The alarm went off in the dark. Usually, getting up pre-dawn means one of two things: illness or an early flight. Today was a case of the latter, but not in the normal sense. We left the hotel just as a hint of breaking sun highlighted the river mist, following the trusty Michelin map to a field just below Rocamadour, one of France’s most visited pilgrimage sites. By now, the town hewn so creatively out of a cliff was tinged the soft rose of dawn. It was breathtaking. However, my breath was about to be taken away by something quite different: a hot air balloon ride.
Neither Monsieur nor I had ever been in a hot air balloon before, so the whole routine was new to us. Once at the rendezvous point of a dewy field we introduced ourselves to a balloon crew already unpacking their trailer. A shiver of doubt trickled down my spine as the pilot explained that our crew was not yet here and he would be teaching his two companions how to fly today. Oh joy. Would they use L plates? I wondered. Already nervous, the idea of floating around at great heights in a basket near learner pilots was becoming less and less attractive.
Our crew drove into the field and we went to say hello. There were two of them: the pilot and an assistant who would follow us in their jeep. The basket was unloaded, looking a lot smaller than I’d anticipated, then a large nylon kit bag was opened to expose the balloon. At this point it was surely too small to inflate into something large enough to carry us across the Dordogne skies. Once unfolded, however, with a gas canister pointed into it, the mass of green fabric filled up to full size.
All too soon it was time for take off. We climbed aboard. With Monsieur, the pilot, the gas canisters and me, there wasn’t much room to move. A piece of advice: never get into a balloon with anyone you don’t trust, or, for that matter, with someone you don’t like very much as you may be tempted to help them over the side. It would be all too easy.
Amusingly, the pilot gave us safety instructions prior to lift off, similar to what you see on a plane. “If you need to hold onto something, use the frame or the rope handles on the basket,” he told us, “and please do not touch the knobs on the gas canisters.” I prayed I wouldn’t knock into one accidentally. Did I mention how little room there was? “In case we bump into a cliff,” (a cliff? we could bump into a cliff, he said?) duck down inside the basket and hold onto the handles.” The pilot smiled. “But that hardly ever happens.” Not exactly reassuring when we’re stood right next to quite a large cliff of historic importance. We could end up taking out some unsuspecting tourists if we weren’t careful. Perhaps a whole bus-load. But wait, there’s more. “In the case of an emergency landing, duck down inside the basket and roll with it, and keep away from the flame.” Well, that part is obvious. I thought of my mother and started to pray.
The Learners took off at about the same time as us, so we travelled in tandem. Our basket bumped up off the ground and hovered. A surge of gas and we rose a bit. And hovered again. This happened a few times until we just floated, quite still, at a level with Rocamadour. This was a comfortable height, with a pleasant view of the valley and town. Perhaps we could just stay here for a few minutes and go back down? A couple of dogs below were already beginning to resemble small insects in quite an unnerving way.
My wish wasn’t granted. The gas surged again and up we rose heavenwards, gradually losing sight of Rocamadour. Soon we were above the clouds, floating across a fluffy white carpet with an unnerving expanse of blue sky all around our tiny little basket. Yet another unwanted thought popped into my head: can planes see balloons on radar? I certainly hoped so. Thank heavens we weren’t near any major airports.
After a while, I stopped praying and managed to take some photos. The vista of the unspoilt Dordogne landscape was stunning. It was easy to imagine cavemen running around down there shaking their clubs on the way to do some cave painting. Then we drifted across luscious farmland. At one crop of outbuildings a choir of barking started as the rush of our flame alerted some dogs to our balloon. We couldn’t see them, but clearly they didn’t like the sound of us. The barking faded as we passed farmhouse after farmhouse with fresh blue rectangles of swimming pool, a churchyard and lots of outbuildings and barns, all resembling those little plastic farm toys that come with a pair of ducks, some cows, a sheep or two and a hen house..
The pilot picked up his walkie talkie at intervals to identify landmarks as we flew over them, so that Monsieur Ground Staff knew how to follow us. Finally, just as I was beginning to really relax into the ride, he said “see you at Jean’s farm,” clicked the walkie talkie back into his belt and began our descent into the friendly Farmer Jean’s back field. I grabbed hold of the frame with one hand and the nearest rope handle with the other, gritting my teeth as I prepared to roll with the basket in case of a landing issue. Proving that Epicurus is quite sound in suggesting we find a way to live without fear, we bumped across the grass a little bit and stopped perfectly easily, making all my nerves and doubts seem rather ridiculous.
Climbing out of the basket, we were greeted by Farmer Jean’s Border Collie as Farmer Jean himself ambled out to shake hands with our pilot. Then Monsieur Ground Staff joined us, trailer in tow, as we waited for the balloon to deflate.
I stood back, absorbing the early morning light and the view of our Learner friends dropping into a nearby field, quietly mulling the concept that a lot of adventure can be had before 8.30 in the morning when I noticed the cobwebs. In the long field-grass there were cobwebs everywhere, beautiful in their symmetry and sparkling with dew. As I searched for a spider to match one of these webs, something tickled my face. It felt like hair so I reached up to brush it away, finding instead a spider walking across my hand. It must have taken a long walk up my jeans and over my fleece onto my face without stirring any attention. Looking like an anorexic daddy-long-legs, I gently put it back on the grass before watching the men pack away the balloon into the trailer. Already the trip had taken on a surreal quality.
Once back in the field of departure, the pilot filled out our flight certificates, justly earned, might I add, and bade us farewell. We felt it rude not to visit Rocamadour so off we went to breakfast at Le Beau Site, looking down on the field we’d just left. As we sat with our coffee, we watched the town wake up, shop shutters cranking open, tour buses arriving and discharging their passengers. Yet just before things became too crowded or touristic, we were able to leave, still pondering the morning’s adventures as we drove off to explore more of rural France.
It would seem my prayers worked. I had survived the balloon ride and would see my mother again. But would I go on a similar trip in the future? Almost definitely, yes.