I love living in Istanbul, but I grew up in a much smaller town. The summers of my youth were full of camping, walks in the river valley, and time by the lake in the nearby forest. Since arriving in Turkey I have been curious about camping and hiking in a completely different environment. Hopefully this will be the first of many articles about the natural side of Turkey – an aspect of life and tourism in this country that has been sadly neglected.
The idea to finally get out camping came as my family and I were planning to visit friends in Düzce. The trip would last several days and would be full of good people and late nights. I was sure that after all that social time some solitude in the strikingly green mountains of the Black Sea would be the perfect retreat.
I packed everything I would need for a fireless trip in my big green army surplus backpack (a Bergen-style bag with pouches on the sides). I had enough foresight when I was last in Canada lto bring my little worn out 2-man tent, too. My plan was to ask around in the city centre about the most beautiful sights in the province then just make my way in that direction and look for a place to set up for the night. Then I’d walk back when I felt like it the next day.
The family and the friends from Istanbul that came on the trip with me waved goodbye as I stood on the hot pavement by the Düzce intercity bus station in the late afternoon of the first day. My destination was the famous Güzeldere Şelalesi, which translates literally into the Beautiful-Stream Falls. It is one of a handful of well-known waterfalls in the province. The sites and parks that surround the falls range from non-existent to over developed tourist facilities. I knew that Güzeldere had a village nearby and that it was built up as a picnic spot but I wasn’t sure what level of development I would encounter when I arrived.
There wasn’t transit all the way to the top, but I didn’t know that when I set out. Eventually I found my way onto a local commuter van and settled down among curious small-town Turks with my pack on my lap. It was spring but already quite warm during the day, so I was in shorts and a t-shirt. Off the Mediterranean and outside of the big cities locals aren’t used to seeing people wear shorts very often.
A couple lira took me to the end of the line, a medium sized village called Beyköy. I found a local grocer and bought the food I would need for the next 24 hours. The man working the till asked me where I was going and shook his head when he heard I planned to hike up the mountain. “It’s only 14km,” he explained, “but it’s up a winding, busy road. You can’t walk up that way.” He pointed me to a nearby taxi stand and left me wrestling with my ego as I considered whether or not I should show him that I was up to it. In the end I decided to take the taxi because I would miss the sunset if I took the time to walk up. In the end I was glad fate twisted my arm.
The taxi driver – Ahmet Abi – talked my ear off and offered me a 30tl ride to the falls. The newly paved road follows the course of the stream as it cuts through thick forest on the way to the top. Looking out the passenger side window I could clearly see there was no other path or ascent. The road is the only way up.
People packed out any space near the stream where the trees had been cleared. Even as we drove I had already begun to mourn that I hadn’t picked a wild enough spot to really get out into nature. Almost all the picnickers left all the garbage they brought to the stream right where it fell as they left, so the first few kilometres were shockingly strewn with litter.
We passed a parking lot and a developed family picnic space as we neared the falls. A big sign spanning the road greeted us on the way in. My fears were realized as I watched hundreds of people finishing their supper, kicking balls around, and trying to herd packs of loud kids closer to their BBQs. Ahmet kindly spoke to a friend of his that owns property that runs right on to the stream and secured me a place to stay if I wanted to be by the water. I wandered around a bit and found what looked like an access road just beyond the entrance to the falls and then hiked out further to find my spot.
After only a few hundred metres I totally left the sound of people behind. Soon I was on what seemed to be a footpath leading into the dense forest. As it took me deeper in and further up, I found nut fields, wild berries, something like a local rhubarb, cherry trees, and dozens of kinds of birds. I was sure this would be a great spot to stay but couldn’t find flat enough ground for a tent.
A couple hours later I decided the side of the stream would be better for a good night sleep and realized that I needed to get to the falls before I lost the sun. I was in for a surprise when I arrived back at the park. The crowds had completely disappeared. It was Sunday night and the weekend visitors were on their way back to town. After walking through a cluster of farms the locals call a village, I set up my tent near where the water chatters through some small boulders and left my bag behind. I paid a few lira to get into the waterfall viewing area and walked through.
The catwalks and stairways they have set up take you right into the face of the waterfall, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like before it was developed. None the less, the site lived up to its name. The rolling water roared around me as it plunged through mountain boulders and down three distinct terraces. It was beautiful. After the sweaty hike through the humid forest, the exaggerated cool of the mist thrown up against the stone walls of the valley was delightful.
Back at my tent, I read by candlelight on a picnic table in the shallows above the falls themselves as the first stars appeared overhead. My “host” lived in a house nearby – I suppose I was camping somewhere in his back yard. As the last echoes of the call to prayer sounded from the distant mosque, he invited me onto his porch for tea. We sat and chatted for twenty minutes or so while his elderly wife served us. They were a picturesque Black Sea couple. A few minutes later, away from any of the light and sound of the city, I fell asleep…
…only to be wakened by gunfire. I could tell it was distant, but there was no mistaking the crack of a rifle. That region is known for its wild boar population, and boar are often hunted at night, so despite my surprise I quickly remembered that I was in the country and the rules were a little different. But as the night wore on, I would end up waking up 3 or 4 different times to the same noise.
The last time a pop roused me as dawn was lighting up the mountain sky. I packed up and prepared for the hike back down the hill. I ran into the old man from the night before. He solved the mystery of the midnight gunfire by explaining that farmers set up automatic noise makers to scare the destructive boar away from their crops. It just sounds that way each night, I learnt.
The next nine hours passed exactly as I had hoped. I took my time and followed the winding path of the stream as it cut through the forest on its way down to the village. At the top the water is potable, so I drank from the sweet mountain stream then had a cold breakfast. The sun didn’t get uncomfortably hot until it was high enough to pour directly into the valley. Once it did I took off my shoes and continued my decent in the stream itself (wherever possible).
That day’s hike resembled my solitary walk through the farmers’ trails the evening before. I breathed the freshest air in Turkey, drank right from the stream, read on the warm rocks when I wanted to rest, and greeted a handful of farmers as they made their way to fruit trees clinging to the slopes of the valley. I’m sure I was a rare sight for them – a foreigner with a large backpack walking down the mountain – made even rarer by the fact I greeted them in Turkish. One young boy I talked to along the way said, “Dünyanın en güzel yeri burası” (this is the most beautiful place in the world). He then told be the farthest he had every traveled from his humble village was Düzce city itself about 30km away. Another mountain resident, this time an old man, explained his faith to me and the virtue of living in the same 5 house hamlet for 80 years. The apricots he shared off his own tree certainly supported his praise for his hometown.
I strode out of the forest into the outskirts of Beyköy at about 4pm. I had moved quicker than I thought, partially due to the ever-hotter weather and lack of good coverage once I got to the last couple km before my destination. Once more I was greeted by a handful of obviously amused but politely deferential locals before I flopped down on the bench to wait for the tired old minibus that would take me back to the intercity bus station in Düzce. From there I was easily able to hop on one of the hourly buses that run to Istanbul.
I was quite happy with the trip, overall. Local hikers and campers have confirmed to me that there are very few designated campsites in Turkey and that in most regions it is left up to the camper to choose the spot. Even as I rolled into the big city I started planning my next trip.