Balloons in the Wairarapa

Last weekend was the Wairarapa International
Balloon Festival. We found out about it when we happened to be in Masterton a
year ago, and tried to see an early-morning event without success. We thought
it was our fault for not getting up early enough, but we now know it is often
cancelled because the balloons cannot take off in a high wind, or even a slight
breeze. Which raises the interesting question: why would you organise something
that depends on very calm weather in a country like New Zealand, where howling
gales are a frequent occurrence? (Another interesting question: why does it
merit the adjective ‘international’? The answer apparently is that some of the
balloons come over from the South Island, and one of the pilots is American.)


Leaving aside metaphysical
conundra like the above, we decided that this year we would make a trip to the
Wairarapa specially to see the Festival. We drove across the Rimutakas to
Carterton on Friday night, and put up in the Marquis of Normanby Hotel, an
example of the shabby but quirky colonial-style hostelries which can be found
in New Zealand’s small towns. That evening we were able to watch the procession
of burners, where about a dozen balloon pilots drove down the main street
firing off their gas burners. This gives an effect something like a cross
between a firework display and a chip pan fire, but was modestly entertaining.


On Saturday morning we got up
really early to go to Henley Lake in Masterton to watch the ‘Splash ‘n’ Dash’
competition, where balloons fly over the lake and try to hit targets on the
water. It was due to start at 7.15, but all we heard was a succession of
announcements that they couldn’t fly because of the wind, which to us seemed
like a gentle breeze. Finally, two balloons made it into the air, and one
managed to touch down briefly on the lake before being whisked off to parts


That evening there was a big
celebration at the local sports ground, with crowds of eager families, takeaway
food and local school rock bands playing. The excitement was to view the ‘Night
Glow’ which took place after sunset. A dozen or so balloons were inflated on
the field (while still firmly attached to the ground), and then set off their
burners in time to background music in order to light themselves up in a
semi-rhythmical fashion. It was quite spectacular and unusual, although the
balloonists were a mixed ability group when it came to being in time with the


In between the balloon-related
excitement, we made a couple of trips to the Wairarapa coast. On Saturday we
drove to Riversdale Beach and went for a long walk along the sand. The weather
was warm and sunny, with only light winds, so we were even able to sunbathe for
a while. While over there we also visited Castlepoint, with its impressive rock
and lighthouse, but the wind had got up much stronger there.


On Sunday we explored another
forgotten highway, up through the northern Wairarapa to a funny little place
called Pongoroa. We detoured to visit Waihi Falls, which were quite
spectacular, with streams of water running down over a broad sheer rockface. I
suspect not many tourists get that far, however. We drove on to the coast at
Herbertville, and had another beach walk. This time the wind was very strong,
and more or less blew us along the beach. It’s a good job they weren’t trying
to launch balloons! Later we struggled back to the village and revived
ourselves at the small pub there.


We drove home on Sunday night,
glad to have finally caught up with the Wairarapa International Balloon
Festival, even if most of the events seemed to be firmly ground-based.

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