Blown away: Waterford from a hot-air balloon
Our Going Coastal series continues with a trip across Co Waterford (and beyond)
The view from a hot-air balloon at sunrise, looking towards Waterford Estuary. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Joe Daly and Miriam Lord in the balloon. Photographs: Brenda Fitzsimons.
Coast. That’s what they said. So we do, slipping our mooring at first light and sailing into the pink dawn above Waterford Estuary. Past the train station and down the river, we drift on the morning breeze, watching as the Suir gives way to the sea.
The sleeping midweek city slowly recedes. Tramore sprawls in the distance, a seaside town more extrovert than its compact medieval neighbour. Three white pillars on the headland near Newtown Cove gleam in the sun, serving as a warning to unwary sailors.
The Metal Man stands on one of them, still smart in his British uniform and pointing out to sea, as he has done since 1823. If you come too close in a storm you might have the misfortune to hear his chant: “Keep out, keep out, good ships from me, for I am the rock of misery.” But we won’t come too close. The wind won’t allow it.
It’s hard to go coastal when you’re becalmed in a wicker basket beneath a balloon in Kilmacow. So we aren’t keeping strictly to the marine route, but what of it?
A balloon trip is a magical mystery tour. There is no steering. There are no motors. Balloonists travel at the whim of the wind, exact destination unknown. They are the original followers of One Direction, a fan club stretching back to the 18th century and the Montgolfier Brothers.
Joe Daly is our skipper. He is one of a handful of qualified balloon pilots in Ireland and is passionate about his sport. He sports a bushy moustache – a mini handlebar – whiskers of choice for the adventuring aviator. When he isn’t floating across the sky (his dream is to cross the Serengeti), he lectures in marketing at the Waterford Institute of Technology.
In ballooning, nothing happens without the weather’s consent. After the terrible conditions of the past few years, this summer has been kind to Ireland’s small band of enthusiasts.
Joe has decided we will launch from the People’s Park. It’s a stunning morning: the rose-tinged clouds clear with the dawn and leave behind a perfect blue sky.
Pilots need their ground crew – usually volunteers who love the sport – who help prepare the balloon for launch, then retrieve it and the passengers after they land.
Photographer Brenda Fitzsimons is the third passenger on our flight. Brenda is an experienced balloonist and flies regularly. She lends me a pair of wellies before we set off. Landing conditions can be mucky underfoot, it seems. And sometimes you could be dragged along the wet ground before coming to a halt.
There is no door in the wicker gondola – but our creaking 30-year-old basket, faithful to a centuries-old design, is still considered the market leader: strong but flexible, with great shock-absorbing qualities.
Retrievers John, Shay and Zack (Joe’s 15-year-old son, who plans to collect his pilot’s licence on his 17th birthday) lay out the fabric in a thin line along the wet grass. The basket is turned on its side with the steel burners now secured to four poles in the corners. Lines are attached.
I help to hold open the mouth of the envelope as Joe prepares to fire up. We fall silent.
Then, all of a sudden, “whooooosh!” With a deafening roar and a terrifying blast of heat, two enormous plumes of fire burst from the burners towards the opening. I nearly die with the shock.