Blown away: Waterford from a hot-air balloon
Our Going Coastal series continues with a trip across Co Waterford (and beyond)
“We were waiting for that. It always happens the first time,” says Shay.
Our balloon should be called Leinster House: it’s a well-stuffed envelope full of hot air. The burner must be Bernard Durkan, the amiably voluble Fine Gael TD from Kildare, who could inflate for Ireland.
A few more blasts on Bernard the burner, and Leinster House puffs up, lifting the small basket upright. So there are Joe, Joe’s moustache, Brenda, Brenda’s cameras, a flight kit and three large propane gas cylinders already inside. It’ll be a tight squeeze.
There is no door in this gondola, only a little hole cut low in the side to act as a step. My footmen are on a day off. I improvise with a modified Fosbury flop, and topple in sideways like a tipsy gnu.
Our balloon is free and lifting fast, without a sound or any sensation of movement. Skimming the trees and out over the city, we rise until we can read the broad looping signature of the Suir across the streetscape and tidy farmland beyond.
The bridges across the estuary, from the geometric cables of the new suspension bridge to the gap-toothed and abandoned Red Iron Bridge, follow an engineering timeline.
Balloon pilots are obliged to carry two pieces of equipment: an altimeter and a timepiece. Time is important because it seems to stop in the stillness . . . until suddenly your propane tanks are empty.
We drift towards the sea. To our left, Wexford and the curling arm of Hook Head. Waterford and Brownstown Head beckons to the right.
But the wind is our navigator.
Joe Daly injects a few blasts from Bernard the Burner and the hot air powers Leinster House to new heights.
The breeze takes us to south Kilkenny. The ancient ruins of Grannagh Castle look mystical in the misty air. Tory Hill looms like a Teddy Boy’s quiff.
Joe reckons he can land us in the vicinity of Mooncoin.
Animals sense our presence. Dogs run out of houses, barking. They can hear the strange whoosh of the burner, 3,000ft above. We can hear everything too, right down to the birdsong in the hedgerows.
As the sun climbs, our balloon casts a moving shadow on the fields – an inverted teardrop darkly flitting across the landscape. The cattle pause to watch.
There is a special muffler for the burners, which the pilot uses when passing animals, as horses are sometimes spooked by the sound and cows can stampede if the balloon comes too near.
The south Kilkenny ladies look up at us curiously then continue on their way to the parlour.
Joe points to a beautiful spot where clouds of white morning mists shroud water and land. “That’s where the Three Sister meet. The Barrow, The Nore and The Suir.”
We’ve been flying for more than an hour, but feel no need to button up or batten down a hat. You expect to be buffeted in the open basket, but it is utterly calm.
We hang, becalmed, somewhere near Kilmacow. Joe shouts down to a man out walking his dog on a country road.
“Good morning! Where are we?”
He looks up. “Where did you start from?”
We drift on and Joe tries again, hailing a farmer. “Where are we? Mooncoin?”
“Where are you going?” is the reply.
“Don’t know yet.”
About 70 minutes after take-off, we land in a field on Tom Quinn’s beautiful farm in Killinaspic. We bend our knees, brace and hang on to the side of the basket. There’s an almighty thump and we fall backwards. With one final blast from the burner we rise a little bit again, before settling softly in the lush dewy grass. A perfect landing.