Stephen Tompkinson's Australian Balloon Adventure

Sunday, 22 August 2010, 7:00PM – 8:00PM on ITV1

The second episode in Stephen’s adventure across the states of South-east Australia sees him fly over one of the few cities in the world which allows balloon flights overhead, fulfill a sporting ambition and attempt a flight to 10,000feet.

Stephen and his team arrive in Melbourne, home to four million people and one of the few cities which permits ballooning over its centre. But, back on solid ground, after the peace of the outback and Barossa Valley, Melbourne’s confusing road system and tram network makes for a hair raising drive through the city traffic.

That evening Stephen heads to one of the world’s most famous sporting venues, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for an Aussie Rules football game. He explains: “Sport is a huge part of the Australian make up and Melbourne is the centre of this very proud Australian sports history. The MCG is its Mecca so to go there tonight for this huge football game should give me a better understanding of the people.”

Stephen gets to watch a match between two Melbourne AFL teams and is invited onto the pitch pre-match. Watching the game he comments: “The immediate thing that you notice is that there isn’t as much segregation between the fans, although obviously there’s still that competitiveness. It’s much more good natured…there’s a lot of local pride at stake but it doesn’t spill over into the violence that we have in our national game.”

The next morning, Stephen has another personal first ��” a flight over Melbourne city centre. Local pilot Paul joins Stephen and Robin as he is route qualified to fly over Melbourne and has the required contact with the city’s air traffic control to negotiate other traffic, high rises and limited places to land.

Once in the air, Paul explains: “We have to be in constant contact with air traffic control and we also carry a transponder because we’re in airspace and we’re linking on their radar so they know exactly where we are. It keeps everyone happy.”

Their balloon flight takes them over the city’s morning traffic and Melbourne’s biggest sporting venues including the MCG, Olympic stadium and Melbourne Cup racecourse. Stephen says “My gob has never been so smacked! That is a flight that I will remember always. It’s just a very special memory, a unique experience and one that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life…To have a city embrace ballooning is a rarity and a real treat.”

Even experienced balloon pilot Robin says: “That flight is way up there among my best flights.”

Back on terra firma, Stephen and Robin explore Melbourne in a more traditional way, on foot. Boosted by a macchiato in one of the city’s oldest coffee shops they head to Hosier Lane, an area famous for its streets covered in art by street artists including Banksy and one of Melbourne’s biggest cultural attractions.

Over time, Melbourne’s authorities have got on board with the graffiti artists and, providing artists have the right permissions, street art is legal and even championed. In the spirit of the area the team’s balloon truck has a street art make over.

Melbourne is home to the third largest Greek population in the world and Stephen and Robin head to the Greek festival to celebrate the country’s national day. Stephen jokes: “Robin brags that he’s a brilliant worldwide dancer. He’s shown me his dancing skills in Africa so I think I’m going to have to see what his Greek dancing skills are like!”

Stephen enrolls Robin in the dancing and souvlaki eating competition and rumours soon start to spread around the festival that Robin is actually Sir Richard Branson.

They then head to the Australian capital Canberra, where they are all set to take part in the Canberra balloon festival. But in the morning, the weather seems to be against the festival happening. Ever the Englishman, Robin says: “Why is everyone so negative? It’s only a bit of rain!”

But, as balloons and water don’t mix, the event is cancelled. Stephen says: “It’s all a bit disappointing really…the rain came down and it’s put a dampener on everything.”

To put the disappointment behind them, Stephen and Robin attempt an altitude flight in the New South Wales countryside. The current balloon world altitude record of 69,000ft is twice the cruising altitude of a jumbo jet. Although the team are aiming for a more modest 10,000ft there are still a lot of risks involved and recreational flights can only go as high as 2000ft.

As they reach 10,000ft and sit above the clouds Stephen says: “The higher you get the more calming it is.”

After a successful altitude flight, the team head to Sydney, the largest city in Australia. They head straight to the beach where they find an ocean swim going on in the 12 foot pacific waves. The swim is swiftly halted when the surf rescue team spots a shark. The swimmers battle to get back to the shore and Stephen and Robin agree that they will stick to the relative safety of flying balloons at altitude.

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