Why is it the best things in life often come hand in hand with sleep deprivation? I really don’t do mornings, yet when travelling I’m usually up before the local assortment of roosters to watch sunrises, admire geographical phenomena, explore during the coolest part of the day and receive marriage proposals!
So it’s no surprise that within hours of landing at Nevşehir airport in the Central Anatolian region of Turkey, hubbie and I were scrambling around our cave room (yes, we stayed in a cave…hotel!) getting wrapped up warm for our first Turkish delight – hot air ballooning.
It was February and I’d been worrying the weather might put paid to more flights than usual, but Butterfly Balloons reassured me last year they only had to cancel 6 flights during that month. Even so I decided to book for our first morning, so we’d have several more chances should the worst happen. It didn’t, so our first glimpse of Turkey in the daylight was from around 1,000 metres above ground. I liked what I saw…
We were picked up at 5.45am from our cave hotel in Goreme and driven all of a few hundred yards down the hill to the offices of Butterfly Balloons. Feeling a bit ridiculous when we could so easily have walked, we met our fellow flyers and tucked into ‘first’ breakfast of pastries and coffee. Everyone was still half asleep so after a few pleasantries we just concentrated on keeping warm whilst we waited for the final passengers to be collected.
Next stop was the launch site half way between Goreme and Uçhisar – Butterfly change their locations daily according to the prevailing weather conditions to make the most of the morning, gotta be a good thing! The cool silence of dawn was shattered only by the warming sound of roaring burners filling up the balloons and they lay obediently on their sides, waiting to carry the latest bunch of wannabe Montgolfiers through the skies.
I’d been concerned about the number of people in each basket, but Butterfly have a policy of a maximum of 4 passengers per compartment so although it was cosy there was plenty of room to shuffle about and take lots of photos. Many other balloon companies seem to cram in as many flyers as possible, often with 6 per compartment. I can’t imagine that would be much fun, squashed up against strangers.
We met Mike, our pilot who also happens to come from the UK and has British qualifications and years of experience enough to settle even the faintest of hearts. To be honest, it wasn’t a coincidence, I’d done a lot of research into which balloon company to use (there are dozens!) and together with properly trained pilots, glowing reviews and an impeccable safety record, Butterfly easily floated up to the top, along with a couple of others. I don’t know about you, but if I’m putting my life in someone else’s hands I want them to know what they’re doing!
Ballooning isn’t without risk, and indeed just last year 3 Brazilians unfortunately died after a Cappadocia ballooning accident, but given the sheer volume of balloons in the sky each day, and the colossal number of flights per year, it’s amazing that there aren’t more such incidents. And of course because balloon accidents are more unusual than your average car crash, they’re splashed all over the news and perhaps the scale of the issue is blown a little out of proportion.
There are several ‘cowboy’ outfits in the area, offering lower prices and cramming people in like cattle, often offering more than one flight a day just to fit everyone in. But is the prospect of saving a few Euros really worth the higher risk of death? We didn’t think so, and felt perfectly safe with Butterfly Balloons.
Mike gave us a short safety briefing and showed us the crash positions we were to assume should the landing be a little bumpy. Hubbie and I glanced at each other…last time we went ballooning, in Morocco, we landed mere feet away from a huge cactus field. Moments later we were off, the launch so smooth that we didn’t notice we’d left the ground.
Already the ground looked small and insignificant far below, and it was novel to look down on balloons directly below us.
Balloons usually launch with the sunrise as this is when there are the lightest winds and no thermals since it’s still cool (thus one benefit of flying in the winter is an extra hour in bed!) And of course there’s no better time for a spot of photography. The snow-capped peak of Erciyes volcano, which looks remarkably like the Lonely Mountain in the Hobbit stands watch over Cappadocia, a magnificent backdrop for a spectacular sunrise.
It was certainly exciting being in the skies with so many other balloons (we counted 53, and Mike said in the summer there are often upwards of 100), and it must be no mean piloting feat to avoid bumping into neighbouring crafts. Mike said there was no need to panic if the silk of two balloons ‘kissed’, it’s when silk comes into contact with the basket of another balloon that you need to worry. But of course that didn’t happen to us.
Overlooking the astonishingly sculpted valleys of Cappadocia was a geologists paradise, and although I know the landforms were created through layers of lava and years of erosion, I still find it all a bit mind-boggling.
As well as soaring high above, Mike also took us down so low we actually floated in the valleys themselves. I’d certainly not expected to be so close! At times we were mere feet off the ground, brushed quietly over trees and looked birds in the eye as we glided past rock caves and pigeon houses. It was so controlled and smooth that there was only excitement and no fear.
We were up for over an hour (in winter they don’t tend to operate the longer flights due to weather conditions not being suitable) but it was over all too soon as Mike chose the perfect landing spot with a great viewpoint.
Once we’d landed (without a single bump, I was impressed!) the ground crew appeared from out of nowhere (they’d been tracking our progress from below, and were in constant radio contact with Mike) and pulled up with the balloon trailer. Mike then lifted us up again and proceeded to park the basket directly on top of the trailer. How cool! It made for a more interesting passenger disembarkation, but it was all good fun and I didn’t disgrace myself too much as I jumped to the ground.
We’d barely touched the ground when a table complete with sparkling wine, strawberries and cakes was assembled, to toast our flight and celebrate our happy landing. So this was ‘second’ breakfast…perhaps the area has more affinity with Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit (my favourite films!) than I first realised? And I did notice an agency in Goreme called ‘Middle Earth Travel’. Hmmm.
After that hard morning’s work, we were returned to our hotel, ready for ‘third’ breakfast and our first day in Turkey!
We don’t hesitate in recommending Butterfly Balloons for their professionalism and friendliness, and no, we didn’t receive any compensation for this review. The best balloon flight we’ve ever had!
TIPS: Butterfly Balloons give a discount if paying in cash. Wear warm clothing, even in summer as the dawn is still cold, and the higher up you go, the chillier it gets. Don’t take bags (just your camera), there won’t be room. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself!
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