A landing like no other
“A land like no other” is the marketing jingle of the Sri Lanka
Tourism Promotion Board (SLTPB). On the morning of March 26, for a group
of 11 journalists including this correspondent and two crew members on
board a hot air balloon, it was indeed an experience of not only a land
like no other from the skies 100 meters above the ground but also proved
to be a case of “a landing like no other”.
Up in a balloon Picture by Saman Sri Wedage
We were part of a media delegation from Colombo on a conducted tour
by SLTRB to watch the inaugural of the week-long festival in which 20
hot air balloons of varying sizes and colours were to feature. The
irresistible temptation for us was a free ride in the floating “Taj
Mahal” in size and beauty.
After an almost nine-hour luxury bus ride from Colombo to Hambantota
(the home district of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa), we got a
brief on the basics of hot air ballooning from Captain Anil Jayasinghe,
a commercial airline pilot and Sri Lanka’s first and only hot air
Capt. Jayasinghe is a man of few words and his briefing points were
bullet-like. “The rules of the hot air balloon flight are straight and
The pilot’s is the final word on the flight which, though propelled
by gas, drifts as per the wind direction. Your reporting time is 6 a.m.
and you better be at the Debrawawa Middle College Ground at 5.55 am. You
shall be flying at your own risk. Lady (there was only one) and
gentlemen, you may leave now and catch up with some sleep before it is
dawn,” were his parting words.
Scribes being what they are, only half paid heed to his counsel. Some
continued their spirited revelry till the wee hours with the contingent
of foreign tourists and international journalists, including four from
New Delhi, especially flown for the occasion.
However, it was no hindrance in their reporting dot on time in
preparation for the anticipated thrill, shrill and adventure. At the
crack of dawn, the college ground was just springing to life with a bevy
of trucks unloading the baskets and the equipment necessary to propel
The college ground was populated with breathtaking balloons of all
hues after 45 minutes of war-like preparations. We were bundled into two
baskets attached to the giant-like balloon and were the first to take
off the ground.
The sun was mild and there was a gentle breeze in the air. As our
“pilot” remarked, the conditions were ideal. As the privileged first to
take off, we had the benefit of witnessing the spectacular sight of 19
other balloons kick off the ground cheered by excited school children
who had turned up in large numbers.
The wind carried our flight towards the mainland. Within minutes, we
had climbed over 100 feet above ground level and floating over the town.
We caught glimpses of joyous adults and children cheering and running to
keep pace with our flight. There is little doubt that Sri Lanka is a
beautiful country but its charm is multiplied when viewed from the
Vast lush paddy fields dotted with an odd hut here and there greeted
our eyes as we travelled away from the town. After about 20 minutes, we
were over a lagoon. From up there it looked blue and enchanting. A dare
devil pilot of another balloon behind us took a little dip in the lagoon
prompting our team mates to request the “pilot” if he could attempt the
same, only to be met with a stern look.
Shortly thereafter, we were floating above the famous Yala Wildlife
Sanctuary. Alas, the park has been in the news in recent weeks for the
wrong reasons. The LTTE had managed to infiltrate into the sanctuary and
gunned down a few forest guards, prompting authorities to shut it down
As we drifted along the bushy, low-jungle Yala territory, we came
across wild elephants, boar and deer. One wild elephant, obviously irked
by the sounds of the burning gas fuelling the balloon, could be seen
running amuck much to the delight of all of us in general and the photo
journalists in particular.
We had been in the air for nearly 90 minutes and the pilot was
desperately searching for a patch of land within the vicinity of a
motorable road where he could land. He panned to left, right and centre,
all in vain. We were left with gas enough to keep us in the air for just
another half an hour. There were signs of turbulence. The balloon
started going up and down - sometimes hitting coconut trees.
Thanks to Captain Justine Moore and the manager, we were able to land
safely in a small dry place at 8.45 a.m. All efforts to contact the
control room, from where we had taken off, proved futile as there was a
breakdown of communications. The place where we had landed was the edge
of the Yala jungle, which we learnt after a while from a bewildered
villager passing through.
Then we all got together to push the deflated the balloon to a place
from where it could be transported back to Hambantota. The villager
informed us that a kilometre away from where we were perched was the
Army base camp.
After waiting for nearly an hour and with no signs of any rescue
team, we began to trudge through the forest, sneaking through the
bushes, little lakes and the marshy land. At 10.30 a.m. we sighted the
Army camp and began walking towards it as half perplexed and half dazed
soldiers gazed at us intensely.
Much to our horror and relief, we were to learn the reasons for that
look on the faces of the soldiers. Earlier in the morning, the soldiers
manning the sentry point overlooking the Yala sanctuary had sighted “a
strange giant object” floating in the air towards their camp. They had
mistaken it for yet another LTTE “mission” and alerted the high and the
In the confusion that ensued about the identity of the “flight”, they
had obtained permission to shoot it down if it came closer to their
camp. It was perhaps due to our providence and the premonition of the
pilot that the balloon landed almost three-quarter of a kilometre before
the military camp.
Once we established our identities, the soldiers were more than
friendly. They treated us to a hot cup of tea and extra energy biscuits
even while struggling to obtain the necessary clearances from the
concerned authorities to let the “intruders” into the camp.
Finally, at 12.15 p.m. a tractor loaded with army personnel went to
the site where the balloon had landed and brought it back. What had
happened ? As per Tourist Board Managing Director Dilip Mudadeniya,
permission had been obtained from the Air Force and the Civil Aviation
authorities for the festival but they had not anticipated the balloons
to travel into Yala.
The Brigadier in-charge of Yala was in the knowledge of the festival
but had not deemed it necessary to pass on the information to the ground
troops at the Army base camp. It was a classic case of “gone with the
wind”! Incidentally, March 29 marked the first anniversary of the launch
of the Tiger Air Force.