Serenity in a hot air balloon
No one told me I would end up in an overturned basket in the middle of a cow paddock when I signed up to do hot air ballooning.
That's the thing about going up in a balloon - you never quite know what to expect.
It's the first thing our pilot Matt Scaife tells us when we arrive for our early morning ride with Hunter Valley operator Balloon Aloft, based in the picturesque NSW wine growing region.
"We haven't got a steering wheel so we can only go where the wind takes us," Scaife says, adding "whatever happens is normal".
But we are in safe hands.
We discover that Scaife isn't any hot air balloon pilot - he is the Australian hot air ballooning champion after taking out the national title at Canowindra in April.
He's been flying for 14 years and has notched up an estimated 2000 flights. And he says he never gets sick of it.
After our flight, it's not hard to see why.
We meet at the designated spot at Peterson House in a Pokolbin at 6am, where we'll be having a champagne breakfast on our return.
From there we're transported by minibus to one of the 20 launch sites across the valley where our balloon is being prepared.
A glorious sunrise is lighting up the sky as hot air is blasted into the balloon. Our purple and yellow balloon slowly awakens and begins to rise.
Once it's inflated Scaife instructs us to jump in and we're up, up and away.
The serenity is intermittently interrupted by the roar of the blasters that send jets of flame and hot air into the balloon, taking us up into the soft pink early morning canopy.
My ears are popping as we rise to 750 metres. We're travelling at a cracking 50km/h but there is the most incredible feeling of stillness, as if we aren't moving at all.
We hit 1200 metres and the view is truly breathtaking. I can see the entire valley spread out below, with the majestic Barrington Tops ranges to the north and Port Stephens and the open sea to the east.
After a while our speed drops to 10km/h as we hit a layer of cool air and Scaife takes the balloon lower. We float above vineyards, farmhouses, alpaca farms and a huge mob of kangaroos bounds off as we drift overhead.
Children wave, horses spook and scatter and a farmer shouts out a greeting.
After about 40 minutes we've covered some 25km and Scaife is looking for a place to take us down.
That's another thing about hot air ballooning.
Because you're at the mercy of the winds, there's no set landing place. Instead, pilots set down on - what they hope will be - a friendly and accommodating farmer's property.
After a bit of scouting and waiting for the wind to take us in the right direction, Scaife settles on an expansive paddock where a herd of black Angus cows are grazing.
The flight has put me into an almost yogic-state of happy calm, and I'm expecting to float down to a gentle landing as lightly as a feather.
Instead, Scaife tells us to get into the landing position we'd practised earlier - crouched down inside the basket, head against the back, knees braced against the panel in front of us, hands gripping onto handholds.
"This is the fun bit," he says, "it's going to be a bit bumpy."
With that we hit the ground, bounce, bounce again, slide along for a bit, bounce again, and ever so gently the basket tips up and lands on its side, leaving me lying unceremoniously on my back.
Later Skaife tells me we've experienced what's known as "tip landing", which occurs in about two in every 100 flights but is perfectly safe and controlled.
Once we've scrambled out of the basket it's all hands on deck as we help pack up the now deflated balloon and head back to Peterson's, a specialist in sparkling wines, for a hearty breakfast of hash browns, mushrooms, spinach, tomato and poached eggs on toast. And of course a glass of bubbly.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: The Hunter Valley is located two hours north of Sydney by car and the wine region is directly accessible via the Hunter Expressway of the Pacific Motorway. You'll find Peterson House on the corner of Broke Road and Wine Country Drive, Pokolbin. For more information contact petersonhouse.com.au .
STAYING THERE: The writer stayed at the Mercure Resort, 2090 Broke Rd Pokolbin. Visit mercurehuntervalley.com.au.
PLAYING THERE: During June Balloon Aloft and Peterson House are offering a Breakfast in the Air flight as part of the Hunter Valley Wine and Food month (June 1-30). To book a flight call 1300 723 279.
For information about hot air balloon experience contact balloonaloft.com, Balloon Safaris at balloonsafaris.com.au, Hunter Balloon Rides at hunterballoonrides.com.au and Cloud 9 Balloon Flights at cloud9balloons.com.au.
The writer was a guest of the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association.