IT'S ABOUT 4.50am and a dozen of us gather in the frosty pre-dawn dark beside Tyagarah airstrip as Australian ballooning champion Thomas Dattler releases a small test balloon.
The fact he and his crew took out the national titles last year - and will travel to Michigan, US, to contest the world titles this year - is small comfort as the blinking red LED light disappears into the dark at about 1000 feet.
"It's going north-east so we won't be launching from here," he says.
"We'd be out at sea in no time - not so good without a steering wheel," he adds with a slight grin.
We pack into two troop carriers, one pulling all the equipment, and head inland.
From a dark lookout at the corner of Coolamon Scenic Dr and the Pacific Hwy, Thomas releases a second test balloon, which is immediately swept down into Byron Bay and out to sea.
The 12 of us pile nervously back into the troopies and head west as the excitement builds and the crew continue discussing launch options on the two-way.
As a local, I've often looked upon extreme-sport activities for bullet-proof backpackers with a little disdain, but this is different, very different. And from the moment we launch from a misty paddock somewhere near Bexhill, you know it.
The silence is surreal, the landscape - lit low from the sunrise - is just sublime, and the stillness is exquisite. This is not only reflected back to me in the faces of my 11 co-passengers, but that of our veteran pilot too, as he tells us we are scooting along at about 10 knots.
It may just be another day at the office for Thomas, but you know this man loves his job. His grin is infectious.
Unlike any other aircraft, balloons travel with the wind, so there is no friction, no breeze, no sense of movement and no sound. I wouldn't be laying it on too thick to call this experience ethereal - at 2000 feet the atmosphere sparkles, the horizon curves and stars still shine above us.
We gawk speechlessly as Thomas reveals more tricks, dropping altitude quickly to pick up a different wind direction (identified by squirting hair conditioner out the basket) and the chance to touch the tree tops near Nashua.
Filing photos and badly-thumbed commentary direct to The Northern Star's Facebook page, I resist the urge to photograph Hollywood nice-guy Simon Baker's hinterland spread as we float majestically overhead. I feel above such things today.
Only the sound of the burners break the quiet, lifting us over the next ridge, on track for a soft landing in another paddock, just outside of Bangalow.
Steadied by a pretty good champagne breakfast, I reluctantly return to work like a kid leaving Dreamworld for the first time, transported in every sense. The tourists may lap it up, but every local should do this at least once.
Where: Byron Bay Ballooning, 1 Old Brunswick Rd, Tyagarah (beside Tyagarah Airfield near Byron Bay)
When: 60 to 90 mins before sunrise
How much: $325 per passenger, includes champagne breakfast
How long: One hour flight, allow four hours for everything else
What to wear: Comfortable protective clothes (season appropriate) and closed shoes
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