On an all-time high

Stephanie Clifford-Smith takes a smooth as silk journey among honeycomb cliffs and ancient gorges.

FIRST decision: what to wear hot-air ballooning. I was thinking Great Gatsby, silk chiffon, something that would flap prettily in the breeze as I gazed earthwards from the wicker basket. No chance. Subzero temperatures were forecast for our dawn flight over Cappadocia and our pilot had told us to wear "everything in your backpack". Whatever smugness I might have felt about my talent for light packing instantly evaporated.

I arrived at the meeting point heavily upholstered in a thermal singlet, seven T-shirts, three linen shirts and a silk scarf and headed out in a mini bus with my flight companions. Weather conditions and wind directions had been checked to determine the takeoff site, which ended up being an open field about 10 minutes' drive from Goreme's town centre. In ballooning you're at the mercy of the wind's direction and from here it was blowing along a route that would cover the area's highlights.

But before takeoff there was much to be done. We were briefed about crash-landing positions in the case of misadventure. There was something about bracing backs against the side of the basket and feet against its central dividing wall but I wasn't really concentrating.

There were brilliantly coloured balloons taking off and the rising sun in the distance distracting me, besides which our pilots were so experienced I felt little need to worry about accidents.

There are plenty of ballooning businesses in Cappadocia but the company we'd chosen was the first operator here, starting up in 1990. Its balloons fly in pairs, well away from the pack, and go higher, lower and further than many of the others.

They're also a fair bit more expensive but it was easy to justify the cost when I considered I'd probably never do it again and I might as well spend as long as possible exploring these bizarre rocky landscapes from the air.

There was a four-man support team busy setting things up. Having dragged the huge balloons off the truck, several men spread the fabric out over the field, ensuring support ropes were in order. Next a couple of guys held open the mouth of the structure while another directed a large fan towards it to begin inflation. To warm that air and make it rise, every now and then the fan guy would flick a switch and shoot roaring flames into the opening while the others wrestled to contain the growing thing. The whole exercise looked hellishly dangerous and was utterly captivating. We eight passengers piled in using a vertical row of holes in the basket side as foot holds. Our pilot was Swedish-born Lars and the other was his English wife, Kaili, and between the two of them they spoke enough languages to accommodate most tourists to Goreme.

I stood at the end of the basket near Lars and, importantly, near the flame where I welcomed its warmth. With a rushing jet of flame driven by propane gas, we lifted off smoothly in a pure, vertical line.


Kaili and Lars communicated throughout the flight by walkie-talkie, with only some of their conversation being technical and navigational. Their dog, an orphaned mongrel they'd had for years, ran kilometres along a valley ridge to follow us as we scooted along below, scraping the tops of poplars. Far from the constant bird's-eye view I'd expected, we had a more intimate experience with the landscape as we rose and fell within its forms. When apricots are in season you can pick them from the trees below, they said.

Sometimes we shot to great altitudes but, being carried by the wind, not fighting against it, it was smoother than an elevator ride. There was no sense of vertigo, either, which might have had something to do with the solid, chest-high basket sides and complete lack of turbulence.

One of the most beautiful things about the flight, besides the landscape that looked in parts like freshly piped Mr Whippy ice-cream and in others like forests of phalluses, was the balletic choreography of the two balloons.

As we dipped into a gorge, we'd see Kaili's balloon rising above the ridge behind us. Then, as we'd rise, she'd dive directly beneath us, giving us a surprising perspective on these massive aerial globes.

None of us could speak; we were dumbstruck by the spectacle. I hate this hackneyed adjective as much as most people under 30 love it but for once it fits - it was awesome.

By the time we touched down in another field and climbed from the basket, the sun had completely risen and the ground crew had begun setting up a table of glasses on a quiet stretch of track. Wranglers appeared to tame the deflating silk and pack the balloons away. An elderly Turkish farming couple had to steer their horse and cart around this odd bunch of foreigners as we stood thawing out, rediscovering the power of speech and toasting each other with champagne at 8 o'clock in the morning.

The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel.

Trip notes

Getting there

Emirates flies via Dubai to Istanbul, from where Turkish Airlines flies to Ankara. There are about 10 buses a day between Ankara and Goreme, many with transfers at Nevsehir. The trip takes about five hours and coach-style buses are airconditioned and comfortable, some with on-board stewards. turkeytravelplanner.com has more details.

Staying there

There are hotels built within the caves and rock formations for which Goreme is famous but we stayed at The Walnut House. It was very central and built from local materials. Rooms had lovely vaulted stone ceilings and gothic-style windows. +90 384 2712235, cevizliev.com.

Ballooning there

This trip, lasting about 90 minutes, cost €250 ($342) a person. kapadokyaballoons.com. When booking as part of an Intrepid tour, Cairo to Istanbul for example (21 days, from $2745), part of that money goes to an architectural conservation project in Goreme.