This story is by Pamela Wright and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I still recall this memory from the past as unbelievable and terrifying! The day started off with my expectation of a high adventure… a new thrill… excitement! Yet, even with these qualifications, one needs to be open to the unexpected.
We were in Australia, a destination located on the other side of my world. This unique adventure began with my husband’s assignment to attend an event ‘down under’. Ken, and other company salesmen, was to entertain their Far East customers in Brisbane, Australia. I was there by default. Company wives seldom were included on these trips outside the United States. However, their guests wanted their wives included. Thus, I was invited.
Once settled in our hotel room, we reviewed the written instructions for our chosen event scheduled for the following day. Reviewing our choice led to much speculation. “Do you think I’ll get airsick?” I asked Ken. Then, he reminded me, “I really don’t like heights, if you remember!” We put aside our quandaries and continued reading. The event required an early morning rising, and hotel departure to a field where our hot air balloon ride awaited. In fact, three hot air balloons were tethered ready for release once passengers climbed aboard. There were six persons assigned to each basket plus the pilot. Terry, Burt, Ken, Ellen, Fay and I climbed aboard. Our pilot introduced himself, “I’m Harry, and I want you to relax and enjoy today’s experience. We have a beautiful morning for our ride.” One by one the hot air balloons, full of propane, lifted off. For me, it was the most exquisite feeling as we rose into the early dawn and watched the sunrise exploding around us into the brightness of day! We quickly lost sight of one another as each balloon caught its own path into the heavens.
The plan was to be airborne for approximately one hour and a half. Then we would make our descent into a designated field some miles away. A chase car followed our progress and would be at the landing site to whisk us back to our hotel and a special luncheon.
I remember glancing at my watch. Our time was about over; and I was thinking how much fun I’d had and how quickly the time had passed. I peeked at Ken over my sunglasses. He seemed calm at this height, though his fingers were gripping the edge of the basket. After another ten minutes or so, I watched Harry whispering into his Walkie-Talkie phone. We continued sailing along on the breeze. Harry continued talking with muffled speech. Finally, he admitted to us that he had missed the planned landing field. “There is nothing to be alarmed about; I am looking for an alternate site to set down our basket. We will be aloft only a short while longer. Look down and you can see our chase car,” Harry assured us. We could see our chase car following along on the highway; they had us in their sight, and were in constant contact with our pilot. We were reassured.
Shortly, thereafter, the driver radioed Harry that we were approaching a potential landing field. It was one that we could now see from our sky high vantage point. The driver phoned the owner to ask for permission to land in his field. A phone buzz a few minutes later gave us the farmer’s answer. “No”. To land such a large hot air balloon in his field would needlessly disturb his cows who were about to calve.
We sailed on. As our ‘off’ course continued, I noted a blue spec on the horizon. I pointed it out to my husband and the others. Harry began to act nervously: fidgeting, looking down and continuously murmuring into his phone. Another announcement to us changed this excursion from one of joy and reassurance to one of concern. He told us that the picturesque blue spot towards which we were speedily floating was the ocean! “We can’t drift much closer to that body of water”, he told us, “and end up in the deep blue sea!” Gradually, the seriousness of our plight began to register with each rider. I moved next to Ken and took his hand. After all, he was aboard because I wanted this experience. As I looked at the others, they were no longer smiling and happy; instead were frowning and serious. Ellen, I saw, had tears in her eyes. Fearful thoughts of drowning or crash landing crossed my mind as I grasped the reality of the danger we faced.
The back and forth chatter continued on the Walkie-Talkie, while all of us were whispering among ourselves about the potential dangers. “Is this as dangerous as I think?” asked Burt. “Will we make it out alive?” Nearly everyone had a question, except my husband. He remained quiet. I knew his mental wheels were turning as he searched for where in the basket to position ourselves to minimize injuries upon landing. Finally, our pilot pointed down to an immense acreage of open space that appeared to have been tilled for planting. “We are going to land down there”, he told us. My anxieties eased with the impression that this looked like the perfect spot, with nothing to hinder our landing! Plus, there was a large spread of green and a few trees off to one side. We cheered in unison. As we dropped lower, however, those tilled ruts grew larger. Closer yet, I could see they were large enough for the basket to nearly fit between, and definitely deep enough for my five feet to be swallowed up. The group’s moods shifted again to one of anxiety, even though we were certain of surviving the controlled impact. Just before setting the balloon down, Harry instructed us: “Quickly scamper out when the basket bumps the dirt and hold tightly to its edge.” Then, while he spurted propane into the balloon, we were to jump from rut to rut guiding the basket toward that green expanse about twelve hundred feet away. Without words, we did as instructed, hanging on to that basket for dear life. The phhht of gas…the leap, the phht of gas…the leap, until the hot air balloon and all twelve feet stepped on that green grass. There was laughing, sighing and tears of gratitude expressed by all, including the pilot. We hugged one another, and with all the bravado we could muster assured each other (and ourselves) that our fears had been in vain. The final task, or so we thought, was to deflate the balloon and wait for our ride.
This adventure was far from over! The chase car had lost us, and no one, including our pilot, knew exactly where we were. The airwave reception at our remote landing site was nonexistent and Harry couldn’t contact the driver of our chase car. “I need to walk to higher ground” he said. We watched, anxiously, as he departed… until we lost sight of him. “I have never felt so helpless,” I told the group and they shook their heads in agreement. As if a light bulb had turned on, there was a sudden recognition of this new plight. We were lost in a strange country; isolated from any signs of life; no one knew where we were; and no pilot! Periodically, we all stared at the spot where Harry had vanished. Thirty minutes or more elapsed before Ken shouted, “I see him. He’s on his way back!” Harry gave us the good and bad news, “We’ve landed on the construction site of the new Bond University, a private college to be built”. This was many miles from the original landing site. “Now, we need to follow a narrow path between the trees to a dirt road, a mile away,” Harry pointed. Once there, we were to wait for our ride. Fortunately, Fay and Terry had each pocketed a ‘Babe Ruth’ candy bar from their hotel room, in which we all shared. As it turned out our ‘wait’ time was special! We learned about one another: where each one lived, family life, work life, and hobbies. Those contacts that began in the wilderness on the other side of the world continue today: rare and special friendships.
Slightly over two hours later we were located. Relieved, we crowded into a small van and began the long ride back to our hotel.
It was dark by the time we reached the hotel. Since the formal dinner had been delayed awaiting our return, we were given thirty minutes to clean up, dress up, and make the party! I noted that all six of us made that dinner bell!