I wake up to a white world in Araku Valley. It is not snowing but the curtain of fog has descended on the landscape wrapping everything in its fold. The birds however are still singing from the trees although I can neither see the trees nor the birds. Sipping a cup of ginger tea, I watch as the sea of white veils the luxury tents in my camp. This is my first experience of glamping in Araku Valley and it feels like a dream. There are several places to visit in Araku Valley but am content to just experience the Araku Balloon Festival for now. As I wonder if the skies are going to clear any moment soon, a thin fragile layer of mist blows right in front of my face. And just then, the star pilot, Captain Karimulla Syed walked in and looking at the fog said, ” Not to worry, we will fly today. ”
Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh is a secret tucked away in the Eastern Ghats of India and am excited as this is my first Araku Balloon Festival. The fog slowly lifts, uplifting my spirits as well while I sip my second cup of tea. The camp site is now swarming from pilots and their crews who have flown in from fifteen countries – from Malaysia to Brazil, Japan to Australia, Thailand to Netherlands, Slovakia to Germany, United Kingdom to Belgium and the animated chatter continues. Hot air balloons in different sizes and shapes will soon took over the skies once the fog clears.
I get a few moments from Captain Karim before he heads out to test his hot air balloon. Captain Karim who represents E Factor Entertainment as a pilot was once working in an event management company before he got fascinated by the world of hot air ballons. The hot air balloon festival in Dubai made him change the very course of his career as he went on to become a pilot. Hailing from Guntur, he now divides his time between Dubai, India and the rest of the world, where he flies in different festivals. “Every day is an adventure, ” he says. And echoing his thoughts is our pilot for the day , Captain Wout Bakker, a Dutch who has over 28 years of flying experience.
And so we join them on the plains in Araku Valley where the hot air balloons are all ready to fly high. The entire village is gathered here, filled with awe and excitement . They are all dressed in their best clothes, with adding to the colour arouund. The sun is now out, having banished the fog and the entire arena is a riot of hues. The paragliders from Italy are also here as they fly low. But I am like the kids in a candy store, lost in the array of balloons. Two little girls look shyly at us as we photograph them, with their own balloons soaring high.
Organised by Andhra Pradesh Tourism and E Factor, the Araku Balloon Festival has over twenty pilots and their crew from fifteen countries. For me however it is the fascinating shapes that beckon me. As I potter around, there is the cute Baby Car, painted in hues of pink, with a little bottle in its hand, getting ready to fly. Baby Car is a hot air balloon from Brazil and the pilot is Captain Jose Eduardo Alves De Souza. He tells me that he calls it Sophie and the idea came to him when his sister was pregnant.
The beautiful baby is my favourite but standing close by is the Flying Honey Bee, dipped in bright yellow and the pilot is Captain Francisco Naccaratio, also from Brazil. I cant have enough of the fluffy Happy Chicken who has flown all the way from Netherlands. But the guy who is grinning from ear to ear and is standing tall is Bruno the Clown from Slovakia.
While these special balloons are additional attractions, the others were no less spectacular. Our balloon helmed by Captain Bakker is the largest among the lot and is painted in psychadellic colours of yellow, red, white and green and orange.
As we take off, the valley reveals itself to us, even as a thin layer of fog remains over the mountains surrounding us. The fields are barren but it is good in a way, if we land says our Captain as we soar over 1500 feet into the sky. Slowly we are surrounded by the other hot air balloons floating around us.
The landscape comes alive as the Clown grins while the Baby Car enjoys a joy ride in the sky. The Happy Chicken is happier in the skies while the Honey Bee is buzzing away happily. The other balloons painted in all the rainbow shades takes off as the winds carry us away, giving us a glimpse of the valley.
The kids scream excitedly as they wave to us. The cattle is however running away a bit helter skelter. The winds carry us away according to their whim as we fly over rivers and hills, fields and forests and land in the middle of nowhere, literally. I realize that there are so many places to visit in Araku Valley and all that I have had is a mere glimpse of its scenic beauty.
The Araku ballon festival is not just about a joy ride though. There are excursions galore that take us into the heart of the Araku Valley. Some of the places to visit in Araku Valley include pottery villages and hamlets with craftsmen. Bambu chicken is the favourite here. But the speciality is Araku Valley Coffee, which was introduced initially by the British in the Eastern Ghats, but it later became an initiative to rehabilitate tribals in the area. While I sip the coffee, its the Araku chocolates that add flavour. I am told that there are strawberry farms as well but I plan to come back later to see the other places to visit in Araku Valley, which can be accessed by rail or road from Visakhapatnam or Vizag, which is the closest city. I am told that the train journey is rather spectacular as well. But if you are driving down from Vizag, which takes around three hours, you can also stop at the spectacular Borra Caves along the way.
The festival comes to life in the nights as the balloons are all lit up. The atmoshere is vibrant and there is so much energy around. Music and dance fill the air as we warm ourselves by the bonfire. Animated conversations echo in the night sky. As dinner is served, we down the tasty food with some drinks and lose ourselves in the lively atmosphere. As sleep beckons, I am back in my luxury tent, curled up with a warm blanket, dreaming of flying in the skies . I hope to be back at the next Araku Balloon Festival.