Geocaching and running the Goreme landscape (Cappadocia, Turkey)

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I wake up in my bivy bag to the incredible sight of hundreds of brightly coloured balloons lifting off the ground in the Red and Rose Valleys below the camping ground. It is absolutely spectacular. I’d head that there were lots of balloon flights here in Cappadocia but was not prepared for it to be this stupendous. What a sight! An invigorating way to start the day.

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After a good 4-5 hours of work I head off to explore the nearby landscape. There are a couple of geocaches hidden in the nearby area that have my name on them. The first leads me to a mammoth rocky outcrop with magnificent views of the villages and castles in the distance.

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I had to walk about 2km to arrive at this point, including quite a long crossing of prickly grasses. It seems like a good moment to get my first jumping in Turkey photo. I realise I haven’t taken one yet so now is a good time (thank goodness for self-timers on cameras).

After collecting the geocache I run down towards Goreme following some random trails through valleys and little farms. My run includes the amazing Sword Valley. I took a video, which I think shows it better than sharing a million photos.

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Though I will share this one of me climbing down one of the big drops in the Sword Valley. Good thing the rocks are grippy or it would have been scary in places.

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After a simple lunch in touristy Goreme I walked back up the road towards the camping to find another geocache hidden with a view of some gorgeous fairy chimneys.

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Instead of continuing on the road, I explored some of the trails around the fairy chimneys along the road. This is a pick your own adventure place. You can rush by tour bus to the Open Air Museum and pay money to see the chimneys or you can just pull on a sturdy pair of shoes and explore at your own discretion. There is so much free stuff to see here. I spent about two hours meandering around between Goreme and the Kaya Camping, just 2km from the town. It was magnificent. Sometimes I’d take high trails and others low ones. And at times I did both because there was more to see.

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I mean, check out these rock formations.

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And the way the area is not just an old museum; it’s a real place where people live and work. There were cattle tethered behind some of the mounts and bales of hay stored in others. Epic stuff.

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I think this is my favourite photo of the trip. Maybe even of the past eighteen months.

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If you come to Cappadocia, do it like a turtle does: slow and steady. I didn’t see any of the underground cities or museums. And I spent almost nothing. But yet I had a wonderful time. The landscapes are stunning, the atmosphere at Kayak Camping was brilliant with loads of overlanders with epic stories of crazy travels through the Far East. I could have stayed a week but decided that tomorrow I will push on north.

Red and Rose Valleys hike (Cappadocia, Turkey)

Cappadocia was never on my Turkey travel plans. All I knew about this area was that people come here to take balloon trips. And balloon trips are not really something that excites me. Nor does my budget extend to the cost of such an adventure. But then I had the rental car and ten days in Turkey; it made sense to come see what the fuss is about.

I stayed at Kaya Kamping just outside Goreme. This area is the centre of Cappadocia’s tourist industry but the camping is quiet and filled with overlanders in campervans traveling between Europe and the far East. It feels almost like a halfway house for we traveling souls. Last night I stayed up until about 2am chatting with a Swiss couple driving a Land Rover to India and a German couple on a two week holiday from their PhD studies. We are all around the same age and yet our experiences are so different. That’s what I love about traveling; meeting so many cool people from all walks of life.

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But I digress. The camping ground is right next to an entrance to the Red and Rose Valleys. An entry that is visually stunning. I turn a corner on the path and am suddenly in another world. One that is comprised of alien-like fairy chimneys. It’s amazing and I am instantly glad I didn’t skip Cappadocia.

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The first section of the walk takes me through a deep narrow gorge. It twists and turns it’s way downhill. At times the path goes through tunnels cut into the rock, whether my man or nature I do not know.

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As I exit the gorge I come to an open area with a huge fairy chimney smack in the middle of it. Like my mum, I was wondering whether these chimneys would be disappointingly small but they are not. Some are massive. You can see the scale from the trees in the foreground. This really is like nothing I’ve ever seen before and I definitely recommend exploring the gorge (or other gorges in the Goreme area) on foot.

