When it comes to heights, I’m a wimp. My brain seems to be convinced that I’m going to fall down the hill/stairs/escalator or topple over the barrier down the cliff/off the building etc etc; it takes hold of my breath, my legs seem unable to move, and my hands reach for something, anything, that might prevent the terminal plunge. There is no logic to it. I hate swing-bridges, or stairs that are simply boards where I can look through to thin air, as if I could conceivably trip, sliding between the stairs, plummeting to my painful injury or imminent death. I hate the thought of dropping something, reaching for it, and – you guessed it – falling. Yet I am fine in aeroplanes, helicopters, and tall buildings (as long as I’m not too close to the edge). So you’d think that I would be the last person who would take a flight in a balloon.
But years ago, I sat in wonder as a colleague described being in a balloon on safari in Kenya, floating just above the animals silently, so close you could almost reach out and touch them. I was determined I would do that one day. Well, I’m still waiting to go to Kenya. But when I discovered that Cappadocia was another place to take a balloon flight, I signed myself up – and my husband too of course. This was not without trepidation, I have to say, but when you’re making the reservation in New Zealand, weeks in advance, it all seems quite theoretical. Besides, I convinced myself that being in a balloon would be a bit like being in a helicopter. You’re just along for the ride.
And so I found myself in a field in Kapadokya, watching our pilot help inflate our balloon. It was cool in the early morning, the sun was just rising, and all around us balloons were taking to the air. About 70 balloons were going up that day. It is big business in Kapadokya.
Then it was time to get in. This was okay. We were still on the ground. The balloon was compartmentalised, so I could hold on to the dividing wall in the middle if I needed to. I needed to. We were still okay. Photos were taken. We watched our sister balloon take off only seconds before us. Excitement, and nerves, grew.
Then we were off. So gently, so gradually we hardly noticed. And it was fine, like climbing a few stairs, like looking out a second floor window, then maybe a fourth floor window. Then we rose some more, as if we were on the top of a building, and it was still okay as long as I didn’t look down. The sight of so many other balloons in the air was too amazing, too glorious, to be afraid.
But wait, we were still going up! Hang on a minute, all the other balloons had stopped, why were we still going up? Beyond the realms of any building, we were at aeroplane height by now, the land disappearing below us, and yet we continued to rise. I hung on to the divider, my back firmly to the open air behind me.
And still we rose, into the rising sun, Turkey stretching out so vast before us, extinct volcanoes appearing on the horizon, the other balloons now just colourful dots below us. The wind whistled, the land so distant it lost focus. I hung on tight, my breath starting to come more quickly, my head shaking. This wasn’t right, it wasn’t natural. I was told later we reached 2200 feet. It felt like 20,000 feet, 200,000 feet, it felt as if we were heading into orbit!
Meanwhile, my husband was giving me a heart attack by leaning out, looking down, and generally acting completely unconcerned. I physically couldn’t move when he pulled out his cellphone (admittedly at my request) to take a photo so we could email it. “I hope I don’t drop it,” he said, proceeding to then hold it out in front of him, over the edge of the basket (can you hear my panic?) and snap away. I feel sick even remembering it.
Fortunately, we soon began to descend. About half-way down, I began to relax. Our pilot, a lively Aussie with a casual demeanour that belied his impressive reputation as a ballooning expert, asked me “do you feel more comfortable now?” “Yes!” I nodded, relieved. “I can almost relax now.” He laughed. “You do realise that it makes absolutely no difference?” I looked down. And nodded. Ruefully. It was still dangerous. Nobody said there was any logic to this. But at least my brain wasn’t screaming at me anymore.
And with a finally silenced brain, I began to enjoy the flight. The balloon rose and fell, dipped into valleys, brushed the tops of olive trees, skimmed the tops of rock formations, and almost landed on grapevines spreading across the ground. The changing perspective as we rose out of a valley was stunning. Slowly, views stretched out in front of us, shadows changed as the sun rose into the sky, and the valleys became bathed in light.
The precision of the balloonist was impressive. “Oh, was I that close?” the Aussie would laugh, as we floated over a pointed rock, missing it by inches, or as we appeared to be heading directly into a rock wall. He knew exactly where he was at all times, and proved it at the end of our exhilarating flight by landing our balloon on the trailer of the truck that would take it home.
Our 90 minute flight was over far too quickly. But wow, I needed that traditional champagne at the end.
Postscript: Later that day I nodded off for ten or so minutes in a bus. I dreamed I was in a balloon, looking across at another balloon, when the floor of the basket (of the other balloon) opened up like a trap-door, and all the people in it fell out!