A Walk Through Time
Words Matthew Holt, pics Matthew Holt and Mandy Ramsden
There was no cover from the baking sun, my water bottles were empty and, worse still, we were climbing again, despite the guidebook claiming we were going downhill. ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ my mother used to say, amongst other irritating homilies. But in this case, there was plenty of way: in fact, possibly too much of it.
Mandy Ramsden and I were somewhere on the Teke Peninsula in Turkey, attempting to follow the Lycian Way. Rated by the UK’s Sunday Times as one of the world’s top ten hikes, it meanders from near Fethiye to Antalya, through what was once ancient Lycia.
Old Ottoman cistern on the way to Gey.
Till then, I’d never heard of Lycia, whose heyday as an independent kingdom was glorious, brief and over 2500 years ago. Having featured in Homer’s Iliad fighting at Troy, the Lycians got too plucky for their boots, attacked the Persian Empire and lost. Thereafter, Lycia was a colony of whichever super power controlled the region, prospering under the Greeks and then Romans.
The trail started with little fanfare, on a dirt road, near a roundabout, several kilometres above the beach resort of Ölüdeniz. It was a pleasant first day, traversing the slopes of Babadag Mountain on forest roads and mule tracks, with the scent of fresh pines and sweeping views of the coastline below.
On the way to Pydnai.
We spent the night at a pension perched on the cliffs at Faralya, drinking cold Efes beers while the sun sank into the Mediterranean and the muezzin called for prayers.
We hadn’t brought a tent or stove, hoping to find accommodation along the way - though we did carry bivvy bags, just in case. As it turned out, we always found somewhere to stay, ranging from hotels and pensions, to a camp site where we shared the communal sofas with a dozen stray cats, and an eccentric eco-camp hosting a convention of jugglers and hula-hoopers.
Welcome water stop.
Near major resorts, we encountered several parties of slackpackers, wearing freshly laundered clothes and slim daypacks. But considering we were on one of the world’s top trails, we saw surprisingly few other hikers and only two attempting the entire route.
While we met few other hikers, we rarely lacked for company, regularly being accompanied by stray dogs, who refused to be deterred by harsh words, brandished sticks or lobbed stones. Dark, rangy mongrels, they were invariably good-natured and disinterested in our food, seemingly coming along just for the company and adventure.
Somewhere on the way to Gavuragili.
There was a puppy which followed us from Patara on a sizzling day and then passed out dehydrated, so we had to revive him with our scarce water. When we abandoned him, after 15km, on some steep crags near Kalkan, we could hear his plaintive howls for the next half hour. And there was the pair who chaperoned us from Kale to Demre, faithfully trotting at our heels for 6km across busy roads. We had to hide in St Nicholas’s tomb, amongst Russian pilgrims, to shake them off our trail.
As the kilometres racked up, our ankles clicked, our knees buckled and our hips grated. But at the same time we got tougher mentally and into a rhythm. Carrying packs weighing 14 kilos, we averaged 21km each day. And while our guidebook claimed the trail was 540km, with hindsight we reckoned it was 440km.
We had chosen to come in October, to avoid the stifling summer heat, though most days the temperature still exceeded 30°C.
The main drawback was the lack of water, for after the long summer many rivers and wells were dry. Accordingly, our primary concern was dehydration, combined with getting lost. The route was haphazardly marked and our guidebook was often plain wrong. We typically spent at least an hour each day blundering around, retracing our steps and searching for route markers, while I consoled myself with violent fantasies of meeting the guidebook’s author.
On the aqueduct at Delikkemer.
These were quibbles, however, for overall it was a marvellous trip, through a fascinating part of the world. We stayed in quiet fishing harbours, eating fresh calamari at family-run restaurants; in vibrant marinas, quaffing cocktails in swanky bars; and in mountain villages, where everything was homemade and all the residents looked over 80. We huffed over steep mountain passes, stopped in makeshift cafes for freshly squeezed orange juices, edged along precipitous paths clinging to cliffs and stripped off to swim in secluded coves.
Best of all, however, were the ruins of the once great Lycian cities dotted along the trail. There was Xanthos, the former Lycian capital, whose population twice committed mass suicide rather than surrender; Patara, which boasted an Oracle to rival Delphi’s and was the birthplace of Saint Nicholas, aka Father Christmas; Simena, which flooded after an earthquake and we visited in sea-kayaks; and Olympos, which unwisely turned to piracy and was razed by the Romans.
On the cliffs round to Fakdere.
My favourite was Phaselis, set in a quiet bay amidst pine trees, with the soaring white pyramid of Tahtali Dag mountain providing the backdrop. The temple here once housed Achilles’s spear, and Alexander, Caesar and Hadrian all visited. Arriving early, we had the place to ourselves, wandering amidst the arches and swimming out to the old harbour walls. As we were leaving, motorised gullets, pimped as pirate galleons, arrived in the bay, bringing boisterous day trippers from Kemer. It was an apt note on which to depart. After the Turks defeated the Byzantine navy in 655AD, Arab pirates terrorised the coast and Phaselis was abandoned.
Like the Lycians, we headed into the mountains, slogging on a tar road up the Kemer Gorge. It was a hazardous journey for - no matter whether they’re in a car, bus or tractor - all Turks seem to think they’re racing drivers, cutting the apexes off corners and refusing to let cowering hikers impede overtaking manoeuvres.
After two days in the mountains, we crossed a steep gorge to Çitdibi. We got the impression not too many hikers came this way: the trail was faint and the infrequent hamlets devoid of shops and accommodation.
Spot the pom.
We were spared an uncomfortable night by the local mayor who drove us to a climbers’ refuge and by three Israelis who shared their chicken stew. Along the way, we were frequently humbled by the kindness of strangers, who popped up to perform acts of serendipity when we needed them most.
The final day took us over the Karabel Pass. With the trail often obliterated by landslides or hidden beneath felled trees, we repeatedly got lost. The main compensation was the Roman hilltop settlement at Trebenna, where we clambered among overgrown ruins pretending to be Indiana Jones.
Climbing up to the Karabel Pass.
Our journey finished at Geyikbayiri, a nondescript village 20km above Antalya. There was little fanfare here either, just a sign saying ‘Start: Lycian Way: 509km’. After three weeks’ hiking along the turquoise coast, through the ruins of once great ancient cities, this seemed a strange place to end, but - on reflection - was actually quite fitting. With Arab pirates plundering the coast, plus plagues and earthquakes adding their toll, the Lycians retreated into the mountains and faded into history. In fact, the trail didn’t even finish in the village, but several kilometres outside, and we were rescued by a local fig farmer who gave us a lift to Antalya.
The End near Geyikbayiri.
Originally published in The Intrepid Explorer