Montgolfier moments, up in the air over Appenzell

Floating over Appenzell as the morning sun gilds the land

Floating over Appenzell as the morning sun gilds the land

First a bump, then a mild churning of the stomach, followed by a swimming sensation of buoyancy. The earth fell away and I was sucked into the ice-blue sky.

“No smoking. Absolutely no smoking!” warned our pilot, pointing at the propane jets. “If you light up, we will all die.”

He squeezed a lever above his head and four blue nozzles spat yellow-white tongues of flame into the innards of the balloon. Air, heated on the go, was food for the balloon. Our sustenance and stay on this ride.

Our pilot’s name was Ivan. Odd for one who spoke Italian with his eight-year-old son, who was also on board with us (I wondered about his ethnicity and the history of his family’s migration, but those were questions I never got to ask once the excitement of the ride overtook us). Every now and then the tyke jumped up and down as any bored child would when confined to a small space with strangers who didn’t speak his language — or want to. That morning we were all kids ourselves, excited about being in a hot air balloon — and me for the first time.

But for the hiss of the propane jets, all was quiet. But for the butterflies in our stomachs, we were quiet. Fourteen consenting adults in one enormous basket hitched to a gigantic bubble of harlequin fabric floating in the chilly air over this magical landscape.

Airborne, 230 years after the Montgolfier brothers, and in much the same way. The sense of wonder made my skin prickle and my heart thump.

Our day had started well before sunup. We had gathered in darkness at the Landsgemeindeplatz, the town square in Appenzell, and trooped off to a field at the edge of town where an enormous disc of multicolour synthetic fabric was spread over the wet, mushy grass. It was being inflated slowly and laboriously with fans and blowers. First the cool air from the fans, then the hot air from the jets. An enormous basket capable of carrying 14 humans lay on its side beside the limp balloon. A smaller balloon for four people was being readied next to ours. When our balloon filled up and floated vertically into the air, still hitched to the ground with guy ropes, the basket tipped upright on its own. We hopped in, took our places and listened gingerly to the rules.

Five minutes later I looked down. My guts wrenched. We floated over the roofs of Appenzell, still uncurling from sleep and veiled by a thin haze. Higher up, it was quieter. We saw the sun-gilded crown of Säntis, the highest mountain in Appenzell named after a mythical giant. Cars were leaving yards, cows were being led to pasture, the barks of dogs carried like foghorns in the cold air. Up at 10,000 feet the world appeared small, like a Legoland tableau. But for the warmth of the roaring flame above our heads, we would be freezing.

Then, unbidden, a line from Pink Floyd’s ‘Learning to Fly’ unspooled in my head: “Can’t keep my eyes from the circling skies. Tongue-tied and twisted, just an earth-bound misfit, I!”

We descended into a farmer’s pasture, missing a gigantic pat of dung by a whisker. We bumped once, then careered off again, and finally came to a rest. Hopping off, some of us helped the pilot pack up while most of us – particularly my German friends Georg and Rainer — expressed their helplessness. “We do not have work permits for Switzerland,” they chimed earnestly. Inspired, I stuck to that line of defense as well.

Which is why you have these photographs to enjoy.

When you are done, don’t forget to read my story on Appenzell’s living traditions in Outlook Traveller, November 2013 issue


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