Justine Tyerman takes a 'virtual' hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia.
The sound of women screaming roused me from a deep sleep early one morning in the enchanted land of Cappadocia. I could not imagine anything sinister happening amid the chimerical fairy chimneys but decided I should investigate.
The noises were punctuated by a whooshing sound and appeared to be coming from above.
I peeked through the curtains and stepped back a pace or two, astounded by the most bizarre of sights - dozens of brightly-coloured balloons dotted the sky and several low-flying ones appeared to be heading straight towards my room, on the top floor of the four-storey Lycus River Hotel.
The screaming intensified, accompanied by the loud whooshing of flames and hot air which lifted the balloons gracefully over the top of the hotel and spirited them on their way to wondrous sights.
The evening before, my true colours as a coward of the first order were revealed to my coachmates on our 10-day tour.
I admired the pluck of my young Aussie mates who, despite a fear of heights, didn't hesitate to sign up for the once-in-a-lifetime flight over one of the planet's most surreal and astonishing landscapes. I, on the other hand, had no fear of heights... just a fear of fear.
However, the intrepid Elissa and Natalie shared their experiences with me later in the day from the safety of the hotel's poolside bar, and gave such a detailed description of their magical flight, I felt as though I had indeed been one of their brave basket mates.
Elissa described a mix of excitement and anxiety as they boarded a bus early that morning in total darkness to head to the departure site.
"We weren't quite sure what to expect," said Elissa.
"We huddled in the cold and dark, sipping tea and coffee and eating a light breakfast, unsure how our stomachs would react to the flight. We watched the wicker baskets and canopies being unloaded off trailers, and listened to the eerie sound of the flames blowing hot air into the balloons as the sun began to rise over Cappadocia.
"The conversation quietened as our guide signalled it was time for us to board. We weaved our way past numerous other groups, marvelling at the beauty of the balloons and the simplicity of the baskets... wondering just how such devices were going to whisk us away on our magical flight over Cappadocia.
"We stood in silence watching nervously as the final bursts of hot air inflated the balloon until it was fully upright.
"Climbing into the basket wasn't the most ladylike of manoeuvres but once on board, the lift-off was graceful and gentle. The basket was bigger than I had imagined, holding 20. It took a few seconds to realise we were no longer on the ground and as the earth fell away from underneath us, the stillness of the serene pre-dawn air was truly unforgettable.
"Despite taking hundreds of photos, the magic of the flight was impossible to capture - it was the sights and sounds, the sunrise, the unique landscape of the fairy chimneys and the caves below that created the experience. Time seemed to stand still.
"As we drifted towards a green paddock, I caught sight of the trailer parked alongside the road - then the scramble began to deliver the basket precisely on to the back of the trailer.
"In broken English with the help of an instruction sheet, our pilot went through the landing brace instructions as we prepared ourselves for touch-down. At first it seemed as though we were going to be in for a bumpy landing and a few nervous laughs went around the passengers.
"But as we peeked through the gaps in the wicker, the grassy paddock appeared beneath us and we touched down on the trailer with little more than a bump.
"Floating over Cappadocia gave me an amazing sense of freedom, a feeling I will never forget," said a misty-eyed Elissa.
Cappadocia's surreal landscape is dotted with houses sculpted from the rock. Photo / Thinkstock
Natalie had to overcome a serious fear of heights before the flight.
"But the lure of hot air ballooning over Cappadocia's surreal landscape, was too strong to be ignored," she said.
"I will never forget the sight of the balloons as they began to ascend... first 10, then 20, 40 and finally 80 in total, so graceful as they trailed across the sky.
"It was impossible to feel afraid, as we sailed weightlessly over the stunning fairy chimney landscape.
"The sight of the brightly-coloured balloons against a background of the softest blue sky was truly breathtaking. Cameras snapped madly as the balloons rose higher in the sky, but when we compared photographs later, we all agreed none of them measured up to the indelible images in our minds."
I was so happy my young friends had taken me on a virtual balloon flight... I won't ever have to face my fear and do the real thing now.
And Elissa and Natalie assured me it was not their screams that disturbed my sleep that morning. Australian women were too staunch for that sort of wussy behaviour - it must have been the Kiwis, they said.
Getting there: Emirates offers flights from Auckland to Turkey via Dubai.
On the road: Take a 10-day Ancient Kingdoms Classical Turkey tour with Innovative Travel Company.
Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of Innovative Travel Company and flew Emirates.