Australia and Oceania

Hot air ballooning in Melbourne with Andy from ‘Picture This’

You may notice in the attached photos that my wife has suddenly got a whole lot more hirsuite, this is because after booking our little adventure, Jette sadly fell ill and was forced to stay at home. It was too late to cancel or re-book, so I called my best mate Guy to ask if he wanted to wake at 4am on a Saturday morning, “No probs, that sounds great”, came his reply after I explained my plans for him.

The reason hot air balloons fly is the same reason midgets can survive mexican buffets; hot air rises. The cooler the surrounding air, the more reliable the lift. This is why hot air balloon rides leave so damn early. After meeting in town and signing a disclaimer that said we wouldn’t sue if we plonked down in a tree, we got to the launch field at around 5am. Our Pilot Andy efficiently organised us to help set up this big rip-stop nylon death machine. First cold air is blown into the balloon. This is done by holding the bottom end open and pointing a massive, petrol powered leaf blower thing inside. Soon the sheer size of the balloon became apparent, I’m guessing you could make at least 100 paragliding wings out of one balloon. The fan was making a raoucous and I noticed lights coming on at nearby houses. I could imagine the conversations, “Every bloody morning…I told you this park-side house was suspiciously cheap Beryl…”

Once Andy determined that enough cold air was inside it was time to heat things up. With the wicker basket on its side, Andy turned on the gas and gave the balloon a long hot blast from the burners. They sounded like some kind of possessed fighter jet, “Every bloody morning…” Soon the balloon was straining to lift the basket (which was very cleverly anchored to the van). Once the balloon was stable above the basket, Andy told everyone to clamber in.

Before I could say, “how safe are these things?” the anchor was untied and we silently floated up. The feeling was like being in a totally silent elevator, there was absolutely no breeze and we were all hushed as we skimmed over the trees. Launching a hot air balloon is far more relaxing than hurtling off cliff with a paraglider wing above your head. As we cleared the park we saw right into someone’s lounge room. A poor unsuspecting lady sat, relaxing in her lounge room, drinking her coffee and reading the paper in her nightgown. When she looked up with a startled expression Guy and myself waved and grinned manically until she scuttled red faced out of view.

Hot Air balloon pilots have two controls: blast the flame for up, release hot air for down. Pilots cannot steer the craft in the normal way but they manage to fly the whole rig going where they want. This piqued my curiosity. Once we were well above the city and in a pack of about six balloons, I started interrogating Andy. The magic force which pilots use to steer are called inversions. Usually as you increase in height, the air gets cooler. Sometimes there is a layer of air which is warmer than that  just below it called an inversion. Inversions create a change in wind direction so that if the wind is going North – South, it might be going East – West at the inversion layer. By bobbing between these subtle layers, hot air balloon pilots can effectively steer the craft and go [almost] anywhere they want. The level of skill required boggles the mind. I struggle to land my Paraglider on a big cliff with up/down/left/right steerage!

The views were expansive, the whole of Melbourne sprawled out before us as we watched the sun rising over distant mountains. As we were going with the wind there was not a single puff of breeze and an intermittent blast from the burners kept our shoulders warm. Soon Andy was busily radio-ing fellow pilots in the group. It was comforting to hear them asking him for advice. Peering over his glasses Andy was checking weather monitors and carefully adjusting our height. I was hugely impressed when he bought all his knowledge into play to swing us around in a big, graceful loop to land right in the middle of Fawkner park, St Kilda. We touched down with nary a bump and a rope was pulled to let all our hot air out. I felt rather deflated to be finished with the experience [I know, sorry].

We all helped to pack up the rig and were chauffered off to the Sofitel Hotel in the CBD where we were treated to the most impressive champagne breakfast buffet that I have ever gourged on.

I can highly recommend that you try hot air ballooning, even if you are scared of heights. There is a real feeling of security inside that tiny wicker basket full of propane tanks and flames, no really.

I know what you are probably thinking and yes, I asked Andy about launching my Paraglider from one of their balloons (see video at bottom). Andy gave me a contact who should be able to make this happen. This activity has received the green tick from the ‘safety committee’ (my wife) so I’ll keep you posted.

