Velen:       2nd - 10th August 2012

2nd August
Our Residence at Velen - Same House I Stayed in During the Borken 2007 Meet
    The journey up from Pareid was uneventful. We stopped off at a rest stop on a major French road for a picnic lunch, a pleasant looking oasis but spoiled by the stench of stale urine smothering the area.
    We took turns to drive, Philippa driving the last leg from a German service station. I visited the facilities at these immaculate services, performing the usual function in one of the cubicles, and stood up. The toilet flushed automatically, as is often the case. Then, as I was about to open the door, I caught a movement in the corner of my eye, and I turned around. My mind boggled at the sight of the oval seat apparently distorting itself in front of my eyes. It took a moment for me to register that the seat was actually rotating. I spotted that a robotic arm had appeared from the back of the toilet, and it was cleaning the toilet seat as it rotated underneath it. Now that's a first.
    We arrived at our destination, and were heartily greeted by Maria and Josef ven der Buss, the owners of the complex of rental holiday homes and camping areas. Tony had stayed here many times, and was like an old friend to them. Drinks were immediately offered to us, followed by a long chin-wag. The site had recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and Maria proudly showed a book created to pictorially depict the history of the site and its owners.
    It also transpired that the week after we would be leaving, there would be a town festival featuring a lot of English themes such as English beer, food (I wonder what that would be, chicken tika massala?), films etc. It was a shame we wouldn't be here to observe the German take on the English lifestyle.
    Gunner turned up as we chatted, and soon we were heading off to meet up with the rest of the team. It was getting late as we all hastily went off into Velen to an Imbis for a bite to eat before it closed at 10pm; yes things close early in this neck of the woods.
    The food and company were good, as was the chat back at base about: education, welfare and some of the appalling junk on British TV, all washed down with beer and wine of course.

3rd August
    We decided the previous evening that we would all enjoy a lie in this morning. I soon found myself driving to Velen to get some cash from the ATM; cash is king in this country and cards are often not accepted. I made a few food purchases in the supermarket. Pushing my trolley along the aisles, I rounded a corner to be confronted by an elderly gentleman who shouted, "Sie m�ssen ein englischer Fahrer sein!" [You must be an English driver.] Presumably I was on the wrong side of the aisle. I responded by telling him I was English in my best German, and left him to decide whether I was a German joking with him or I was indeed an Englishman. A woman passing by laughed at the funny side of this; the poor chap was bewildered.
    In the afternoon, Tony, Philippa and I visited Ingrid, a German balloonist that Tony got acquainted with at Borken balloon meets. We enjoyed good coffee, cakes and a bit of tittle tattle.
    Evening brought a fast flight for both balloons. Tony and Philippa flew in "Crusader", while Hannah and I did the retrieve. We were a couple of fields away when our balloon landed, and I did a courteous check with the local farm to ensure we could drive over the land to retrieve the balloon. The farmer's wife asked me to wait a short while as her husband was walking back over some fields. When he eventually turned up with his son, I explained all to him, and eventually to all his family. Only then did they advise that it was not their set of fields, and on top of that, they had no idea who the fields belonged to - all scratching their heads as they discussed it amongst themselves.
    We did eventually do the retrieve, and returned back to base with our intrepid flyers as the sun was setting.