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The walls of the gorge are dotted with both churches and pigeon holes. Later, I learn that the main income for this region is pigeon poop. Yes, that’s correct. The soil is so poor that people own acres of land here and encourage the pigeons to roost in the gorges then collect the poop and sell it as fertiliser. I am told that, at one time, the poop was worth more than gold. There are signs showing images of pigeons near some of the sites in the valley so maybe it is a true story.

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The gorge is not just a tourist destination. It’s also working agricultural land. There are many apple and pear trees, and grape vines dotted throughout the valley. Locals, mostly women, work to pick the fruit while the men drive the car or tractor or stand around the bags of fruit doing something. Life here in Turkey is gendered; something that I am not used to being from Australia. I mean, Australian women will talk about how gendered our lives are at home but compared with Turkey – Australian women can do anything. Here I have not yet seen a woman driving a vehicle; they are always passengers in cars, tractor trailers and scooters. There is clearly women’s work and men’s work on the farms too. Women seem to pick the fruit (except when the workers are Syrian – then men, women and children pitch in probably in the hope they will all be paid some money to help pay for the next leg of their journey to safety).

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A random side trail leads me to a church. There are many here in the valley. A rickety wooden bushcraft style bridge crosses the deep drop between the path and the church. I decide to throw caution to the wind and cross. Inside I am greeted by a multi story space with this huge chamber on the second story. It’s incredible.

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The incredible experience continues after I leave the church and follow more random trails up the side of the valley to the sunset lookout. There’s a geocache hidden up here so I that’s why I know to come up to this view point. The views from the geocache location are stunning; looking down at the valley from which I have just climbed. It could very easily become the set of a very eerie space movie.

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More confident now with the idea that you do not have to follow the official marked paths, I take more chances on small random trails around the valley in the direction of the Cavusin. It’s absolutely wonderful. I walk and scramble and climb and slide along the trails. Some follow narrow ridges and others skid down steep slopes. It’s choose your own adventure and that’s exactly what I am doing.

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It takes me about four hours to reach Cavusin due to my meandering hiking style and rest stops sitting in gorgeous places overlooking the valley eating either fresh picked apples (I take the approach that if the apple tree has more rotten apples lying on the ground than ripe ones on the tree then it is not being tended so taking an apple won’t hurt but I never take apples from trees that are obviously being tended to) or some potato chips (crisps) from the bag I bought yesterday. Cavusin is not much to look at. It’s a kitschy tourist place with the usual assortment of restaurants, trinket shops and tour buses. But it’s not offensive and the people are friendly when you politely decline whatever they are offering.

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This is what the tour buses have come here for. This huge structure dominates the town. I have come here because there is a geocache hidden somewhere in this structure (I find it). It’s a typically Turkish site. You can just wander around to your heart’s content exploring the caves and everything. There are dark corners, scary ledges and rickety bridges. The only limit to your exploration is your own imagination. No signs indicate what this structure is but I think (from a quick Google search) that it’s an old church. I don’t need to know the story … I am just fascinated by the caves and rooms and frescoes. And ponder how on earth such a Swiss-cheese like structure is still standing after all this time.

Rain starts to fall as I descend from the structure. I pull on my wet weather gear and begin the 3.5km walk back to the camping. I decide to follow a gravel road instead of the path back through the valley. It’s quite an easy flat walk to Goreme but then a steep climb for the last kilometer up to the camping. The temperature drops dramatically as I hike back leaving me grateful for the hot shower and a change of dry clothes.

If you get a chance to hike the Red and Rose Valleys, I highly recommend taking your time and exploring the many small tracks that lead off the main path. There are guided walks and they probably give you background information, but the navigation is simple and there’s no need to worry much about getting lost. Just keep heading downhill towards the big structure in Cavusin and you will be fine. Bring water and snacks. There are some basic cafes on the way selling coffee, tea and fresh juice but I didn’t try any of them. Most have stunning views and comfortable-looking seating though.

