Sailing above Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh

Updated: Feb 03, 2019, 10:26 IST | Suresh Karkera

mid-day lensman captures the slowly-disappearing green vista of Andhra Pradesh's Araku Valley from inside a hot air balloon

Sailing above Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh

Famous for the Borra Caves, a popular spot with intrepid tourists, Araku Valley is a pristine hill station located 150 km from the city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.

It's in this verdant stretch of land that a small group of journalist arrived one cold January evening to be part of the second edition of the Balloon Festival. The temperature was a pleasant 8°Celsius, and a thin layer of fog had just started rolling in, when we entered the campsite. The camp was equipped with luxury tents with two beds each, and a washroom with hot running water.

The hot air balloons being inflated for the flight at NTR Ground. Pics/Suresh Karkera
The hot air balloons being inflated for the flight at NTR Ground. Pics/Suresh Karkera

Before retiring that night, we were briefed about the balloon flight, scheduled early the following day. Around 20 balloonists from 15 countries were going to be flying in this little-known tribal outpost.

The next morning after a quick breakfast, we were taken to NTR Ground - named after former AP chief minister NT Rama Rao - which is around 8 km from the campsite. While on our way, we saw many vehicles from the nearby towns rushing towards the location of the event. Hundreds of tribals had gathered to watch the spectacle.

Belgian pilot Johan Vander Meiren seen preparing for take off
Belgian pilot Johan Vander Meiren seen preparing for take off

However, the fog - an attraction until the previous evening - played spoilsport and delayed our ascent to the clouds. Once the fog cleared and the sun rose, the crew began inflating the balloons. As heavy duty burners heated the air, the colourful balloons, which were firmly anchored with ropes, rose majestically. Each balloon was almost three-storeys high with a basket at the bottom. We were carefully herded into the basket. I was on board a balloon that was piloted by a Belgian named Johan Vander Meiren, who has more than 1,000 hours flying experience. As the anchor ropes were cast away, we rose slowly. Within minutes, the horizon was surrounded with balloons, sailing like birds in the sky. We could see the locals below, watch in awe. Our pilot Meiren, who has participated in balloon festivals all over the world, including the Alps, found the arrangement and location in Araku as one of the best.

Passengers on the balloon got a bird's-eye view of the paddy fields and plantations on Araku Valley
Passengers on the balloon got a bird's-eye view of the paddy fields and plantations on Araku Valley

The take off was smooth, but once the initial euphoria wore off, we could clearly see the ill-effects of human inhabitation on the once-pristine tribal land. It was clear that the state government's afforestation efforts were not helping. The man-made jungle stood out like a sore thumb. Our balloon landed smoothly 45 minutes later, on a paddy field that had only recently been harvested. The ground trucks reached the balloons by locating them through GPS. The good thing was that almost all the balloons landed in the same area, around 12 km away from take-off spot. One balloon, we later learnt, got caught in a freak gust of wind and landed nearly 30 km away.

The balloon lands on a harvested field
The balloon lands on a harvested field

After the balloon ride, some of us were flown in a helicopter to have another view of the terrain. The contrast was stark. The balloon flight felt safe and smooth and the open basket made you feel one with nature. The glass cabin of the chopper, while offering majestic vistas, felt lacking. From next year onwards, the annual balloon festival is expected to provide employment to locals and boost tourism. We returned to our camp for more merriment, before going back to the bustling city of Vizag to leave for our respective destinations with colourful memories.

Places to visit
The coffee plantations at Araku Vallery are famous. There is also a museum dedicated to Araku coffee. Tourists can buy coffee and locally made chocolates from here

The Borra Caves, also called Borra Guhalu, comprise karstic limestone structures. It is said to be one of the deepest caves in India

How to get there
From Visakhapatnam airport, Araku Valley is around 140 km. The hill station can also be reached from the Visakhapatnam railway station. There are direct state bus and taxi services available through the day

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