My wife and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary back in November. We celebrated as a family with our three great kids making vegan sushi for us all. At the time my wife said that there was a present on its way, but that it may take a while. I didn’t think much of it, until this weekend.
On Saturday I was told “you need to get an early night, as tomorrow we’re leaving for our anniversary surprise at 5am.” At the time it didn’t seem like much of a gift – getting out of bed at 5am isn’t the easiest thing for a family comprising three teenagers to do (and that’s as much down to me as it is the kids, in fairness). But we managed and were on the road up to the Val-de-Ruz by 5:10am.
We arrived at the same time as a car pulling a trailer, at which point we all figured out what was in store: a trip in a “Montgolfière” (this is the French term for a hot air balloon, named after the aviation pioneers who invented this mode of transport). My wife had been working to make this happen since November, but for various reasons it ended up being delayed to our 20½th anniversary, give or take.
The last time I’d gone in one of these was in Napa Valley, back when we lived in the US. It was a very different experience, as you just rolled up and got in the balloon. This time (much to our genuine delight) we helped with the process to assemble and inflate the balloon.
The equipment was surprisingly compact, considering.
The sun had still not risen, at this point. It wasn’t cold, just atmospheric.
The first step was to assemble the basket with the burners and the supports.
The next step was to unfold the canopy.
This needed unpacking, with the various ties removed.
At which point it could be stretched outwards.
Once fully stretched out, it was ready to be inflated.
A large fan was used to fill the canopy with cool air.
Once fully inflated it was time to heat the air.
This was done with an extra gas canister – rather than using gas from one of the four canisters that would be used during the flight. Here’s a video showing the process.
This is a photo showing the burners in action, something that happened on and off during the flight (of course).
Then we were off! The lift-off was smooth, and we soon had a lovely view across the surrounding area. We had the sound of cow-bells as went up – all that was missing was a group of yodelers accompanied by the Alpenhorn.
As the balloon could only hold four people at a time – including the pilot – we had to go up in two groups. As we also needed to have someone to drive our car to follow the balloon’s journey, this also meant that my wife and I couldn’t go up together this time. Ah well.
I ended up going up with our two younger kids, while my wife went up with our two eldest (our middle child won the coin toss and so got to go up twice).
The slight haze in the distance just made the experience more magical.
The view just kept on getting more and more impressive. I do suffer from vertigo, but somehow this wasn’t so bad. I think it has to do with your feet being on a solid surface throughout… I just made sure I had an arm around a support whenever I felt wobbly.
Here’s a panorama of the area.
It was lovely to see Lake Neuchatel, when we got high enough.
At one point we could see all three lakes in our region: Biel, Murten and Neuchatel. We couldn’t see the Alps – there’s another dust cloud from the Sahara that unfortunately made it a little hazy, although still quite beautiful.
Here’s another panorama.
As we descended we had different light, with the fields more vibrant.
Our pilot landed gracefully on a path between two fields – an impressive feat, especially as our approach was perpendicular to it.
The fields either side of the path were lovely…
… so I was glad we didn’t just flatten parts of them.
On the path we swapped crews.
And those of us on the ground watched the second flight depart.
It was also nice to see the balloon from below, of course.
It’s such a great way to fly, honestly.
We followed their flight from village to village in the Val-de-Ruz.
Until it landed near Dombresson.
This time the landing was on an unused section of field, which was ideal for packing up the canopy.
It was also fun to go through the process in reverse.
Here’s my family. I’m so happy we got to do this together (more-or-less, anyway), as it was an unforgettable experience.
Once we were all loaded up, all that was left was to have a picnic.
By this point it was still only 9:30am, and we were ravenous.
Lastly, a huge thank you to Celia, my wife, for making this wonderful surprise happen, as well as to our hosts, Fabien and Quentin, for looking after us so well. This is not a business for them, so we’re honoured and grateful that Fabien kindly agreed to share his passion with us.