“ Address: Urgup Cad. Kaktus Sk. 21 / Mustafapasa / Urgup / Nevsehir / Turkey „
There are those people who are naturally up with the lark, and others, myself included, who are happier being night owls. So it was that when my sleep was rudely interrupted by the 4.30am wake up call on holiday in Cappadocia I wasn't in a bad mood, just wondering if this balloon trip would be worth the lost sleep.
I had never entertained the thought of going up in a hot air balloon before, it just seemed like a weird idea, but when the opportunity presented itself on holiday last year my mother leapt at the chance. Her curmudgeonly daughter knowing full well that she'd be woken up anyway, resigned herself to tagging along (after paying for both of them) and chalking it up to experience if it was less than interesting.
All the more surprising for me was that so many others from our tour group also wanted to go ballooning. I think around 14 of us were duly waiting in the hotel lobby at 5am to be collected by a Sultan minibus.
We were then driven to the take off site which seemed only a short distance away. Presumably the launch site changes with, well, the wind, and is dependant on factors such as the speed and direction. I was aware that we were on a ridge (unsurprising given that Cappadocia is all ridges and valleys) but rather unappreciative at the time what a smart move this was on the part of the crew.
Sultan had two balloons in use that day which the crew were preparing to inflate when we arrived. From what I could see of the other balloon companies, and there are many, most seemed to opt for taking off in the nearby valleys. We all helped ourselves to coffee and an assortment of biscuits and snacks which were laid out on some trestle tables and watched as the crew got to work inflating the two balloons.
We'd all been given a little card to hold as we got off the minibus and this indicated which balloon we'd be getting in. By 6am and with the balloons now ready to rumble we were climbing into the basket one by one. I didn't think to examine the other balloon, but ours took sixteen passengers. This might sound worrying to anyone with a fear of confined spaces but actually there was a fair bit of room to move. For anyone who has ever had the pleasure of squeezing on a London tube train in rush hour this basket would have seemed almost spacious. I'm not scared of heights but even I was slightly nervous climbing aboard. Finding out that there were no grotesquely obese people on board to tip the basket at a drunken angle helped quell my fears.
The basket was divided into 5 parts: four corner sections where the passengers were four to a section and the 'pilot' and guide in the middle. Ismail, our pilot, introduced himself and ran through the safety procedure for landing, which he said could sometimes be quite bumpy.
~ Up ~
And then we rose. It might sound weird but what struck me first was how loud the propane gas cylinders were. And how hot they made my face feel when they were burning the liquid gas. We had all dressed ready for chilly weather and with comfortable footwear, but with the blowers on (and they will be for most of the time at the start) I could feel my face burning almost straight away. It almost felt like I had been standing too near a large bonfire for some time. This is perfectly normal though and probably helped to keep us warm as we all turned our attention to the landscape below.
Cappadocia in Turkey is a quirky looking region, and very popular with tourists. Best known for what are called the Fairy Chimneys, these strange sights have been naturally formed over millions of years from limestone wear and erosion. The landscape looks like a cross between somewhere you might meet both Frodo the hobbit and Luke Skywalker.
Unsurprisingly I saw neither, although we did get close enough to see what looked like birds of prey warming themselves in the morning sunlight.
The views over Goreme (the area of Cappadocia we were in) were magnificent too. Okay, so the fairy structures aren't as ornate as the palaces of Alhambra or Versailles but they're all the more stunning for being natural.
Now I'm no engineer, but even I know that the direction any balloon flight will take depends on the prevailing winds. The pilot can merely get the balloon to rise or fall at will by means of hot air. The journey any flight will take is probably a bit of a mystery even to the pilot. Still, what we did see, and plenty of, were the old pigeon roosts. I've forgotten what Ismail explained the locals used to use the pigeon droppings for but I've a feeling it was to fertilise the soil.
The feeling of being in a hot air balloon is vaguely surreal. Even as we climbed higher (and I think we probably got to about 1000 metres) I didn't feel the same sense of height I would in a tall building. Perhaps because, apart from the burners, it seemed so peaceful and quiet. Added to which the balloon seems to move slowly and smoothly which makes the experience feel otherworldly. The feeling could only have been topped by spotting Frodo the hobbit or Luke Skywalker on the ground but you can't have everything.
The landing was interesting though. Far from being bumpy it was masterful. Our pilot had radioed the ground crew to let them know where we would be landing, and as we started losing height, so their pick up truck appeared on the horizon. Once the truck had stopped somewhere suitable, Ismail managed to land the balloon on top of its trailer. Yes really. The show off.
~ Après Flight ~
Once we all got out, there was a little guest book that the passengers were invited to sign, and more refreshments laid on. Not champers, but fruit juices and cordials and some more nibbles. In the short time that we were waiting for the mini bus to arrive and take us back to our hotel we were all given a certificate, which a staff member had diligently written our names on. Corny, but I still have mine!
~ The staff ~
Our pilot Ismail is also the owner of Sultan Balloons (he was too modest to tell us this, I gleaned it from their website afterwards) and he certainly has an impressive CV (again, according to the website). Not only is he a competitive ballooning champion in Turkey but has been piloting commercial balloon flights for 21 years. This might not seem relevant to any potential customers but his experience showed. During the flight his manoeuvring of the balloon was fantastic - when we climbed over some ridges, he cut in really close to the rock face and then lifted us up. This was not due in any way to clumsiness or lack of attention, more his adept skill and got all the passengers ooohing and aaahing.
