sunday for lunch. For degustation dates see bibendumrestaurant.com.au.
Another worthwhile stop on the return to Sydney is the Mukti Gupteshwar Hindu mandir, the only underground Hindu temple in the world. Open daily, 203 Eagleview Road; see muktigupteshwar.org.
Best by balloon
The Balloon Spectacular is part of Canberra's March Festival. About 40 balloons inflate near Old Parliament House each morning for a sunrise trip over the city and surrounding areas.
Balloon Aloft takes passengers as part of these festival flights; regular flights over Canberra are also available, including a champagne breakfast at the Park Hyatt for an additional charge. From $290 a person, see canberraballoons.com.au.
Dawn Drifters offers Canberra flights, meeting just before dawn at Rydges Capital Hill Hotel. Priced from $250 a person, see dawndrifters.com.au.
The Hunter is a popular ballooning destination and Balloon Aloft has daily sunrise flights from Peterson's Champagne House in Pokolbin. From $299 a person (with breakfast), see balloonaloft.com/huntervalley.
As an alternative, Cloud 9 balloon flights in the Hunter leave from the Crowne Plaza near Cessnock. An "adventure flight" costs $299 a person, see cloud9balloons .com.au.
Elsewhere in NSW
Cloud 9 also covers the Hawkesbury Valley near Sydney, leaving from the Sebel in Windsor. A weekday escape costs $269 a person, see cloud9balloons.com.au.
In the north, Byron Bay Ballooning runs a one-hour sunrise flight for $325 a person, see byronbayballooning.com.au.
Canowindra, near Orange, is another centre of ballooning. Aussie Balloontrek has flights lasting between 30 minutes and an hour. For prices phone 6361 2552, see aussieballoon trek.com.au.
Also at Canowindra, Balloon Joy Flights is the official commercial carrier for the Australian National Balloon Championships, on April 9-17. It costs $260 a person, see gjkerr.com.au/balloonjoyflights.