Stephen Tompkinson’s Australian Balloon Adventure

Sunday, 29 August 2010, 6:30PM – 7:30PM on ITV1

The final episode sees Stephen and Robin take on the best balloon pilots in Australia as they reach the balloon competition in Canowindra to settle the Australia v Britain sporting rivalry.

Ahead of the competition, the team bases themselves South West of Sydney and takes on a mock competition: Stephen and Robin against Matt, who is based in Sydney. In competitive ballooning, it’s about the skills of the pilot in reading the winds rather than the balloon’s speed and both balloons have to meet three targets.

Before they set off Stephen says: “Matt knows this area a lot better, so of course he has an advantage over that. Robin is more senior and has done many more hours in a balloon. Matt’s the young pretender!”

After wishing each other luck both balloons set off for the first target, a reservoir where they have to dip the balloon basket into the water and pull out again in a move called a splash and dash. Stephen and Robin reach the water first, but Matt’s close on their heels.

The next target is a bridge where the balloonists have to catch helium balloons released from the ground by crew member Victor. Stephen narrowly misses catching it with his hands, but the helium balloon gets caught in their balloon and, as Matt misses altogether, it’s 2-1 to Stephen and Robin.

The balloon truck is the final target and the teams have to throw a marker as close to it as possible. Matt throws first and misses by a short distance. “He’s too impatient”, says Robin, “we just have to sit and wait.”

But the winds are against them and Stephen and Robin are unable to reach the target so the competition is called a draw. Stephen says: “It’s given us a taste for it but we can get sharper now we’ve had that experience.”

Days before the Canowindra balloon challenge Stephen sets off to explore Sydney’s culinary offering with Australian Masterchef presenter Matt Preston who takes Stephen out to eat at some of the city’s finest restaurants. Australia’s vast array of climates makes it possible to grow a variety of foods and Matt says: “There’s no better way of understanding a city and a culture than through its food. This is your first step to understanding Sydney.”

As Sydney is the drag capital of the world, Stephen and Robin head into the city to meet the real ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’. Local drag artist Graham, also known as Mitsy Macintosh, invites the pair to judge at one of his drag competitions. Afterwards, Stephen reveals: “The contest was quite confusing, because I’m pretty sure that the winner was a girl. Which sort of goes against the whole drag thing for me. Robin’s even more confused!”

Before the balloon competition, Stephen and Robin receive some official backing from Baroness Amos, the British High Commissioner to Australia who invites them to her Sydney office. The office has stunning views across Sydney harbour where Robin reveals that, despite 30 years ballooning experience, he’s scared of heights and can’t look out of the 16th storey window. The duo present Baroness Amos with a picture of Daisy the balloon and she gives them some advice: “You’d better win, that’s my only advice. I don’t want to get a message saying that you lost!”

She says: “The great thing about Australia is that people are incredibly warm and welcoming, but it’s hugely competitive around sport especially with Britain. So everyone will go all out to beat you so just go out there and do your stuff.”

With the backing of the British High Commissioner Stephen and Robin head on to Canowindra; 200 miles west of Sydney and Australia’s balloon capital. “It’s a very sleepy little town. We’re ready but I don’t know if Canowindra is ready,” says Stephen.

The day of the competition finally arrives, and news of their entry has already preceded Stephen and Robin. Twenty competitors arrive at the briefing and, as the only team to have traveled so far, the duo get a special Australian welcome by the organizer who tells the assembled crowd: “These guys from England think they’re pretty hot so don’t let these pommies take any of our prize money back to England!”

The teams will be scored on how close they can fly to a couple of targets hidden in the Canowindra countryside.

Before taking off Stephen says: “Well this is it, this is what we’ve been building up to for the past few weeks…Robin’s in control of everything and we’re really happy to be here. It’s been an amazing journey and this is the icing on the cake.”

The duo start following the map references and, while in constant radio contact with Matt and Victor on the ground, they start to head to the first target. They spot the target cross but misread the speed and direction of the winds and they drift wide. Having been blown entirely off course a despondent Robin says: “I’ve let you down haven’t I? I’m sorry.”

There’s still the second target to go, but will Stephen and Robin be able to overcome their first mistake, hit the target, regain some pride and win the task for Britain?

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.

Sunday, 15 August 2010, 7:00PM – 8:00PM on ITV1

Stephen Tompkinson once again takes to the skies in this new three-part documentary series. Having previously journeyed across the African continent in a hot air balloon, in this new epic challenge he travels to Australia with experienced balloon pilot Robin Bachelor to explore its rich and diverse landscape and wildlife and to take part in the country’s largest balloon competition, the Canowindra Balloon Challenge.

