Turkey: Up, up and away in a balloon

By Phoebe Falconer

Gliding over Turkey, Phoebe Falconer resists reaching out to the intriguing rocks sweeping by.

Hot air balloons over Goreme in Cappadocia. Photo / Adam Jones
Hot air balloons over Goreme in Cappadocia. Photo / Adam Jones

It's 5.30am on a clear, pale blue morning. The view from our hotel window in Goreme in central Cappadocia is of quiet streets, sparse traffic and even fewer pedestrians.

At least, it should be quiet. But in the distance is a roar, not unlike a jet engine but kinder on the ears. A hot air balloon appears, the first of many we will see that morning and the reason for such an untimely arousal.

There is a little wind, but not enough to prevent flying today, we are told. Once the wind strength goes above 10 knots, flying is out.

We catch a minibus from the hotel to the headquarters of Kapadokya Balloons, the oldest established ballooning company in Turkey. That at least is reassuring. The sight of several young men, none of them appearing older than 15, rushing around attaching balloon trailers to 4WD vehicles, is less so.

But with remarkable efficiency we are loaded into one of the 4WDs and taken to a field where the ballooning trip is to begin. The basket, big enough to hold 21 European bodies (or 24 Japanese, we're told) is attached and the roar of the propane-fuelled burners begins.

The balloon rises to vertical and we pile into the basket, bundled up in coats and scarves as early mornings can be chilly, even in high summer.

With scarcely a tremor, we lift off, the burners still roaring, and glide off across the field.

It's a very strange sensation. When the burners are not blasting, there is no noise at all, and very little sensation of movement. A quick glance down confirms that we are indeed floating, now about 250m above the ground, and that the Earth is slowly revolving beneath us.

Our pilot, Serkan Evirgen, 30ish with bobbed curly hair and a relaxed manner, tells us that he has nicknamed his balloon High Panic. This is echoed in the giggles around the basket.

We float off across Goreme itself, now stirring into its daily routine. The houses are largely built into rocks and are thus difficult to identify. A young man we meet later, 23-year-old Fati, lives in one such house with his parents, brother, wife and son.

"There are eight rooms in our house," he says. "It's warm in the winter and cool in the summer, but it leaks a bit when it rains."

On we float, alternatively quietly and noisily, flying so close to rocks that it is tempting to try to reach out and touch them. Several of us are discouraged from doing so. Across high rock tops we go, on which gardens of vegetables have been created, bearing watermelons, apricot and olive trees, potatoes, grapevines and walnut groves. No land goes uncultivated in Turkey, not even these high hilltops, and water is plentiful for irrigation.

Close up, the hillsides resemble folds of pink soft-serve icecream; valleys contain tall sword-like rocks. One such area, called the Valley of Love, has hundreds of remarkable penis-shaped rocks - hence the name.

These strange rock formations are the result of volcanic activity millions of years ago. The hardened layers of tuff were shaped by wind and rain to create the "fairy chimneys", cones and valleys that exist today.

We rise up to 800m above sea level, which is quite high enough for me. The balloon swirls gently and Serkan uses the vents in the side of the balloon to manoeuvre it back towards a suitable landing spot. After three tries, he finds one which looks appropriate, but a ditch upsets his plans and we have a bumpy landing.

Ground crew have been following our flight and roar up in their vehicles to deflate the balloon, pack it away, load the heavy wicker and steel-framed basket on to the trailer and head back to base. It's now 10am and flying is over for the day. Balloons can fly in light snow and rain but not in heat, so early mornings are the only time in June and July that hot air ballooning is an option.

Ballooning is big business in Goreme. Five years ago, there were only two ballooning companies in the town; by the end of this year there will be 20, with a minimum of five balloons per company. At any one time, therefore, you might see 100 balloons in the air over this part of Cappadocia.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates, Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines have regular scheduled flights from Auckland to Istanbul. From there, Turkish Airlines will fly you to Nevsehir or Kayseri, the two nearest airports to Goreme.
Accommodation: Bed-and-breakfast places are plentiful and relatively affordable. We stayed in the Elysee Pension in Goreme for about US$50 a night for a double room.

Phoebe Falconer paid her own way to Turkey.

- NZ Herald

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