South Western Turkey is a magnificent place for walking. There are kilometre after kilometre of coastal walking, low hills, valleys, woodland and not far inland from us mountains in the Taurus that exceed 3,000 metres. Just take your pick. And the paths vary from tractor tracks and forest roads to well-marked long and short distance trails and to rocky goat tracks. Most of the walks involve a mixture of terrains and tracks.
We have been visiting Turkey since the early 1990’s with at least two trips a year. In the early days our walking was limited to the coastal paths and country roads. We spent a lot of time travelling around on dolmuş (minibus), bus and coach to places near and far. All journeys involved visits to archaeological sites of which Turkey, the former Asia Minor, has countless numbers. Our walking involved short treks to the sites followed by exploration around the ruins. At some, such as Aphrodisias, you can easily spend a whole day walking the site is so extensive. This was walking with a purpose and very enjoyable.
In the mid-2000’s we bought a villa in the Mediterranean coastal town of Kalkan, a place that we had made our base since our very first visit. Retirement was in the air and the plan was to extend our time in Turkey to at least half of the year. And it was around this time that, through friends, we were introduced to a group of walkers who organised weekly walks in autumn, winter and spring, generally within a 50km radius of Kalkan. We thought we had died and gone to heaven.
These walks varied in length and terrain but were mostly around 15km and often based on the long-distance Lycian Way trail. It loosely follows the coast from near Fethiye 80km to our west, to Antalya 200km to the east. Frequently it diverts inland. Every Sunday a party of around twenty-five keen walkers would meet in the centre of Kalkan and travel by private bus to the start point of that day’s chosen walk. The walks were normally linear in nature and the bus would be waiting for us at the end. Generally, the day ended with a visit to a local bar back in Kalkan. All very, very enjoyable.
Over the years, the pattern of walking has changed. Probably half of the regular group of around fifty people, moved from being in their fifties and sixties to their sixties and seventies. The seventies, as I can vouch, is when tempus begins to fugit and aching joints become the norm. And so the ability to walk for 15km over varied ground becomes a little problematical. So groups formed who would meet during the week and do shorter and less testing walks. These were generally in the 7 to 10km range and were designed to start and finish at the same point.
This was an excellent compromise but it had one drawback. Amazingly quickly, word spread about these less testing ventures and more and more people asked to be included on the mailing lists. We were using cars to get to the start of our walks which meant, in theory, that there was no limit to the number of people who could come along. We’d been used to groups of twenty or twenty-five but now there could be forty people on any one walk. Such numbers demanded greater organisation. Although some of us knew the walks very well, others were new to the area or new to walking in Turkey. So there needed to be someone in the lead who knew the route and someone at the rear to ensure everyone was accounted for. This didn’t always work as planned although no one was ever lost, thank goodness.
So this year the group has broken up into a number of different but overlapping groups. One group, quite small in numbers, operates by invitation only and tends to go for longer and harder walks. They also do exploration days seeking more routes to add to the catalogue. A second group focus more on the less testing walks and, whilst not limited to specific numbers on any walk, is selective about the people who are invited. All communication is via private Facebook group (Kalkan Walking Group) and membership of that group is by an application and acceptance process.
So on to Spring 2016.
This has been an amazing spring. Normally in March the days are warm – in the low 20C’s – whilst the nights are cool – about 10C cooler. This year has seen the temperatures a good ten degrees higher, positively hot, and very little rain. With such perfect conditions, a pattern of two walks a week has been established. Some walks have been as short as 5km whilst others have stretched to nearly 15km, a good mix. And just to prove how soft we are becoming, in some people’s eyes, the procedure has been to meet at 10am rather than an hour earlier as had become the norm. However, if it gets any hotter, the meeting time will have to be brought forward to reduce time spent walking in the heat of the midday sun.
The routes have varied from the familiar to the new-to-most category.
A good example of the familiar is the walk round the Saribelen valley. Saribelen is a village in the hills behind Kalkan that benefits from excellent agricultural land, plenty of water and, because of its increased elevation, lower temperatures. The walk starts about 1km from the head of the valley beside a cemetery. Looking along the valley you can see the typical “U” shape left behind when the ice-age glaciers made their slow but steady progress from the mountains towards the sea. The river through the valley is often underground but it provides a great supply of water for the fields of crops and for cattle grazing. The steep sides of the valley are almost completely forested.
The route starts along a level tarmac road that passes fields being prepared, at this time of year, for crops. There are lots of farmers around and plenty of greetings and waving. We’ve been doing this walk for a long time and we seem to have moved from being “those weird yabanҫi (foreigners)” to “they’re ok people really”. As well as the crops of wheat, barley and sesame, an increasing number of the fields have sprouted poly-tunnels where they can grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, chillies, courgettes, etc, etc. The road slowly changes, first to a dirt road and then to a tractor track until it reaches a mosque.
This mosque used to be a little bit run down but is now a very spruce affair. There is a modern minaret with very stylish coloured glass panes at the top. Some days we are lucky to arrive just as the sun passes directly behind the minaret and the sun shines through the glass showing it to very best effect. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case on this recent visit. The main structure of the mosque has been extensively overhauled and the grounds laid with fine tiles. To top it all off, the toilets have been rebuilt. Although very crude by western standards they’re perfectly usable. Also some seating has been provided in the courtyard. All in all, an excellent place for our first breather.
The next section of the walk joins a road passing a few small houses that have clearly had some money spent on them. There is real prosperity here. Then the walk joins the main road that runs down the valley until it comes to an “official” resting place. This takes the form of a raised platform nearly 10 metres square with benches round the sides and a few tables. The whole structure is built round a tree that grows through the middle and provides excellent shade. Time for a banana break.
Whilst here, a man appears riding an ancient Romanian built motorcycle. It’s at least forty years old and we’re told was passed to the rider by his father. He joins us on the platform and, after a bit of a preamble about his goat herding skills and the long distances he walks the goats every day, proceeds to invite us to his cottage where we can enjoy ҫay. We know this will be very time-consuming so decline his offer with a mixture of sorrow and politeness.
From here the walk turns up the valley side through a small community based around a cattle farm. The farmer and his wife are seated in a field guarding a couple of large Friesian cows and a handful of goats. As we exchanged a few words with the farmer, one of the cows saw an opportunity for escape and made a dash for it behind the farmers back. As soon as the farmer saw what was happening he picked up any missiles he could find and raced after the cow bombarding it with sticks and stones. The cow was suitably chastened and was soon back grazing in the unfenced field.
After about half a kilometre, the route turns off the road and onto a forestry track that will lead us back up the valley towards our starting point. It’s an easy walk if a little undulating. Each farm we pass has one or two guard dogs who make threatening noises but fortunately are either tied up or in fenced off areas. At a number of points, the track is partially washed away by earlier torrents that come down through the trees when there is rain. Today the water channels were looking innocently dry but we’ve seen them in full flood and they are a sight to behold and avoid.
The last stopping point is in a small wooded glade that provides shelter from the midday sun. It’s a place, affectionately known as the Paul & Fiona picnic area after two walking regulars who have now returned permanently to the UK. Here, we traditionally eat our sandwiches. Continuing, the walk soon turns slowly downhill towards the main mosque of the valley and we can see our cars parked on the other side of the valley at the end of a side road that crosses some fields.
So that was an old favourite.
At the other extreme are the walks that have elements that are new to all. This Spring, the one that fits best into this category was a walk to “The Flagpole”. From Kalkan, looking up to the mountains, the eye is drawn to a prominent peak about 1,000 metres high with a Turkish flag fluttering on the top. It looks as though a steep but relatively straightforward slog would conquer it. This would be a wrong conclusion. All too many walking friends can attest to the difficulties and hazards of this route. We knew that there was a decent track on the other side of the mountain that would take us within striking distance of the summit. That would be our way up.
So we set out by cars from Kalkan to the village of Bezirgan and to the quaint wooden storage huts where farmers keep grain and farm implements. Here we parked the cars and took to the Lycian Way route heading back over a ridge to Kalkan. This took us, after a short uphill walk and an encounter with a herd of sheep being shepherded down the mountain, to a track heading north westwards in the general direction of the flag.
The track took us in three stages uphill and onto flat meadows each one a little higher up than the last. The meadows were partly used for growing crops and for grazing sheep and goats. When we reached the third and final meadow we encountered a shepherd who was happy to chat with those of our party who spoke a little more than tourist Turkish. We knew that we must by now be close to the flagpole but it wasn’t at all obvious how to reach it.
The shepherd pointed us to a path, no more than a narrow goat track, that we assumed would lead to the flag. Unfortunately, it didn’t. It did however lead to a most magnificent view over Kalkan. We were so high above the town that the houses looked more like models than real villas and apartments. The sea was a perfect turquoise colour. And the whole view was enhanced by billowing clouds that were blowing in from the sea and rising on thermals up the hillside towards us. Stunning.
However, we hadn’t reached the goal of the day. So back we trekked using markers that we had left on the way up as our guides. The shepherd was still in the meadow so we asked him specifically for a route to the flag. He offered to lead us there. Excellent.
And so, after a bit of wide track followed by narrow goat track, the flag came into view. The outcrop where the flagpole was planted was lower than we were and looked a short walk away. This turned out to be deceptive. A few of us decided that were happy to see the flag from this vantage point and had no need to actually touch it. Others decided that the goal had to be reached. We said we would wait for them to return. They set off down the path and disappeared out of sight into the scrub. About ten minutes later we saw them reappearing up the hill towards us. They definitely hadn’t had time to get to the flag and, of course, we hadn’t seen them on the summit. It turned out that the route was more daunting than assumed and discretion became the better part of valour. They beat a retreat.
Everyone was happy to head back but not before a small collection was made for the shepherd. He received it gratefully. It was a sign of our appreciation for his help with route finding.
On the way down, we looked around at the nearby hills and speculated as to which of the many paths and tracks would lead us to their summits. Indeed, there were possibilities that we could link up with another of our favourite walks, the so called “Bezirgan Heights” or get an easy route into the Islamlar valley. Opportunities for exploration on another day.
And so, for us, the Spring Walking Season is over. I’m writing this on the flight back to Gatwick. We have been so lucky with the weather. In the seven weeks of our break, no walks were rained off. The main issue was making sure to be well protected from the persistent sun. We’ll be back in June but walking then will probably be restricted to the higher, inland mountain areas where it may be a little cooler. Can’t wait.