It’s chilly in the early hours of the morning as we nibble cookies and sip coffee while waiting for the green light to take to the skies over central Turkey’s stunning Cappadocia area.
There’s a large international group of intrepid hot-air balloonists with fingers crossed that the weather and winds will improve, especially after a brisk 3.30am start.
Hot-air ballooning in Cappadocia, which lies in Turkey’s eastern Anatolia region, features regularly on bucket lists and offers tourists a bird’s-eye view of the surreal landscape shaped by erosion over the centuries.
Three volcanic eruptions left the region thickly covered with a soft porous stone known as tufa, created from scalding volcanic ash that was subsequently eroded by wind and rain to create spectacular lunar landscapes with pillars and pinnacles spread across more than 300 square kilometres.
The best way to see it is from the air but time is ticking by as we sit and wait.
All is quiet in the restaurant then mobile phones ring madly as those near the balloon site call in with weather updates — but still no one is saying anything.
Ballooning is an activity that relies on good weather and they don’t operate in rain, fog or strong winds, with the pilot in command making the final decision if the flight will take place.
We figure the odds aren’t in our favour today and just as we resign ourselves that hot-air ballooning will be cancelled, there’s a loud shout in Turkish, followed by cheering, so we assume it’s on.
We are quickly bundled into mini vans and driven to the balloon sites near the ancient town of Goreme as sunlight peeps through the clouds.
As we turn a corner we are confronted with 140 half-filled hot-air balloons in brightly coloured stripes, spots and checks all laying on their sides.
They resemble giant coloured bubbles but quickly take shape as blasts of gas are pumped into them. But there is little time for standing around as we pay for our tickets and head over to our allotted hot-air balloon.
Be assured there is no elegant way to climb into a hot-air balloon basket, which can hold up to 30 people and is divided into sections so all aboard can see.
Our balloon pilot runs through some basic safety instructions including the importance of the brace position only necessary if we crash, which is a little unnerving.
“Forget about your cameras and concentrate on this position if things go wrong,” he says, assuring us he’s done hundreds of balloon rides without incidence.
Within seconds we are sharing the skies with 139 hot-air balloons slowing drifting over the landscape that is home to hundreds of spectacular pillars and minaret-like forms.
Over the years villagers have carved out houses, churches and monasteries from the soft rocks of volcanic deposits and they are known as fairy chimneys and pigeon houses.
The result is a spectacular sight from above.
Slowly we follow an orchestrated pattern rising over clifftops and dipping into gorges mesmerised by the views both below us and above where a multitude of hot-air balloons soar.
It’s like an aerial ballet with the balloons travelling in one direction, following a well-rehearsed grid and keeping within their own space.
Occasionally balloons squeeze past and roll on to ours but our pilot tells us not to be alarmed.
“Don’t worry – we call these just balloon kisses,” our pilot says as our balloons lightly touch.
We drift over and between the fairy chimneys and pigeon houses hewn into the unique rock formations, glide over orchards and vineyards and green valleys, each with distinctive rock formations, colours and features, and then float up over rippled ravines for breathtaking views.
The hardest thing is knowing where to look and take photos as the sight of 139 balloons drifting around is just as spectacular as the landscape below.
At times we dip so low you can see pumpkin seedlings planted below and skim over tree lines and then we rise to almost half a kilometre above the ground.
It’s a silent trip except for the roar of the hot-air burner and everyone is engrossed in the landscape that at times resembles a moonscape. It is no surprise that it featured in a Star Wars movie.
Our pilot points out Red Valley named after its reddish appearance caused by iron, followed by Imagination Valley, where rocks appear to be shaped like animals including an elephant, snakes, dolphin and camel.
The best known of all is Peribacalari Vadisis, or Valley of the Fairy Chimneys.
Fairy chimneys got their name from the belief that only fairies could have lifted such heavy boulders and positioned them on to the narrow pillars.
After an hour or so it is time to land and we slowly start to descend on to a clearing on a small farm where the ground crew race around to catch the ropes and secure the balloon.
But just as we are coming into land a decision is made the conditions aren’t right and we ascend again for one last view over the area.
Ten minutes later we experience a perfect landing that’s followed by an undignified scramble to get out while the basket is secured by the ground crew and later loaded on a trailer and returned to base.
We enjoy a glass of bubbles – a ballooning tradition – and toast our skilful pilot, who says we should see it when there are 200 balloons aloft.
Cappadocia, situated between Kayseri to the east, Aksaray to the west and Nigde to the south, it is well worth the effort to get there and is one of the highlights of a trip to Turkey.
Later we visit the open air museum in the Goreme National Park, home to rock churches with well-preserved frescos and odd-shaped formations – it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1985.
Cappadocia is also home to more than 30 underground cities dating back centuries that were hidden by massive millstone doors.
Kaymakli was first dug out by the Hittites in 1200BC, where up to 5000 people may have lived with massive ventilation shafts that run over 40 metres.
Opened in 1964, visitors can walk through a maze of tunnels and learn about the underworld existence.
Home for the night is in a sophisticated cave dwelling at the chic Argos in Cappadocia, which boasts amazing suites chiselled into the rock faces and caves.
It is founded on the ruins of old houses, caves, tunnels and an ancient monastery.
It’s the type of place that beckons you to linger whether you take a seat on the terrace and enjoy the panorama of cave dwellings or sit beside the crackling fire and dine on Turkish treats.
As for that bucket list, yes, ballooning in Cappadocia is definitely up there.
YOUR TURKEY ADVENTURE STARTS HERE
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