TURKEY WOULD be the next destination during our journey home but first we had to reach the border. Syria, so often linked with violence and persecution, has a PR problem. The reality is very different from this image. We found the people to be among the very friendliest in the Middle East and we were surprised by the many cultural and religious groups living in harmony here. There are few internal travel restrictions for visitors planning on independent 4x4 travel through the multitude of fabulous destinations in the country.
On this occasion during our passage north, we passed the unspoilt ruins of Apamea, where Anthony and Cleopatra walked the colonnaded street into the city. To reach there, we had followed the Orontes Valley, now green with crops, where Hannibal had trained elephants for use in warfare. Further down the valley we had passed through Hama, a beautiful place with a huge history back to 1000BC. Now, it’s best known for the groaning ‘Norias’ – giant waterwheels that serviced the surrounding countryside. There are 17 of these old monsters, all affectionately named.
Aleppo, before the border, was the crossroads of ancient trading routes, and makes a convenient base for many destinations in northern Syria, often only accessible by 4x4. Its citadel, busy souk and Grand Mosque hold huge appeal.
We crossed into Turkey with few complications, but our high spirits were soon reversed when we pulled in to buy petrol. Turkey, we hoped, would be cheaper than Syria and we had run Rabia fairly low. There had been a surge in prices throughout Europe, and Turkey had followed the trend, adding its own premium.
We paid £1.43 per litre on average in Turkey – our most expensive petrol around the world, well above the UK at that time. It’s worth noting here that, during 2008, travellers entering Syria with a vehicle using diesel were paying a special diesel tax to cross the country, which we escaped with our Discovery’s 3.5 V8i engine.
We wanted something completely different from our time in Turkey –
a route that held the prospect of discovering some new places and interesting travel, probing some off-road destinations.
‘Try the centre,’ Eileen suggested, so we planned a route from Goreme in the mountains north of our crossing to Izmir in the west.
Ascending to the higher interior was a good choice in June, when the optional coastal route was hot and steamy. We reached Cappadocia, one of central Turkey’s most attractive areas, and best known for its lunar landscapes, cave homes and curious rock formations carved over millennia from the soft volcanic rock by water and wind.
We found a region rich with exceptional 4x4 travel options through outstanding scenery of colourful ridges, remote valleys and sun-baked hills. Here, we saw gigantic mushroom-shaped columns called ‘fairy chimneys’ and rock pinnacles honeycombed with caves.
At its most extreme, this carving tradition manifests itself in several underground ‘cities’ up to eight
storeys below ground level. To visit one is a truly bizarre experience.
We relaxed for a few days, staying in a small hotel converted from several natural caves west of Ürgüp. We spent this time discovering new destinations off the beaten track, among scenery reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting.
Having probed these remote places on four wheels we wanted to see this truly formidable landscape from
a different perspective and chose the British-staffed hot-air balloon company, Kapadokya Balloons, to provide us with an aerial viewpoint.
Drifting over the rock chimneys, villages and indented landscapes that morning was a highlight for
us. Flights started at dawn; and watching the colourful ridges and peaks slip by below us in the silence and the warm glow of morning light was unforgettable.
We headed west to Turkey’s Lakes District and Anatolia through high cool peaks and by glassy lochs. When we reached Pamukkale we stopped to explore the travertine pools – the gleaming white calcium formations that cascade in shelves down the side of a nearby slope. Turquoise waters tumble through these formations from pool to pool. The Romans enjoyed the place, building a spa here. But this Unesco World Heritage Site is not all it seems.
Uncontrolled tourism in the past has affected the flow of mineral water and the natural charm of the place is in decline. Even the flow to the pools is regulated.
Our Discovery, Rabia, was in fine shape, though, and I was finally convinced that her intermittent problem in Central Africa that had challenged my confidence in her had now gone for ever. We descended to the Aegean shore south of Izmir and headed for Ephesus, a jewel in the crown of Turkey’s Roman heritage.
Formed around the earlier temple
of Artemis, the town rose to prominence in the third century BC. We were first on site on the day we visited. In the glow of first light we lingered in the huge amphitheatre, enjoying on our own the peace and atmosphere of this majestic place.
Inside the deserted ruins the colonnades, the library and even the sign to the local Roman brothel, chiselled into the pavement, seemed all the more impressive at this time of day. But the solitude did not last long enough.
We had crossed eastern Europe during our first global circuit and wanted another option to reach home. Our plan was to take the ferry from Turkey to Athens, avoiding the more expensive and time-consuming route round the northern Aegean. Petrol prices had become a major factor now,
so the overnight ferry across the Aegean was an attractive expedition option.
But first, we had to deal with a strange anomaly – there was no direct ferry from Turkey to Athens. We’d have to take a short hop between Çenme in Turkey and the small Greek isle of Chios.
We picked up an evening crossing on a tiny vessel and made one of our easiest border crossings ever: no inspection, no carnet problems and just a friendly chat. After the unpredictable border formalities of 27 previous countries in Africa and the Middle East, this was a new experience.
Our little boat made its way over the short crossing just as the sun was dropping over Chios and there was no mistaking the significance of the moment for us.
