Friday, July 30, 2010

The Hot Air Balloon Thing

At $3.33 per minute per person, a 90 minute sunrise hot air balloon tour can make a round of golf at Pebble Beach seem like a bargain; however, we figured it was a once in a lifetime kind of thing and had heard that if you’re ever going to do the hot air balloon thing, Cappadocia is THE place to do it. After a 4:00am wake-up call, we boarded a shuttle to a common meeting spot, received our balloon assignment, and hopped in another shuttle to the launch point.

On the way to the launch point, we passed a number of other balloon operators preparing for the morning’s excursion and finally came to our balloon. Lindsay mentioned how she hoped we had a “pretty” balloon, I responded that it was probably more important what the other balloons looked like. (Un)fortunately, we had a handsome balloon while some other operators had sold the rights to their balloons to companies like Kia. Fortunately, there were around forty balloons in the area that day so there was plenty of variety.

Watching the balloon inflate was a riveting process  as the burner blasted hot air into a deflated horizontal balloon laying flat on the ground that slowly inflated until it ultimately hovered over the basket. Once inflated, the sixteen passengers climbed into four partitioned baskets. At that point, there were some dudes hanging onto lines to keep us from floating away. Oh, and there was a $70,000 Land Rover tethered to one of the ropes for good measure (nice to see my $3.33 per minute going to good use). Once we were cleared for take-off, we slowly ascended and floated toward a rock.

The pilots go out each morning and scout the best launch point and send small helium balloons into the atmosphere to determine the day’s route. They are able to turn the balloon and change altitude but are basically up to the mercy of the wind as to the ultimate route. In addition, they are in constant contact with one another during the trip to ensure they know what the closest balloon is to them, whether it’s safe to ascend, and where the right pockets of air reside. Our pilot, Isa, seemed like a nice enough guy. When asked how long he had been a pilot, he responded, “This is my second trip.” I’d like to think if I were a  hot air balloon pilot, I’d make jokes like that. Though I’d probably add something like, “and there were almost no injuries.”

Much of the trip we spent ascending and descending and traveling through canyons of Cappadocia’s famous fairly chimneys. From many of the pictures, you would never believe they were taken from a balloon as we were so close to the sides of rock formations. It was a fantastic way to get a different view of Cappadocia’s formations and pigeon houses, which are places people keep pigeons to harvest their droppings. If you ever thought your job was bad, at least you don’t harvest pigeon crap.

What really made the trip though, was that there were so many other balloons in the area, which really helped add perspective and color to an already impressive landscape. We were up and down in elevation through much of the trip, which was a surprise. I thought we’d probably just go up, fly around a bit, and go down. The real way was much more exciting than my expectation. Ultimately, we went as high as about 1000 meters above the ground, which seemed high enough for me. As we descended, the landscape looked familiar as we had blown from the town of Goreme to the outskirts of Urgup, which was where we stayed. We actually had a decent view of our cave hotel on the way down. Lindsay filmed the touch down on the small digital camera, but the most exciting part of that video is her sadly mentioning that it was an uneventful landing. I guess that’s not such a bad thing.

Even at $3.33 per minute, the hot air balloon thing is worth doing once in your life. I probably don’t need a second time but don’t regret the first. The only downside is that I could start to feel the heat of the burner on the top of my head by the end of the trip which was as good an indication that it was time to go down as any. One piece of advice if you ever have the opportunity; try and go in an area where there are a lot of other balloons. We were able to get a much different perspective of the Cappadocia moonscape; however, the fact that there were other balloons made it seem like more of an event, and helped give some subject matter to the photographs so they didn’t just look like fifty or sixty variations on the same photograph of a rock taken from the sky.
Probably could have used a flash

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