We’re standing on the rocky beach that fronts the village of Ölüdeniz on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
Above us, the sky has been completely obscured by low clouds since the early morning. After hours of
standby, the clouds are finally appearing to make a retreat; however they are in the habit of rushing
back just when it seems they’ve flitted away. Some of the town’s sunburned, British tourist population
is waiting moodily on their beach loungers for the promised sunshine, bellies to the gray sky, enormous
bottles of sunscreen lying hopefully close by. It’s mid-summer. Normally, the weather patterns
have settled by now. This year, however, sudden cloudbanks are still washing thickly over Babadagˇ
mountain, covering all the legal launches. Tourism has been slow this year, too; you can hear the strain
in the hawkers’ voices as they call out to you on the street.

The village of Ölüdeniz, as described by the longtime locals, used to be a Lilliputian hamlet,
cobbled together from pieces of the ancient stones and forests that surround its picturesque little lagoon.
Discovered by the paragliding community in the 1990′s—for heaven’s sake, Babadagˇ is a
2,000 m thermal factory perched in predictable coastal conditions directly over an enormous, calm,
crystal-clear sea—it has changed in elemental ways. Between the constant influx of pilots in the course
of its long, vivacious season and the steady parade of British tourists drinking their way through a
weeklong budget holiday, the narrow streets are forever surging. SIV students pack communal tables,
watching and re-watching the carnage du jour; next to them, oblivious, are squeezed pairs of stunnedlooking
honeymooners, brand-new tattoos still pink and shiny, squinting uneasily at each other under a
shifting constellation of tumbling acro pilots. The demographic swings decidedly to the air
sports side of the spectrum for a week in October. The Ölüdeniz Air Games, founded in 2000 by
Kadri Tuglu, a charming, successful businessman and longtime patron of the air sports community,
floods the little village with hundreds of pilots and aficionados. Kadri and his business partner Ali
Sonat co-founded the event and now spend that week orchestrating a skyful of acro greats, fighter
pilots, microlights, XCers, and BASE jumpers (not to mention the scores of solo pilots and tandems
that intersperse the airborne madness). Most of the time, it all works out splendidly and to thunderous
applause. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

As with any active site, there have been some hair-raisingly bad accidents here. The stories are
told in hushed tones; it would be bad for business to discuss them within earshot of tourists, and
business is sketchy enough already. But this week, the Turkish Aviation Administration is in
town, laboriously hand-checking each tandem operation’s gliders.

Babadagˇ is no training hill. Conditions, while generally within spec for anyone with a P2, can
be as capricious as is to be expected for such a big rock. At best, a biffed launch will drag you
bodily along the jigsaw of paving stones that comprise the bottom two launches. The top, unpaved
launch will tuck you into its scree of sharp rocks and boulders.

The sky near town is now clear, but there’s a thick pile of cotton-candy cloud cover still surrounding
the distant peak. We decide to take the chance. “Let’s find a van,” says my companion, shouldering
his paraglider and hoofing off down the main street, where it’s generally easy to find a shuttle to
the mountaintop. I follow suit.

It takes about three-quarters of an hour to get to the first of the Babadagˇ launches from town, but
the first stop, just moments into the forest from the last hotel, is a brand-new wooden building. Three
men work the booth: one carefully counts the passengers in each vehicle, one waters the fastidiouslykept
garden in the center median, and one operates the (bulging) register. The fees—17 lira each for
solo pilots and 25 lira for each tandem—are payable only in cash.

One of the other solo pilots in the van, new to Ölü, is daunted by the fee. The local next to him
shakes his head. “Last year, a guy launched his glider and top-landed seven times before he went
for a beach landing,” the local explains, “and when he did, they tackled him and told him that he had
to pay a 17-lira fee for every single one of them or he was grounded. Smart bloke switched his glider
and helmet for another and kept flying.” The new guy snorts in approval.

We grind further up the mountainside, our ancient van spewing exhaust and kicking loose
stones from the dirt road. Two pairs of feet lop over the edge of the roof of the van in front of
us, their owners buried in a mountain of paragliding gear: tandem pilots, so desperate for a cool
breeze that they’re willing to take their chances. As the vans careen loosely around the dirt corners,
the forest air fills with dust, partly obscuring the families of wild boar that skitter across the narrow
track. We pass picnicking Turkish families, lumber trucks and rickety scooters whining laboriously up
the slope. High above us, Babadagˇ periodically puffs a group of wings into the air, colorful spores
against the blue. We watch their tiny silhouettes advance across the ridgeline.

There’s a small cafe to the peak side of launch. Its wide deck fills with bored pilots during
Babadagˇ’s unlaunchable hours, but today there’s only one man in sight: a single cameraman, in the
employ of a restaurant on the beach promenade far below, faithfully delivering the all-day-everyday
live feed that fills the establishment’s bigscreen TV. On Babadagˇ mountain, you’re always
on camera. If you’re not used to the concept of launch-as-performance, it’s hard to get used to.

Even better: the accidents captured on these cameras are edited into a collection and sold online.
The moral of the story? Choose your conditions carefully. Otherwise, you’re an instant example.
As the lot of us head down the slope to lay out the wings, the silent cameraman stands on a picnic
table and pans across our progress. I try to ignore him.

We wait, our wings a pattern of horseshoes against the pavement, as the clouds knead themselves
through the sky. Finally, a crescent of ocean appears, glinting an impossible blue. Instantly,
there’s a frenzy of activity: hands fly up to adjust helmet cameras, shake out lines, tighten harness
straps, and check reserve handles. “Ready?” My companion is already tugging on his
A-lines. “It’s now or a few hours from now, by the looks of this.” “Hell yeah, I’m ready.”
“Right. See you up there!” We pop up, carve around a tower of white and
slip through the keyhole in the clouds.
Welcome to Ölüdeniz.

Sundown finds every pilot in town with both feet firmly on the ground. (If you land after sunset here,
you’re immediately arrested.)

There’s a strip of grass between the restaurants and the beach, peppered with just enough trees
to be made generally unlandable. These trees are, happily, interspersed at the perfect interval to accommodate
a slackline. This has not escaped the notice of the local tandem pilots, who have built a
lively social scene around that fact.

These guys—a collection of the most talented pilots in Turkey, to be sure—are locked in a daily
dance in this sometimes insufferably tiny valley for the duration of the flying season (from early April to
late November). During the busy times, which are often the most opressively, scorchingly hot days of
the year, they’ll shuttle up and fly clients up to six times a day. It’s a very hard job. Even so, they approach
it with exemplary verve and gentility.

Here, when the pressures of the day release, they can finally relax. While one or two put on an agile
and well-muscled display on the slackline, the rest of the crew plays music, wolfs kebaps and confides
about girls, families and, always, plans for when the summer is over. One of the guys is buying a
15-year-old dual-sport Honda to ride across Kazahkstan.

Another one always heads south, hooking up with an operation on the South African Garden
Route so his summer never ends. Sometimes, one of the girls who packs tandem wings brings out her
fire poi, blasts music from a cellphone and cuts through the Mediterranean darkness with a spinning
ribbon of orange light.

Beers go down quickly and often.
One by one, the minarets in the valley come to life with evening prayer. We’ll do it all again tomorrow.

About the author:

Annette O’Neil is a copywriter, travel journalist, and

commercial producer who sometimes pretends to live in

Salt Lake City. When she’s not messing around with her

prodigious nylon collection, she’s hurtling through the

canyons on her Ninja, flopping around on a yoga mat, or

baking vegan cupcakes.