Monday, 1 May 2017

A memorable (and frightening) flight at lake Titicaca

An unforgettable hopper flight near Lake Titicaca
PHIL: Day 77/1 May

our launch site at 12,500ft
Well there doesn’t seem to have been a revolution overnight, though there was a very noisy pop concert at the nearby national football stadium.

Phil taking off in the burning home-built two seater hopper
At 0500 we are outside waiting for the balloon crew and equipment to turn up and, rather to our surprise, they do.

The drive up out of La Paz and down towards Lake Titicaca is beset by appalling road conditions including the highway completely blocked at two locations by ‘collectivos’ (mini-buses)  touting for and loading up with passengers.

preparing for a launch near Lake Titicacca
At just after 6.30 Jose Luis pulls into a rough field by the roadside and we prepare the balloon. In fact we have eight crew.

Rather threatening-looking cumulus clouds lower over towards the Lake and Peru, and there is already a slight breeze on the ground.
I still feel we are within an ace of failing to fly, but the team press on with preparations. The home-built balloon begins to reveal its weaknesses as the inflation proceeds and the flying wire protectors – a very critical item – start to burn in a rogue flame escaping sideways from the burner.
The pilot indicates that I should strap myself into the precarious-looking twin seat and, with much struggling, I fasten the modified car seat belt.We are lifting off at 3860M above sea level.

After a few minutes flight I remind Jose Luis that we promised to make an intermediate landing so Allie could replace me, but at this point we are over a small village. The burner fails unexpectedly and we accelerate earthwards as the pilot struggles to use his cigarette lighter to resume operation.
My nerves are cracking and my backside is sore from straining to perch on the uncomfortable sloping seat. After several attempts to find a safe spot to put down amidst a web of electric wires we touch down in a bogy field with several crew hauling on a dropline.

 the inflated balloon
By the time Allie is strapped in she is feeling unwell and very nervous. But she enjoys the views of the surrounding plains and distant Titicaca and snow-capped Mt Ilimani.
After packing up and drinking celebratory Costa Rican rum followed by Bolivian wine we are taken to the Lake for a brief boat trip.
Although it is a very beautiful scene – with a traditional reed boat maker on the shore – Allie and I are suffering from the early start and the altitude.
the view to planet earth from the hopper
The journey back is even more protracted because of a massive public protest on the highway about the Government’s decision to ban the import of cheap second-hand clothing. Allie is getting very sick, so chewing coca leaves is promptly suggested by our hosts as a remedy.
ALLIE: DAY 77: Tuesday, 1st of May
An unforgettable hopper flight in Bolivia, a visit to lake Titicaca and being sick
getting the balloon ready
What a day! Or rather I must start saying what a night. Something is desperately wrong with me. Again I just couldn’t sleep, had a very bad headache and nearly wished I was dead.
If I hadn’t been so ballooni-crazy after 3 years of marriage with Phil Dunington I would have stayed in bed and tried to recover.
But no, here I find my body dragging itself up at the ungodly time of 4.30 and driving up to the plains for what we hope will be a balloon flight in Bolivia.
The amazing thing was, that we started out being just the pilot and us, then suddenly Lourdes and her daughter Daniela appeared and after a while we even had 2 crew boys and the sister of Lourdes in the small jeep!
we suddenly had so many crew!!!
The traffic at 5.30 am at El Alto is amazing: hundreds of little vans create a massive traffic jam in the middle of the main road dropping and picking up passengers.
After 90min we finally reach the take off site a rough 20km away from Lake Titicaca. We unload the kit, a home built two seater hopper with a 77cu feet envelope.
there goes my husband into the stormy skies of Bolivia!
The weather looks rather dodgy. Huge cumulus clouds form in the north east above the lake. A few curious farmers and kids come out from their adobe houses to watch this strange piece of blue fabric gradually taking on the shape of a balloon.

During the inflation fire starts to catch on the flying wires and I am expecting the whole thing to explode any minute.

It doesn’t explode, but the fire is still not where it is supposed to be when Phil climbs into the seat next to Jose and the two of them take off into a dark looking sky. I am afraid that I will never see my husband again!
 The winds take the balloon around the little village. Fortunately there isn’t much wind, in fact maybe too little, because every landing attempt is failed because they end up on top of electric cables.
strapped in for the hopper flight of my life!
 am soo glad finally see him safely on the ground. But now it’s my turn! Oh God, do I really want to die in Bolivia??
But I guess my adventurous spirit still overcomes my fears and I get strapped in the seat. We do only a short hop, then Jose decides he doesn’t want to free fly anymore and puts us on a tether rope.
I am happy with that, but not with that balloon!
The flames seem to burn up the whole kit, the seat is unbalanced so that you actually drop forward (if that safety belt would come loose, you’d drop like a sack to the ground!) and the rope pulls us back with hard shocks.
stormy clouds and a tiny hot air balloon
celebration afterwards with Bolivian wine
We are at 150metres and I don’t want to think of what could happen if….
I try to concentrate my mind on the scenery: there is Lake Titicaca in the distance and the one of the highest mountains of Bolivia, the Huayna Potosi with its snow-capped top (3088m).
After 15min we come down after what I thought was a life time up in the air. Well, never again, but great to get country no. 25 for me and country no. 93 for Phil. Fantastic!
We have a little celebration on the field surrounded by friendly locals. By that time my whole body is about to collapse. My head is exploding and I hardly can think straight.
a visit to Lake Titicaca with their traditional reed boats
But we are invited to drive up to the Lake and do a bit sightseeing. Even though I’d rather beem myself to bed, it’s a offer that can’t be refused.
the boat project souvenir shop
We stop at the lake and Jose proudly shows us his boat project. He is building a passenger ship to cruise the lake made in the local tradition out of reed.
It’s already 10am by now and we haven’t had any breakfast. We stop for a coffee and then take a little cruise on the lake (with a rather slow motor boat).
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world being situated at 3822 meters above sea level and forming the border between with Peru.
a boat ride across the lake
The sun comes out (it had indeed rained here just minutes ago!) and the lake shines in a beautiful clear blue colour. It has only 5 degrees and that’s even too much for me to dare a hop. And anyway, I am about to die…

caught in a horrible traffic jam on the way back
The 2 hours drive back is just torture for my poor brain. We get trapped into a protest march of 3000 Indian women in El Alto and have to take the most horried cobble stone roads as detour.
By the time we reach the hotel I am a total wreck. Collapse to bed and stay in there until 6pm. We haven’t eaten all day, and so I join Phil in a desperate search of a restaurant in the old town. Everything shut.

Today is the 1st of May. Holiday. Yes, but that’s when people do want to go out, or maybe not here? We end up in a non-descript 5–star hotel where we are the only guests. At least the food is good and not very expensive. To bed at 9 with some drugs from our Bolivian friends. What a day!


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