I challenge even the most seasoned traveller to be immune to the breathtaking, fairy-tale landscape of Cappadocia in central Turkey as they ascend over fairy chimneys in a hot air balloon.
Totally transfixed by this out-of-the-world experience, nothing in our lives - before or after - has surpassed what has been the highlight of our longest-yet motorhome adventure which took in fifteen countries across 253 days.
Hooked by the magical promises Cappadocia held in store for us, we arrived at our campsite in pitch darkness and with fever pitch excitement - and up with the larks to be intoxicated by the balloons ascending.
It was sensational as balloons of every conceivable colour lit up the skies over the National Park, whetting our appetite to book a flight for the next morning – despite my anxiety about heights.
We were rewarded by dozens of balloons firing up and climbing gracefully over the mountainous region which is one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes.
Overcoming Fear of Heights
My (Sharon) fear of heights made me agonise over whether to take the plunge – after all, what could go wrong in a small basket flying over a brooding plateau pierced with volcanic peaks and changeable winds? I am pleased I found out later there have been around seven reported deaths in crashes between 2013 and 2022 – the most recent crash taking place just three months before our flight.
Not being geared up with snow tyres on our motorhome at that point, we had bided our time before travelling to Cappadocia, waiting patiently for a window of three snow-free days which we hungrily grabbed.
Agreeing that this magical opportunity was far too enticing to turn down, a recce of the various balloon trips located on the main street in Goreme, we bagged a great deal and signed up for a 6am pick up from our campsite located a couple of miles outside the town.
Too Late to Backout?
Once booked, there was no going back so I spent time - in truth, the whole of the night while Steve slept soundly - taking deep breaths and visualising life in the air exposed to the elements.
Our 6.20am pick up rattled us through the pot holed roads in a people carrier pick up in darkness. It was reassuring to hear I was not the only fearful venturer as high-pitched laughs from fellow passengers tried to disguise their nervousness.
Countdown to Take Off
We arrived at the National Park where all balloons take off from and awaited instructions – some with more trepidation than others.
I need not have worried - the consummate professionalism and dexterity of our pilot, Kadim, and his team was first class as he explained what lay ahead.
His sense of humour was also wonderful. ‘First Time for you?’ he asked our group. When everyone nodded in unison, he said straight-faced: ‘First time for me too!’
Up, Up and Away
Once ensconced in the balloon with two passengers to each of the four boxes and Kadim in his own box in the middle, the magic began. Watching the machinations of coordinating the operation and inflating the balloon was an absorbing.
The experience was truly electrifying as we ascended over the vast valley of Goreme’s National Park with the stillness punctuated by bursts of the gas heating the air of the balloon.
I had envisioned spending the flight duration with my eyes closed – but the extraordinarily beautiful landscape and Nadim’s skilful handling of the balloon quickly dispelled all fears.
Fuelled by gas, balloon flights are dependent upon the weather conditions which can be extremely adverse in this part of the world in Winter - with snowfalls of up to fifteen centimetres.
Known as a ‘gentle giant,’ a hot air balloon is totally at the mercy of the wind - thankfully, weather conditions were ideal for flying that morning.
The sensation gave us an incredible insight into the magnificence of our planet and the limitless freedom that birds soaring over mountains and oceans enjoy every day of their lives.
On our descent I kept wondering how anything could trump this phenomenal experience. Our farewell was lovely as Kadim presented us with certificates and a sickly red lemonade drink to toast our achievement.
We returned to our campervan buzzing with the prospect of exploring the potent landscape we had effortlessly floated above.
Cappadocia’s unique and fascinating landscape - which is among the world’s largest cave dwelling region - has witnessed cities, empires and religions rise and fall around its subterranean buildings.
Rulers and races including the Persians, Alexander the Great, Rome, Islam, The Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire have left their mark – and Turkish rule has reigned triumphant since the 11th century.
A cultural feast of underground cities with hidden passages, fairy chimneys and castles - not to mention cute camels - await visitors.
Timing is Everything
Walking around the town of Goreme and its quirky rock formations is like being on a film set.
Awarded UNESCO status in 1984 – and one of the country’s first to receive the prestigious accolade, its open-air museum features 10th century monasteries carved out of the rocks with frescoed walls and ceilings.
We were beyond fortunate with our balloon ride timing as, poised to watch the balloons the next day (the experience is extremely addictive), we woke up to snow which had arrived a day early.
All balloon flights were cancelled, and this was the case for the next two weeks as the inclement weather continued.
The coating of snow further enhanced the landscape’s dream-like quality. As tempting as it was to hunker down and ride it out, we reluctantly left while the going was good, heading to the warmer climes of the coast.
Hardly a day goes by without pausing to recapture the powerful emotions the balloon flight, one of life’s precious milestones, had evoked.
The best way to describe it is through the famous lyrics: “I believe I can fly; I believe I can touch the sky. I think about it every night and day. Spread my wings and fly away”…
If you ever have an opportunity to soar like a bird, especially over this extraordinary landscape, take it – it is truly out of this world.