Balloon Ride Over Cappadocia
I am jolted awake by a firm knock on our hotel door. My first reaction is to kick into Jason Bourne mode. "They" have come for me. After several seconds I come to my senses, my heart rate returns to normal and I realize it's the shuttle driver picking me up for my morning balloon ride. "But it's only 5:40 am and they aren't supposed to pick me up until 6:15," I think to myself. "No one has ever been this early in Turkey." I assure the driver that I will be out shortly...as soon as I put on pants. I hurriedly get dressed and stumble toward the group waiting to board the shuttle. The driver approaches, asks my room number and orders me to board his van.
Before we take off, the driver comes around to make sure everyone is on board. I notice that he is handing out stickers of various colors to different people on the bus. I figure the sticker color signifies which balloon package one has purchased. I await the cheap sticker. He, again, asks for my room number. I, again, tell him, but this time he looks very confused checking his roster. He tells me to stay seated but passes on to the next traveller without giving me a sticker.
Half hour early? No sticker? By this time I suspect something is wrong. Judgmental readers will think, "You are obviously on the wrong shuttle, dimwit. Disembark before you join ‘Balloon Tours Over Moscow.’" Go easy on me. It's not even 6 am and I've only been awake long enough to put on a shirt and hop into a van.
Our driver maneuvers down the narrow Göreme streets, coming within inches of clipping prehistoric rock formations and other shuttle buses. After picking up a few other passengers, we arrive at the balloon company. Pulling into the parking lot I notice the name of the company. “Doesn’t ring a bell,” I think to myself. We walk into the crowded waiting room and everyone is told to sign into a certain computer corresponding to one’s sticker color. I approach someone who appears to be in charge and inform them that I still don’t have a sticker. He finds my van driver and is briefed on my situation. They whisper to one another, making sure I do not hear their conversation.
By this time, I am certain that I am with the wrong company. However, my hotel is a 20 min walk uphill. I likely will miss my correct shuttle anyway, and honestly, I don’t want to walk up that hill at 6 am. A balloon ride is a balloon ride, right? Who cares which company I go with?
He gives me a green sticker, tells me to sign into the green-sticker computer and that we are waiting on permission to fly. I grab a hot tea and piece of cake, and walk outside to wait. Employees of the balloon company are releasing helium balloons in the parking lot to determine wind direction and how the balloons will fly. I chat with a pilot for a while and he tells me they haven’t flown in 5 days because of weather. He estimates that we have a 50/50 shot of flying today. While we are chatting, the guy in charge approaches and tells me that my correct balloon company has called and is looking for me. Apparently, they had come to our hotel door at 6:15 and my wife told them where to find me. I was soon taken to the balloon company where I had made my reservation, Butterfly Balloons.
They are waiting for me as I walk into the office and within 10 minutes we board the vans and are headed to the take off area.
When we arrive our pilot, Eftal, has already begun preparing our balloon and within 5 minutes we are told to climb into the basket and prepare for takeoff. After a few brief instructions, we are in the air.
The balloon rises incredibly fast. After 3 minutes, we are already several hundred meters in the air and the entire basket falls silent. It is the most serene setting I have ever experienced. I have felt flustered and a bit nervous since the first knock on our door. Finally I am at peace, until the selfies begin to be snapped and the pilot informs us that we will be descending into Rose and Red Valleys.
We weave in between the valley walls and the massive rock formations that make Cappadocia famous. Quite frankly, I am terrified. The side of our basket comes within inches of one of the famous “fairy chimneys.” At one point, it appears that my corner of the basket will be crashing directly into the side of a cliff. I pull out my phone to get a video of what I believe is my certain demise. However, Eftal is a pro. Just in the nick of time he ignites the burner sending an 8-foot tall column of fire into the center of the balloon lifting us safely over the canyon wall…barely.
As we exit Red Valley, a sense of relief and disappointment rush over me simultaneously. I am relieved that we narrowly escaped death, yet disappointed that a big part of our journey is already complete. Almost immediately the wind shifts. The balloons that we had been chasing are now coming towards us. We would be forced to traverse the valley again. After his first trip heroics, I am much more confident in Eftal’s ability to guide us through the valley and on to safety.
Nearing the end of Red Valley, we rise up and over the massive plateau that dominates the Göreme skyline. By the time we reach our maximum altitude (about 2700 feet) we are well above the clouds that cover that landscape on the other side of the plateau. Eftal points to a nearby field and informs us that is where we will be landing.
As we float in the direction of our landing zone, a truck and trailer positions itself in the center of the field. Approaching the trailer, I can feel the men on the ground tugging on the rope that is hanging from the underside of the basket. A sense of peace once again rushes over me. The battle between the men pulling us toward our landing and the balloon’s desire to continue flying has caused the aircraft to gently sway back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I feel like a feather drifting aimlessly toward the ground. In the end, the men overcome the balloon and we rest quietly atop the trailer.
After we disembark from the balloon, the passengers help deflate and prepare the balloon to be packed away for the next journey. An awaiting table full of cakes and drinks is the reward for our hard work. Eftal recalls the story of the first known balloon voyage. In 1783 a balloon took flight in France with a sheep, a duck and a chicken on board. After it landed 10 minutes later, the witnesses thanked God and drank champagne to celebrate. Eftal pops our bottle of champagne. I thank God that I am still alive and enjoy a piping cup of hot chocolate.