Eber Lake: A World of Reeds
/ By Josh
Sometime back in 2017 I stumbled across a picture of Eber Lake where people went out in boats to fish, harvest reeds, and hunt in a wide network of waterways, swamp, and shallow pools. The handful of pictures I saw showed an otherworldly way of life that I immediately wanted to explore. I showed my then usual travel companion Nathan and we agreed we had to go check it out.
Instead, we forgot all about it.
Then, in the beginning of 2020 while passing through the area I remembered the name Eber and managed to carve out a little time to try and take a peek into this amazing lake world.
However, there was one issue, when I arrived in the village of Derekarabağ from the dusty town of Bolvadin, I could see that I was in the right area, (great teepee shaped stacks of reeds were everywhere) but there was no lake in sight! According to Google Maps (which is by no means the most reliable source) we were standing right on the edge of the lake and yet we could see no trace of water in the unbroken flatness of the plain.
Spotting a handful of people working among the reed teepees on the edge of the village, I went over to see if I could come away with some pictures in my few remaining minutes. While I got a few good shots, it would eventually turn out that meeting these locals would be the key to getting onto the lake.
A few weeks later and with a couple of days to work with, I was back in Eber, and this time with Nathan, just like we had planned three years ago. On the first morning in the area I attempted to catch sunrise at Kırkgöz Bridge, an ancient bridge originally built by the Byzantines. The name Kırkgöz referes to the forty arches or ‘eyes’ in the bridge.
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I left the hotel on a still dim and frosty morning, and quickly ran into trouble. First I had to use a lens hood to scrape the ice off the windshield (worked rather well actually) then I had to find the bridge. Once again Google Maps was a source of disappointment and followed it to dead ends and roads that didnt exist. A few marked roads were just mud filled tractor paths. With sunrise coming on quickly I parked as close as I could and attempted to set out on foot along the river towards the bridge. A man came running out of the factory I had been passing and stopped me warning me not to try to get to the bridge on foot as the area was full of dangerous dogs!
Heading out on another road my good Samaritan had pointed out, it became immediately clear that he was absolutely right, dogs were all over the road chasing the car and snarling. I counted seventeen man eaters (and one adorable puppy). At one point the road conditions made things rather complicated. The road I was on was little better than the muddy tractor trails I had seen before and, as it was winter in what is essentially a massive bog, the road was full of muddy ruts. At a particularly bad spot in the road I got stuck and, as I was alone this morning, there was no one to push the car. Surrounded as I was by rather agressive stray dogs, there was nothing to do but slowly rock the car back and forth for a while and hope for the best. Thankfully I eventually got free, bumper still attached, without having to face the dogs.
After the delays I made it to the ancient bridge just as the sun peaked over a horizon of haze. Sadly Kırkgöz Bridge isn’t particularly photogenic. I took pictures with the car nearby and door open in case the dogs I could hear in all directions decided to come my way.
With a bit of time on our hands and an increased desire to find something truly photoworthy after the near-duds of Kırkgöz Bridge and the Broken Minaret I went into the town of Bolvadin to see if I could find any more information about where the lake had gone and how I could arrange to spend some time on the water.
In Bolvadin I got to chatting with some locals in a typical, small town tea shop or kiraathane, a place that I have always found difficult to get into. Walking into one of these kiraathanes as an outsider is much like walking into a saloon in some wild west film; everything suddenly goes silent as all heads swivel round to look at the unwelcome stranger who’s just entered the private residence of traditional Turkish masculinity. This time around the staring wasn’t as extreme as in other places though, by way of the dusty mirrors on the wall, I caught the old men sneaking glances at me pretty regularly.
For a while now I’ve wanted to capture this unusual yet quintessentially Turkish space, with its buckets of sugar cubes, religious wall hangings, and the everpresent gaze of Ataturk, the nations founder looking down from on the wall. While it drew a lot of staring eyes, I got permission to snap the above picture.
Other than a kiraathane photo, I also got two leads regarding the lake. The first being a spot where I could get right down to the water and the second being that, if I wanted to know anything about the lake and secure a boat for myself I’d have to talk to the people of Derekarabağ where the vast majority of lake-working people live.
With the village of Derekarabağ being the closer of the two, we drove out to the village where I had first seen the great rows of bundled reeds little over a week before. Walking through the centre of the little village, with its single storey mud-brick and thatch-roof houses, I bumped into a familiar face. It was the owner of one of the reed harvesting companies that I had met on my previous visit! He invited me into the village tea-house where we chatted about life by the lake and the unique business of reeds. Best of all he offered me one of his workers to take me out onto the lake the next morning!
