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.
Setting out the Angry Bird balloon and assisting with the launch was a large ground crew, local people for whom this was a valuable employment opportunity. Chen said that one ground crew member had already gone on to obtain a commercial pilot license and to become the region’s fourth balloon pilot.
Local pilots are of the greatest importance to Chen’s vision of establishing Taitung as a center for ballooning in Taiwan. These are the only people who under current regulations can legally pilot a balloon for a commercial service that carries paying passengers.
“We want to make something here that we can keep here,” Chen said of the fiesta. “For many festivals, local governments spend huge sums of money to bring in foreigners (as performers or technical specialists), but when the event is finished, they go away again and nothing is left behind. We want people to think of Taitung as the place to come for ballooning, to become part of our tourism infrastructure.”
As the Angry Bird balloon floated into the sky, Wechter rotated it, providing good photo opportunities for the many photographers stationed around the plateau. Speaking about the commercial potential of balloons, Global Media Box Marketing Manager Christopher Prashanth said that at a time when many companies were seeking new avenues to promote their brand and their company, balloons and ballooning festivals provided a perfect synergy. “Nobody stops to look at a billboard,” Preshanth said, “But not only do they stop for a balloon, they also take a picture, and maybe even post it on the Internet.”
What Preshanth said proved true. As the balloon drifted languidly over the rooftops and roads, locals below stopped and whipped out their cameras and cellphones. One woman clambered onto a roof to record the Angry Bird balloon, and kids on their way to school gazed in wide-eyed wonder as Wechter navigated the balloon’s basket between the tops of some betelnut trees.
Chen said the response from locals had been very positive. She said that some farmers had even discussed clearing fallow fields to provide more landing sites for the balloons, and Wechter described an incident the previous day in which an owner of a local guesthouse had recognized him when he had taken the ground crew for a soda after a flight and thanked him. “His guesthouse had four rooms, and all rooms were full, just because of the balloons,” Wechter said.
Riding in the balloon provided an aerial experience totally different from that of paragliding or a small airplane. There was a sense of ease, given that passengers can walk freely about the balloon’s basket, and apart from the occasional blast of the propane burners, the balloon drifts silently through the air. Aside from catching wind currents at different altitudes, the balloon has no independent method of steering, so heading for a specific landing spot can be difficult. “You don’t want to be in a hurry,” Wechter said, as he brought the balloon low over rice and pineapple fields in search of a place to land.
There was a moment of worry as the balloon descended over an orchard of kumquats, the winds making it difficult for the balloon to change course. A farmer watched first with delight, then with a look of horror as his precious trees seemed to be in danger.
The ground crew, who had been in close contact with Wechter as soon as the balloon began its descent, was quickly on site, and helped manhandle the basket out of the field and onto the road without any damage to the trees. The farmer was all smiles again after his moment of anxiety.
Chen explained how the nature of ballooning made the sport something intimately connected to the local community, and said two places each day on the very limited roster of free flights have been reserved for Taitung residents. Wechter added that many places where he has ballooned hold events for the local community, sometimes offering free rides or prizes, to express appreciation for community support of the sport.
The Angry Bird, after its near entanglement, settled undamaged in an open field and the crew got to work packing up the huge balloon. Chen spoke about how in the past Taitung, with its relatively undeveloped tourism infrastructure, had difficulty keeping visitors before they moved on to somewhere else. She said the ballooning fiesta would provide a reason for a longer stay and help develop associated tourism businesses such as restaurants and guesthouses.
One guesthouse owner who did not wish to be identified questioned why the county government had chosen the summer vacation period to hold the event, as this is already their period of peak occupancy. It was during the rest of the year that he had trouble filling rooms, and a high-profile event such as this at some time other time would help balance the flow of tourists through the year.
Chen said that sponsorship deals for balloons had already been worked out with the Nan Shan Life Insurance Company (南山人壽), whose branded balloon has taken part in the festival, and there will probably soon be another corporate sponsorship for Taitung’s own Chulu Ranch (初鹿農場). Chen said that Taitung had adopted the strictest guidelines regarding the assembly and certification of balloons so that these balloons would be able to travel anywhere around the world, benefiting their corporate sponsors wherever they went. Taitung now has five balloons of its own.
The tethered balloons had been going up and down throughout the morning as the Angry Bird balloon had wandered the skies, providing the kind of views and the sensation of blissful drifting through space that until now, Taiwanese have had to travel overseas to enjoy. When the ground crew got back to Luye Plateau around 7:30am, everything had been packed away and the crowd of balloonists had gone home, and the field of Luye Plateau seemed even emptier than it had at dawn. “People are still not used to the very early start,” Chen said, but added that the afternoon flights would attract larger crowds and people would become savvy to the special delights of seeing the balloons in the dawn light.