4th August
Elmer Tree Hopping Dwarfed by Wind Turbines
    An early start to the morning. Tony and I took off from our base, watched by a gathering of waving campers and residents who we had no doubt rudely awoken at 06:30. We enjoyed a delightful drift over cereal and corn fields, interspersed by woods laced with narrow lanes and farm tracks.
    As we approached Gescher, we had to make a decision whether to quickly find a field to land in before the town, or find one after we'd crossed it. Common sense dictated that we land while we had options below us, so we returned to terra firma about 10m away from a farm building. After packing up, we located the farmer to get his permission to bring our retrieve vehicle onto his field. His reply more or less followed the line, "Why are you bothering me about that?", a total contrast to the response often rendered in Britain.
    Our retrieve vehicle turned up, we packed away, and returned to base a happy bunch.
Skimming Over the Sweetcorn
    After breakfast, Tony, Ian and I set off to Enschede in Holland to refuel the empty gas tanks. Once replete, we headed down to Winterswijk to collect Kevin who had made his way across from Lowestoft. He had experienced an incredible journey booked by a local travel agent. They had organised three train rides in the UK to get Kevin to Harwich. He had been booked into a cabin for the overnight sail to the Hook of Holland. From there he had been booked onto a string of trains to get him to Winterswijk, the nearest Dutch station to our German base. Two train breakdowns and a false destination in Holland had necessitated Kevin requiring eight different trains in the country. The amazing thing about the whole journey was that it cost just �78.
    In the evening, Kevin and I flew. It was only when we were up in the air with unobstructed views that we discovered, to our concern that storm clouds were looming nearby. To the west of the clouds the landscape was hidden under a seething downpour. The maelstrom looked uncomfortably close. Our angst was increased further when lightning strikes were observed under the dark masses.
    Kevin's immediate reaction was to get back on the ground as soon as possible. We saw Ian's balloon rapidly descending and land in a freshly cropped cereal field, the farmer still loading bales onto trailers.
Storm Clouds Approaching
    We couldn't make that field, so we carried on hoping for an early opportunity to land. The wind picked up to 22 knotts, and its direction shifted dramatically, pushing us in a north-westerly direction over the motorway. It was unbelievable, there just weren't any suitable landing sites around. We crossed over the town of Gescher, and headed north, eyes frantically scanning for a place to land.
    Eventually a field was spotted that looked as if it had been recently ploughed and tilled, so we took immediate action and made a rapid descent towards it. We dented the planet with quite a jolt, eventually sliding to a halt. It was then that we discovered rows of almost invisible shoots raising their heads above the soil; curses, it was cropped. Apart from the small crater we had made on the planet's surface, we hadn't done any serious damage. The balloon was walked across the cropped field to an adjacent grass field, and once the envelope was deflated and spread out, I set about trying to raise Tony and Philippa, our retrieve crew.
    I took the opportunity to quizz a couple of lads who had arrived on their bikes to watch the proceedings. No, they didn't know who owned the field, and no, there were no farms nearby. They offered to cycle out to the main road to flag down a British Landrover towing a blue trailer.
    After a while, I managed to establish mobile communication with Tony, and advised him how to get near our landing site. Because of the dense vegetation surrounding our landing site, he would not be able to see where we had landed, so I headed out to the main road to guide him in.
    On the way, I stopped off at a house to ask where I could find the farmer for the field. The house owner did one of those continental expressions of pursing his lips whilst simultaneously raising his chin by an inch, shrugged his shoulders and vaguely waved his hands pointing a few light years over the horizon. "The farmer does not live here," still waving to the outer reaches of the universe, "but it is normal for balloons to land here. Go and collect your balloon." That was the end of his interest in the matter.
    I found a route to the road, reunited with our retrieve crew, and soon we were back at base. The flight had been quite spectacular, a full 55 minutes worth of seat of the pants stuff.

5th August
Elmer in the Early Morning Light
    Another early start to the day, and soon Tony, Philippa and Dieter, a German chap who lived at the holiday site, were heading in a westerly direction. Kevin and I tracked the flight for an hour in bright sunlight through a lush and affluent land.
    The balloon eventually landed in a small grass field, and I pulled up next to a residence that bordered the field. A chap came up to greet me, and I discovered that he owned the field but the cows cowering in a far corner belonged to somebody else. He made a quick call to the cow owner, received some message of approval, and then proceeded to switch off the electric fence. There was no gate to the field; he folded back some of the fence wire to create a gap for me to drive through. We soon had the balloon packed away, and Dieter was spinning a good yarn to the chap who had given us access to the field. This was the first landowner we had really had any interaction with.
Gunner in Collapsible Recliner Mode
    Sad to say, one of the balloon panels had received a few rips on the landing approach run. Thus, the next few hours were spent putting a new panel into the envelope. Tony takes his Singer sewing machine on these extended ballooning trips, and is an accomplished "seamstress".
    Meanwhile, the Wadey team were treated to a breakfast feast by a young German couple, the "wadey groupies". The German chap had flown with them in the morning. His wife was passionate about balloons, but sadly her balloon like pregnant state prevented her from flying.
    Light entertainment in the afternoon was provided by Gunner, who relaxed on a recliner, and promptly had it collapse in a heap around him, with his feet sticking in the air. They don't make them like they used to; Gunner that is.
    Evening was a big BBQ meal together, with a visit from the "Wadey groupies".