Blue skies and Happy Feet to you.

 

We flew with Picture This – Hot air ballooning The crew were highly professional and looked after everyone really well, especially the little nine year old girl who was hysterical before lift off. This experience and post was in no sponsored by Picture This.

Post note: On Tuesday morning, three days after our flight, Guy forwarded this article to me. Andy was forced to make an “unscheduled landing” that was “highly controlled”. Read: The wind died and Andy pulled off an incredibly prescise spot landing between Anna’s roses and back fence!! Read more here

 

Ten travel tips for Vanuatu

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Tanna Island flight

 

Ten travel tips for Vanuatu

  1. The price of eating out is equivalent to Australia; don’t expect a cheap Thai-holiday.
  2. Robbery and scams are minimal, however, don’t be dumb about things. Keep your valuables locked in your room and your packs in sight.
  3. Kava is a local drink with mild sedative and anesthetic properties. Australians can bring back 2kg before customs becomes interested.
  4. Mt Yasur is one of the world’s most reliably active volcanos. It is also one of the most easily accessible – go there!
  5. Don’t book any activities before going. You can stroll down the main street of Port Vila and book with the companies direct.
  6. Walking through town, there are many times you would be forgiven for thinking you are in Jamaica – they lurve that Reggae music mon!
  7. Locals are super friendly – numerous times a local would fall into stride with us and just start chatting. It takes a while to relax into this lovely island mentality without thinking ‘SCAM!’
  8. Groceries are expensive; the few times we cooked for ourselves it would have been cheaper to eat out. 3 tomatoes cost $5 Aus and 100g of bacon was $5.50
  9. Efate is the main island with a population of around 240,000.
  10. Did I mention; go to Mt Yasur.

Mt Yasur Volcano – Vanuatu

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Air Taxi – Vanuatu

 

Mt Yasur Volcano on the island of Tanna is one of the world’s most reliably active and easy to access volcanos. Following a short hop in a single engine aircraft (piloted by a chap who looks just out of school) you take a two hour four wheel drive trip that ends within fifty metres of the lava. On the way in, Eddie our driver stops on a vast plain of black ash that leads to the conical volcano. I start to get disappointed, thinking that this is as close to the action as we are getting. After we’ve all had a chance to soak up this surreal landscape we are urged back to the four wheel drive and bundle out of the truck sometime later, right near the smoking top.

 

 

The flight to Tanna Island

A concerned looking guide takes control of our huddle and tells us that, as Mt Yasur’s activity is a high two out of five, we will not be climbing to the top today. As if on cue the volcano makes an unnerving boom and throws a baby-sized lump of lava towards us. The wind is coming our way, and this is also a bad thing as the smoke is blown into our field of view and obscuring any more volcano babies that may try to land on our heads. We all readily agree that safety should be the main priority so we all grab our cameras and busy ourselves with taking photos.

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Mt Yasur ash fields

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Mt Yasur from a distance

At one point I wander off to take a leak. With my back turned to Mt Yasur I go about my business but am expecting a smack on the back of the neck … this is how they all die in the movies.

The guide bolts up to the top to check conditions. Once there, he starts frantically waving us all up. I start to think that this may be just part of the show but Kevin, a quietly spoken Aussie who was here yesterday, assures me otherwise.

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Mt Yasur eruption

“Five minutes,” the guide shouts. “Five minutes only, then we go…”

At the top I am sure to hold Jette’s hand (not solely for her benefit) as the volcano booms and sends powerful shockwaves through us. Occasionally a few bits of lava land too close for comfort but none as big as the initial baby. Volcanos are unpredictable and hugely intimidating. They’ll go quiet, hissing and humming like one of Willy Wonka’s chocolate machines, then BOOM! A huge plume of lava lurches into view.

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Volcanic eruption

I discover that you can ready for a photo by watching for shockwaves through the smoke. The sonic boom of these impossible explosions warps the smoke and you can clearly see a quiet shockwave pass through the smoke like a ghost just before the boom. Light travels faster than sound. This only gives you half a second or so to brace for the boom though.

