Floating over Cappadocia

Located in Central Turkey, Cappadocia is like no other place in Turkey or Europe. As cliched as it may sound, this visually striking natural wonder of the world which closely resembles the lunar landscape, took my breathe away. The worst part was that I only stayed one night, something which I am still kicking myself for a few months later.

Typography wise there are similarities to the network of caves and valleys in Death Valley near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Unlike the Atacama though, the volcanic soil provides fertile grounds environment to sustain life and is more hospitable to human occupation, and as a result it is now one of the most visited sites in Turkey. The terrain as we see it today, was caused by volcanic activity over two million years ago; spewing out ash and rock throughout the region and over the years, the natural process of wind and rain erosion has peeled and carved away the layers of rock and dirt into fairy tower formations.

cappadocia turkey

God rays poking through the clouds as we are half way up to the lookout and checking out the swanky hotels in Goreme.

I made the trip to Cappadocia while there were delays in processing my Iranian Visa in Istanbul. After a twelve hour overnight bus ride from Istanbul,  we arrived in the central town of Göreme. Being a popular destination for tourists, finding a place to stay proved to be much more difficult than expected with most places being full.  After roaming around for half an hour, we ended up a choosing a moderately priced hotel because we were quite shattered from the lack of sleep on the bus, and our skin cells were by now being cooked by the the mid morning sun. One of the selling points of the hotel was that it had a pool, but we reconsidered jumping in to cool off after realising that even at the shallow end, we couldn’t see the bottom.

After checking in and collapsing into an extended siesta, we went on a mission to find a good deal on a hot air ballooning flight the following day to get an aerial view of the the landscape. Every morning, more than a few dozen balloons, each carrying up to twenty four passengers, set off on an hour long flight over the vast and undulating terrain. There were quite a number of agents in town so finding a good deal wouldn’t be that difficult and after visiting about five different operators, we settled on an operator for €100.

It was close to sunset now so we decided to hike up to the top of the hill for a better view over the valley and town. Hotels were plentiful, many of which were incorporated into the rocky landscape. The only downside were that they were well out of my price range when we checked, and even if I could afford it, they were mostly booked out anyway.

goreme turkey

For hundreds of years, homes, churches and businesses have been built into the natural rock formations in the valley.

We made it to the lookout, armed with a bottle of wine, a couple of jars of salty pickles and a packet of Doritos – pretty much a backpackers staple. For miles, the landscape resembled what looked like a huge mass of swiss cheese – tall and golden mounds with lots of pokey holes in them. Within these rock formations, people have excavated a network of caves which previously served as refuges, residences, storage and places of worship dating from the 4th century. They were also used by Christians for shelter during the Roman Era. Around the surrounding area is agricultural land with a number of small villages, scattered into the distance.

As we sat there sipping the fruity red wine from out plastic cups, what seemed like and birth of an argument was taking place amongst some locals behind us, with police arriving to the scene not long after. Not wanting to become embroiled in anything unsavory, we decided to make tracks for the lookout point to enjoy the remainder of our wine and sunset which was now putting a spectacular colour show. Its rays were now piercing through the clouds and casting a golden blanket light across the entire valley.

The following morning, the alarm rang just on 4am and we literally roll out of bed, in autopilot and into our clothes. A few minutes later we are greeted by our minivan, full of our fellow sleepy eyed passengers. It was pitch black still with the only activity in town being the dozens of other vans with their headlights on and zipping around like worker ants, gathering up most of the towns inhabitants and carting them off to the designated launch sites.

hot air ballooning cappadocia

Unloading the basket at first light prior to a last minute change of locations.

A short drive out into the valley and we arrive at a well lit site, offering the standard breakfast setup: instant coffee, tea and cake. Not being a fan of the Turkish coffee, I opt for the tea without sugar and repeatedly take a bite from the cake and wash it down with a mouthful of tea. As the cool morning light unveiled surrounding landscape, the crew started preparing the balloon rig as we all waited, some in nervous anticipation. Then all of a sudden, we were ushered into the van again and whisked off to another location. It was as though we were storm chasers without a storm and nobody could tell us what was happening. I could only assume that it had something to do with the wind direction.

At our new location, there were plenty of other groups who seemed like they had their act together and were already pumping hot air into their balloons while we were still getting out of the van. Eventually, the once peaceful setting, roared into life with the sounds of fans and burners breathing life into the balloon as we all piled into our floating chariot.

cappadocia ballooning turkey

The first one into the sky.

With so many balloons around, I wondered if it was safe; that there wouldn’t be a mid air collision and a potential fiery death, or somehow fall out of the basket and being impaled on one of the fairy towers. Our feisty French pilot assured us that everything would be fine and that the balloons are ok to touch each other from side on. It was only dangerous if one landed on top of us or vice versa, but it was going to be our job to notify her if that was going to be the case – like WTF?!? We didn’t sign up for this? I could picture the accident report after an accident: “The group didn’t provide sufficient warning that there was another balloon within range above/below the balloon in question.”

hot air balloon in cappadocia

Meanwhile, our balloon is still being unpacked.

goreme hot air ballooning

Finally, we are up.

hot air balloon cappadocia

The balloons are ok to “kiss” each other from side on.

ballooning in cappadocia

The balloons float quite close to the landscape.

hot air balloon

My preferred cruising distance from the balloons.

cappadocia love valley

The erosion that carved out the landscape can be seen clearly from this angle.

cappadocia ballooning

A panorama shot. Can you count how many balloons there are?

Fortunately, I live to tell the story. I had never seen so many balloons in one spot before but it kind of added to the spectacle and the unashamedly beautiful scenery. There were times when the pilot flew us into and out of the valleys with precision like guidance, avoiding the phallic like fairy towers by a matter of metres. Then within a few seconds, we’d be soaring as high up as 800m in elevation until other balloons resembled tiny blobs of floating bubbles.

The balloon adventure over Cappadocia left me craving for more. I wanted to explore every valley, cave, nook and cranny that we stealthily floated over that morning. However, later that day, we were evicted from our current hotel because they were fully booked for the night. My travelling companions had made plans to head south, so I was left to find a place to stay. The few places that I checked didn’t seem to have any spare room so I was left in a prickly situation. Do I keep searching or move on? In the end, I made a rookie error of heading back to Istanbul to pick up my Iranian Visa. I wasn’t  entirely as to why I made such a decision; perhaps a part of me was tired of searching for places to stay every day, and by now, I probably wanted the easy way out. If you asked me three months prior what I would have done, I would have said I would have easily walked for miles to find a place but on this occasion, I ended up making probably my most regrettable decision in Europe.

Have you seen any places like Cappadocia and does it make you want to go and visit?

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