Part 1. Party.
A minibus awaits at the specified rendezvous and I am the last to arrive. Everyone is wearing long trousers. I’m wearing shorts. Everyone is wearing some kind of technical outdoor-specific coat or jacket. I have a Pink Floyd t-shirt from Asda. While reassuring our guide that I have sufficient spare clothing should the need arise, he hands me my packed lunch and I say one of those ‘hellos-to-the-group’ redolent of starting mid-term at a new school. Not that I’ve ever done that. But I can imagine. Then we’re off. A couple more pick-ups en route, and our full complement heads for the hills.
Climbing to around 700m on glorious hairpins whets the appetite, although the subsequent dirt-track safari is a little less ‘sweeping-asphalt-with-secure-barrier’, and more ‘landslidey-big-drop-down-there’. No matter. We arrive at an obscure junction safe and sound. The minibus driver, smiling, takes pictures of us in the manner of a man uncertain he’ll ever see us again. Normally that would be all well and good, but he’s not dropping us off at the airport and he’s supposed to be meeting us back here in five and half hours…
We are surrounded by forested slopes, but the way up takes us through the middle of a fire break. By the looks of it, the creation of the channel has been fairly recent. Recent forest fires hereabouts were a serious business and as we rise higher we begin to witness the decimation. For all that, the cycle of regeneration has begun. The botanically minded members of the party crouch to photograph single flowers where apparently a few years before there would have been a cornucopia of spring blooms. I crouch to photograph a shoe which protrudes from the ground (having first checked that it is, alone, just a shoe). I photograph a chair in a tree. The woodsmen hereabouts do an imaginative line in discarded paraphernalia. Their flattened, flimsy, polythene-roofed shelters are eyesores of a sort, but you have to admire them just for working and camping up here beyond the back of the back of beyond. There is much in the way of litter. I don’t know why I expected anything different.
Lunch is taken at the edge of a plateau with spectacular, if hazy, views down to the huge lake and distant delta. Stories are exchanged. Most of the party appear to be on first name terms and are regulars on these weekly tours, so there is much in the way of reminiscence and shared experience. For the most part, I’m quiet. Happy to chat when chatted to; happy to stroll along in silence. Albania is a good place to hike; the Royal Navy has changed; snakes only dispense an amount of venom necessary for a particular prey; some dogs go to foster homes to prepare them for new owners. People are interesting, with their tales of extraordinary ordinary lives. The motivations, the hopes, the sacrifices, the coincidences, the luck, the misfortunes – all those simultaneous webs and Venn diagrams led us here, today, to a mountainside in Mugla.
The descent mixes forest dirt-roads with steep short-cuts that challenge knees and balance. Walking poles are brandished, some are flailed. By hook and crook, slip and slide, jar and jolt, we reach a final corner, where the minibus comes into view. The driver takes some pictures as we approach. Is he surprised to see us? Returned to the morning’s pick-up point in the village, a few of the party remain to share a coffee, so I join them and take the opportunity to pick our guide’s brains about an area of terrain I propose to explore in the next few days. Go careful, he says. Especially on your own.
Part 2. Solo.
Will the rowing boats be taking anyone across the river? There’s only one way to find out. The rowing boats don’t have a website or a Facebook page or Insta; the rowing boats make no concession to such digital-age machinations. The rowing boats aren’t broken, there’s no need to fix them, there’s no need to improve upon them or develop them or timetable them or make them more convenient. Coracle-esque, steered by blunt oars with no apparent paddle, the rowing boats will either be there or they won’t.
There’s a new boardwalk. It’s practical and sturdy. This particular ‘progress’ was probably warranted, although that’s not really for me to say. I’m merely a visitor, grateful for the opportunity to be guest in this truly beautiful place.
