Inner East Review
Tuesday, 5 December 2023

Author taps into Cremorne's rich ballooning history

Updated September 6 2022 - 1:55pm, first published August 30 2022 - 7:00am
Helene Rogers ... "the first people to fly through the air in Australia" were in hot air balloons that took off from Cremorne in 1858. Photo: Morgan Hancock
Helene Rogers ... "the first people to fly through the air in Australia" were in hot air balloons that took off from Cremorne in 1858. Photo: Morgan Hancock

For residents of the inner east, the spectacle of giant coloured spheres floating on the skyline is such a familiar one it forms part of the regular scenery of their suburbs.

Hot air balloons, riding the wind, drop in and out of the urban landscape so closely they often seem on the verge of clipping a rooftop or taking out a church spire.

But barring the odd unplanned landing, the flights are a form of reliable magic carried out by the companies operating over Melbourne, several Richmond-based.

They have come a long way from the uncertain voyages of the first hot air balloonists, who launched Australia's aviation history from Cremorne over a century and a half ago, as documented in book by Helene Rogers on the history on balloon flight in Australia launched in Richmond last year.

There are four balloon companies that operate over Melbourne, according to Nick Brau, the owner of one of them, Liberty Balloon Flights, and on a weekend day in the peak season - from February to April - you might see nine balloons flying overhead.

According to Brau, who is a pilot with 29 years experience, Melbourne is the largest city in the world where balloons fly over the CBD.

In Paris, for instance, you can fly over the outskirts but not the city itself.

"Everybody that does ballooning in the world commercially, any pilot, knows about Melbourne as a very unique place for balloon flights to happen," he says.

There are a few reasons for the special status - firstly, simply because somebody started commercial balloon flights over Melbourne in the mid-1980s and they have been running ever since.

Then, the location of the city's airports and parks in relation to the wind patterns is advantageous.

"Melbourne is lucky geographically in that with the normal wind patterns over the city, we can fly without interfering with the traffic at Tullamarine airport," Brau says.

While flight paths obviously vary according to wind direction and weather conditions, Richmond's central location means its skies feature heavily on the schedule and also provide some of the best views.

The suburb is en route to Faulkner Park and Albert Park, where a lot of takeoffs and landings take place. It also sees traffic when there is "a bit of a southeasterly" and the balloons take off from Yarra Bend and head towards Royal Park.

"We come in from the east towards Royal Park, and over the MCG or just close to the MCG with the city to our west," Brau says. "We fly at sunrise, when you see the city in that morning splendour.

"This area over the eastern side of Melbourne, Richmond in particular, is where you are possibly going to get some of the most astounding views of the city."

Despite the sometimes startling proximity of the balloons, Brau assures there is no cause for concern.

"When people see us flying very low, it is because we are using the lower winds to navigate," he says.

"We cannot steer a balloon but we've got very precise control in altitude."

When it comes to the customers of these expensive joy rides, most of them are locals celebrating special occasions.

Author taps into Cremorne's rich ballooning history
Author taps into Cremorne's rich ballooning history

"People come up on their birthdays or Father's Day or Mother's Day presents. So it's a big gift, ballooning is a gift. People aren't buying themselves a balloon flight, they're given a balloon flight by somebody else and that somebody else might be flying with them.

"The big round birthdays are a very big [reason] but the occasions people fly are all sorts.

"It's a fantastic experience really."

According to Helene Rogers, whose book Lighter than Air: Australian Ballooning History was launched at the office of Global Ballooning in Richmond, Australian aviation didn't start at Diggers Rest in the first decade of the 20th Century, as is commonly believed but in Cremorne 50-odd years earlier.

Harry Houdini may have made the first powered flight north of Melbourne in March 1910, but as Rogers documents, "the first people to fly through the air in Australia" were in hot air balloons that took off from the Cremorne Gardens in 1858.

"That was a pretty big thing to take on," Rogers says.

"Like any new explorer going out into the unknown in the old days, they didn't know what was going to greet them, and it was pretty risky."

It was a risky enterprise too for actor and entrepreneur George Coppin, who had financed the construction and transport of two balloons and the services of two aeronauts from England to entertain patrons at his newly reopened pleasure gardens.

Established in 1853 as an exotic entertainment park on the banks of the Yarra by a former proprietor of the Royal Cremorne Gardens in London, the gardens had been sold to Coppin and his business partner after a prohibition on alcohol there on Sundays caused the enterprise to falter.

The gardens ran from Cremorne St to Cubitt St, and north to Balmain St, for 11,500 pounds in 1856, and spent another 10,000 pounds "improving" it.

This included transforming what was then known as Wright's swamp into a lake, and stocking it with imported swans and goldfish, building a zoo which housed two lions, an elephant and a giraffe, and creating a panorama-of-Rome backdrop for the dance floor and bandstand.

"Visitors to the Gardens in summer could feast on an array of opera singing, ballet, theatre, military bands, mardi gras, fancy dress balls, flower shows, river regattas and fireworks displays," Rogers writes.

The need to keep the entertainment fresh saw Coppin travel back to London, where along with 50 entertainers he recruited hot air balloonist Charles Brown and assistant Joseph Dean.

Three weeks after their arrival in Australia, the first ascent was made in the balloon Brown had designed and constructed, The Australasian, in front of a thousands-strong crowd at the gardens.

The plain white varnished muslin balloon stood 60 feet high and 40 feet in diameter. It held 35,000 cubic feet of gas when fully inflated.

When it took off a few minutes before 6pm for a 25-minute flight it was with the assistant, Dean, rather than the chief balloonist, Brown, in the basket.

Dean's report of the inaugural flight to the Evening Mail was of a trouble free and enchanting flight.

He was taken by by "the extraordinary circuitous course of the river Yarra".

"Anything more fantastic or erratic than the meanderings of this stream I never saw," the account read.

Despite the outlay involved, there were only four more balloon ascents at Cremorne Gardens.

Establishing them had not been a commercial success, given huge numbers of people had watched the flights from outside the gardens.

After that, Coppin cut his losses and went into politics.

Rogers got hooked on hot air ballooning after seeing a documentary about Australian adventurer Chris Dewhirst's bid to fly a balloon over Mt Everest.

While Dewhirst's first attempt failed, he succeeded in 1991.

"The film blew me away. I was hooked on ballooning after seeing it," Rogers says.

Seeking to do some research on the topic, she found there wasn't much information available.

"I thought, 'Oh, I'll fill in the gaps'," she says. "Not knowing how long it would take me.

"Which was 30 years, basically. In between bringing up three kids and working."

Now Rogers is a world expert on Australian hot air ballooning history and has finally published her book.

"I like adventure really and I like things that are a bit different," she says, explaining her fascination with balloons and love of flying.

"As soon as you leave the ground, it's just different.

"Because you're part of the wind - your hair doesn't ruffle or anything like that - and you might see a fox shoot out of somewhere beneath you, or a lamb being born, or your reflection in a paddock dam. And it's just magical."

Rogers was present when in 2008 the Richmond & Burnley Historical Society staged a 150th anniversary of the first Cremorne Gardens flight in Citizen's Park.


Jenny Denton


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