Around a three-hour drive from Vishakhapatnam, Araku is a picturesque hill destination, with a rich tribal heritage and a history of coffee cultivation. The drive there is filled with curvy hairpin bends and views of the beautiful hills, and you have the option of stopping at one of the many coffee stalls en route, which not only sell a hot cup of coffee but also the local speciality, bamboo chicken, which is a lip-smacking chicken dish, marinated in a spicy masala and slow-cooked inside a bamboo stump over a fire.
It was around 5pm when we reached our campsite at the second edition of the annual Araku Balloon Festival, organised by the Andhra Pradesh Tourism in association with E-Factor Adventure Tourism. I was put up in a luxurious tent, along with my roommate. We thought we’d have to wait till the next morning to see the balloons, but we were informed of the tethered night-glow that would take place around 7pm. We were driven to the grounds, where people from the media, villagers and tourists all came together to watch the balloons be lit up in an amber hue, against the backdrop of a starry night. After we returned to our campsite, there was a special tribal dance performance waiting for us. The women of the local tribal community performed the traditional ‘Dhimsa’ dance around a bonfire, and the dancers encouraged everyone to join them and end the night Araku-style.
Next morning, we woke up to a not-so-great surprise – we were engulfed in a thick fog. The only option we had was to wait for the fog to roll away. Around an hour later, we were ready to go. We drove to the launch site, where all the balloons were being prepared to take off, and were introduced to our pilot, Johan van der Meiren, who was from Belgium. He and his crew were in the process of inflating the balloon, using nitrogen and propane gas cylinders. Once the balloon was fit to fly, Meiren told us to hop inside the basket and away we went.
Our balloon was the first one to go up, and as soon as it started to move upwards, the huge crowd gathered below began to clap and cheer. Our pilot waved to the crowd and we joined in too. Meiren is a cheerful man, whose passion for ballooning can be seen from miles away – I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who was that excited to take a big balloon hundreds of metres up in the air. He told us that he has over 1000 hours of ballooning experience and has flown in many countries, but India remains his favourite. On being asked about the exact science of how the balloon works, he answered, “Hot air goes in, balloon goes up. Cold air goes in, balloon goes down.” If everything was as simple as Meiren’s explanations, life would be perfect. What he meant to say, of course, was that when the air trapped inside the balloon is heated, it rises. This is because hot air in the atmosphere always rises, as it is less dense than the surrounding air. If you stop heating the air within the balloon, it cools down, making the balloon heavier and forcing it downwards.
We were around 200-250 meters in the air, trying our best to take in the breathtaking view of the Araku valley surrounding us, and literally throwing all our cares to the wind. After a 30-minute flight, our pilot told us we’d be landing shortly, and since hot air balloons don’t have any kind of steering mechanism and completely rely on the wind, this was likely to be an interesting experience. While he was aiming to land on a paddy field and was still a good 80-90 meters in the air, we saw a crowd of people, mainly led by children, pointing and running towards our balloon. From women with babies in their arms to men with kids on their shoulders, everyone from the village surrounded our balloon as soon as we landed. Armed with their phones, the villagers started shooting pictures with the balloon and our pilot.
The next morning, while on my flight back to Mumbai, I truly came to appreciate the concept of a hot air balloon and what it offers its passengers – a purity and serenity that airplanes cannot. No windows blocking your view, no deafening engine noises – just you and the open skies.
Andhra Pradesh is looking to offer something quite unique with the Araku Balloon Festival, as a way to boost tourism in the state. This was its second edition, and with the number of attendees growing and word about the festival being spread, they seem to be on the right path.