Is that someone in a boat over on the other side? Wave, then. Oh. It’s bringing someone over. Didn’t need to wave. Is the boat person saying to the passenger “why’s that bloke waving? It must be obvious I’m coming over. What’s the matter with him?” I doubt it. People here aren’t like that. Especially not in the rowing boats. The woman rowing the boat has a small dog, whose contribution to the crossing appears to be to prevent the transportation of stowaway cats. One such chancer gingerly places a paw on the boat as I board. A little growl and a twitch from the small dog are sufficient to thwart the cat’s ambitions to explore. Mid-channel, the dog gives me a look. Yeah, I’m cute as well aren’t I? Ok, ok, yes you are. I’ll take your picture.
Upon disembarkation, I pay the equivalent of 40p and, forgetting the way, wander into someone’s garden before a shout from the boat-lady corrects my error and I pass through a gate onto the road to Kaunos. The block-paved road borders houses on one side and groves on the other. Honey is for sale. The Acropolis towers above. I scaled it once when the mercury said almost 40C. A March morning won’t get near that, besides, today is a much longer game. When Candir comes into view, a track veers off to my right past a fabulously painted hut. That’s the one.
I feel the buzz of leaving the road and hitting the trail, and then I hear the buzz of a million bees and quickly opt for long trousers. They won’t be removed for a while, and as I’m soon to discover, it won’t just be because of the bees.
There’s a huge wall next to the track. I think it might be Roman in origin. Every time I see something like this, I’m given to wondering why and how. I’m guessing it was a defensive structure that protected Kaunos from being encircled by marauders, but actually I haven’t got a clue. I’d hazard a guess that the mosquitos saw off many more marauders than the wall, exquisite though its construction most certainly is.
It’s quickly apparent that between taking in the views, I’m going to be spending some time scanning the ground for red and white blobs of paint. These trails don’t appear to suffer too much traffic and it’s easy to drift if you’re not concentrating. On this first section, which rises to an elevation of 200m, it’s not so crucial because there’s a massive Roman rampart to follow. Not so, further on. I cross the road which connects Candir with Schlammbad, and not so much plunge, as sweat my way into the forest on a track which flatters to deceive…
Very quickly, the senses of the solo traveller in a new land become heightened. And they should. Even on the most desperate days in the Rhinogydd or Carneddau, the mental map and fundamental overall picture of the place is virtually hard-wired. Divert by accident, or force of circumstance, and orientation is immediate. Here, quite simply, it’s not. So I’m grateful for GPS and the very basic map on my fully-charged phone, although the immediate details of this landscape don’t favour straying more than fifty yards from the track. Marker paints wears out, plants obscure the blobs, and to ‘cut’ back to the path would be in most cases to need to do so literally. I’d been curious on our trek around Camova as to why our guide had carried an approximation of a machete. A mile on this trail leaves me in no doubt. Very quickly, a sense of what is and isn’t the trail develops. Perhaps three times in the first mile or so, I retrace steps to a noted marker and try again. Far from frustration, my overriding emotion is one of pure unadulterated enjoyment. The challenge of route-finding adds to the sense of adventure. The further and higher I go, the more simple and clear-cut everything becomes. There is nothing but this. No other thoughts can enter; no noise, no distracting considerations of this, that or the other. Just the path and me.
Rocky, dry stream-beds disappear into oblivion. I’m stepping over and around fallen trees only to find more fallen trees. Maybe they have red and white paint on them? That’s not a large pebble. That’s a tortoise. It knows the path. It looks over its shoulder (around its shell?) at me and back at the path. Yes, that IS the path, it motions, before scraping away downhill in search of what… ? Lettuce?
There’s a clearing on a bank adorned by daisies that reveals a first look at Koycegiz, the huge lake at the edge of which lies my destination. There’s a shack there, too. Empty. All of sudden, above the ever-present hum of bees, the air is filled with the sound of a tuneful clanking. I can’t see anything. The breeze in the clearing is keener than that amongst the pines. Is it blowing what sound like wind chimes? There must be a lot of them. Maybe an unseen herd of goats is relocating to new stamping grounds. Or maybe I’m being tempted away from the path by forest spirits, and I’ll pass through to another dimension where I’ll live off honey and spring water and understand the language of eagles. Whichever one it is, I’m none the wiser. And, as has been established, fanciful thoughts and a loss of concentration have no place in the mind of the lonesome hiker. The noise subsides. Completely. I teeter around the edge of an outcrop and seek the reassurance of the red and white splashes.
