“Welcome to Cappadocia international airport,” says Kaili, our pilot. “All of our flights are first class, non-smoking and window seats.” Although it’s 6am and morning is anything but my friend, my faculties are operating enough to know there’s not a runway in sight, let alone a hangar, customs or control tower. In fact, the nearest airport is more than 60km away.
Less than 30 minutes later – after receiving clearance for takeoff, of course – I’m silently and effortlessly floating above a wonderland of fairy chimneys and wavy rock valleys. Although the area around Göreme in Cappadocia is weird enough from the ground, looming as something out of a science fiction movie, it takes on a whole new complexion from a hot-air balloon. The scars from centuries of volcanic activity and the forces of wind and rain, as well as the work of man who carved out homes in the pointed rocks from the 2nd century to escape Christian persecution, have left an indelible mark.
There are few better places in the world to go hot-air ballooning than Cappadocia. Not only is the terrain varied, but the settled weather allows flights on 250 days of the year (they could do 300, but a lull in visitors means they close down for the winter). Perhaps most important, though, is that Turkish regulations allow balloons to be flown at a height of anywhere between 5cm and 1000m, compared to South Africa where pilots are prevented from going below about 200m. This means our pilots Lars and Kaili can peer into the windows of their neighbours or collect apples from the local farmer, all without touching ground.
Although it’s technically impossible to direct a balloon (being at the mercy of the wind), Lars and Kaili seem to be able to make the balloons dance in and out of crevices, around the somewhat phallic rock formations and over (or into, as Lars often did) a number of poplar trees. “Anyone would think he was drunk,” Kaili says affectionately of the Swede, her partner of 18 years. “Male driver.”
Despite Lars’ efforts to share his love of ‘gardening’, it’s the silence that’s one of the most alluring features. Occasionally it’s punctuated by a burst of flame to maintain the balloon’s height or the banter between the two pilots (“shall we go over or under the power lines today, Lars?”).
Below us, Göreme is just coming to life in the early morning sun. “Can I book two rooms for tomorrow night?” Kaili calls out to a sleepy pension owner just 10m below, “I have some family in town.” After 14 years flying in the area, the blue and yellow balloons have become as much a part of the landscape as Lars and Kaili. Together, the pair have more than 27 years’ experience in the ballooning game and have carried more than 50,000 passengers, all the while achieving a perfect safety record.
Although Lars and Kaili don’t see themselves principally as pilots, preferring to call themselves “entertainers”, Kapadokya Balloons are essentially registered as a passenger airline. There’s certainly plenty of in-flight entertainment, but they might just need to work on the international airport.”