With the whitewashed rim of the Pacific lapping at the Wollongong shoreline below and a orange glow lighting up a mighty balloon overhead, Clément Seigeot let the wind take him.
Mr Seigeot, France’s reigning national hot air ballooning champion, made it his dream to fly over Wollongong soon after relocating to Mt Pleasant 18 months ago.
But the unpredictably windy Wollongong coastline, with its dense population, abutting escarpment and precious few clear landing spaces, is unsuited to balloon-flying.
For three months Mr Seigeot waited for the right conditions until finally, in Wednesdays’ pre-dawn darkness, he and two crew took their positions inside a giant basket beside Wollongong lighthouse, and drifted upward.
“I have never [flown a balloon] over the ocean. I was a bit nervous,” Mr Seigeot, 28, said. “I was pretty sure everything was OK. But you are pushed by the wind - I don’t have a steering wheel. You’re never 100 per cent sure.”
Mr Seigeot first flew in a hot air balloon when he was three. At 17 he got his ballooning pilot’s license and at 27, after three years as runner-up, he became national champion in France, where there are about 50 competitive balloon pilots compared to Australia’s 15 or so. He has piloted balloons in every European country, Russia, Japan, Dubai and the USA. It is the freedom of it that he loves, he says.
“You take off and you don’t know where you’re going; every flight is different. There’s no traffic, you have a 360-degree view with no noise. It’s so peaceful.”
Mr Seigeot moved to the Illawarra in 2016 after taking up a job with Balloons Aloft Camden.
Members of his circle believe Wednesday’s balloon flight to be the first ever over Wollongong. It was after countless road trips to and from work, taking in the “spectacular” view of Wollongong from above, that he hatched the plan for the flight.
He checked local air space restrictions, finding only that he must avoid the nearby skydiving drop zone during operating hours.
Before Wednesday’s take-off, he checked the forecast models “100 times” and launched three helium-filled test balloons in the space of an hour.
He travelled about 1.5kms over sea in the balloon before coming in to land safely at Guest Park at Fairy Meadow.