Saturday, October 4, 2008

Hot Air Ballooning: Exhilarating and Ecofriendly?

Here I am running towards what could be my first hot air balloon flight ever. At this moment I have yet to decide if I am going to jump into that ridiculous little basket and let myself be whisked up and away somewhere over the rainbow or not.

Hot air ballooning has always appealed to me in theory: rising majestically in a fire-breathing, rainbow chariot over vineyards and verdant hillsides until you can just perceive the curve of the globe in the glorious sunrise, lighter than air and going only where the breezes convey you, landing in a meadow of flowers, toasting with champagne to your new noble title. It is all deliciously romantic, wonderfully French, and it has ME, ME, ME written all over it.

And yet, I hesitate. And yet, I have quite certainly made up my mind that when I do reach that basket I will not be hoisting myself over its side and risking an hour of very unromantic vertigo-induced panic, dangling 300 meters over Sweden with my colleagues. And yet, I do.

Exactly 217 years and one week after a sheep named Montauciel, and his apparently nameless duck and rooster co-pilots, rose above Versailles as the first living beings ever to fly in the Montgolfier brothers' amazing invention, it was my time.

We floated low and slow over lovely Lund, my first hometown in Sweden, and off over the countryside to land in that flowery meadow of my imagination. We toasted with champagne and were dubbed Aeronauts and Counts and Countesses of Haga.

But I still had reservations non-vertiginous. I was bothered. How sustainable is ballooning really? I did some homework and found out that our one hour balloon flight emitted about 29 kilograms of greenhouse gases per person, about the same as an hour in a car, but with clean-burning (though still fossil-based) propane instead of gasoline.

Balloons are also significantly less polluting than airplanes (about 120 kilograms of greenhouse gases per person for an hour's flight), snowmobiles and motorboats. And while there are very valid concerns about the noise level of the burners disturbing the wildlife and the peace and quiet of nature-lovers (we managed to spook deer, swans, cows and horses on our short flight), quieter whisper burners are now widely used. In another positive development, some logistics companies are now putting the balloon principle to work harnessing wind power to pull cargo ships over the oceans, considerably reducing their use of fossil fuels.

In the end, while balloons are a better option for a travel adventure than cars, airplanes, motorboats or snowmobiles, the best ecotravelers will stick to bicycles, trains, and their own two feet to get the lay of the land until no-impact balloon adventures become standard. Bon voyage!

No comments: