D DayD DaySeptember 26, 2013The big day is here.
As we crossed the Bosphorus climbing into Asia shafts of sunlight broke through the cloud casting an eerie light over the mountains and lakes. Six hours later we were skirting around Lake Tuz where the landscape had given way to a rolling plateau. We eventually arrived in the historic town of Goreme, characterised by sandstone pinnacles and valleys. The region is also famed for its cave dwellings, which was where we were to spend the next two nights at the Nomad cave hostel. Stomachs grumbling we decided to try the local delicacy, Tetsi Kebab, cooked in a clay pot which is cracked open upon serving. Unfortunately for Christopher our waiter was a little over-enthusiastic! Later that evening we met a fascinating woman who had hitchhiked throughout Africa during the 1970s getting temporarily detained by a Sudanese general before grabbing a ride on a ship back to Newcastle, thirty minutes from her home.
The following day, to avoid more driving, we took the local bus to explore Kaymakli upon which we met Monique and Emma from Melbourne highlighting you can be sure to meet a couple of Aussies anywhere for good company. In its heyday Kaymakli was one of the largest underground cities in the region housing around 3,500 people over five levels with wineries, churches, a vast ventilation system and circular stone doors. Local Christians used many of these underground cities and caves to escape their enemies during the early days of Christianity. Armed with cameras and head torches we launched into the caves exploring the maze of tunnels and caverns attempting to access the deeper tunnels with limited success. Curiosity satiated we emerged and headed back to Goreme where we had planned to explore the open air museum however the weather had closed. Retiring to our hostel we spent the afternoon drinking Turkish Tea and swapping stories with a friendly New Zealand family. On Thursday morning the bad weather scuppered our early morning balloon ride so we beat a hasty retreat to Iskenderun. Dropping sharply from the mountains onto the coast, we exchanged rain and mist for glorious sunshine. A detour through Adana Airport brought to an end Christopher’s leg of the trip. His enthusiasm and good humour would be missed but he assured us only temporarily as he would be seeing us in Namibia.
3 then became 2 and so we gently continued on to Iskenderun to discover the fate of our ferry. A flurry of hand gestures and broken English finally persuaded the guards to let us through to the offices of Catoni (the agents) who informed us we’d missed the ship by a day! The vessel was due back in port within the next two days so the following morning we were advised to return, tomorrow, for customs. Keen to make the most of our free afternoon we headed off through the small Mediterranean villages along the coast in search of an idyllic campsite. During a quick stop near Tantarli we unwittingly became the local bus service as a lively old man hauled himself up into the back of Delilah. Waving us on from the back seat he began chatting to us in Turkish as we proceeded not knowing when or where his stop was. We dropped him home a few miles later where he was met with bemused smiles and laughs from the locals. Continuing on, we finally stumbled across some prime seaside real estate in Konacik. Dilapidated and abandoned we decided to make it our home for the night. Whilst setting up camp several of our neighbours stopped by to say hello and give us some kind words of advice.
In the morning we packed up our things and returned to the port. At security ‘Gate C’ we had become a familiar sight to the guards and customs officers whom we met with warm smiles and jokes despite the clear gulf between our Turkish and their English. Our friend Selo from Catoni concluded it would be best we returned Monday morning, since heavy weather in the Mediterranean had caused the vessel to be further delayed. With this news we set off in search of a beach, which we found nestled around the corner from Arsuz. We swiftly set off down it, putting Delilah’s 4×4 capabilities to use, carving a path through the midst of families enjoying their Saturday on the beach. On a hill behind the beach we met Davut, a retired Geography teacher, who generously invited us back to his house for some Tea. Through the use of photos, maps and plenty of sign language helped bridge the language barrier. Before we knew it 5pm had arrived and Davut’s wife, Serpil, and daughter, Dila, arrived home to find Davut in the garden with two dishevelled Englishmen. The brilliant hospitality of the Yilmat family and their friend Ahmet was beyond praise as we ended up staying until breakfast the following morning. They introduced us to a fantastic array of traditional Turkish food and plied us with gorgeous cups of Turkish tea and coffee.
The next morning we left humbled by the generosity we had experienced and headed for Antakya to meet an old friend of Davut, Professor Osman, who had kindly offered to show us around Antakya. Upon our arrival at the University we joined the professor in the gardens for a coffee with his student Ali, where we learnt about the history of Antakya and the professor’s past life as a judge in the Real Ale festival in Kent. Ali had kindly sacrificed his Sunday to show us around so we hit the town in his old Mercedes. Fist stop was St Peters Church (Church of Antioch) carved into the rock face founded by the disciples of Jesus Christ and marked Antioch’s past as the ‘cradle of christianity’. Thereafter we visited the local museum, full of old mosaics, where we learnt Antioch had been founded along with Iskenderun (Alexandretta) by Alexander the great and then ruled for a time by the Eastern Roman Empire. In the 1960s the region of Hatay signed an agreement to join Turkey, although historically it had stronger ties with the regions of Syria, since Iskenderun was the major port of Aleppo.
Taking to the streets of Antakya we proceeded to wander around the local bazaars, mosques and churches where Ali told us the balance of Christians to Muslims was about 50/50 with little problems between the two. On a sombre note, the fallout from the war 30 km away was apparent as we saw a large number of Syrians wandering around town; nevertheless it had failed to disrupt the peaceful laid-back air of Antakya. Winding through the mountains to a mixture of Turkish rap and Arabian music we made a brief stop to try a variant of the local pancake ending our tour at cradle graves on the coast near Samandag. Re-convening back at the University we had to say a fairly hurried and guilty last-minute good-bye to our new-found friends, Ali and Professor Osman. Three months of travelling through the US and the last few weeks to Turkey had satisfied Dominic’s bug for travelling and now he yearned to get back to ‘the real world’. We both had a mutual understanding, it was best to leave now if he harboured any doubts about Africa, so with a firm handshake and some kind words we parted ways at Hatay Airport.
After a short dinner at the mountain pass in Belen, I made it back to Iskenderun at around 11pm and saw little point in paying for a hotel for six hours so decided to ditch in a field for the night. I awoke to the local farmers tending their crop who insisted on sharing their breakfast with me. A little preparation and a few vehicle checks meant I was ready for attempt three in the port, Insh’Allah! It was a little awkward explaining to the guys at Catoni how I’d come to lose my compatriot. Selo happily informed me the weather had cleared and the ship was due to leave at 11pm. In keeping with the turkish hospitality we’d experienced so far, I spent the day in their office as they hurriedly began dealing with drivers and loading the vessel. I was due to catch a flight the next day to meet the ship in Damietta but they kindly arranged to put me on board. At around 3pm Delilah playfully bounced up the ramp and into the ship’s hold. Over a quick dinner and a couple of shots of Tequila my friends from Catoni tried to dissuade me from visiting Egypt, saying that I should stay and drink with them! Alas Africa beckoned so that evening I climbed on board and we lighted out for Damietta!
We hadn’t left the U.K. yet and I had already broken into the medical supplies and wound up spending Saturday in A and E through a combination of childish excitement, a knife, amazon boxes and being drunk at 4am. Nevertheless preparation had to go on and the last few days were spent gathering the last essentials. Christopher (my brother) arrived on the penultimate day with the intention of joining us until Turkey and helping with the driving, which was a massive relief. That evening Dominic arrived and we started packing and lashing supplies to the roof rack amid the rain. After a couple of hours sleep, a generous portion of toast and a cup of tea we slipped into the night at 4am heading for Folkestone and the Channel tunnel. A seamless half an hour trip on the Eurostar delivered us to France where we began beating a hefty 800 mile path through Belgium, Germany, and Austria. Upon leaving the Auto-bahn and Germany we all remarked at how from this point onwards the standards of practicality and efficiency was all downhill. 18 hours of driving brought us to the uneventful town of Wels in Austria… nothing to report there.
