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Hot Air in Cappadocia, Turkey

Carefully Selected Balloon Trip Is a Bargain

Deep valley ballooning in Cappadocia.  Credit: Kapadokya Balloons Goreme
Deep valley ballooning in Cappadocia.
Photo by Kapadokya Balloons Goreme

If judged solely by average flying time, the cost of hot air ballooning is a travel luxury few would consider worth sampling. But measured in terms of a truly uncommon experience with a soaring bird’s eye perspective on some of the planet’s natural and cultural treasures, a carefully selected balloon trip is a bargain.

I moved from skeptic to convert during a hot air balloon ride over Turkey’s inaccessible Cappadocia valleys and narrow canyons, which combine some of nature’s most dramatic geological formations with a colorful history of human ingenuity and self-preservation stretching back several millennia. Coming along for the ride were a basketful of adventurous seniors, part of a small-group ElderTreks exploration.

Picked up well before dawn, we head for the day’s chosen launch field about an hour from our hotel. The take-off field 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.

Our veteran pilot today, Lars-Eric More, has 25 years ballooning experience. He and his partner, Kaili Kidner, also an expert pilot, have operated Kapadokya Balloons Goreme for 11 years. Today Kaili draws the tough job of leading the ground crew—not only 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 and a trailer across the region’s hills and valleys until Lars decides where he will land.

Pilot Lars (right) and ElderTrekkers, Robbie and Liz, relax in the balloon basket while flying high over Cappadocia.
Pilot Lars (right) and ElderTrekkers, Robbie and Liz, relax
in the balloon basket while flying high over Cappadocia.
Photo by Alison Gardner

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 usually take place at dawn when the gentle and stable wind conditions are most predictable. This time of day also proves ideal for photography with splendid colors, shadows, and contrasts.

Following a seamless launch, we pull away quickly from those waving goodbye on the ground. 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.

When not pointing out landmarks and talking about the geological formations, history and wildlife of the area, Lars surveys his surreal realm with quiet contentment. From time to time he reaches for a lever that sends a huge tongue of flame blasting upward into the balloon cavity. This adjusts our height up or down. 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 ragged edge.

An hour and a half in the air passes all too quickly, and soon Lars and Kaili are exchanging crucial information by radio about the best place to land, given today’s flight path and a limited number of flattish areas suitable for touching down. Soaring as high as the Egyptian vultures which cruise the area, we observe the two vehicles and trailer careening along beneath us.

Lars spots his unlikely landing pad, a patch of scrub and rocks not far from a rough track where the Mercedes Benz 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. The landscape is unforgiving: one wrong move and we’ll certainly be somewhere we shouldn’t be. Meanwhile, the ground crew, with 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, bobbing just above the uneven ground, and grab with practiced hands for the dangling ropes to stabilize the heavy basket. We make our less-than-graceful exits over the edge, and the enormous balloon is gradually deflated and stowed for another day.

Volcanic rock is dramatically sculpted by wind and weather. Photo by Kapadokya Balloons Goreme.
Volcanic rock is dramatically sculpted by wind and weather.
Photo by Kapadokya Balloons Goreme

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 comment on the panorama unfolding around us.

For More Info

Kapadokya Balloons Goreme; Tel. 011-90-0-384 271 24 42; fly@kapadokyaballoons.com. Offers two programs, Deluxe and Budget. Check website for details and 2005 prices.

ElderTreks; Tel. 800-741-7956 or 416-588-5000; eldertreks@eldertreks.com, offers active educational adventures exclusively for 50-plus travelers in over 50 countries.

What’s Special About Cappadocia?

Many of Cappadocia's historic communities are now World Heritage Sites. Photo by Kapadokya Balloons Goreme.
Many of Cappadocia's historic communities are now World Heritage Sites.
Photo by Kapadokya Balloons Goreme

Located in central Turkey, Cappadocia’s geological foundation was laid down three million years ago by the volcanic eruption of two local mountains that covered the plateau deep in volcanic ash. Wind and weather have eroded this now solidified rock into pillars, cones, and "fairy chimneys" in a rainbow of colors.

Since ancient times, people have hollowed out dwellings in this soft rock. In particular, the early Christians created over 600 cave churches, chapels, and monasteries, some of which are still well preserved. There are also entire underground cities into which men, women, children and animals could retreat from waves of enemies passing through the area well into the Middle Ages. Few people occupy these dwellings today because many are designated for preservation under the U.N. World Heritage Site program and because government programs have provided safer, modern family housing options elsewhere around the plateau.

Other Ballooning Adventures

World: Hot Air Ballooning, is a global directory of ballooning destinations and operators, plus tips and history of the sport.

Italy: Ballooning in Tuscany, flies over picturesque countryside and historic towns, 50 miles south of Florence.

North England: Airborne Adventures, flies over the Yorkshire Dales.

South Africa: Interface Travel & Tours, offers nature safaris where ballooning is an option.

New Zealand: Explore New Zealand Holidays, balloons over some of the country’s most picturesque towns and scenic areas.

New Brunswick, Canada: For committed ballooning enthusiasts, attend the annual Atlantic Balloon Fiesta in Sussex, NB in September.

Arizona: Hot Air Expeditions, flies over the Sonora desert. Spring is best when desert wildflowers are in full bloom.

Utah: Skywalker Balloon Company, offers unforgettable educational flights over three geologically amazing national parks, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Readership is 1.6 million. Contact her at Alison@travelwithachallenge.com.

Travel with a Challenge: The Site for Senior Travelers

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