That evening I followed the advice I had gotten in Bolvadin and finally got my first sight of the lake itself from near the village of Eber. The spot was quite accessible and offered a great view of the reed filled lake with the Emir Mountains rising over the reeds to the north. While it was gorgeous in the evening, I knew I had finally found a good sunrise location.
The next morning, I woke up early to try and catch the sunrise in Eber before meeting our guide on the opposite side of the lake.
Seeing the sky begin to grow pale outside the hotel window I quickly realized we had woken up late and might even miss the sunrise. Rushing down the narrow lanes that weave their way through cherry orchards and rows of ancient willows, we arrived at the lake just as the sun was about to rise. I jogged to where I thought I’d find an interesting shot, assembling my gear as I ran. Without waiting I took my first shot just as the sun broke over the horizon. If I had been another thirty seconds later, I would have missed it!
After a few frantic shots, the sunrise’s short-lived flush of colour was over so we ate a hasty breakfast while inspecting wild pig and reed-cat prints in the mud. While we never saw one (reed-cat, wild pig, or human) the sound of duck hunters further in the lake was constant. Skirting the lake to meet our guide in Derekarabağ we arrived just in time to start our excursion as all good things in Turkey begin: with a few cups of tea.
Something important you should note about this picture is that smoking in public cafes like this is illegal, so there’s no smoke, it’s just steam from the tea that you see…
It was a good thing that we had this time in the teahouse to ask our guide Ömer and a small panel of other locals some questions. Once we set out the incessant thundering of small diesel motors kept us from any real talking.
One of the most interesting things I learned is that around eighty percent of the reeds harvested here from Eber Lake are shipped internationally to countries like the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Belgium to be used as thatch roofing. The fact that an industry such a thatch, one that seems so medieval in nature, could be a modern and international market was something I had never thought of. The fact that the Netherlands, which is essentially a well-tended swamp and perfect for reeds, would import reeds seemed even stranger yet.
Over the last decade the water from the lake has receded quite drastically, a few years ago it dried up completely, killing off the fish stock completely and creating a wide mudflat between the village and the water itself. So we trundled through the rutted flats in a pat-pat, a tough and simple vehicle perfect for mud and hauling bundles of reeds to where dozens of lake boats were drawn up along the shore to begin our excursion onto the lake.
What followed was spectacular. We passed in and out of wide pools of rippling water through narrow waterways between tall walls of reeds. Cranes, ducks, and hawks were ever present, keeping their distance being scared off by the blaring knocking of our motor. Abandoned boats, some floating, some just peaking out of the water, were hidden on the edge of the wider pools. Despite the endless twisting and turning of our path, the snow-covered mountains to our north and south let us keep our bearings.
We only spotted two others working that day in the lake, one at a distance hauling his harvest back into shore, and one who didn’t want to have his picture taken. During peak season, in the late fall/early winter when the reeds start to yellow and dry out, there can be anywhere from 200-250 harvesters working out in the lake. As there was no one else to show us how the work was done that day, Ömer hopped overboard, sickle in hand, to show us how the reeds are cut and bundled together.
The sickle was incredibly sharp and made easy work of the stalks, though Ömer had a few long scars to show what happens when a stroke of the sickle goes astray. His boss was missing the end of his finger up to the first knuckle.
Eber Lake was an absolutely magnificent blend of taking natural beauty and experiencing a unique segment of Turkish culture that the vast majority of Turks don’t even know about. It was a real privilege to get to spend those hours out on the lake and get a glimpse of a unique way of life.
Pictures definitely speak clearer than words in this case. At one point Nathan and I turned to each other and in perfect unison said “Anlatmaya hiç gerek yok”, which means “there is absolutely no need to explain”, seeing it is enough. It was a magical place made all the more exciting by the stoic enthusiasm of our guide.
About fifty yards away from the boatyard the motor suddenly got louder (which I didn’t realize was possible), and we immediately began to slow down. Apparently, the prop had come right off, probably tangled in the weeds or stuck in the muddy lake bottom one too many times. With a long pole of poplar Ömer poled the boat the remaining distance. He explained that poling the boat is often necessary to protect the prop when passing through the shallow parts of the lake.
Just a few minutes after leaving the lake we looked back and saw smoke begin to rise over the reeds. Within fifteen minutes there was a massive blaze and tower of black smoke, then, suddenly, it was gone. While not everyone agrees with the practice, burning the harvested areas allows the reeds to come back quicker and stronger, though, as was likely the case this time, the fire can easily spread in the tall dry reeds into a major fire.
Thanks to Ömer our guide and Habib his boss who made the arrangements for us, we finally got to experience this amazing place, albeit a few years later than expected. After the customary invitation to come back in warmer weather for Turkish barbecue (this time duck from the lake would be on the menu) we said our farewells and that concluded an immersive, one-of-a-kind cultural experience.
I even managed to catch him smiling!