6th August
Bike City
Winterswijk Church
    Unfavourable weather conditions appeared at dawn. After a leisurely breakfast, Tony, Philippa, Kevin and I headed off to Winterswijk to collect more propane gas, and then had a leisurely stroll through the pretty Dutch town, stopping for enormous sandwiches near the town square. Like most Dutch towns, it was immaculate, and was buzzing with throngs of Dutch nationals all neatly turned out. As to be expected, the town was awash with bicycle shops.
    Over the centuries, Winterswijk developed as a mainly agricultural community. This development continued until around the turn of the last century, when even Winterswijk was not left entirely unaffected by the lndustrial Revolution. For decades thereafter, a large proportion of the population was employed in the numerous textile works in the town; however in the late 1970s, following the rapid and irreversible decline of the textile industry, the last of the big textile works in Winterswijk closed their doors. One of Winterswijk's claims to fame is that it is also renowned as the place where the painter Piet Mondriaan spent much of his youth.
    On our stroll around town, we stumbled across a Dutch version of Argos. This sort of place holds my attention span for about five seconds. Soon I was standing outside waiting for the others to emerge. It was a good opportunity to exchange a text or two with Niall. He and his wife, Liz, were really excited about their forthcoming visit to the Olympic Games.
    On the way back to base, we had another stop at a supermarket, in which again I soon found myself bored to tears with. Am I a happy shoppy person? My philosophy is: in, buy what you want, and out again quickly. Evening meal was Zigeuner Schnitzel cooked by yours truly, followed by the dreaded scissors game - I'll say no more.

7th August
Very Old Holiday Site Barn
    Morning was unflyable; how unusual. Despite the odd half-hearted attempts at rain thrown against us, Tony, Philippa, Kevin and I went for a bike ride, while the Wadey team took the swimming option. The plan was to cycle all the way to Ramsdorf, where Tony could indulge himself in the Euro Shop, the equivalent of the UK Pound Shop. Philippa also wanted to buy a special pillow there.
    We hired the bikes from the holiday site, a motley collection of sit-up-and-beg types. I decided to try my bike out, and to my amazement I was on the floor before covering a metre. It was as if I had inadvertently slammed the brakes on. I tried again, this time taking great pains to keep my fingers away from the brakes. Now I was doing fine; I covered five metres before flying off the bike again. "Hey, this bike has a mechanical fault!" I shouted. Tony then pointed out, "German bikes allow you to pedal forward and freewheel, but if you attempt to back pedal, the back brakes are applied." Hmmm.... there must be some logic behind that, but I'm not sure what.
    We cycled under a sky that threatened rain, but we seemed to have been granted favours by the Gods. The area is well catered for regarding cycleways, and as we cycled through Velen, almost all pavements had been adapted for cycle use too. At road junctions, motorists gave way to cyclists, a novel concept. There seemed to be mutual respect and understanding between motorists and cyclists on the continent.
Cycle Expedition: Kevin, Philippa and Tony
    We passed through the clean immaculate streets of Velen with its manicured lawns, and popped out into the countryside on the far side. Continuing through the lush agricultural land on the route to Ramsdorf, calamity struck. My bike developed a fast puncture, and of course we had not been provided with a repair kit.
    There was much debate as to how we should deal with this. For me, the logical idea was for me to walk my bike back to base, which I duly did. I relished the idea of a fast hike anyway, my legs were getting rusty from lack of hard punishment.
    On my return, the only person around was the handyman. Upon explaining to him what happened, he smiled, pointed out a string of other bikes, all with their inner tubes hanging out. "I haven't time to repair them," he told me. He did offer me another bike, but it would have been pointless to set off again.
    I cooked dinner whilst the others continued the cycle trip. Apparently the Euro Shop was in Borken, not Ramsdorf, a disappointment for Tony and Philippa, but they took solace in an ice-cream shop which served them just before closing.
    An evening flight was ruled out due to the miserable weather, so our evening meal extended well into the evening, with a long debate on cycling in Britain and whether cycle training and insurance should be compulsory. It was interesting to get Gunner's views on the matter later; he had served in the traffic police for ten years. Gunner often regaled us with stories stemming from his career in the police force, in which he still served. He was an interesting, straight forward chap, and I enjoyed the thoughts he shared with us. As for his tales, we just don't know the half of it.

