The Taiwan International Balloon Fiesta – Colorful Balloons Paint the East Rift Valley

For more than two months each summer the Luye Highland (鹿野高台) north of Taitung City, is the venue for a marvelous event featuring colorful hot-air balloons, some of which have amazingly creative shapes.

Text: Owain Mckimm

Photos: Maggie Song

It’s five in the morning, and the sun is just coming up over Taitung County’s Luye Highland, in Taiwan’s mesmerizing East Rift Valley (花東縱谷). With the Central Mountain Range (中央山脈) to the west and the Coastal Mountain Range (海岸山脈) to the east, the tableland provides stunning views along the Beinan River (卑南溪) system, the river’s many tributaries giving rise to a patchwork of river terraces laid out in lush fruit fields and tea plantations. At over 350 meters above sea level, the Luye Highland has, for many years, been a popular destination for paragliders, who come to the expansive grassy meadow with its sloping south-facing hillside to pursue their passion. Since 2011, however, the site has also been the launch pad for a grander, more romantic means of flying – the hot-air balloon.

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Just as dawn breaks over the highland, a single small, black helium balloon is released into the sky to test the winds. Hundreds of pairs of eyes follow it as it rises at a slight angle, nudged to one side by a light breeze. Conditions are deemed favorable, and the hot-air balloons are prepped to fly. Ten are laid out on the grass and, one by one, are slowly inflated with air until, within minutes it seems, they stand proudly, gracefully upright, swaying in the breeze.

As we clamber into the wicker basket of one for a scheduled ballooning jaunt, our vessel struggles against its tethers as if impatient to get off the ground. “Are you ready to go up?” our pilot, Edward Oordt from the Netherlands, asks us, and with an earsplitting blast from the burner we’re hoisted into the sky.

While for many the attraction of ballooning might be the serenity, floating engineless above the clouds, for Oordt, who sports a fantastic handlebar moustache, it’s the sense of unpredictability. “In a balloon there’s always excitement. Twenty-five years ago I was flying planes, and in a plane you just go from airport to airport, from A to B. In a balloon, it’s always different. Sometimes the weather can change very quickly, or if you’re flying over woods or over a city, finding a place to land can be very challenging.”

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It’s also surprising just how big the balloons are. The one we’re flying in has, according to Oordt, a volume of 133,000 cubic feet, and though it’s filled with nothing but hot air the force the balloon exerts is palpably immense. Eight of the ten balloons featured today are tethered to giant concrete dolosse in order to keep them from making a getaway, and will carry groups of four to a height of 50 meters before returning to the ground. From a distance they are tranquil giants, like icebergs floating in the water. But up close, the roars of their burners betray their frustration. They are tethered beasts yearning to be free.

Two of the ten balloons, however, are to be let off the leash. In previous years, only tethering was allowed at the festival, but this year, for the first time, free-flying trips are being offered to groups at a price of NT$8,000 per person. Though it may seem expensive, all available free-flying sessions right through the festival have been booked.

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Of the ten balloons on-site today, six are from the Netherlands, adorned in striking sponsorship messages in Dutch. There is also a checkered light-and-dark-green balloon from the UK, nicknamed the Hulk by the organizers; an American behemoth in the shape of a penguin wearing a cap and shades, a Hawaiian shirt, and a camera around its neck; and two of Taiwan’s very own, the pride of which is the heart-shaped, strawberry-and-cream vessel with “Taiwan: The Heart of Asia” proudly stamped across its chest.

This balloon is one of the lucky two that will take to the skies today, to soar north along the East Rift Valley until it finds terra firma in some as-yet-unknown destination. It lurches slowly back and forth in anticipation of take-off. And then finally it’s away, spinning slowly in mid-air until it catches the wind, then streaming forward with silent purpose over the crest of a hill and out of view.

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Held over a period of ten weeks in the summer (this year from June 1 to August 11), the Taiwan International Balloon Fiesta is now in its third year. “For over ten years we’ve held a Flying Season here at the Luye Highland, focused mainly on paragliding,” says Chen Shu-hui (陳淑慧), director-general of the Taitung County Tourism Department. “After the first few years many other areas in Taiwan started offering similar experiences, so we eventually decided that we needed something fresh to attract tourists to the area.” After deciding on hot-air balloons, and researching the logistics for such a project, it was discovered that Taiwan lacked both its own hot-air balloons and licensed pilots. Consequently, in the festival’s inaugural year the organizers were entirely dependent on the help of international pilots. “The first year we staged the festival, we had to return all the assets – balloons and pilots – and we realized that to lay a proper foundation for this event we’d need to set down our own roots. So we set into motion plans to train our own pilots and obtain our own balloons.”

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To date, seven Taiwanese have qualified as licensed pilots, gaining their certification from the US’s Federal Aviation Administration, and Taiwan now owns six balloons, purchased from Spanish balloon manufacturer Ultramagic. There are plans to purchase four more after this year’s festival.

This rapid local development has not stopped international pilots from returning year after year to Taitung. “The landscape here is so varied – mountains, valleys, plains – and if you get high enough you can even see the Pacific over the Coastal Mountain Range,” says Chen. “It’s not just farmland and fields. To be able to see so much spectacular scenery in one flight is something quite rare.”

The dramatic landscape is also something that keeps drawing visitors back too. Only 20% of visitors are locals from Taitung; the other 80% come from all over Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Japan. Some even come several times in the space of a few weeks. “This festival provides a special seasonal attraction in an already well-established beautiful spot,” Chen states. “The Luye Highland is already a picture in itself – but when you add in the balloons, it becomes really breathtaking.”

This year over twenty different balloons are taking part in the festival, and different novelty balloons are being featured at different times. This is one advantage of the festival being so long – the constant variety. While most ballooning festivals last about a week, Taiwan’s is a marathon at over two months long.

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As most balloonists are hobbyists, Chen invites them to the festival for as much time as they can spare, often stretches of one or two weeks. “This way we get to show lots of different balloons in one two-month-plus period,” she says. “And as we invite different novelty balloons every year, no one visit is the same. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.”

This year the festival features a balloon shaped like Darth Vader’s head, an Angry Bird, a giant cake, a baseball-cap-wearing turtle, and the aforementioned penguin. The classic, inverted-teardrop balloon is, though, for me, hard to top. As they rise and fall in the morning light, the orange glow of the burners only momentarily revealing the human presence within, they are simply ethereal – a natural phenomenon born of color and air.

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The balloons fly only at dawn and dusk – a limitation stemming from the fact that during the day the sun’s heat creates thermal updrafts that make ballooning dangerous. Two hundred tickets for the tethered flights go on sale daily at 5am and 3pm, with an extra two hundred going on sale after the first two hundred passengers have flown. A tethered flight usually lasts around ten minutes, and costs NT$500 per person. In addition, the area has eateries, food stalls, and funfair rides for the kids, and in the evenings there are barbecues and other events.

Explore Taitung, Taiwan with us, MyTaiwantour

This article was published in Travel in Taiwan magazine (Sept./Oct. 2013)

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