It was a misty dawn as the group of five hot air balloons from the Nepal Ballooning 2003 expedition ascended to 1,100m above Bharatpur. The view made the ballooners, some of them veteran Himalayan mountaineers, gasp.
"You could see nearly 500km of the Himalaya-from Dhaulagiri to Everest," said Austrian mountaineer, Wolfgang Nairz. "It was one of my best flights."
You'd think that after visiting Nepal 56 times Nairz would have run out of things to see and do, but no. Nairz first came to Nepal in 1970 and then as team leader of the expedition that put the first men (Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler) on the top of Mt Everest without using bottled oxygen. Since then, he just kept coming back.
An author and a ballooning buff, Nairz first took off on a gondola over Nepal in 1994 and produced the bestseller in Europe, Ballonfahren zwischen Alpen und Himalaya. And later, on his lecture tours, the most asked question was: "When are you organising your next balloon tour to Nepal?" It would take another nine years, four of which went in planning and two in postponements because of political instability in Nepal.
"The media reports were negative, but our local partners kept us updated and I was here for the Everest Golden Jubilee celebrations and knew that things would be okay," Nairz told us.
Finally, five teams from Austria, France and Switzerland braved the bad press and the cautionary advisories from their embassies and decided to come.
And they are all glad they did. The 17-member team brought their private balloons for the fortnight of ballooning, making three flights from Pokhara, three in Kathmandu Valley and for the first time in ballooning history, were airborne over Chitwan. The teams also did two charity flights at the SOS Village and Mount Kailash School in Kathmandu.
"It was completely different from 1994," says Nairz. "At that time, we had several problems with air traffic control, the airport was not equipped with radar and members of the local support team didn't know how to handle balloons." The second time round it was smoother sailing. Devendra Gurung, the managing director of Lamjung Treks & Expeditions even went to Austria and Germany to learn a bit of ballooning himself. "I had to know what I was doing if I was expected to talk with civil aviation and show my boys the right way to set up the equipment," says Gurung.
And it was smooth sailing all the way with glorious weather. Except a hairy situation in Pokhara when a French balloon drifted over an army base and the crew was taken in for questioning. Hot air balloons are at the mercy of the wind direction, and can only control their up and down movements. "We were just having a good time up there playing the trumpet, and a few soldiers even waved at us," says Phillipe Boeglin. But the friendliness seems to have evaporated when the balloon landed just across from the base.
"I know what the problem was," jokes Boeglin. "They don't like French jazz." It took Gurung a harrowing few hours till the army reviewed the video footage and a Frenchman dramatically exposed his camera film to show their goodwill before the balloonists were deemed not to be a security threat.
For the French team, Bhaktapur was the best flight. Boeglin was tooting his trumpet, and families watching the aerial parade from their rooftops gave them well-deserved applause. The balloonists showered presents as they made low passes near Nyatapola and skimmed over the rooftops. The irrepressible Boeglin left Kathmandu with a Tibetan gyalin, and its sonorous sound will soon be echoing from balloons in the French Alps.
It was Swiss banker Peter R Schmid's sixth visit to Nepal but this time it was pleasure, not business. He describes the moment with reverence: "We were 4,000m over Pokhara with Annapurna looming ahead. It was a childhood dream coming true, but till I saw it, I never imagined the Himalaya was so overwhelming!"
Walter Mattenberger, a pilot of one of the Swiss balloons, was more impressed with the Nepalis. "I received more smiles, especially from women, than I have in my entire life. The beauty of the country and the friendliness of the people is not a clich?." Thousands of awestruck children and adults rushed to meet the balloonists wherever they landed. "We felt safe all the time," says Schmid.
The real nightmare for Nepal Ballooning's 2003 ground team was logistics. Each balloon weighs approximately 300kg, nearly half of which are the gas cylinders. It took four strong men, one flatbed truck and at least two mobile phones per team before anything got off the ground. And once they were up, up and away, it was anybody's guess where it would set down. Nairz is already planning his next ballooning trip for 2005. He's delighted to see that many locals and expatriates are taking an interest.