Floating over Bhutan

Floating over Bhutan

It is dawn in a remote and majestic valley in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

As my daughter Hannah and I wait in a frosty field in the early-morning chill, we are served coffee and tea in china mugs laid out on a linen-covered table.

Finally, just as the sun rises over the snow-flecked mountains to the east, the preparations are completed. Six of us climb somewhat apprehensively into a large wicker basket.

Then, with one last blast of flaming gas into the great red canopy above us, we begin to float upwards.

Our team of young helpers cheer. The inaugural flight of the world's highest commercial hot-air balloon service is under way.

For the next hour, a light breeze propels us gently down the majestic Phobjika valley and, as the sun burns away the mist, we revel in the scenery unfolding all around us.

On both sides, the valley's forested flanks - the lair of leopards, bears and wild boar - rise steeply to the skyline.

To the north, the 400-year-old, multi-tiered Gangtey Goenpa monastery stands on a ridge, dominating the valley physically and spiritually.

We drift serenely southwards, following the silver ribbon of the Nakey Chuu river as it snakes through bogs and water meadows.

We float over gold-roofed temples and small white stupas, over clusters of colourful prayer flags and white-washed Bhutanese farmhouses with wonderfully ornate wooden windows, over the rich brown earth of freshly tilled potato fields.

We pass over horses, cows, the odd shaggy yak and a pack of feral dogs that bark furiously at the huge translucent globe high in the sky above them. Knots of early-rising schoolchildren and the odd peasant farmer stand and watch, amazed, the apparition gliding over their heads.

The breeze picks up as the valley narrows, and so does our speed. Our pick-up truck is far behind, jolting along the rutted track that is the valley's only road.

Far below, our helpers are splashing through bogs, laughing and panting as they desperately try to keep up. We progress so smoothly, so silently, that it seems the earth is moving, not us.

Eventually, Mr Cary Crawley, a professional balloon pilot from England, brings us gently down. The basket bumps three times along a grassy meadow and ends up on its side.

Future passengers will be greeted with champagne and taken away on horses, but not us - this being merely the experimental first flight.

Nobody minds. We're all exhilarated - even the two officials from Bhutan's civil aviation department who have come to inspect a form of transport they know nothing about. We climb out, shake hands, high-five and take pictures.

"I told you we'd do it - and we did," Mr Brett Melzer declares triumphantly as he embraces Ms Khin Omar Win, his wife and business partner.

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