8th August
By Bocholt Lake
Bocholt Main Drag
Bocholt Town Hall
    The wind was up this morning, and combined with the fact that landing places were few and far between, the decision was made not to fly. Instead, we headed to Bocholt, a sizeable town in the M�nster region.
    After parking up by a lake in the town, we partook in a tasty lunch before hiring a pedalo to explore the lake and its environs. We managed to run aground in a river inlet, and frantic paddling was getting us nowhere. Realising there would be no tide to refloat us, I took off a shoe and managed to gingerly push us off the river bed. Oh what fun!
    A pleasant follow-up walk by the river brought us into the town centre, where we had a gentle stroll. Tony was in his element, he discovered a Euro Shop; more trinkets.
    In the evening, Kevin and I had a very pleasant flight, whizzing along at 17 knotts in the fading light. It was most enjoyable, but the severe shortage of landing sites was a concern. Crossing a sizeable wood, Kevin spotted a patch of land, but when we reached it, we had to skip over it since it had a couple of horses that we had spooked.
    We carried on a little further, picking up the sound of gunfire in the woods below us. Then, there it was, a patch of grass directly ahead of us. Kevin did a superb job of gracefully bringing us in over the field, gently skimming the top of the grass, to come to a stand-up landing. I was most impressed.
    Once we were stable, I leapt out to grab the crown rope, and heaved on it to prevent the envelope gift wrapping a hedge. I was struggling heaving it against a sudden gust of wind, and just about managed to prevent the envelope falling onto the hedge, but couldn't manage to pull hard enough to drag the envelope to the opposite side from the hedge.. The net result of this activity was the envelope collapsing over the basket. The sound of Kevin chuckling away in the middle of this bizarre sight was memorable.
    I found a way into the envelope to find Kevin shrouded in what looked like an oversized burka. After photographing the scene for posterity, we climbed out via the parachute at the top of the envelope and set about directing the retrieve to our landing place in the woods.
    The sun had set long before we had packed and loaded the balloon away, hindered by clouds of ravenous midges. It had been a marvellous flight.

Looking Down on the Holiday Site
Kevin Concentrating
Elmer Looking for a Landing Site
Basket Draped by Envelope; Kevin Chuckling Inside

9th August
    Our weather judgement was being hampered by lack of internet access to wind charts. A power failure had interrupted internet access in the area.
    In light winds and early morning mist, Tony and Philippa took off. Our thoughts were along the lines that the mist must surely soon burn off.
Elmer Envelope Prior to Drying Out
Elmer Sets Off for an Evening Flight
    Meanwhile Kevin and I drove the retrieve vehicle east to Hochmoor to spot the balloon flying overhead. Surprisingly, we could neither see it nor hear its burners. Spots of rain were beginning to fall, and we were becoming anxious about our pilots. The tension was broken by a call from Tony; they had already landed way before Hochmoor. By the time we reached them, there had been an appreciable downpour. The envelope was now soaked and correspondingly much heavier, and it was difficult to roll up and bag, and required considerable strength to lift it onto the trailer.
    Wet and bedrabbled, we went into Velen for breakfast, knowing full well we would have to cold inflate the envelope later to dry it out.
    When it came to drying out the balloon, it behaved like a wild animal. The gusty wind was trying to push it in all directions. Injecting warm air into the envelope turned it into a dancing bear, with all hands frantically trying to contain it. The Wadey team seemed to have a much gentler cold inflation.
    In the evening, we consolidated all our gas reserves into Ian's balloon, in which Gunner, Kevin and Philippa flew at a fair speed almost due south. When Ian, Hannah and I caught up with them at their landing site, there was an appreciable gathering in the cropped field. Many young hands helped pack the envelope away; perhaps their talking point for weeks to come.
    In the evening we all tucked in to pizzas and played party games around a large table. Much fun was had by all.

10th August
Part of the Herd of Deer at the Holiday Site
    Today was departure day. We arose early and set about returning the accommodation back to the way we found it. Marie, who runs the site with her husband Josef, sets her own high standards of cleanliness.
    Once the accommodation was scrubbed, we all congregated outside, cramming bags etc. into the trailers. Then we each took the opportunity to share with the others our experiences over the short break away; a delightful way to wind up our joint adventure. Everyone had really enjoyed it, and we all took our hats off to Tony, who had put a lot of work into making the event happen.
    A half hour of saying farewell to Maria was followed by adieus between the two teams, and then we were off on our long treks back to the UK.
    We had an uneventful trip across to Dunkirk. The long monotonous crawl around Antwerp was alleviated by playful interaction with a load of kids in an adjacent crawling vehicle who were trying to sell us water; it was a stiflingly hot day, naturally since we were now leaving the continent. At the port, the trailer was given a cursory examination, for illegal immigrants I guess, and soon we crossed the channel and were back in Ipswich.
Velen Balloon Crowd
L to R: Me, Gunner, Tony, Amber, Ian, Philippa, Hannah, Laura, Gaynor and Kevin
    Despite inclement weather limiting our balloon excursions, always the case and now even more so due to global warming, I had really enjoyed the two week break. I had done me good to be in a crowd as opposed to the solo trips I had indulged in, and they were indeed good company; I couldn't ask for more. Long may the spirit continue.

Last updated 5.2.2021