Balloon Stories 1: TOYOTA Pick Up

Over the years I have come to hate Toyota pick-ups and one was coming across the newly-cut cornfield with speedy determination and an impressive cloud of dust billowing out behind. It’s difficult to hide in a wicker basket with twelve passengers and a 30 metre high balloon envelope displaying an orange likeness of Britain’s most beautiful castle on a tasteful dark blue background, but I did my best.

It had been a lovely flight up over the North Downs of Kent – a very pretty direction passing Harrietsham, with its quaint thatched houses and picturesque pubs, despite a throbbing proximity to both the M20 and the high speed rail link with the Eurostar trains hurtling past on their way to the Channel Tunnel and ultimately Paris. At least the trains are friendly, with an impressive roaring hoot from the engine at the sight of the balloon. Toyota pick-ups rarely hoot in an “all’s right with the world and have a good day” sort of way. Toyota pick-ups are built by miserable Japanese who are unable to get work on the cheery Yaris production line let alone the Lexus luxury line. They are bought by people who need a no-nonsense reliable workhorse to shift bales of hay and the occasional dead sheep or acquired Brinx Matt bullion around the countryside. They are often painted red – to hide the dirt, rust or blood, often all three –and to serve as a visible warning that the occupant is bad tempered and not to be messed with. The red face of the driver invariably matches the colour of the truck and this serves the same purpose for him as a person (with the exception of hiding the rust). The tailgate is emblazoned with the name “TOYOTA” in capital letters so that you are left in no doubt as to what has just forced you off the road or has flattened your beloved child or pet. And this one was red, dusty and approaching fast – both truck and driver.

The mood can change very fast in a balloon. The passengers had just finished clapping and cheering in the polite way of people who have just found themselves back on the ground after an hour’s flying. Their friends and family had spent the preceding weeks or months convincing them they wouldn’t survive the experience. The fact that just one passenger has died in a commercial balloon accident in the UK in over twenty five years hasn’t stopped this fear of the unknown building up to the point that clapping and cheering seems the right thing to do on realising that this is not the death that God has in store for you and that work is still on for Monday morning. Except the red Toyota pick-up now appears to offer an alternative annihilation. It is still heading straight for the balloon basket at a fair rate of knots. Palpable nervousness builds through the basket of passengers. One had already asked during the flight how we got on with farmers. This question is always asked after about forty minutes flying and I had given my usual reply: – if most farmers weren’t friendly, I would have stopped ballooning years ago. This conveniently glosses over the fact that some farmers and landowners are distinctly unfriendly and usually give some warning of this by driving red Toyota pick-ups in a threatening manner.

The truck stopped just short of the basket in a crackle of corn stems and an all-enveloping cloud of dust. As this drifted over the basket and its now very quiet occupants, the driver emerged and slammed his door to leave us in no doubt that he had arrived.

This was an interesting man built along unusual lines – a sort of red version of the Hulk. Stocky, sweaty shirt stained with a week’s harvesting dirt. Trousers just about held up – not with the caricature bailer twine, but because of the build-up of tractor oil and grease making them too stiff to fall down over the unlaced boots. There was just time too to notice the really interesting bit – he did not appear to have a neck. The red face grew straight out of the dirty shirt and impressively broad shoulders. Three strides and he was up to the basket, which resembles an egg carton for humans; three passengers each in four compartments, two either side of my centre section which I share with the propane cylinders and the gas burners overhead. I also wear a sweatshirt in the same blue as the balloon envelope with a rather fetching embroidered depiction of the balloon over Britain’s most beautiful castle.

In these circumstances, even this farmer had little difficulty working out who was in charge. The sides of the basket are surprisingly high on a big commercial balloon – about my chest height and a perfect arms-spread leaning height for this farmer. He thrust his head into the centre space and impinged on my near-visible aura of trepidation. The smell of oil, diesel, dust and red-faced farmer mingled with the smell of propane and admittedly hot pilot. The face got closer than should have been possible over the side of the basket– close enough to see that a visit to the dentist was long overdue and to change the smells already mentioned to those of stale milk chocolate and tobacco. With a slow spreading smile the farmer said, in a surprisingly quiet and shy voice, “I like balloons”.