His English was as skilful as his piloting although mostly he kept quiet. Some people may prefer more commentary, but personally I was happier that he let us drink in the sights without chitter chatter.
And as for the other staff, although a 4.30am start was supremely early for me (nearer my bedtime than waking), some of them must have to get up even earlier to check the weather conditions will be good enough to fly. People who are not as keen as mustard need not apply for jobs in this industry then, although you could argue that as the profit margins appear to be good, perhaps the salaries are enough to motivate new recruits.
~ Burgeoning Ballooning ~
One local had the bright idea of starting balloon trips over the region in 1985, which proved to be so popular that it seems like every man and his dog is now somehow involved in this thriving industry. I counted nearly 80 other balloons up in the sky with us, with most companies having several balloons on the go at once. Sultan Balloons seems to be one of the smaller operators with only three qualified pilots and three balloons, two of which were used the day we were there. Other companies are far larger. Having a quick look at the Turkish Civil Aviation Authority website (albeit in Turkish, I can still get an inkling of what is written) some companies - including the original, Kapadokya Balloons - seem to have 16 or 17 balloons! All of them have to be licensed to fly, as do their UK counterparts with the British CAA. I would like to think there weren't any rogue traders operating, but for peace of mind it's worth checking the CAA website for any country where you plan to take a balloon ride.
Losing sleep over it...
... is a necessary evil of any balloon flight with Sultan Balloons. Apparently early morning is the time of the day with the lightest winds which make things easier for the balloon pilot. How true this is I don't know, but warmer winds towards the middle of the day may pose more problems for the balloon. We were there in late September when most touristy things are winding down, but in Cappadocia balloons seem to fly all year around, weather permitting. Take offs tend to coincide with dawn, so if you were to visit in midwinter - allowing for more inevitable cancellations due to poor weather - you would at least get a later start of around 7.30am. I shouldn't grumble though; once we were airborne it became apparent that the valleys look their best at this time of day. Not only was it incredibly peaceful but at the risk of sounding arty-farty, the light is much better for taking photos (and you would want to take loads). Mine certainly seemed to come out better in the early morning light than once the sun had fully risen, even on my little point and shoot digital camera.
~ Not pushing but blowing (the envelope). ~
I rather hoped boundaries weren't going to be stretched to their limits once we'd got off the ground and thankfully I had nothing to worry about. The envelope in question is the proper name for the nylon balloon which the staff managed to inflate in what seemed like the blink of an eye. The basket was made entirely of wicker and according to the Sultan website, manufactured along with the envelope, by a UK firm in Bristol. They advertise themselves as being the worlds largest maker of ballooning equipment as well as other things, so should you feel an urge to buy an airship, Cameron Balloons are your go-to people. Should you have enjoyed the experience with Sultan so much that you simply must have one of your own, their envelopes start at around £12,000.
... over Cappadocia was not only gloriously warm and sunny as expected when we were there, but far easier on the Sultan staff than their British counterparts. One common complaint among people who book any UK balloon trip seems to be the disappointment at recurring cancellations due to poor weather conditions. In Cappadocia they fly even in winter with snow on the ground! Richard Branson plans to propel civilians into space but he can't yet fix it for those same people to travel up a few thousand feet in nothing more complex than a wicker basket without disappointment.
For Sultan balloons, the outlook seems as buoyant as their envelopes. They aren't one of the largest operators, but the ride is comfortable and the staff (or at least our pilot) are experienced and capable. Neither do they pack passengers in like sardines. Some other operators in the area have twenty odd people to a basket, so you may not get as good a view as we all had.
~ Recommended? ~
I am so glad I went despite my initial reservations, it was probably the best one off experience of my holiday. My mother also thoroughly enjoyed it, as did all the others in our group we chatted to.
The recent hot air balloon tragedy in Egypt will probably put many off the idea but I would still recommend going on a balloon flight, and especially here with Sultan Balloons. Thankfully any tragedies like the Egyptian one are rare, and in all likelihood ballooning is probably far less dangerous than driving up or down English motorways.
The only downside is that our balloon flight slightly spoilt the rest of Cappadocia for us. After being dropped off back at our hotel (and more importantly, getting there in time for breakfast) the rest of the day was spent looking around the Goreme Open Air Museum. Although that is a must if you are in the region, the rock formations and the overall landscape is far more impressive when viewed from the air.
Not only that, but being on a hot air balloon flight anywhere is an extraordinary experience. The feeling of gently floating along isn't one I can adequately convey in a review but the strange thing is, despite the balloons needing a slight wind to actually move anywhere, once we were in the basket I didn't feel any breeze and certainly not chilly.
I paid 150 euros for each of us which for a one hour flight I didn't feel was exorbitant. There are some cheaper alternatives in Goreme but I don't think ballooning the sort of experience where I'd really want to be penny pinching or cutting corners. This is payable directly to the crew once the flight finishes. Their website gives the price now as now being 160 Euros per person. The website is also very helpful in explaining who should and shouldn't fly (although it doesn't mention the grotesquely obese).
While it isn't a cheap outing, it is one I recommend.