The reason why most tourists come to Cappadocia is to ride on one of its magnificent hot air balloons over the stunning volcanic rock formations. We weren’t sure when we arrived whether we would choose to go in one as there are other ways to explore the surrounding countryside, and the hot air balloons are both expensive and potentially dangerous. However, on our first morning I set my alarm for 6am and dragged my tired self out of my cave room and out onto the hotel terrace to be greeted with the truly extraordinary sight of around one hundred balloons gently drifting through the valley, in silence. It was a majestic sight as the balloons floated along, occassionally peeping in and out of the rocks without a sound, and I made my mind up to get onto a balloon in some way, leaving aside all niggles about safety and cost.
What are the risks?
Hot air balloons are difficult to control, and crashes occur relatively frequently, though they are not reported too much as the region of Cappadocia relies heavily on the tourism revenue generated by the balloons. They are difficult to pilot because you cannot change anything suddenly in a balloon: all changes take a few minutes to cause an effect. For example, as a balloon floats downwards, the pilot fires up the flames, heating the air inside the balloon and causing it to rise again. But the rising effect takes some time to happen – so the pilot must start firing the flames quite a bit before he or she actually thinks a crash with the ground is imminent. Likewise, because it takes for the air to heat, it would also be easy for the over-cautious pilot to heat up the balloon far too much when it was going downwards, and for the balloon then to shoot up far too high and too quickly for it to be controlled. In May 2013 there was a collision between two balloons, when one was rising too quickly and hit another balloon above it that the pilot could not see; this tore the canvas of the lower balloon and it plummeted to the ground. Unfortunately, three Brazilian tourists died in this crash. Even if fatalities are reasonably rare, it is enough to make you carefully consider the risks involved before booking a flight. However, since then, there have been more regulations introduced: a maximum of 100 balloons are allowed to fly each morning, and stricter pilot training regulations have been introduced. Even so, we spent quite a bit of time considering which company to fly with, and eventually settled on Kapadokya Balloons, one of the oldest and largest companies in the area.
Balloon Flight Attempt #1
We booked a hot air balloon ride through our hotel for the second morning of our stay there. Alarms went off at the ungodly hour of 4.45am and we were collected by a company minibus at 5am. (Bearing in mind Turkey is two hours ahead of the UK, this felt like 3am to me: not at all pleasant.) It was a slightly strange experience as we passed many other minibuses along the way picking up travellers from their hotels, and it made us properly understand that this whole town basically existed for the sake of these dawn balloon flights. The minibus dropped us off at the Kapadokya headquarters and we soon realised that this company was highly proficient and organised, which put our hearts at rest somewhat. Team members scurried around in their distinctive yellow-and-blue jackets and we were treated to a buffet breakfast in surroundings that were nothing less than luxurious. And then the wait began….
At 6am I began to get suspicious as I knew balloons usually set off at dawn (it’s less safe later in the morning) and the sun was definitely starting to rise. Fifteen minutes later the head of operations made an announcement that they were just waiting for the civil aviation authority to clear us for flying and then we would set off. This cheered us up further as it’s good that it isn’t the balloon companies who decide whether it’s safe to fly that morning or not, as they stand to lose a good deal of money for each no-fly day. At 6.45 he made another announcement that we they would drive us to the take-off site now so that when the all-clear came through it would be faster to set off. Along the way we desperately looked at all the flags we passed, trying to determine whether the wind was dropping or not, but alas, after a 20 minute drive and another half hour wait at the take-off site we were informed that no balloon would be flying that day, and that there were no spaces in balloons for the following morning.
Balloon Flight Attempt #2
Miraculously, our hotel managed to find us a booking for this morning with a different much smaller company. We were disappointed not to be flying with Kapadokya Balloons as we had been so impressed with their efficiency the previous day, but as this was our last morning in Goreme (we had a 10am bus booked to Antalya) we didn’t want to miss out, and the safety reviews for Cihangiroglu Balloons seemed fine. We were told we would be picked up at 5.45am this morning (a third early start in a row!) and so set our alarms for 5.30. However, we were woken not by the alarms but by the banging on our door to tell us that all balloon flights had been cancelled that day – and to be fair we could hear the wind howling outside. I was pretty disappointed as I wasn’t planning on coming back to Cappadocia in the near future so this was my last chance to go in a balloon! I was also slightly kicking myself for not having booked it as soon as we arrived for the first morning when we had got up to see the balloons go by from our hotel. However, the disappointment was slightly offset by the possibility of more sleep…
Balloon Flight Attempt #3
Having come to terms with the very first world problem that I would not be going on a hot air balloon this trip, it was a bit of a shock when more banging came on the door an hour later to announce that the wind had dropped and the balloons WERE in fact going to fly that morning.
This time we were minibussed straight to the take-off site, without any fussing around with fancy buffet breakfasts, and we watched with great admiration as our balloon went from a crumpled heap on the ground to a large round balloon ready to take off! Many other balloons were already in the sky, and we tried not to look too carefully when they appeared like they were about to crash into a tree/rock/mountain… The balloon basket was divided into four sections, each holding four people and within a few minutes we had taken off.
Riding in a hot air balloon is really a most extraordinary feeling. I have decided that it is probably superior to any other form of air transport: there is no queasiness, no ear-popping, no revving of engines, no smell, no noise, no dry-skin feeling. It’s as if you were standing on a magic carpet and gently floatng through the air, with all the calm in the world. True, you don’t travel very fast or very far, but as our pilot skillfully manouevred our balloon in and around the rock formations, we were given the most amazing chance both to see long-distance vistas and to get close to the tops of the strange Cappadocian rocks, and as you are out in the open, it feels very ‘natural’. At one point we passed a tree so close I could pick some leaves from the top, at another we were so high that I could see for miles and miles in the distance, and all was effortlessly smooth. Possibly the most impressive part of the flight was the landing: the pilot managed to direct the balloon basket exactly onto the trailor on the back of the van before we were treated to a champagne toast. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go on a hot air balloon again, but if the chance presents itself, I’ll be there in a flash!