“Do you dare to dream?”
Visitors to Andrew Parker’s website are greeted with this provoking question, which encapsulates his message to children around the world. A hot air balloon pilot from New Zealand, Andrew has embarked on a journey across the globe; he’s aiming to fly in 100 countries with the goal of inspiring children to realize their own dreams.
From the spectacular mountains of Kyrgyzstan to the chilly plains of Finland, Andrew has floated into 70 of these countries so far, packing a message of hope and perseverance in his basket. We caught up with Andrew to talk about his Flying High For Kids initiative, his travel roots, and his experience living abroad.
How did you become interested in flying hot air balloons?
I saw my first balloon when I was six years old. It floated so silently overhead, and I was amazed by its size and bright colors. I liked the mystery and adventure of it all. From that moment forward, I wanted to be a balloon pilot.
I went for my first balloon flight when I was 11 and was completely hooked. Then I joined the Waikato Hot Air Balloon Club when I was 13, and started flying when I was 16.
To what extent did growing up in New Zealand influence your love for adventure?
I am lucky to live in such a diverse and beautiful country where people venture out to enjoy the outdoors. New Zealanders generally have a “can-do” attitude, which comes from both our heritage and from living in a relatively isolated location. I think New Zealanders want to get out and explore the world.
What has your experience living abroad been like?
Living abroad opens your eyes to the outside world. It’s good to get out and see how the world really turns. You learn to become adaptable to situations, and you get to experience how people live with different traditions, cultures and religions. Understanding foreign languages and cultural differences can be challenging, though it is also part of the fun of living in a new place.
When did you first get the idea for the Flying High For Kids project? What are you aiming to accomplish?
I’ve wanted to do a project like Flying High For Kids since I was in my early teens. Traveling the world by truck, taking a balloon with me, and doing it all for a good cause sounded like the perfect plan.
My main message is to encourage children to follow their dreams, using my own story as an example. I want to get children thinking about their futures and inspire them to aim high. I also talk with them about how to overcome their challenges and work toward their goals.
What did you have to do in order to turn this passion project into a reality?
At first, I didn’t know if it was even possible because no one had done what I’m doing on such a large scale before. It isn’t a big problem to drive yourself around the world (once you get your head around it), but to take a balloon and fly it in so many countries is quite challenging. It took about three years of research before I started.
I got in touch with UNICEF New Zealand, and they agreed to co-operate with me and help with some of the planning in certain countries along my route, though I was responsible for financing the project myself.
What challenges have you faced along the way?
Too many to list.
Once I discovered that the journey was possible, I needed to find the funding to make it happen. Though I initially tried to find sponsors, I soon figured out that it was much easier to work and save money myself. I eventually hit on the right balance between working for part of the year and doing my project for the remainder. With the exception of a few companies who have supported me, I’ve generally funded the project myself. I’m currently working for Balloon Adventures Dubai, as I’m between the African and South American legs of the project.
Project logistics take up a lot of time as well — arranging visas, working out customs regulations, route planning, and so on. Mobilizing people in various countries is also extremely important. I’ve worked with UNICEF across Asia and into Europe, and I’ve also collaborated with Children in the Wilderness in Africa. Having locals to give advice and support helps a lot.
Arranging flight permissions is the most challenging task, though. In Europe, it’s relatively straightforward, but in places like Africa and Central Asia, it’s much more complicated. I would have to start the permissions process a few months before arriving and would often have to deal with military, government, and aviation agencies.
How has the project evolved over the past few years?
At first, I was campaigning for different UNICEF campaigns, ones generally related to education. From there, I honed my message and came up with “Dream Big,” as I could see that all children had dreams but many didn’t know how to follow them. Since then, I’ve spoken at a lot of schools and have reached around 30,000 kids.
What have been some of your favorite places you have visited so far?
My favorite places have been the wild, open plains of Mongolia and the spectacular mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Turkmenistan is probably the most interesting country I’ve ever been to; the white marble buildings of Ashgabat are something to behold.
I also think that everyone should plan a trip to Africa at least once in their lives, and recommend getting off the beaten path and seeing the cultures and traditions of the local people. They have a lot to teach us.
What moments from your journeys have stood out as the most meaningful?
I did a flight in Qurghonteppa in cooperation with UNICEF Tajikistan in 2014. It was the first time a hot air balloon had been flown in Tajikistan, and 5,000 kids came to watch me take off. There was singing, dancing, and a sharing of talents, including sports demonstrations and painting displays. The collective energy and enthusiasm of the kids was incredible. I felt privileged to be able to bring so much happiness to everyone that day.
A lot of travel is focused on the personal journey of the individual. What inspired you to use your travels to help benefit others around the world?
I think we all need to do our bit to improve the world, which means sharing our unique talents and skills with others. Ballooning and traveling are my passions, so this was a perfect way to share them. Once you start a project, it’s interesting to see where it leads and the opportunities that come as a result.
What inspires you to travel?
I’m a nomad at heart, I think — I’m happiest when I travel. I like to meet new people, experience different cultures, and see the amazing sights that the world has to offer. It’s a great way to understand the world we live in and, hopefully, improve it.