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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 balloonist.

Simple rules

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 inflexible.

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 balloons.

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.

Airborne

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 skies.

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 temporarily.

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 mighty.

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.

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