In spite of the ups and downs, the three-hundred metre contour line seems to have been my near constant companion since shortly after leaving the road above Candir but now after the briefest of scrambles, I emerge onto a wide dirt road at three hundred and fifty metres. It’s all downhill from here to the hot springs and mud baths at Sultaniye. On cue, Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song jumps into my mind. Although the hot springs don’t really ‘blow’ and there’s no ice or snow, the tune stays in my mind. I pick up the perfect stick (probably cast aside by someone who heard the chimes… ) and make swift progress down the road, having chosen to leave the track for a mile or so. My first glimpse of Sultaniye is caught where I rejoin the track.
This little section reminds me of a recent corner-cutting failure into the Rhinogydd. No matter how many times my rational mind told my lazy self not to do a little bit of blind forest-surfing, Mr Lazy won and found himself ducking and weaving, getting scratched and cursing his stupidity. While this trail is clear enough, the overgrowth isn’t showing any immediate signs of caring. Oh for Murat’s machete.
Sultaniye. No fish pedicure today. I’m tempted to get into the sulphurous hot water but given its propensity for being exhausting and relaxing at the same time, I deem it off limits. There’s more walking to be done, so instead, I loiter on a bench away from the activity, remove my long trousers, eat sweets, and drink a weirdly coloured energy drink. Nice, though…
It’s road-bashing from here to the little car ferry on the Dalyan river, although to be honest if I HAD to walk three and a half miles on a road, I wouldn’t mind doing this one again. A man with a backpack passes me next to an olive grove. I bet he wasn’t expecting to happen upon a Welsh bloke, stripped to the waist with a brown-armed gardener’s tan, singing “Valhalla, I am coming… ”
The fertile ground around the outflow of Lake Koycegiz is colourful and sets my mind to work. Pomegranates? Isn’t that what the wild boar swim for? After a couple of miles, the verge widens and accommodates a line of rectangular boxes with letterbox openings. Beehives. Stripped to the waist, no more; shorts, no more; tramping along without a care in the world, no more. Five minutes of hyper-vigilance follow. I retreat and cover up. Then it’s just me, my epipens, and a million bees…
And I’m past. Unscathed. And I’m almost at the ferry. And as luck would have it, it’s on my side of the river. I’m hot now. I ask the captain how much. Eight-fifty, he says. For a second I think he means forty quid, but he laughs and says eight lira fifty. Then he notes the dragon on my arm. Cymru, he says. Wales. Yes, I smile. He rolls up his sweatshirt at the front to reveal a large Ddraig Goch t-shirt. What are the chances? He grins. So do I. He spins the two-car ferry around in the middle of the river and lets us off with a wave.
Under the shade of a tree on a detour to the river-walk, a man checking his mobile phone with one hand idly flicks a stick at his herd of sheep with the other. The sheep seem content. A large dog ranges around looking interested. I’m not sure if the large dog has a connection with the man. The shepherd looks up from his phone. Merhaba.
And so my foray concludes. Much of the day remains, but I’m done. Jiks calls. Cold beer in hand, I stare across the road at the supermarket and the petrol station and the mopeds and the street dogs and the tiny kittens and the passers-by and the incongruous shopping mall. I can hear you wonder out loud why I didn’t elect to finish my walk sitting by the river, soaking in the magnificence of the towering Acropolis and the breathtaking rock tombs. I could say that it was because after a day of splendid isolation I needed to contrast it with bustle and buzz to truly appreciate my glorious experience. But I won’t. I just like honest, down to earth bars. From the Penlanfawr in Pwllheli to this gritty little boozer in Dalyan, if you’ve earned it, it tastes better.
Ah, go on.