Episode One

Australia ��” the largest island in the world, with the greatest number of landscapes, is a country whose unique wildlife is evidence of its historical isolation. Home to only 22million people from 200 different countries, Australia is crying out to be explored and Stephen has just the way to do it: by hot air balloon. As Stephen says: “Nowhere says adventure like Australia.”

But Stephen’s not tackling the adventure on his own. He’s joined by experienced balloon pilot Robin Bachelor, co-pilot Matthew, a British ex-pat based in Sydney, Victor the crew chief and, the most important member of the team, Daisy the red and white balloon named after Stephen’s nine year old daughter.

The team starts their adventure in South Australia, a state four times the size of the UK where the dry unforgiving landscape is known as the outback. While on the road they come across a camel trainer who explains that the Australian outback has more wild camels than anywhere else in the world.

Their first stop is Parachilna which has an official population count of just seven people and is located near the dramatic Flinders Ranges National Park. Stephen and Robin have a local meal and Stephen says: “We’ve seen emu, kangaroo, camel and Robin’s eaten them all!”

A beautiful dawn in Parachilna greets the team and they’re all ready for their first flight. Stephen says: “Our maiden flight in Australia, there’s a palpable tingle in the air!”

They attempt to fly across Wilpena Pound, a 30 square mile natural amphitheatre in the heart of the Flinders Ranges to get a view of the outback seen by few people.

Once safely up above the Ranges, Stephen reveals to Robin that he’s done some research on the area explaining: “The Flinders Ranges were once as high as the Himalayas, they’re at this height now because of erosion. So we really are on top of the world!”

But following an impressive flight across the Ranges, conditions deteriorate rapidly forcing the team to make a landing they will never forget. In the hot and harsh Australian landscape the wind speed is very changeable, making it difficult for Robin to plot how the balloon will fly. He says: “As we clear these ridges we have to be careful of curl over. As the wind comes over the ridge it tumbles down the other side quite dramatically and it would [take us with it] and knock air out of the balloon.”

Robin radios the team on the ground to check the wind speed and finds it is speeding up and rain is chasing them. As they start their descent the winds are furious and the team realise the landing is going to be very fast indeed.

Robin hurriedly instructs: “Hold yourself backwards, face back, hold on with both hands. Hold on now!”

The basket hits the ground and the balloon’s momentum drags it along the rough outback ground for several hundred feet at 40mph kicking up a mighty dust trail in its wake. Eventually, it comes to a stop and Robin yells to check that his team is ok.

Once back on his feet, a shaken but relieved Stephen reflects on their ordeal.

He says: “The impact was incredibly strong and we had Steve the cameraman and Luke the soundman with us as well. As soon as we hit I was upside down. The initial jolt nearly put my teeth through my brain and then we were just dragged and it didn’t feel like we were going to stop.

“Steve the cameraman took it the worst and he’s been ambulanced away which you don’t like to see, I hope he makes a speedy recovery… I think we’re lucky to be sitting here talking to you, frankly.”

Robin says: “The last I looked at the GPS it was registering 35 knots. I then just stopped looking. Easily the fastest landing I’ve ever done in all my life.”

After checking that no permanent damage has been done to the balloon and basket Stephen returns to the morning’s events: “I’m trying not to think about the negatives. I think the positives we have to take out of it are that we’re all still fine, the word’s come back from the hospital that Steve has been released and he’s ok. I’m quite keen to get back in the saddle again, prove it wasn’t something that will damage our spirits in any way…We will push on and have much more beautiful experiences than that.”

As Robin and Matthew repair the balloon basket Stephen joins some local stockmen on their cattle ranch. In this part of the world some of these ranches are as big as some European countries. It’s all hands on deck to tag some new cattle and Stephen mounts a horse for the first time but jokes that his unique riding style is “down to an old ballooning injury”.

Once Daisy the balloon has a clean bill of health Stephen and Robin take her back to the skies for a controlled test flight and pack her onto the back of the truck to move on to the Barossa Valley, the famous wine producing region.

The Barossa has very calm winds and the team take the opportunity to fly over the agricultural landscape and rows of vines below. After a much more gentle landing Robin confesses: “That flight has brought all the normal delights of ballooning flooding back…To be honest I almost thought I’d never get in a basket again.”

A successful flight is toasted at a local winery as they learn about the Barossa’s history and winemaking techniques. After sampling the wine’s flavour Stephen, who no longer drinks, jokes: “I’m glad I had the spittoon with me. You can tell what it’s like if you don’t have a spittoon by Robin’s dulcet tones and the various singing we’ve been treated to.”

The duo continue on their journey and complete a flight over the Murray River with a new Australian balloon crew including Australia’s top sporting balloonist. The early morning flight takes in the North West corner of the state of Victoria as the sun rises and Stephen and Robin take in the beauty below them.

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