Dambulla, we have lift off

With the sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke as a passenger, Allan Calder wanted to ensure a smooth take-off and landing for Sri Lanka's first balloon ride operation

On my third hot-air balloon flight in Sri Lanka I had to fly a local deity, the scientist and science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke. Sir Arthur is greatly revered by the Sri Lankans as he has lived in the country since the Fifties and has put a lot of money and effort into the promotion of science and the island itself.

On my third hot-air balloon flight in Sri Lanka I had to fly a local deity, the scientist and science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke. Sir Arthur is greatly revered by the Sri Lankans as he has lived in the country since the Fifties and has put a lot of money and effort into the promotion of science and the island itself.

I had arrived a month earlier to become chief pilot of the country's first balloon ride operation. It was to be based 100 miles from the capital, Colombo, in the thickly-wooded centre of the island close to the Dambulla and Sigiriya World Heritage Sites and the architect Geoffrey Bawa's superb Kandalama Hotel. I had spent most of the intervening time driving around wondering where a balloon could land.

Finding places to take off was easy: Sri Lankans are mad about cricket and there are many pitches. A balloon goes with the wind and can only alter direction by changing height and finding different wind currents. If no wind was available to find a cricket ground, the choices seemed to be jungle, lakes and paddy fields. Closer inspection offered some hope - the odd meadow here, a disused dry paddy field there, and even some empty lakes.

My initial test flights had not been very instructive. The first took me from the cricket ground at the Kandalama Hotel just across the Kandalama Tank (an enormous, ancient reservoir) to the beach on the other side. The second was no better - the cloud proved to be lower than it appeared and gave me very little room to manoeuvre, while the wind was light and variable. After drifting erratically over the jungle for a while, I managed to land back on the very cricket pitch that I had launched from.

I was to fly Arthur C Clarke from the cricket pitch at the Culture Club Resort in Dambulla to another resort hotel on the Kandalama Tank to open an "Eco Village" extension. The take-off for 2004: A Balloon Odyssey was smooth and accompanied by lots of waving and cheering. But 15 minutes into the flight, the balloon started going up and down of its own accord. After about an hour in the air, a small strip of uncultivated land with a track leading from it to the Dambulla-Matale Road appeared. Down we went to what was, in the circumstances, a reasonable landing. The field was very muddy, as was the track. This did not worry the great man as he sat on a chair and was carried to his vehicle.

The fourth flight was the first with paying passengers on board. It was also the first time I really appreciated the spectacular beauty of the Sri Lankan countryside. The day was clear, with just a few scattered clouds, the winds light but not unduly so. The flight took us over the reservoir and to the south of the rock temple at Dambulla. We landed in a meadow with easy access to the Colombo Road. Commercial ballooning had come to Sri Lanka.

It had taken a while. A lifting of the six-year ban on domestic flights had quickly followed the December 2001 ceasefire between the government and the Tamil Tigers. This in theory opened the way for commercial helicopter, aircraft and balloon flights to take place over the country. In practice any kind of operation is severely hampered by the Sri Lankan Air Force, which controls all the air space. With the notable exception of the United States, most aviation authorities have a problem with balloons - they can take off and land almost anywhere, so there is no independent record of flights.

Fortunately the Sri Lankan Civil Aviation Authority, with years of very little to do, was keen to encourage any form of civil aviation, The staff eased our way the best they could. The Air Force proved somewhat intractable until the Prime Minister stepped in and told them they could not prevent balloon flights. We got the green light early in November 2003, and the operation acquired a routine.

A typical flight takes off at about 7.15am from beside the Kandalama Tank. The balloon climbs slowly, giving splendid views of the hills to the east and the Kandalama Hotel cunningly built into the rocks to the south. Drifting over the island in the middle of the reservoir, eagles, kites, egrets, parrots, kingfishers, bulbuls, storks, bee-eaters and even the odd sleeping owl take to the air and fly beneath the balloon. One morning we saw a flock of peacocks - a rare sight from the ground, an awesome one from above.

At 1,000 feet you get a panoramic view of the rocks sticking out of the jungle, notably Sigiriya to the north, the lakes, paddy fields and the massive golden Buddha at Dambulla. Often there is a light ground mist giving an ethereal feel.

After crossing the reservoir the balloon descends to 50 feet or so above the trees and the small, low houses where the majority of people live without electricity or running water. At the sound of the balloon, women with babies in their arms, children and men wearing only sarongs look up and wave. Dogs bark and cows try to free themselves from their tethers. Just ahead a tree starts to shake violently; we have disturbed a troop of monkeys who start jumping from tree to tree.

Past the trees we fly over a bizarre mosaic of oddly-shaped paddy fields. The balloon is heading towards Dambulla and its celebrated Rock Temple - which, as a sacred shrine, is the one place in the area we are forbidden to fly over at any height. But as if guided by the Buddha we skirt just to the north. The Test cricket ground, the scene of England's most ignominious one-day defeat, comes in to view with the beautiful Ibbankatuwa Tank behind it. Beyond are more paddy fields and groves of coconut palms and cashew nut trees.After a rustle in the undergrowth a wild boar breaks cover just below us.

We ascend over another rock and there, just beyond some pineapple trees, is a dried up wewa (lake), perfect for landing. We have been flying for nearly an hour, and after a gentle landing the balloon is kept inflated to make it easier for the crew to find us, which they do almost immediately. Even though we appear to be far from any road or track, with only one little house a couple of hundred yards away, within minutes the balloon is surrounded by more than a hundred people who seem to appear from nowhere. The passengers are amazed by this reception and take dozens of pictures, particularly of the children, with the balloon as a backdrop. As Arthur C Clarke said during the flight: "The Wright brothers got it wrong. This is the way to fly."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The only airline flying direct between the UK and Sri Lanka is SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2000), which flies frequently between Heathrow and Colombo; next month, you could pay around £500 for a return through discount agents. The alternative from Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow, is on its partner, Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) via Dubai. Lower prices are often available on Qatar Airways from Heathrow or Manchester via Doha.

RED TAPE

British visitors to Sri Lanka do not require visas for short-term visits.

MORE INFORMATION

Sri Lanka Tourist Board in London: 020-7930 2627; www.srilankatourism.com.

The author is chief pilot for Adventure Centre Asia Balloons (00 94 777 588 360; balloons@wow.lk), the only balloon ride firm approved by the Sri Lankan Civil Aviation Authority

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