Sunday, October 2, 2011

Cappadocia - A Festoon of Balloons

Dawn, and to the east the sun is surging through the banked cumulus, filaments of pink and orange etching the sky like stretchmarks. We whisper up into the dove grey light, scarcely aware of any movement as the strange shapes of Cappadocia fall away below: the corrugations of deep valleys; the weird buildings, moulded like wet clay into whirls and domes and spirals as if by a giant demented potter.

This is my first hot air balloon ride and it’s magical, a truly sensuous experience: the feel of the chilly air, the smell of dawn over ancient Anatolia; most of all, the silence… the peace that comes from sailing – no, wafting – in the thermals a thousand feet over Cappadocia. Our mob, normally as noisy as a bunch of chattering monkeys, are reduced to quiet expressions of delight and wonder. We are divided into four pods inside the big wickerwork gondola which resembles nothing as much as a huge bread basket. The central pod traversing the gondola is for our pilot, a well-built, middle-aged guy called Serhan who, with his excellent English and purposeful action, evinces stolid reliability.
Suddenly the silence is broken by the roar of flames as Serhan triggers four gas-fired after-burners set in the rigging of his pod. They shoot tongues of fire into the cavernous interior of our blue and white balloon. Almost imperceptibly the huge balloon rises. Serhan snaps off the burners and instantly the silence returns as we float on the gossamer wind.

Then, in a wondrous moment that raises the hairs on the back of my neck I hear our roar faintly echoed across the still sky: once, twice… four, five, times. It’s the sound of the other balloons flaming up their afterburners. On three sides of us multi-coloured balloons are lifting into a sky now the colour of pearls; some above us, some below; some near, some distant. I count more than forty brightly-coloured bulbous shapes in stripes and circles and quadrants; a couple showing the blood red of the Turkish flag.

Once more our afterburners roar and across the sky we hear the faint roars in return… like the bellows of distant, solitary mastodons roaming the Jurassic tundra. The balloons hang, apparently motionless, festooning the sky, looking for all the world like fat, colourful exclamation marks punctuating the luminous light.

All around my eyes are filled with the sight of balloons in flight; below me the dun brown and gold land unfolds. We rise to two thousand feet for an eagle-eyed view of the country then drop airily into a valley, sliding past the craggy rock faces. At one stage we are only metres above a grassy plateau, moving, at about five knots, surprisingly fast. Then the ground suddenly drops away and I realise that we above a butte and ground level is eight hundred feet below.

Slowly we start our descent and all of us are sorry that we are succumbing once more to the bonds of earth. Serhan lands the gondola as dainty as a fairy on a flatbed truck parked in the middle of a paddock.

Over the champagne the company serves us after landing, I watch the yellow tee-shirted ground crew pack up the balloon and think it curious that the vehicle of such an enchanting experience should reduce to nothing more than a precisely-folded and roped package scarcely bigger than a wheelie bin. It’s a mystery…

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