Blood pooled around my sweat-soaked fingers, staining the wicker as it splintered around my hands. I tightened my grip on the basket, desperately fighting the urge to scream as the ground began to swirl and rise up towards us.
We were descending rapidly now. Refusing to look down, I forced my eyes straight ahead watching in horror as the snow-capped peaks of the Julien Alps were replaced by the treetops of the forest lining the edge of Lake Bled.
We were just 10 metres from the ground when the wind took hold, forcing us directly into the trees.
This was it.
This was the end.
I looked around. Why is everyone still so calm? Why aren’t they screaming? Don’t they know we’re about to crash; we’re about to die? This isn’t normal.
I briefly turned and made eye contact with our pilot, who seemed far too calm for a situation like this. If he saw the terror in my eyes, he didn’t acknowledge it and carried on gazing into the distance.
We were several metres away from the trees now. We were too low to clear them in time. We were going to crash.
At that moment, our pilot sighed loudly and leaned over the side of the basket.
Oh my god. He’s jumping out and leaving us all to die. Oh. My. God.
The basket began to shudder and shake violently as we began approaching the forest. We started to drift into the tops of the trees, the sound of snapping branches doing nothing to calm my nerves.
Our pilot was still hanging over the edge of the basket, now making loud groaning noises.
What is going on?!
We started to come to a standstill and I knew it wouldn’t be long until we were falling out of the basket and to our deaths.
Just like that, our pilot bounced back upright again, beaming. In his hand were several branches and flowers he’d pulled from the trees. He winked as he handed them to me before casually firing up the gas and guiding the balloon back up out of the trees.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It was at this point when I began to wonder why exactly I had thought it such a good idea to spend my birthday flying through the air in a hot air balloon – especially considering how terrified I am of planes, cable cars and, well, pretty much any activity that requires me to be more than 10cm off the ground. And yet, I still seem to end up doing them.
It’s become a recurring theme over the past year: I’ve somehow managed to trick my brain into thinking I’m now an adventurous traveller and that I would genuinely enjoy doing terrifying things. The second I book them, however? That’s when I suddenly realise what I’ve let myself in for and begin freaking out and faking illnesses. God help me when I get to New Zealand next year.
As predicted, much of the build up to my birthday was spent worrying about my hot air balloon adventure. I would frantically research safety statistics, how many people die each year, how to survive a hot air balloon disaster…
I was so scared.
When the two days prior to Balloon Day were filled with torrential downpours, raging winds and thick thunderclouds, I thought I’d had a lucky escape. When our first two attempts were called off, I thought it inevitable that the third would also be cancelled.
Of course, I wasn’t so lucky.
I almost burst into tears when we awoke at 6am to beautiful clear skies. Slowly getting dressed and mumbling to Dave about how I had a migraine and that I probably shouldn’t go, I was forced out the door and we were up in the air by 6:30.
Fifteen minutes later our pilot was playing games and performing ballooning tricks, much to everyone’s excitement but mine.
Can’t he tell I’m faint hearted?
However, after TreeGate something really unexpected happened.
I stopped freaking out.
I started to realise that perhaps this guy actually knew how to fly a hot air balloon. And perhaps my near-death experience was all in my head. And once I realised that, I found that floating through the air in a basket felt like the most natural thing in the world.
I even started to have fun.
Even more bizarrely, I found myself feeling a thousand times safer than I do in planes.
My newfound calmness stayed with me even when our pilot descended low enough that our basket skimmed across the surface of the lake, much to the delight of the two Chinese girls who happened to be walking past.
I knew that we were going to be fine. Our pilot was a badass.
Just a few seconds later we were back in the air again and gently drifting over Bled Castle.
The next 30 minutes were spent exploring the Slovenian countryside – from snow-capped mountains to white water rapids, from dense forests to ancient castles.
And then, sadly, it was over.
Our landing was smooth and uneventful, skimming across the grass for a few seconds before coming to a standstill – and while I breathed a sigh of relief to be back on the ground again, there was a part of me that still wanted to keep going. There was a part of me that wanted to ride in a hot air balloon everyday for the rest of my life!
Despite my panic attack at the start, hot air ballooning was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I LOVED it! Once I got over my fears, I realised that it was a perfectly safe activity and it was a fun and unique way to experience Bled.
If you’ve never been hot air ballooning before – go! Do it! It’s amazing.
I received a discounted hot air balloon ride from 3Glav Adventures. All opinions expressed are my own.