 

 Mt Yasur erupting (and wife cursing!)

The activity seems to be picking up and our guide hurries us in the dark down the stairs and to the relative safety of the trucks.

Just as we are turning to go, the volcano gives us one final farewell. The biggest one yet.

A bright bulb of lava comes into view as the sound reaches us, making us all catch our breath.

Those tourist office people were right. Seriously, if you only do one thing in Vanuatu.

 

SCUBA diving Vanuatu at Tranquility Island

 

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Welcome to Tranquility Island

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Weather coconut

SCUBA diving in Vanuatu! I am jittery-excited! Our short, energetic dive-master Claudia turns her attention to me, “So when was your last dive Ben?”

You know when you should lie but don’t. 

Hesitation, “Umm, three years ago in Thailand.”

“Oh, and you’ve only done a few dives total right? Well, I think you should skip the first dive and do a refresher with me.”

“That’s cool, I can keep Jette company on her test dive.”

We are on Tranquility island, a large, slightly detached island in the northern reaches of Efate. Jette, a keen snorkeler, is going to do her first dive to see if she likes it enough to do the course and I had planned to do two reef dives. I am somewhat comforted with the focus on safety here. Last time I went SCUBA diving in Thailand it was only my third dive after completing my certification. We went straight down to 35 meters (15 meters deeper than I should at this level) and into a sunken boat where we pulled ourselves through tight spaces. My qualification is for an open diver. That means I need open water above my head and shouldn’t be bumping tanks around inside boats or caves. That experience was rather intense, but I loved it!

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Tranquility Island Dive Resort

As the others set off for the reef Claudia starts enthusiastically gathering tanks, regulators and other gear for Jette and I. Soon we are kitted up, waist deep off the beach. I can tell that Jette is not entirely comfortable with the equipment but she gives it a good go. We kneel down underwater so that J can practice breathing through the regulators.

Sadly, the waves trying to flip her over, the mask fogging up and the weird, asthmatic feel of regulator breathing increases Jette’s discomfort to the point where she decides to give up and try again elsewhere. Maybe in a pool. We watch Jette waddle off up the beach. Normally Jette moves with a rather feline grace but, under the weight of all her SCUBA gear, she is now waddling. It looks hilarious. Looking up the beach I see the Turtle sanctuary is doing a release. Maybe we will see one.

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Lost turtle

 

With my skills proven Claudia and I decide to try a small reef dive near the resort. As we descend slowly to 15 meters I am amazed at the wealth of sea life surrounding us. Claudia proves to be an attentive and comforting dive buddy, unlike the Thai chap who often left me stranded as he disappeared to chase fish. We dive past WWII antisubmarine bouys like rusting aquariums they are filled with tiny Nemos and other fish. Then we spot a lonely looking turtle. We swim over to check his tag and realize that this little chap is one of the guys that was just released. He sits on a rock looking rather confused and, no doubt, wondering where all his friends have gone…

Suddenly I feel bubbles all over my torso and my buoyancy feels wrong. I get Claudia’s attention (thankfully not hard) and lift my arms so she can check me. The purge button on my spare regulator has stuck on and is letting air out. A quick fiddle with the regulator thankfully fixes the problem and we wind our way up and back to the beach.

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Ben SCUBA diving

Following an amazing barbecue I leave Jette to happily go about exploring with her trusty snorkel and jump into the boat for another dive. I am buddied up with a lovely, chatty school teacher who, like me, is happy to go slow and take in the sights. We dive down to 20 meters right into a veritable Atlantis. Big fish, small fish, turtles, coral, Clown Fish hiding in anemone and the occasional sea horse make the 50 minute dive feel like five. I was sorry to have forgotten the waterproof backing for my Go-pro and sad to leave when my buddy signaled that she was low on air, time to go up. It was amazing how far we traveled underwater, right back to the resort.

