Turkey Adventures: Hot-Air Ballooning in Cappadocia
There are a few things in life that make you so pumped-up and excited that you feel like a giddy schoolboy on a fieldtrip! Riding a balloon is one of them. So we made sure when we went to Cappadocia, Turkey that we were going to do it despite our fear of heights.
Goreme is the main town in the Cappadocian region where all the action is. Here you will find all those fantastic landscapes that you see in any Turkish tourist brochure that has made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some 10 million years ago when the Anatolian plain was filled with erupting volcanoes, they spewed out lava which filled the surrounding plain with tuff, the soft rock made of compressed ash. Erosion by wind and rain played their part in sculpting this land into a dreamlike landscape of epic proportions riddled with various forms of fairy chimney rock formations that has made this place so famous.
There are many ballooning companies which you can even book through your hotel but we booked our adventure through Voyager Balloons (www.voyagerballoons.com) since it was highly recommended by various websites that we checked. They offered a standard 1-hour flight (20-24 people in the basket) for 140 Euros with a 10-Euro discount if paid in cash. At that time, they had a promo that upgraded us to a 16-person basket (Comfort Flight) so we weren’t so crowded. Their Deluxe Flight was even smaller with 8-10 persons only and lasted 1-1/2 hours but the price was double.
The smaller the basket, the less people and the less crowding to better enjoy the view. It is divided into four compartments with the pilot standing in the center. Modern balloons are basically made of two parts – the huge gas bag called the “envelope” made of strong polyester and the small gondola that carries the passengers made of wicker or rattan on an aluminum frame to keep it light.
They are connected to each other by cables. In the middle of the gondola’s frame, the burners are mounted with valves connected to the propane cannisters standing beside the pilot. He adjusts the flame that spews out of the burners to heat the air inside the envelope which has an adjustable vent at the top in order to control ascent and descent.
At 5:00 AM while it was still dark, their Mercedes coaster picked us up in our hotel and brought us to their restaurant which was the meeting point for all the passengers. There they had an open buffet with loads of coffee/tea for breakfast. There you also paid for your flight. By dawn’s early light we were on our way to the outskirts of town heading for the staging point. We passed many balloons being inflated in the darkness and their towering lighted contraptions were an awesome sight to behold!
After a couple of twists and turns in the dirt roads, we reached our destination where three balloons were waiting to be inflated. This is the part where you are mesmerized while watching them prepare for the flight and all you hear are hissing noises from the blasts of flame while your face suddenly heats up in the cold morning air. I was too engrossed watching what was going on around us that I almost forget to take pictures!
Pretty soon, the balloons were standing erect, glowing brightly and it was time for us to board: four persons for each compartment. The pilot introduced himself and bantered lightly to ease the tension then proceeded to give us instructions on how we were going to position ourselves when we landed. After a few shouts from the ground crew who removed the tethered ropes, we were free! The ascent was so imperceptible because there was hardly any movement save for the fact that you saw the ground slowly falling away and soon the people and cars became smaller and smaller…..
Though I had a fear of heights, it wasn’t a problem at all because, somehow, I felt secure being confined in the chest-high basket and because the view was so spectacular, there was no time to think of being afraid. There were so many balloons taking off at the same time and everywhere you looked, you saw nothing else but glowing gigantic orbs. I took out my camera and started shooting while the wife got busy videoing.
Slowly, the familiar landscape came into focus – roads, houses, hills and the fantastic fairy chimneys all came into sharp focus as the first rays of the sun bathed the earth. Everything was so quiet save for low conversation amongst us passengers and the clicking of cameras. Later, the pilot started giving us a rundown of what we were seeing and there started a Q&A portion: balloon rides are always in the early morning when the air is cool so the hot air inside the envelope makes it rise quickly; there is a certain wind speed that must be observed in order for balloon rides to happen and during inclement or rainy weather they are not allowed to do so; the direction we are headed for is determined where the wind blows; people on the ground keep track of us and are following where we are headed for; depending on the wind speed, the distance we travelled from the staging point is arbitrary but the average range during the one hour ride is about 20-25 kms.
When we reached 900 meters, we encountered cloud cover and just like in the plane it looked like fog but this time, you could feel the water droplets on your face. We came out of the clouds to see a glorious sunrise and we seemed to be suspended in a void with nothing but white below us with parts glowing golden. It was surreal and at the same time one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen!
The pilot later brought us down lower and we skimmed through the rooftops of Goreme passing right above our hotel with what seemed to be just a few meters to spare. Then it was up and down the fantastic fairytale landscape with its rock towers, dome-like dwellings, protruding rocky spears, undulating valleys, lush vegetation, labyrinthian pathways…..oh, it was like exploring another planet!
In what seemed to be just a few minutes ago since we lifted off, we were told that we were now going to land – I looked at my watch and we had been 70 minutes aloft. Time literally flies when you’re having fun!
The pilot brought the balloon down on a grassy knoll as we braced ourselves in a sitting position heads down while holding on to the leather straps in front of us. There was a brief thud and the basket got dragged a few meters before finally coming to a full stop. We were back to earth.
Packing up the deflated balloon.
The crew came within a few minutes with an SUV and trailer to pack up the balloon and meanwhile, some of them set up a table with glass tumblers and bottles of champagne. This was part of the celebration to welcome everyone back from a safe flight. After which they awarded each one of us with flight certifications before we boarded the coach to take us back to our hotels.
Thus ended our ballooning adventure which lasted all of three hours from start to finish. Would I do it all over again? You bet!
Also Read: MAD Travel: Adventures that Matter