It’s 5am and eight of us have gathered, with some trepidation, in the lobby of the Perissia Hotel in Urgup, Turkey.  The darkness doesn’t ease our anxiety as we wait for the small bus that will take us to a field in the middle of Cappadocia where we are going hot air ballooning.

Fifteen minutes later we arrive at large, empty grassland.  It’s cold and I regret leaving a heavier sweater at the hotel.  I had no definite ideas how this contraption would take shape but I did think I’d see a big balloon and gondola waiting for us to step into.  Instead, we stand around in the semi-darkness, the sun still hidden behind the mountains, watching three very muscular men unload various pieces of equipment including an extremely large deflated colourful bundle which is being unwrapped and stretched out over the pasture. This, I presume, will eventually become part of our lofty vehicle.  My angst is lessened as I watch the precise exercise of these well-trained men.  It takes a half-hour before the pump-up is complete.

The balloon’s basket is tipped on the side and attached to the un-inflated fabric.  Hazan Ezel, the owner of the 12 year old company, Ez-Air Balloon Safari Co., takes control of the two motor driven fans and oversees his crew, as powerful jets of hot, flaming air fills the cavity of what will soon be the expanded balloon.

Soon, the eight of us are asked to climb in, two to a corner. It’s standing room only. Ezel takes his place in the centre where the forceful gas stream is located along with some handles, which maneuver and direct the balloon into the stream of wind. He tells us that this part of the world is best for ballooning because of the wind current.

Sooner than I expect, we’re actually floating, smoothly in the air. My apprehension disappears as we blissfully drift over the strange surrealistic lunarscape of Cappadocia.

Cappadocia, in the centre of Turkey, is known for the extraordinary volcanic formations and I gasp in complete amazement at the peaks and crevasses which suddenly seem to be unfolding around and below.  At times, we are only metres away from the cave entrances which I had visited the day before.  Other times we glide as high as 1000 metres for a panoramic view of the pinkish tinted scene.

As my level of comfort sets in and at intervals, when Ezel isn’t using the noisy, firery instruments to blow more hot air into the balloon, he tells us that he has been air ballooning fore 17 years and now owns five.  The company has prospered since this has become a very popular ‘sport’.  We see two others off in the distance, floating dreamingly in the cloudless sky.

Three hot air balloons are operated from the head office in Izmir and two are in Goreme, the centre of the volcanic rock formations.  Ezel’s experience as a navigator is obvious as he traverses and navigates round the peaked formations with great skill and calmness..  I m speechless viewing this spectacular vista.

The molten landscapes of Cappadocia are found around Goreme and Urgub, an area of about 20 kilometres by 15 kilometres.  These peaks are the result of volcanic lava, called tufa, which was eroded over millions of years.  The “fairy chimneys” as they are called, are tall columns of soft rock topped with great chunks of hard basalt.  They’re supposed to look like fairytale castles but to me these clusters seem more like gigantic mushrooms gone wrong.

An interesting feature pointed out the day before and now at much closer view, is that as long ago as 2000 years, people started carving caves out of the rocks.  These were not only used as houses but stone fortresses as the various invaders –Meses, Persians, Macedonians, Galatians, Armenians, Seljuks, Romans, Mongols and Ottomans- swept across the country.

At times, I find myself closing my eyes, as we seem about to collide with one or another of these chimneys and rock formations.  Looking down, the paths to the now isolated caves are visible, whereas yesterday, they were indiscernible.  On the tour the day before, I was taken to Pigeon Valley, where hundreds of tiny holes have been hollowed out of the cliffs for the pigeons of Cappadocia.  This isn’t because of  humanitarian reasons for the flying creatures but for the very important local economy.  Their droppings are still used as the sole source of fertilizer for the vineyards.  When I asked Ezel why some are painted white, he explains that pigeons can see them, even at night.

Now floating above Uschisar, I see two rocks about 100 metres high, which had been made into huge fortress.  They contain many rooms connected with stairs, tunnels and passages, again as a protection from invading forces.  Heavy and huge boulders were used as doors, slid shut only from inside, impossible to open from the outside.  The exhaustion of yesterday’s climb up hundreds of steps to see the castle and rooms were well worth the effort, but now seeing it from above, gives me a new dimension to this ancient structure.

Derinkuyu, an underground city with eight levels going as deep as 85 metres, housed about 30,000 people once – a must see.  Vaulted ceiling and pillared churches and chapels with the still bright frescoes, are about 1500 years old and a testimonial to the large Christian communities, which lived and prayed in these rock-hewn temples.  But be forewarned that being in good shape and health helps in this hot, often airless area.

As the flame continues to keep the balloon aloft, the chill of the early morning gives way to the warming of the day.  The brilliant orange sun has risen over the formations giving the area a new colour palette.

After an hour and a half of casually floating over this bizarre molten landscaped, we land effortlessly.  Far too short a trip, I think, wishing that we could continue in this dreamlike levitation for just a bit longer.

As we eight take turns climbing out of our basket, there’s a table with the traditional celebratory glasses filled with champagne.  We toast the trip and each other.  Hot air ballooning can become a habit.

Ez-Air Balloon Safaris

P.O. Box 81 Nevsehir, 50200 Turkey

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