It's known as 'The Friendly Fiesta' - the 6th New Zealand International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, held in the beautiful Central North city of Hamilton attracted a record 38 balloons, and was a huge success for balloonists and many thousands of spectators alike .
There was a fair amount of hugging, handshaking and high spirits on registration day of the 6th New Zealand International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. As a constant flow of balloonists poured into the lakeside yacht club - Fiesta headquarters for the week - the noise level rose as old friendships were rekindled and new ones made.
Back for their third New Zealand Fiesta, Steve and Cindy Wilkinson from California were set to have a good time both in the air and on the ground. Brian Boland from Vermont, with his old ballooning buddy Ross Sale now back in New Zealand after 22 years in the US, found himself a corner and formed a huddle of ballooning talk which was to continue every minute he wasn't in the air. Kiff Saunders, veteran Australian Pilot, absent last year, now back with his crowd pleasing Cloud Hopper, set seriously about meeting everyone he didn't already know. Other offshore pilots were introduced to their crews - Ian Comley from the UK, and a small entourage from Canada, here to fly the special shapes - Denis Myrthu with his wife, and Jennifer Lowndes were given a warm welcome. The place was abuzz. The Fiesta had begun.
Thirty five conventional balloons registered for the five day event, plus three special shapes from Harold Warner's stable in Canada - two massive T-Rex dinosaurs making their Australasian debut and the return visit from last year's darling, a gigantic Freisian cow.
The international flavor of the event was further accentuated with the participation of guest Australian Balloon Meister, Ruth Wilson, former Australian Champion and veteran international competitor with more than 20 years experience. Launching the Fiesta with a spectacular mass ascension to the delight of thousands of early morning spectators, Ruth continued to challenge participants with a series of flying tasks which were to test their skills and present some of the most breathtaking flying many had experienced.
Most events saw the balloons fly out of the beautiful lakeside launch site and travel across the lush Waikato countryside. The longest flight saw winner Brian Boland come close to a premature departure for Australia. He landed, typically surrounded by enthralled crowds, at the seaside township of Raglan on New Zealand's West Coast 25 miles later. The Splash and Dash and Key grab events attracted thousands of cheering spectators and a late afternoon flight from the rural township of Morrinsville, after a warm country welcome lunch, was a spectacular success .
The hospitality of this event is something which continues to take newcomers by surprise. For regulars like Steve and Cindy Wilkinson, it's the icing on the cake. Nothing, he says, could make them miss it.
"There's nothing quite like it." We love to go down there and have such a good time and meet such good people. We'll be there every time. The non flying times are great - just to kick back or get on the road and see as much as we can. The party was excellent, just a great time.
"That's part of the ballooning thing, to get everyone together in one room and just let 'em mix up and tell war stories and learn from each other and just have a great time. They did that real well. We just had a fantastic time."
"The flying events are set up well and it's a great flying area with the combination of the hills, streams and lakes - it's just beautiful. Even the farmers like us. It's nice to land in a farmer's field and they come out and ask you in for coffee. It's a great feeling."
Steve, overall points winner of the Fiesta, says that while ballooning is relatively new to New Zealand, the event has matured and local pilots are now giving their more experienced counterparts a good run for their money.
"It was really tough flying against them this year - they're really competitive, and that's only good for ballooning. Everyone learns from that and everyone gets better which makes it better for ballooning, better for competition and better for everybody, and it makes it safer too. It was a very good event - and real friendly."
Now claiming New Zealand as his favorite place, first timer at this event, Brian Boland, balloon designer, manufacturer and founder of the American Experimental Balloon Association had a ball. With him, the eighty fifth balloon he has built, a lightweight 42,000 cu ft balloon, accompanying him as personal luggage. Boland's philosophy includes delighting newcomers to the experience, dropping in on schools and generally ensuring as many people as possible - including himself - enjoy the event.
According to Ross Sale, who flew in more than 6 events a year for 15 years while living in the US, "The flying is great, the people are friendly, it's well organized and overall the festival is comparative to any I've been to in the States."
"Flying this event," he says, "is as good as ballooning gets."
If you'd like to enjoy South Pacific hospitality coupled with the luxury of ballooning in the most beautiful little country in the world for five fun filled days of flying, write now to the organizers for details of next year's Fiesta.