The sun had not yet risen from behind the coastal mountain range but the darkness of night was gradually giving way to morning, as ghostly figures moved about on the broad expanse of the Luye Plateau (鹿野高台) in Taitung County. From the half-full car park, the pavilions looked deserted, and the serried ranks of portable toilets along one edge of the parking lot seemed rather superfluous. Still, I was as certain as one can be at 4:45am in the morning, that this was the venue of the Taitung Taiwan International Balloon Fiesta (台灣國際熱氣球嘉年華), which on Thursday last week was just six days into its 72-day run.
In one of the tents further in, an MC was working with the small crowd that had already turned up. He identified those who had been there the evening before, when bad weather had prevented the balloons from going up. While the crowd was far from exuberant, there was a sense of quiet expectation. As the first rays of light came over the mountains, the valley filled with wispy mist. Was this ominous? The MC was quick to reassure his audience, saying that the mist was a good sign; the chilly air and almost imperceptible breeze would be perfect for a morning of ballooning.
Not long after, the mists cleared and the ground crews began their work of unpacking the huge balloons, some more than the height of a 10-story building. Many of the balloons were anchored to huge concrete blocks, the kind used as water breaks along the coast, and would be providing tethered assents for paying visitors. (NT$500 for five to seven minutes at 30m above the ground.)
Others were balloons for exhibition flights. The Taitung County Government’s new Taitung No. 6 is a heart-shaped balloon with the Taitung logo on one side and “Taiwan: Heart of Asia” on the other. “When this balloon goes overseas, it will be a wonderful way of promoting Taiwan and Taitung,”said Chen Shu-Hui (陳淑慧), director general of the Taitung County Government Tourism Department (台東縣政府觀光旅遊處).
The fundamental technology of ballooning is very simple. Taiwanese have understood the basics of ballooning for centuries in the form of heavenly lanterns, or tien deng (天燈). You light a fire beneath an envelope of paper or fabric. When air in the envelope becomes hotter than the surrounding air, the lantern rises into the sky. A tien deng carries prayers and requests to the divine up into the heavens. When used as a means of transport in which people are borne aloft, the technical specifications become considerably more complex, but the principle remains the same.
Given Taiwan’s weather, ballooning is only viable when the air is cool, the reason behind the pre-dawn turnout.
The morning session of ballooning would run from 5:30am to 7:30am, in line with strict regulations of the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the agency responsible for ballooning.
The dew was still wet on the ground when Frank Wechter, a balloon pilot from New Mexico with 37 years of experience, began bringing the Angry Bird balloon to life with a few well-directed bursts of flame directed into the huge red cavity of the Angry Bird balloon, which is made from 2,500 yards of nylon fabric and nearly 25km of thread.
I was in Taitung to accompany Chen on a flight of the Angry Bird balloon, which was making its international debut at the fiesta before embarking on a two-year world tour. I hoped to speak with her about her very considerable ambitions for the future of ballooning in Taitung.