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Balloons skimming water of Lake Burley Griffin during Canberra Balloon Spectacular

For nine days in March every year, Canberrans awake to the magic of a flotilla of hot air balloons drifting gently across the city skies. It’s something we’ve been witnessing for more than 30 years, but it’s a sight that never grows old.

The Canberra Balloon Spectacular, originally held in 1988 as a one-off, is now firmly embedded as part of the two week long Enlighten Festival, when the nation’s capital literally lights up in celebration of our birthday. That’s a solid party!

The festival takes place in 2020 between 7-15 March. More than 30 giant balloons in all colours and shapes launch from the lawns of Old Parliament House, just as dawn breaks. The mornings are still and just-chilled, but there’s live music and hot breakfasts on the side.

To help you make the most of the festival, the biggest of its kind in Australia, here are a few tips.

Keep updated

Ballooning totally depends on the weather, and weather can be fickle, so daily launches aren’t guaranteed. So, rule number one, to avoid disappointment (and complaining kids), check updates before you leave home. You can follow Enlighten on Facebook, visit its website, tune into local radio or call Canberra Connect—and possibly save yourself a wasted trip. Although, even if the balloons don’t fly, breakfast’s still on.

If you’re keen to catch a balloon sighting or two, go at the beginning of the festival. If flights are cancelled, you’ll have more opportunities during the rest of the week.

Get there early

The balloons start filling from 6.15am on the lawns of Old Parliament House, taking around 15 minutes to fill and lift. Most have floated off by around 7am. This is where the action starts and it’s a buzz  watching the balloons being fired up.

If you’re running late or just want to watch the balloons floating across the city, pick another location. The flight paths vary with the wind, but they often head north-westish across the city.

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Keep room for breakfast

Arriving early for take-off lets you get up close and personal and witness the balloons come to life. You’re part of the atmosphere, surrounded by the swoosh of the gas cylinders and the heat of the flames, the riders in the baskets, and hundreds of early risers.

It’s a bit of a party atmosphere with live music on the weekends and hot breakfasts available each day from the Belconnen Lions Club. You can grab pancakes, burritos and juice, and of course there’s always coffee.

Dress warmly

Even though March days in the capital are mainly beautiful, it is Canberra remember, and the mornings can be surprisingly chilly and the grass damp. Wear closed in shoes and bring a jacket.

Pick your vantage point

There’s a multitude of places to view the drifting kaleidoscope as the city wakes up. Try one of these, or perhaps all of them:

  • Commonwealth Bridge, where the balloons come towards you over the National Library
  • down by the lake opposite the National Museum, one of the first places the balloons reach and where they’re quite close
  • anywhere along the lake from the Carillon to Regatta Point provides a wide vista with our iconic buildings and Black Mountain Tower in the background
  • from Scrivener Dam or Black Mountain peninsular looking towards the city
  • from the heights of the arboretum as the sun rises.

Shoot like a pro

The Balloon Spectacular is a photographer’s true delight, as the hundreds of thousands of shots taken every year attest, but you don’t have to have the best gear to get a great shot.

If you want to increase your chances of nailing something really special, don’t fret—I’ve got you covered with tips for photographing Canberra’s balloon spectacular. Anyone can get amazing shots.

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Look out for the new entrants

The balloons come from all over the globe and each year brings a couple of new characters to the skies. In past years we’ve had an angry bird, Kerbie the frog, a Scottish bagpiper, Simba, Yoda and Vincent Van Gough. And who could forget the controversial Sky Whale, commissioned for Canberra’s anniversary with its rather distinct, umm, mammary glands? Who will it be this year? They’re not cheap those special balloons, costing around $200,000 to make one.

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Swing high, swing low

For a real treat, you can take to the skies yourself in one of the balloons. Both Balloons Aloft and Dawn Drifters offer paid balloon rides during the festival.

Set your alarm, Canberra, and don’t miss this spectacle. It’s totally worth getting out of bed for, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t like rising before 8. Maybe leave your pooches at home though, as some get quite sketched out by those gas swooshes and looming shapes.

This article was first published in HerCanberra.