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Hot air ballooning on the Gold Coast

It takes pretty something special to get a teenager out of bed at 3.50am. Come to think of it, it takes something pretty special to get me out of bed then too. However, the promise of soaring over the Gold Coast hinterland with Hot Air Balloon Gold Coast during our winter Gold Coast getaway was impossible to resist. Flying at this time of year comes with a big advantage: you get a later pick up time as the sun comes up later in winter.

Our family was rugged up like we were going to Siberia instead of Canungra where the balloon takes off from but it turned out there was no need for all our winter woolies. Hot air balloons travel with the wind so you don’t feel a breeze during the flight. With the burners keeping you warm in the basket, it’s a very comfortable flight. My only regret was not wearing warmer socks as my toes got chilly in my thin canvas sneakers. 

Hot Air has almost 100 take-off spots to choose from in and around the Canungra area. These fan out like a bullseye with more spots available in the centre as this area is the most common take off spot. Most of these are fields which are large enough to inflate the balloon and also clear of things like powerlines which could hamper the take off. Local farmers receive a small fee in exchange for Hot Air using the spot to set up and take off.

Farmland near Cunungra
There are loads of farms around Canungra

The night before our flight the balloon pilot checked the projected weather forecast at both Coolangatta Airport and Archerfield Airport. Why check the weather in Brisbane’s west when the balloon is flying on the Gold Coast? Archerfield is often more accurate as it is located inland and Coolangatta Airport is on the coast. The weather is checked again on the morning of the flight and the take off spot for the day is chosen by the pilot.

We were picked up in the Hot Air minibus at the Oaks Gold Coast Hotel and stopped at another spot to pick up two more people then drove to Canungra to collect the other balloon passengers who self-drove. If you are self-driving, allow extra time to get to the pick-up spot at Canungra as quite a few people got lost on the way and were late. Fortunately, we were able to wait for everyone but it was a close call for a few of them.

It was an otherworldly experience driving to the take off spot in the dark. Soft blackness enveloped the landscape like a blanket as the very first stages of dawn touched the surrounding hills. In the distance, we spotted the orange glow of our balloon which was almost fully inflated by the time we arrived. The farm gate was opened and we picked our way through the cow patties to the hot air balloon glowing in the middle of the field.

Gold Coast hot air ballooning
Our balloon was waiting in the field

Hot Air Gold Coast has a massive 525,000 cubic foot balloon which is the largest available size for commercial flights. There are only two of these large balloons in Australia so we felt very lucky to get the chance to try it out. Because the balloon was larger, the basket was larger too as it had to match the size of the balloon. If the balloon (or envelope as it is technically known) is smaller, the basket will be smaller too. Our mighty balloon had a huge basket that could take up to 25 people.

On 26 November 2005, Vijaypat Singhania from India set the world altitude record for the highest hot air balloon flight, reaching 21,290 metres and flying 240 kilometres. Our pilot was also from India and had impressive credentials but thankfully he had no plans to take us that high or that far today. Most Gold Coast balloon flights travel 10 to 12 kilometres on average and you can clearly see the ground below for the entire flight.

Piloting a hot air balloon is much harder than you might think as the only way to steer it is to climb or descend into winds going in different directions. This is done by changing the temperature of the air inside the balloon using the burner blast valves. Hot air makes the balloon go up and cooling air inside the balloon makes it slowly descend. A skilled pilot is able to light the burner at the right interval and for the right duration to keep the balloon slowly drifting up and down at the altitude required to access the most ideal winds.

Everyone piled into the basket and waited a few minutes as our pilot adjusted the burners then the balloon gently lifted off the ground. It happened so gracefully that it seemed almost strange that we were up in the air. Aside from the occasional rush from the burners and the sound of people talking, it was silent and still. Flying in a hot air balloon is a strange yet wonderful experience as it doesn’t feel like you’re flying at all. Instead, it’s like you are standing on solid ground in the basket as you float in the air.

Hot air ballooning on the Gold Coast
Climbing into the balloon
Hot air ballooning
Rugged up and ready for take off

When the initial excitement from the take off was over and the passengers got used to the movement of the balloon, it was as if everyone had agreed to be quiet for a few minutes. Conversation stopped and we all enjoyed the beauty of our surroundings in silence. Farmland formed a patchwork on the ground below and mountains were silhouetted against the sky. Slowly the sun rose over the top of the mountains and bathed the landscape in a soft glow as the scenery changed around us.

Mini bus
Goodbye minibus, hello sky
Boy hot air ballooning
Our teenage son loved this activity
Misty morning
Misty morning views

From the sky it was possible to get an entirely different perspective on the beauty of Australia. We gained a bird’s eye view of local farms and even spotted an eagle’s nest. It is amazing how much you can see when you’re this high above the landscape. Even when you’re flying over similar farms, the view changes by the minute due to the changing light on the mountains and the land below. Our pilot gave everyone a great tip: when you fly over a lake or dam, take a reflection shot of the balloon when it appears in the water below.

Eagle's next in a tree
Bird’s eye view of an eagle’s nest
Hot air balloon reflection
Hot air balloon reflection shot

After flying over farms, creeks, and the Australian bush for almost an hour it was almost time to land and the balloon began to descend. This happens very slowly and the pilot gives you plenty of warning so there is no need to rush to get ready to land. Our pilot ensured we were all in the correct landing position, holding on to the handles inside the basket with our feet firmly on the floor and phones and cameras packed away, and brought the balloon down in a field.

River seen from the air
Slowly we began to descend
Coming down and getting ready to land

The support vehicle arrived not long afterwards and we helped to deflate the balloon and pack it into the large carrying bag on the back of the retrieval vehicle. The hot air balloon looks gossamer-thin when it’s inflated but it’s actually very thick and made out of the same sturdy fire-resistant material as firefighter’s suits. It was great being able to get up close to the balloon, feel what it was like and ask questions as we packed everything away.

Deflating the hot air balloon
Deflating the hot air balloon
Stowing the balloon in its carrier
Stowing the hot air balloon in its carrier

When the balloon and basket were on the back of the retrieval trailer, we stood on the trailer’s running board and rode this out of the field to the minibus which took us to enjoy a hearty breakfast at the O’Reilly’s Vineyard homestead. Of course, we were greeted on arrival with a traditional glass of sparkling wine to celebrate our balloon’s return to earth.

Breakfast at O'Reilly's Vineyard
Breakfast at O’Reilly’s Vineyard

Disclosure: The writer travelled as a guest of Destination Gold Coast and would not hesitate to go hot air ballooning again. It’s well worth getting up early for.

Looking for some Gold Coast accommodation? Read our reviews of the Hilton Surfers Paradise, Oaks Calypso Plaza, The Darling, Surfers Paradise Marriott, Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, The Star Grand, voco Gold Coast, Wyndham Hotel Surfers Paradise, AVANI Broadbeach Gold Coast Residences, Rydges Gold Coast Airport, Oaks Gold Coast Hotel, JW Marriott Gold Coast Resort & Spa, and the retro La Costa Motel. If you’re visiting the Gold Coast, don’t miss our Ultimate Guide to the Gold Coast.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.