The western horizon was flooded with a crimson glow and the brooding mountains of Chios stood in inky profile against the evening sky. We were effectively crossing between continents and we would soon be back again on European soil. We could have easily imagined at that moment that the journey was over.
The island’s tourist season had not quite blossomed. Strangely, campsites weren’t open and we parked for the night down a difficult track in some shady trees beside
a deserted beach, bothered only by the persistent attention of a small, lonely horse. Seemingly possessed with an evil streak for mischief, she probed our supplies through every door left open on Rabia. The Mediterranean gurgled rhythmically on to our remote beach and we slept well in a cooling onshore breeze during our first night in Europe.
This beach served us well for the next day. Some of Rabia’s minor bits needed attention and here was a fine location to effect the repairs. That evening we returned to the bright lights of Chios town. The harbour was alive with colour and activity, and the huge Aegean ferry docked briefly to pick up traffic before leaving promptly for Athens.
Next morning we arrived in Piraeus port. Inevitably during our return, there was going to be that induction of fire into the frantic pace of a busy European commercial city, and this was it. We tried to be tourists for
a while but the experience lacked interest. Even finding Lord Byron’s graffiti on a Roman ruin didn’t liven up our day. Moreover, internet facilities were as scarce as hen’s teeth, confirming for us that it’s often harder in our modern world to send emails in a developed community than in less sophisticated places. Internet facilities had been easier to find in Burundi than in Greece.
We escaped to the calmness of rural travel quickly, crossing the Corinth Canal and ascending into the southern Greek mountains, where
we found good wild camping off-road among impressive mountain oaks in grassy clearings.
Our plans were very open now, but we were heading towards Igoumenitsa in northern Greece, close to the Albanian border. From here we hoped to catch
another ferry to reach southern Italy.
Despite our loose planning, one destination on our route was certain – we had to cross the western limit of the Gulf of Corinth. The brand-new bridge spanning the head of the gulf here is a spectacular human contrivance, the beautiful lines radiating artistic merit. On that clear, blustery day, the suspension cables glowed with a steely sparkle unique to a new structure. Later, with time to relax, we halted progress on Greece’s west coast at Valtos, to walk the hilly coves nearby. In June the village was quiet and peaceful, but peak season here would be another matter.
Our ferry booking fell into place nicely; and Bari port in southern Italy offered the best value of the many destination options.
We had one day to spare before our night crossing and we camped nearby. Perhaps a formal camping area in the past, the place was deserted and unloved, but offered us our last night’s wild camping
on the expedition, in a forest of mature eucalypt trees on the shoreline. We barbecued, enjoyed some Greek ouzo and shared time with Avi, a young Israeli cyclist travelling through Europe the hard way.
As we boarded our ferry the next day the heavens opened. The winds demolished umbrellas in the hands of brave souls in town, daring to face the elements; and in the calm that followed we were entertained with a fearsome round of Grecian thunder and lightning. We were travelling into Europe’s heartland with a solid reminder that absolutely nothing about European weather is predictable.
In an attempt to retain the essence of expedition travel, we selected a route through Italy that followed the central spine of the country to reach Bologna, avoiding all motorways and major routes.
We might not have bothered – it rained incessantly for the next few days as we headed north. The rich landscapes of central Italy, the lakes, mountains and high cliff-hanging villages, passed us by under rainy and grey skies.
Umbria, the highlight of our route, was an overcast and sombre place. We had, by good fortune, revised the design of Rabia’s side awning to double over her roof tent for extra protection, and we were pleased with this final adaptation during our travels. These were not ideal conditions in which to meander through northern Italy and we were hopeful of an improvement on the road ahead.
We intended to cross into Switzerland by a high-level route, hoping for a final piece of 4x4 action crossing the Alps. From Milan we ascended to Madesimo, where we could start our crossing on the summer-only Spluga Pass. Rabia performed well on this, her last mountain ascent; but with a fully surfaced track the challenge was
a mere shadow of past auto-mountaineering adventures.
I thought back to the ascent of Cotopaxi near the equator in Ecuador, where Rabia had bolted to 15,800ft over the mountain’s trackless ash field to reach the snows that capped the dormant volcano cone.
There had also been drama more recently, such as descending Africa’s Sani Pass out of Lesotho. But this was an interesting passage, nonetheless.
That night, after crossing eastern Switzerland, we chose a formal campsite on the northern shores of Lake Constance, since we could no longer wild-camp without breaking the law. This was to be the experience that jolted us into the realisation that, after all, we were truly back in Europe and nearly home. Surrounded by 500 campervans, bars, a hairdressing salon and laundromat, the campsite’s brass band played beer-hall music well into the night.
We travelled on in grey, windy weather – the occasional sunny break in the Mosel reminding us Europe has its share of beautiful places.
We reached our home in Leicestershire 265 days after leaving the UK. Our circle
of Africa had been a 30,078-mile challenge, filled with excitement. The conclusion of our circle of Africa made a fitting end to our two circuits of the globe in Rabia, covering 92,000 miles and engaging us in 27 months of mostly trouble-free travel.
Rabia remains in an expedition-ready
The full story can be found in the March 2009 issue of LRO. Download a digital issue, or order a back issue by calling 01858 438884.