Ihlara Valley hike (Cappadocia, Turkey)

I have read mixed reviews about the Ihlara Valley hike in Cappadocia. Some say that it is full of tourists and rubbish. Others say it is beautiful. There are more knockers than supporters. But as I leave Aksaray I see a brown tourist sign pointing in the direction of Ihlara. I decide to turn off the highway and see the valley for myself.

The road to the valley is sparse and golden; a continuation of yesterday’s drive. The volcano I drove past stands as a blue silhouette against the yellow grass. I never seem to get closer to or further from it. It just stays put as though it might be some sort of mirage. All the while, I just follow the signs.

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I decide to start my hike from Belisirma. It seems logical from what I’ve read and it’s the second entry to the valley that I pass. I throw some food and water in my pack, download some geocache coordinates and set off on my adventure. The entry fee is 10TL ($AU5), which seems a bit steep for a valley hike but this is one of the most famous hikes in Turkey and I have learned that in many countries everything costs money (and I figure it pays wages for the people who work here). I’m glad I paid the entry fee because I enjoy a glorious day in some wonderful natural and cultural surrounds.

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There’s a geocache hidden not far from the Belisirma entrance to the valley. It requires me to follow some feint tracks up the side of the valley to the cliffs above. It’s quite a fascinating place with huge boulders created by the cliffs breaking away, caves that have been carved into the cliffs and stunning views of the valley.

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The Belisirma village spire seems to fit into this landscape perfectly. It’s an ironic reality here in Turkey where many popular tourist sites are old Christian churches and monasteries. In this valley, there are many old churches where Christians hid from the Romans.

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From the outside, the churches and dwellings are fascinating. They look like normal doorways but cut into the sides of the cliff.

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Some have these really cool holes cut up to the second or third level. I wonder whether they were used as steps at some point in history. And whether they were part of the original churches or whether people have lived in these caves and churches subsequent to their original establishment. For example, did people live here in the 1600s or 1800s or even 1900s?

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It’s not just the exterior of the cave churches and dwellings that amaze me. Many contain the remains of gorgeous frescoes depicting various biblical stories or religious personalities and saints. While many have been defaced or damaged over the years; the fact that they exist at all after all this time is something of a miracle. I love art and spend some time appreciating the workmanship put into these pieces.

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Like all the other historic sites I’ve been to in Turkey, you can just walk around inside the cave churches as much as you want. There’s little stopping you from climbing up the internal stairs to the second level of a cave church and I’m more than certain the odd brave soul has climbed the external hand holds too. I explore inside the caves. One or two have stunning views into the valley through upper level windows.

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I spend hours meandering up one side of the valley to the stairs where the tour buses spew out their passengers about 3.5km (2 miles) from Belisirma. From here I follow the path first up one side of the valley for another 800m (1/2 mile) to a couple more churches then back to the stairs and another 1km to a couple more churches on the other side of the valley. It’s easy to just while away hours up here. By the time I get back to the stairs it’s gone lunch time and I am famished. So I relax on one of the many park benches and eat lunch watching the tour bus passengers go about their experience. So far I haven’t really met too many of these groups on the trail because I was too early walking up from Belisirma and then went further up towards Ihlara village where the tour buses don’t walk.

Sitting in the valley watching the bus loads of German, Korean and Japanese tour groups following their guides is fascinating. The guides speak fluently in the language of their guests. I have to say, hearing fluent Korean coming from the mouth of a non-Korean person is amazing; it’s such a challenging language. Each nationality has its own style. The Koreans are in a hurry. They are armed with selfie sticks, fashionable travel attire and cling to every word their guide says. The Japanese prefer big digital SLR cameras. They are fashionably dressed in street wear for the younger guests and smart casual for the over forties. They are in less of a hurry; preferring to take a little time with posed photos of their fellow travelers on rocks in the middle of the creek or on the more adventurous looking sections of the path. And then there’s the German guests who sort of swarm in a throng, stopping frequently to discuss whether or not they feel like climbing up the stairs to yet another historic church. And then there’s the lone hipster with his red beard, cycling cap and obligatory hipster “I’m too cool for this” scowl. I can’t help but wonder how he ended up on a tour bus populated by Japanese people.

