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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice