Ballooning over Göreme Milli Park in Turkey
By Joseph Bare @ The Parking Spot
I don't mind flying. Commercial air travel has been safe for nearly a century and has been comfortable for 75 years. Pegasus, our carrier to Kayseri from Istanbul inspired little confidence but the price was right ($34US) and the plane was the same Boeing 737 I frequently board in the United States. Erkilet International Airport (ASR) is tiny for the number of passengers it serves, more than one million per year before 2019, but adequate to the task, delivering me from plane to taxi with minimal fuss.
But I was not fired up for hot air ballooning. Istanbul is already 8 hours from my home time zone in Chicago, IL and Kayseri built on ancient Caesarea in central Anatolia is two times zones yet farther east. Thus, I was not well pleased when a dawn balloon launch necessitates a 3 a.m. local time wake up.
This is me cursing life and calculating that I have, perhaps, woken up 2 hours before I normally go to bed.
It is difficult to do math without proper sleep. Ballooning safely with tourist passengers depends on calm winds. Winds are calmest at dawn, and dawn provides celestial views. If I am doing the math the way Kayseri balloon operators do, then the way to get visitors from their hotel to the launch site and in the air by dawn, is to meet them at the hotel at 3:20 a.m. I am just glad I didn't go in June.
The Cappadocia region takes its name Hittite and Persian sources, though its history is much more grand. Herodotus mentions it in his history of the Ionian Revolt of 500 B.C. Its geography and importantly its geology play an outsized role in its history and its tourist value.
It was still dark when we arrived at the launch site and met our pilot, Mahmet, and fellow passengers. Balloon baskets can be quite large, ours had room for 5, two couples and a pilot. I gained confidence seeing the size of the "lifting envelope" on the balloon; it seems like it can hold all of us.
Ancient volcanoes erupting three to nine million years ago left sedimentary deposits in lakes and streams. These eroded into alien-looking spectacular minaret-like forms. Fairy chimneys left after softer volcanic material eroded away left towers of ignimbrite stone that locals have been using for millennia as housing and raw material. Its one of the top 100 "geological heritage sites" in the world according to the International Union of Geological Science.
Ours was the first balloon in the air that day. I'm not complaining; we watched the other balloons inflate and take off all around us for miles. I'm just saying, maybe we could have slept another 20 minutes. Hundreds of balloons launch every day in this part of Cappadocia. It's become a major tourist draw along with historical tours. The wicker basket felt sturdy, well-made, and modern. The ground crew released the tie lines and we gently ascended. I felt the magic, despite the hour.
Cappadocians were at the center of ancient world politics. That fact shaped the landscape and the culture. The first Sumerian and Persian Empires connected Anatolia initially to the global order, followed quickly by the Romans and Byzantines. Early Christians proliferated here and created early chapels and entire underground cities as hiding places from persecution. The "Fairy Towers" are dotted with carved entrances from centuries ago; or months, it is hard to tell.
The rugged landscape of Cappadocia, with its honeycomb of caves, ancient churches, and whimsical rock formations, lay spread out like a vibrant tapestry.
Captain Mehmet pilots 5 days a week. He told us it takes more than a year of training and apprenticeship to be licensed as a balloon pilot. The coffee was kicking in, the view was magical and changing every moment. I finally was able to appreciate the moment and not regret the lost sleep
He allowed the balloon to cool, and we dropped down to a remote valley between two steep canyon walls. A goat grazed between rows of olive trees. It could have been 3000 years ago. The silence was broken only by the occasional blast of the burner and the wind seems non-existent. It was a surreal experience, floating weightlessly above the earth, feeling intimately connected to the elements and the land.
With a surge of power, we climbed above most of the other balloons. This, I do not like remembering. It’s a long way down.
Mehmet and the ground crew had been in contact by radio the duration of the flight, and they began discussing landing sites. Only then did it occur to me that each landing is different, depending on wind speed, direction, and how long we stay up. Landing was no more disconcerting and no less professional than our flight to Istanbul from Chicago. The ground crew pulled us in with grappling lines.
A champagne toast waited for us on the ground, a tradition among ballooners going back to the first manned balloon flight undertaken by the French, obviously. We toasted our new friends and our new appreciation for solid ground.