I freely confess that looking down from the height of a kitchen chair makes me feel dizzy. So why would I choose to clamber over the side of a very large wicker basket, and skim high and low over the valleys of Cappadocia in a nine-storey high balloon?
Checking the Kapadokya Balloons Goreme website in advance of my departure for Turkey, I was intrigued but somewhat skeptical at the promise that a balloon detached from the ground rarely creates a sensation of vertigo. I also wanted to test out the stated notion that the moving balloon basket hangs quite motionless in its own air mass. Sometimes a journalist’s curiosity overcomes her common sense.. So it was that I joined several bleary-eyed fellow travelers from our ElderTreks tour in rising well before dawn to head out in an indestructible Mercedes Benz van for today’s chosen launch field.
The take-off site varies according to the direction of the wind, with considerable skill required to judge the best possible flight path over such a complex pattern of deeply scored landscape. Although it is technically impossible to direct a balloon, our veteran pilot, Lars-Eric Moere, tells us as we weave along between the fairy chimneys on bumpy backroads in the pre-dawn gloom that he does give the appearance of steering the balloon. I’m not sure I quite follow this logic, but with 30 years experience flying balloons, Lars’ word is good enough for me.
My basket-mates, Pilot Lars (right) and ElderTrekkers, Robbie and Liz, look totally relaxed. Alison Gardner
Lars and his partner, Kaili Kidner, arguably the world’s most expert woman balloon pilot, have operated Kapadokya Balloons Goreme for 20 years in Cappadocia. Though there are several ballooning companies in the area, they were the pioneers and their ballooning tour is beyond compare. Today Kaili draws the tough job of leading the ground crew — not only is she responsible for setting up and getting us safely and smoothly into the air but then performing the very challenging task of tracking us with two vehicles, the ground crew, and a trailer across the region’s hills and valleys until Lars decides where he will land today.
Arriving at the designated launch site, our crew makes quick work of unloading the wicker basket from the trailer and laying out 90 feet of balloon, ropes and hot air paraphernalia. Flights always take place at dawn when the gentle and stable wind conditions are most predictable. I can see that this time of day is also ideal for photography with splendid colors, shadows and contrasts.
Following an impressive launch, we pull away quickly from those waving goodbye on the ground. Smiles all round, so far. Tranquility overtakes our basket as the balloon dips in and out of soft stone valleys whose geological time clock is moving at a decidedly accelerated pace. Cappadocia is the perfect classroom for erosion studies! We are moving in some direction but I have no idea whether it is Lars’ skilled piloting or Mother Nature’s soft breath that is responsible for our route over this hauntingly beautiful countryside.
Our balloons fill with air in a farmer’s field, ready for launch as the sun comes over the horizon. Alison Gardner
A fiery blast upward controls the elevation of the balloon. Alison Gardner
Between pointing out landmarks and talking about the geological formations, history and wildlife of the area, Lars keeps in radio contact with the ground crew. From time to time he reaches for a lever which sends an impressively large tongue of flame blasting upward into the balloon, thereby adjusting our height.
A ninety-foot balloon descends gracefully into a narrow farming ravine. Alison Gardner
At some points we are deep inside a weather-sculpted valley literally skimming the tops of neatly planted pocket orchards and scrub trees; at other points Lars shoots the flame as we appear to be heading straight for a sheer wall and we gracefully rise over the canyon lip, sometimes with inches to spare between our basket and the craggy edge. Quite literally, timing proves to be everything.
An hour and a half in the air passes all too quickly, and soon Lars and Kaili are exchanging critical information about the best place to land, given today’s flight path and a limited number of flattish areas suitable for touching down. By now we are soaring as high as the Egyptian vultures which cruise the area, observing the two vehicles and trailer careening along beneath us looking for all the world like Match Box toys.
Lars spots his unlikely landing pad, a patch of scrub and rocks not far from a very rough track where the Mercedes vehicles will be put to the test. We descend ever so slowly while our pilot intensely works the levers to release just the right amount of air from the balloon. One wrong move and we’ll certainly be somewhere we shouldn’t be. The landscape is unforgiving.
Meanwhile, the ground crew, an ever-smiling Kaili in the lead, comes racing up the hill, rubble flying from their feet and red in the face from their sprint. They surround the basket, now bobbing just above the uneven ground, and grab with practiced hands for the dangling ropes to stabilize the surprisingly heavy basket. We make our less-than-graceful exits over the edge, and the enormous balloon is gradually deflated and stowed for another day.
The author and fellow ballooners prepare for disembarking. Anna MacKay/ElderTreks
The traditional post-ballooning champagne, deliciously laced with fresh cherry juice, toasts the end of a successful flight, and for the first time everyone begins to chatter about what they saw and felt. While flying high over Cappadocia as day dawned, it somehow seemed inappropriate and, indeed, quite unnecessary to add any commentary to the panorama unfolding around us.
And guess what? No vertigo. While in the air, the balloon basket sailed along so effortlessly that I didn’t have to brace my feet once or lean against the side for balance. I might well have been standing in my living room except that the view wouldn’t have been so riveting. I’m glad my curiosity overcame my common sense.
Cappadocia’s fairy chimney landscape. Alison Gardner
Cappadocia’s main ballooning season runs from April 1 to the end of November. For the 3 to 4 hour experience, including 1 ½ to 2 hours in the air, the fee for this once-in-a-lifetime experience is 250 Euros [approx. US$365]. In the winter months, Kapadokya Balloons Goreme offers a modified one-hour balloon experience for 175 Euros.
Kapadokya Balloons Goreme
The author experienced her first balloon ride during an ElderTreks tour of Turkey: www.eldertreks.com. In July 2008, her return journey to the region included a second balloon ride with Kapadokya Balloons Goreme which, if that is possible, was even more vivid and memorable than the first. Click on the accompanying Turkey photo essay for some spectacular images with a Cappadocia balloon perspective from the July 2008 trip. Ballooning doesn’t get any better!
Explore Turkey’s beautiful south coast this summer. If you want a fun filled holiday, Marmaris must come high up on your list.
Lovers of hot air ballooning can rent a holiday cottage in Turkey and use it as a base to participate in this exhilarating past time.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.