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    Posted December 16, 2012 by
    Fronteria, Portugal
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    What was your best moment of 2012?

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    A dream come true: Floating above the Portuguese countryside in a hot air balloon


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     "The wind did its best to thwart my attempts to fly in a hot air balloon but I finally got the chance to make one of my dreams come true in November this year," says Portugal based iReporter juliedawnfox

    "I'd always had a romantic image of hot air ballooning over the Serengeti or somewhere like that but have never been able to afford it."

    "When I found out that there were free rides on offer at the 16th International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Elvas this year, I decided to make the three-hour journey there and turn it into a short break so that I could explore the area, take pictures for my blog and ride in a balloon."

    "The whole experience: inflation, take off, the quiet contemplation of the countryside and the aerial views, wondering where we would land and the fun of packing up the balloon before driving back to the launch site is something that will stay with me forever, I hope."
    - eoghan, CNN iReport producer

    The wind did its best to thwart my attempts to fly in a hot air balloon but I finally got the chance to make one of my dreams come true in November this year.

    The flights on the previous two days had been cancelled because of the weather but when I got confirmation that the afternoon flights would go ahead I made a last-minute dash across the countryside to the new launch site, arriving just in time to watch the balloon being inflated.

    It surprised me how much effort is involved; it took several people and a considerable amount of pushing and pulling to hold the sides open while air from the fan gushed inside. Happily for me, my offer to help was turned down so I busied myself taking photos.

    When the balloon was full of hot air and upright, it was time to see how easy it is to get five women into a space not much bigger than a phone box. I was secretly relieved to be spared an undignified clamber over the sides of the basket; I didn’t realise they have doors.

    Now that it was pumped full of hot air, the balloon tugged the basket impatiently, trying to free itself from the Land Rover that served as an anchor.

    The basket rocked from side to side, causing a flutter of panic at one point when we thought it would topple over. The team of pilots and ground staff soon stabilised the basket and once it was released from the car, we climbed, smoothly and quickly into the sky. The brightly coloured balloons below us were fat with air and ready to follow us.

    The flat, green fields and jagged lakes of the Alentejo spread out below us. After a while, the plains developed waves, adding depth to the landscape. Acres of vineyards and olive and cork oak trees formed geometrical patterns. The warmth from the sinking sun and the intermittent blasts of the burner kept me toasty. Happy? You bet!

    When the burner wasn’t roaring and Hervé wasn’t shouting into his walkie-talkie, there was silence. At least until we got closer to Fronteira, where every dog in town was barking its alarm at the scary objects floating past. As we watched cattle scatter then heard the crazed clanging of fifty-odd sheep bells, it became clear that animals aren’t that keen on hot air balloons.

    The farmers we passed gave us a wave from their tractors although I’m not sure how pleased they were to have these giant balloons landing in their fields. In my excitement and anxiety over whether or not I would be able to fly, I hadn’t given any thought to where or how we would land.

    As our pilot Tiago explained, the balloon is totally at the mercy of the wind making it impossible to know where it will end up, which is why Hervé kept shouting directions via the walkie-talkie so that the guy who was driving the Land Rover could find and meet us when we landed.

    There’s not a great deal that can be done to make the landing soft, either. We obediently clung to the ropes and crouched down but my knees crashed against the side of the basket as the basket hit the muddy field. Just as we thought it was safe to get out, the balloon started dragging and jerking us across the lumpy field in an attempt to fly again until the ground team managed to hold us down.

    After piling out of the basket, all that remained was to deflate the balloon by crawling around on all fours to force the air out and picking bits of dried thistle off the material before stuffing it into a sack ready to drive back to the launch site.

    My very first hot air balloon ride was certainly worth the wait and best of all, it was free!
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