To Nino’s House, Part 2

If anyone thinks that the best way to see the convoluted, fabulously eroded landscapes of Cappadocia is from the air, you’d be spot on. If you also realize that the best times to photograph it are either early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is low and its shadows add a lot of depth to the land, right again. Midday is much less spectacular as it tends to flatten everything out with vertical shadows.

Fortunately, there’s a whole industry built around these assumptions and around meeting the needs of landscape photographers. Aside from drones, there are literally scores of hot air balloons waiting to serve. Now I, too, can say that this works beautifully, and is also a thrill worth every cent.

I was picked up from my hotel at 03:50 in the morning (or should I say in the night), along with a few other enthusiasts. The minivan drove us to the office of “our” balloon company nearby, where we paid our US$100 or 90 Euros and had a light breakfast of fruit, cake and coffee or tea. Then off outside the town, where all the local balloons were filling up with blasts of gas jet-flamed hot air, rising off the ground. We were sixteen to a basket plus the pilot, who has been doing this for six years. Another important statistic: over the last ten years, seeing about 850,000 people take such trips, there have been only five fatalities. Sounds good.

The pilot demonstrated the landing position, a squat while gripping the handholds in front of one, in case we would need it. Then we were gently off into the sky, slowly lightening but still yet to see the sunrise. The only noise was the occasional further gas flame keeping the air in the massive balloon hot and thus still rising.

This ballooning can be done all year round, even in snow-swept, -20 C winters, if the wind isn’t too strong; you just dress accordingly. You have virtually no control over where the light normal winds will take you. You do have much more control over vertical position, though, thanks to the addition or withholding of hot air.

Pre-sunrise, the landscape underneath us remained a bit undefined, but as soon as the sun rose, it came alive with those magnificent long shadows. Here, Cappadocia’s rich mix of ancient caves, stone “fairy towers”, fields of grapes, apricots and wheat, and modern communities appeared, spread out below us. All around were many, many other balloons, but the space was huge enough that there was no crowding or risk of collisions; the pilots are much too clever for such things. They did occasionally rotate us on our vertical axis, allowing everyone to see from all sides. We were, of course, stunned by the beauty as we rose, sank and drifted through it.

How could I ever have done such a thing shooting with film? Maybe some purists do, but I came away with nearly 200 digital photos in the 70 minutes we were airborne, glad to be free just to take one shot after another. The gas bottles allow for a flight of more than two hours, but running out would have serious consequences (a plunge and crash), so no one takes chances with timing. Our pilot was skilled enough to land our basket right on the Land Rover-pulled trailer for it, aided by two men hauling with ropes from the ground, and we were back on land. Then they unfolded a table, poured champagne or orange juice, and we all toasted our experience. Driven back to the hotel for 7 am, there was nothing left to do but gush over it all to anyone who would listen. My wife, now that I had returned safely, also gave it a go two mornings later, with a similar reaction. Cappadocia and ballooning were really made for each other.

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 1500 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

Tony Hanmer

06 July 2017 19:11