It’s cold, windy and still dark, but the lights of the Melbourne skyline are throwing a haze across the open fields of the nearby Docklands in the final hour just before dawn.

Five enormous balloons are lying on their sides like sleeping giants, as a team gets busy down one end with an engine that slowly inflates the balloons with bursts of blue flame. As each balloon slowly inflates, its towering canopy makes for a grand sight against the city skyline. Once it is full, the balloon pulls the wicker basket upright and passengers quickly scramble aboard. It is then up and away into the early morning Melbourne sky just as light is beginning to break into the day.

Flying high above, it is a smooth and easy ride and is truly Melbourne as you have never seen it. No flight in or out of Tullamarine has ever afforded such an up close and personal view of the Victorian capital.

The early morning’s journey is one of the unique adventures the city offers as the balloon actually travels right through the city centre, passing by city skyscraper landmarks at eye level.

As the city slowly awakens beneath and around the balloon, it is possible to look into buildings as city workers begin their day and settle at their desks. It actually gives new meaning to the term bird’s eye view as the balloon drifts by towers like the Rialto, Bourke Place and Melbourne Central. The only noise to be heard is the occasional clang of tram bells and the honking of cars far beneath.

Such Melbourne landmarks as the Yarra River, Telstra Dome, Spencer Street Station and Melbourne Library pass directly underneath, while other famous sights like Federation Square, Flinders Street and Parliament House take on a whole new perspective as they appear in the distance.

Not only does the passing cityscape make for a brilliant ever-changing sight, but so does the range of heights all the balloons travel at as they cross the city. Some soar way over the tops of the buildings, some past them and others seem to drift a long way down, almost looking like they are about to skirt the tops of some buildings, before another blast of hot air sends them soaring again.

As our balloon heads to the edge of the city centre, it then passes over the Melbourne Exhibition Centre and the magnificent patterns of the Carlton Gardens, before drifting above the sprawling north-eastern suburbs. Here the morning traffic can’t be heard, but the barking of dogs in suburban back gardens can. The balloon floats all the way to the suburb of Box Hill where it makes a target-perfect landing on a local football field. The gentle journey ends with a thud as the balloon basket comes to rest on the field.

It’s only a short trip back to the city and to a waiting lavish breakfast. It is an inspiring way to start the morning and actually witness a city wake up. It is also an adventure unique to Melbourne, as only a few major cities in the world allow hot air balloons to travel right through the city centre.

After a very up way to start the day, the early morning escapade leaves the rest of the day free for what Melbourne people do best -“ eating, shopping and, later, partying.

Gay and lesbian visitors are usually attracted to the venues, restaurants and clubs around suburbs like Abbotsford and Prahran, but Melbourne truly lives up to its claims of being marvellous during late January and early February when the gay and lesbian festival Midsumma puts its stamp on the city.

The opening night at Federation Square attracts crowds over 30,000, and the riverside Carnival offers a community big day out, followed by the final night T Dance party in the gardens. The rest of the vibrant three-week festival has a range of plays, exhibitions, music and sporting events.

After Midsumma 2006 winds up, it is only a month until the Commonwealth Games kick off in mid-March. For any visitor, it is going to be a long, hot summer of party fun in Melbourne. How marvellous!

Global Ballooning has 20 flight routes throughout Melbourne. Phone 1800 627 661 or visit the Global Ballooning website.

disclaimer

John Burfitt travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Tourism Victoria.

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