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Cappadocia: To the moon and back

A hot air balloon gives a unique perspective on the central Turkish region’s lunar landscapes

Cappadocia: To the moon and back
View of Cappadocia from a hot air balloon. Image: James Draven

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Sunrise; sunset. Sunrise; sunset. Time is a matter of perspective. Mere seconds, not days, are passing.

It’s a frosty 6am and the sun is peeping over the mountainous horizon. Just as its warming rays bloom against the skyline, our aircraft sinks below the edge of its launch pad – a sliver of canyon precipice — and the sun disappears behind the peaks again. This is the first time I’ve ever descended at take-off.

This is also the first time the pilot has freely admitted to me that he has no idea where we’re going and that a gentle crash landing is a distinct possibility. We’re literally going where the wind takes us.

This is my maiden hot air balloon flight. I’ve never before had the desire to be suspended far above the ground in a glorified picnic basket beneath two giant blowtorches, but it’s practically compulsory in Cappadocia. Even on the coldest mornings of the year, the skies are filled with around 40 similar balloons, loaded with visitors seeking an aerial perspective of this outlandish landscape. In high season, the air is crowded with up to 100.

“It’s best that the balloons don’t touch each other,” the pilot casually informs me. “But it’s hard to navigate in a hot air balloon, particularly over Cappadocia. When the sun rises, the wind direction can suddenly change by 80-120 degrees; each of these valleys also channels wind, causing more uncertainty. Journeys are unchartable. Only during the final 20 minutes do we plan our landing location.”

In strong winds, he tells me, we may come in to land sideways and have to adopt the brace position as we use the basket — effectively our cabin — as an anchor, allowing it to strike the ground on its edge and tip over… with us inside. “It’s a fun job,” he says, “but a lot of responsibility.”

After sinking further down, we’re now teetering above — and surrounded by — treacherous spikes of volcanic rock. Despite the occasional burst of concentrated flame blasting into the balloon, we seem to be struggling to get any lift, and we instead slalom between stone shards.

Eventually, another jet of super-heated air — totally indistinguishable from its predecessors — arbitrarily boosts us heavenward, and I grip wicker more tightly than Yogi Bear on a pic-a-nic pilfer. In an attempt to counteract vertigo, I tie a rope handle around my wrist, take a deep breath and focus on those views — and what views.

I’d heard of what are popularly described as Cappadocia’s lunar landscapes before; I’ve never visited the Moon so I couldn’t metaphorise so confidently, but I agree that this place is like no other on this planet.

As my balloon soars to 2,000ft, the breadth of these wondrous vistas is, at last, revealed. Undulating landscapes of solidified sand dunes ripple with waved contours, like great slouching bags of hardened cement: the product of millennia-old, soft volcanic rock, sculpted by the breath of a zillion zephyrs.

Below, in the Devrent Valley, the elements have whittled the limestone rock into impossible fairy-tale spires: mushroom-capped and pocked with irregular windows and doors like a Jim Henson movie backdrop. In other places, the rock is spiked into riotous flames; or wind-burnished into sensual, curvaceous monuments.

Thousands of years ago, labyrinthine caves were hollowed out of this yielding rock, and in the second century some of the very earliest Christian churches were carved into these humble grottos, dotted incongruously among ancient minarets formed by nature herself.

What seems like an eternity later, my pilot gently sets our basket down in a flat spot amid this aeonian landscape. Only an hour has passed. Time is indeed a matter of perspective.