The next day we set off with the rather optimistic target of Romania cruising through the old Austro-Hungarian empire where large Citadels and churches dominated many of the small villages. However the previous days driving had taken its toll forcing us to cut our trip short in Hungary. As a result we stumbled across a hidden gem, Szeged, an historic University town. Incredibly hospitable, safe, with fantastic food, the home of paprika and famed for its outdoor opera’s. It completely blew apart our previous misconceptions of Hungary. The following morning, our vehicle checks and a large pool of liquid under Delilah revealed a leak in the cooling system. A quick phone call to the Hungarian touring association put us in contact with a friendly local mechanic who had Delilah in his local shop and ready to go an hour later. After much gratitude we promptly set off for Romania where the style of driving swiftly changed. Horse drawn carts, single lane motorways and insane games of chicken with trucks kept us on edge. Otherwise it was an incredibly beautiful country where flat plains gave way to mountains, passing through a mixture of old traditional villages and soviet industrial projects. Night closed in making the roads even more treacherous as unlit cyclists and horse drawn carts randomly appeared out of the darkness.
Our target for the night was Sofia in Bulgaria, however upon reaching Calafat on the border it appeared the port was closed and we needed a ferry to cross the Danube. Bemused, we sought refuge in the Hotel Panoramic which resembled Dracula’s castle after a 1980s soviet retrofit. To our relief a hospitable receptionist informed us the EU had recently built a bridge to Bulgaria a few miles away! Over a quick dinner we decided to make the push for Sofia despite it being 9pm with another 5 hour drive before us. After some more unscheduled sightseeing around the local industrial estate we were greeted at the bridge by the border guards who were delighted to meet the ‘lost tourists’. Over the border the roads quickly deteriorated with potholed tarmac leading to cobbled stones. Christopher decided to stop and ask a particularly drunk local man wielding a trombone for directions to Sofia; to which he responded by pointing in the direction we had just come and insisting that we must be Italian. After detaching the man from the side of Delilah we got back onto tarmac and with Bond Scott (AC/DC) spurring us on we finally reached Sofia at 2am.
We awoke in Sofia to a stunning view of a bustling city seated between two mountain ranges but sadly, as with Hungary and Romania, we didn’t have time to explore these intriguing countries. Although this short glimpse of Eastern Europe had definitely wet the appetite for a future visit. Meanwhile the ferry from Iskenderun beckoned so we set off for the Turkish border town of Edirne. Three young men in a blacked out landrover got the authorities very excited as they made us completely unload Delilah putting everything through an airport scanner whilst taking great amusement in our toilet roll. Upon leaving the border it was getting dark so we decided to camp for the night at the rather dilapidated ‘Grande Omur camping’ run by a very sweet German lady who had a few too many demented cats. This gave us a great opportunity to test out and familiarise ourselves with the camping equipment prior to reaching Africa although the cats in Africa would be much larger.
The following morning we got up early, packed up the camp and left for a comparatively short drive to Istanbul or so we thought. The traffic was diabolic and our choice of hostel was amidst the maze of the old city encircled by a series of arches with insufficient clearance for Delilah. We soon settled into the rhythm of the traffic embracing the chaos around us. Several of the locals took interest in Delilah chatting with us as we shunted along. After a brief jaunt across the bridge to Asia we arrived back in Europe and promptly gave up. Handing over Delilah to the faithful Otto park boys we set off on foot through the vibrant streets of Istanbul guided by Christopher’s trusted Sat Nav. Practically sandwiched between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia we found our hostel. After dropping our belongings we grabbed some traditional turkish kebabs at a restaurant around the corner. The waiter was a Galatasaray fan from the Bronx who offered Dominic some complimentary bread upon hearing he was a Leeds fan, as a peace offering it seemed for the stabbings back in 2000. We then hit the streets of Constantinopol wandering around the mosques and bazaars ending the day in a roof top bar overlooking the Bosporus. Istanbul at 6am stood in stark contrast to what we had seen a day earlier: a city at rest, quiet and peaceful, the old monuments bathed in the glow of the morning sun. Sadly we had to pry ourselves away from this sight since we knew it would be short lived as morning rush hour was looming. Next stop the sandstone hills of Goreme.