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Wonders high and low

By Ou Shuyi | China Daily | Updated: 2013-01-10 11:35
Wonders high and low

Cairns has a lot to offer to any discerning visitors - flying over the Atherton Tablelands on a hot-air balloon or taking a dip to explore the magic of the Great Barrier Reef. [Photos by Ou Shuyi / China Daily; photo far left provided for China Daily]

Hot-air balloons leave visitors to Cairns, Australia gasping with delight. Then it's time to take a dive, Ou Shuyi reports.

The best way to catch the sunrise in Cairns is by going high up in the sky - in a hot-air balloon. Located on the northeast coast of Australia, Cairns is one of the best places in the world to go ballooning, with its spectacular scenery and ideal weather conditions.

For a first-timer like me, flying in a balloon is appealing but a little intimidating.

"It's probably the safest activity in the air," says local guide Mike Sha, who works with Hot Air Gold Coast & CWonders high and lowairns, one of the biggest ballooning operators in Australia.

"Whether you are 9 or 90, you can do it. We have flown passengers of all ages."

The Chinese-Australian tries to help ease my fear after picking me up at 4:30 am.

The flights usually take place early in the morning because balloons need cool, stable winds to operate effectively. The hours following sunrise are the most suitable before the heat of the day, Sha tells me.

The takeoff point is near the township of Mareeba, about one-hour drive from Cairns. Known for its temperate climate with about 300 sunny days a year, Mareeba is located on the fertile plateau of Atherton Tablelands.

The mountains of the Great Dividing Range act as a wind buffer against the sea breezes, which means Cairns has fewer flight cancelations than most locations in the world, Sha explains.

When we arrive at the launch site, it's about 6 am, and the dawn is just beginning to break over the stretch of farmlands.

A huge koala and a kangaroo are floating high in the air - two balloons that stand as tall as 10-story buildings, and each is emblazoned with a lively image of the Australian iconic animals.

After 30 minutes' waiting, it's time to get on board. I climb into the balloon basket, which is quite spacious for 16 passengers. The burner flares into action and the tethers are released. The next thing I know, we're inches off the ground.

The blasts from the burner warm my cheeks as we're rising higher and higher, watching trees shrink to broccoli florets, and cattle and sheep shrivel to little white cotton buds. Minutes later, we are floating gently over the morning mist.

The sun emerges over the horizon, its first rays of light revealing the tapestry of the farmlands.

Mango and lychee plantations, cane fields and coffee trees are all bathed in the spectacular golden light. The landscape comes to life as hundreds of kangaroos and wallabies jump around the bush.

I never expect that my first sight of the Australian wildlife would be from so high above. They look tiny but dazzlingly cute.

The flight is surprisingly gentle. I hardly feel the thrill of ascent from the tree level to about 1,000 meters.

It's also remarkably quiet. The silence is only interrupted by the birds' chirping, dogs' barking down below and the exclamations from my fellow passengers aboard.

Occasionally the pilot flares the propane burner. This is how he steers the balloon. By venting hot air to drop, or blasting heat into the balloon to rise, he can adjust the altitude to catch winds blowing the desired direction.

The one-hour flight comes to an end as the pilot makes radio contact with the ground crew, asking about the landing site and preparation.

Minutes later, we're back on the ground, safe and sound.

To enjoy the charm of Cairns, you should not only soar high up, but also go down under.

The Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia's best-kept secrets, is a dream destination and an underwater marvel.

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