If you read the word ‘resort’ and think swim up bars and mini golf, I should clarify. The Tranquility Dive resort is a few bamboo buildings hidden under tall trees right on the beach. They have a cold water shower, a toilet, and a rusted barbecue. Real Robinson Crusoe stuff. It is perfect, not to mention that they run the Turtle sanctuary and so earn their stripes as an eco-lodge.

I am not surprised when Jette starts planning another try at SCUBA diving on our return boat trip to Efate. The girl is stubborn, in a good way. Just another reason I married her!

 

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Boat on Vanuatu

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Wife on boat on Vanuatu

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Tranquility Island

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Vanuatu beach

 

 

Vanuatu – Poppy’s on the lagoon

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Girl paddling canoe in lagoon

You know those really small regional towns? The ones cut in half by highways going somewhere good? The towns with a pub (maybe), a petrol station and a few aged folk sitting on balconies, suspiciously watching cars go by. I am currently riding my motorbike home from one of these towns in regional Victoria, Australia. Having spent the last two and a half weeks casting medicines upon the unsuspecting locals of Avoca, currently a few thoughts are rattling through my mind:

What a bunch of friendly folk! Why the hell do I ride a motorbike in winter? Will feeling return to my legs? What time was that flight? Stop daydreaming and look out for kangaroos you fool. Jette would kill me if I crashed the night before our honeymoon!

 28 hours later

I wake in Vanuatu in an unfamiliar bed. Like a dopey koala I follow Jette down to reception to plan our week. Jette has this freakish ability to shake off any length of commute faster than a politician forgets election promises. I let her do the talking as I sit there drooling, laughing randomly and generally needing caffeination.

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Relaxing at Poppy’s on the Lagoon

We have decided to stay at Poppy’s on the Lagoon. My second impression of Poppy’s is that I could easily spend the whole time sitting next to the pool, reading and relaxing. My first impression was at 4am last night. That involved thoughts of bed then wishing that the rooster would shut the hell up. Our accommodation is a short ten minute walk, past the prison and down a hill, into town. Poppy’s is set amongst lush tropical gardens and faces a quiet lagoon. Maybe this is a sign that we are getting older but we never once considered staying in town near the ‘action‘, nor do we want to set foot in the Adult pool. I’ve seen the internet movies…

Jette and I wanted to have some time together before I go to Nepal for six weeks and she returns to Denmark to visit family and friends. As such we don’t want to spend the whole time running around trying to do everything. To that end we just book an overnight trip to see Mt Yasur (active volcano) and a day SCUBA diving on Tranquility Island. Tranquility Island … I’d visit there on the name alone.

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Between a few days sitting on the beach and exploring town we rent a Quad bike and buzz off to see the blue lagoon. Interesting fact: The first movie I saw with boobs in it was called The Blue Lagoon. I had high expectations of this place. The main island of Vanuatu, called Efate, is bristling with blue lagoons where fresh meets salt water. We are assured that this one, is the Blue Lagoon. After a few frights involving me forgetting to drive on the right-hand side we make it safely to the lagoon. There is no one else here so I switch into my swimming shorts under a tree and dive right in. The visibility is amazing, even without goggles. Clear, warm, inviting water and my wife in a bikini = happy days! The lagoon is surrounded by lush jungle and rimmed by white sand. It is truly a scene taken from a postcard. We find a rope swing attached to a tall tropical tree and start swinging gleefully. Soon about eight other holiday makers show up and join in the fun.

The boys try to climb higher and higher in the tree before swinging. I may have started that game. You know when you get an idea, immediately think this will go wrong, but then do it anyway.

Yeah, that.

One time I swing my legs above my head and latch them onto the rope as I swoop over the lagoon. At the top of my arc I let go with my legs but my hands stay attached. The initial idea was to be facing down as I released my feet and to do a graceful dive into the water. The reality was that when my hands also slipped I hit the water from about 3 meters high flat on my side.

WHACK!

I bob to the surface with a surprised grimace and decide that It would be safer risking my life on the roads. Time to go.

Feeling like we have been on holidays for months we arrive back at Poppy’s to get an early night ready for a day of SCUBA diving.

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