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Whangarei’s First Hot Air Balloon

Georgia Kerby - Exhibitions Curator, Whangarei Museum


Recently I stumbled across some intriguing photographs in our archival collection. The quality of the photographs is low considering the relative clarity of early photography by the likes of Radcliffe, De Tourret and Palmer of Whangarei. Regardless, the scene emerging out of the fog of thick sepia tone is fascinating- what appears to be a very early hot air balloon amongst a large crowd. The crowd is dressed tidily in suits and dresses with all the usual social paraphernalia of fancy hats, ties, and parasols to keep off the Northland weather. The second photo shows the lone balloon floating in the air having risen quite a distance, with the tip of a spire at the bottom of the frame.

The photographs are part of Whangarei Museum’s Holman Collection, which includes a large number of items relating to Whangarei social history. While little else could be found about hot air balloons in Whangarei, we are fortunate to have a description written on the back of each photo: “First balloon ascent Whangarei” and “Inflating balloon with hot air, balloonist Hanson.”

Hot air balloons have a relatively long history and are significant in their contribution to the history of flight. In fact, the first hot air balloon to fly lifted off in Paris in 1783 and marked the first ever recorded human flight. Of course this was done in French fashion in a lavishly decorated box with velvet curtains and gold fringe, suspended by a balloon ornately painted in red, blue and gold. Earlier in the year the designers, the Montgolfier brothers, had performed trials sending balloons up with a crew of animals. This early type of balloon became buoyant solely through hot air produced by a burner.

Soon after, a hybrid balloon was designed where hydrogen gas was heated to cause the balloon to rise. Due to the dangers of exposing hydrogen gas to heat it was quickly swapped out with helium which is still used today. A century after the first manned flight, when other aircrafts were still in their infancy, hot air balloon rides were seen as safe enough for untrained passengers. Many articles in the Northern Advocate between the 1870s and 1910s regale the audience with horror tales of international air disasters. Amongst various drownings, crashes, and broken legs, one story even features a fatal incident involving a trapeze artist and a hot air balloon. 

With these reports in mind, the arrival of a hot air balloon here in Whangarei must have been quite a spectacle. Sadly, I could not find any records referring to Whangarei’s first ever balloon flight, nor of balloonist “Hanson”. Looking at the narrower tulip shaped skirt, loose and slightly puffed sleeves, loose pouched blouses and large flat hats worn by the women in our photograph it appears that the event occurred sometime between 1900 and 1910. Overseas balloonists travelled to New Zealand to perform their spectacle of flight around the country so ‘Hanson’ was probably not a local. If anyone has any more information that could enlighten our story of where, when and who performed this first air balloon display in Whangarei please contact Kiwi North.