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Despite the bus loads of people coming down the stairs, I never feel as though the valley experience is being spoiled for me. They all walk down towards Belisirma on the path along which I have come. But I am heading back on a small trail that follows the other side of the creek. About half-way to Belisirma they all stop at a gorgeous cafe that has sitting areas literally in the middle of the creek around which ducks swim and goats wander. Ladies in traditional garb harvest potatoes in a nearby field and huge pumpkins sit in the sunshine still on the vine. It’s this amazing rural scene in the middle of a heavily touristed valley. Some tour guests are sitting at the cafe drinking Nescafe (not to be confused with coffee, which here is Turkish coffee) and cay(tea). But they add to the atmosphere, rather than detract from it. Besides, these tour guests probably contribute more to the well being of the Turkish economy than I do because each bus requires the employment of a driver, a guide who is fluent in a foreign language and all the background people who work in the marketing, advertising, sales, maintenance and administrative support necessary for the success of the tour operations. Me – I don’t really create many economic opportunities for Turkey beyond renting a car, paying for camping or cheap hotels, buying groceries from markets and shops, and occasionally buying a cheap meal. For my month here, I probably will spend about $AU1,500. Each of those people on the tour bus will probably spend that in a week. And their activities are fairly limited to specific regions so the environmental impact is able to be controlled (imagine if all those people just walked wherever they wanted to … the damage would be far greater than having them walk on a single mostly board-walked track without any real deviation).
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I thoroughly enjoy my hike in the valley and am glad I didn’t pay too much attention to the critics. The valley is peaceful and pretty. It’s full of historic churches and fascinating cave houses. There are miles of trails to explore; including many away from the main tourist route. But that area does have the most churches. I end up walking about 12km return. It takes me about five hours because I spent time searching for geocaches, wandering through the churches, eating lunch and generally taking in the atmosphere rather than rushing myself. A two hour drive takes me to camp in Goreme and a well earned hot shower.

Beldibi to Aksaray (Cappadocia, Turkey)

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We enjoy a leisurely final breakfast and morning together before Mum and Dad drive me to Antalya to pick up the rental car. They patiently wait for me to (a) find the rental car company and (b) organise the keys to the car. They help me organise a trolley to transfer my gear from the campervan to the car. And then we say our goodbyes. The rental car company upgraded me from the smallest class to a mid-sized car so now I am traveling in style.

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The first thing I notice about driving in Turkey is that Turkish drivers are erratic. Firstly, the fast traffic does not adhere to the speed limit at all. They race. And the slow traffic straddles the emergency stopping lane and the right lane of the road. At least you can identify them but it is rather odd to me and does not really allow anyone any easier opportunity to pass because there’s still fast traffic in the left lane. When I say slow traffic; I mean slow. This car was traveling at about 50kph in a 90kph zone.
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Slow moving traffic does not only come in the form of cars. There are all sorts of slow vehicles on the roads, like overloaded trucks and tractors. I even pass a horse and cart at one point but don’t manage to capture it on camera. I don’t mind that the traffic is slow; it just strikes me because I had envisaged Turkey as a European country. This image is changing and I am now starting to see that it actually is more a part of Asia than the West.

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The sight of men riding on and in the back of trucks confirms this reality. Though the helmet-less men and families I have already seen riding around on scooters and motorbikes should have been a warning already. Mind you, this is East meets West so the scooter and motorbike riders might be helmetless and bikes might carry whole families but they do not ride slowly like in Asia; they are careening around at 80-100kph.

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But it’s not just the traffic that makes the kilometers pass by. The landscape here is amazing! At first I drive along steep winding mountain roads that hug rocky slopes. Every bend brings in view a new mountainous shape. It’s fascinating and the driving is definitely not always easy as I twist, turn and dodge both slow and fast moving vehicles.

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Late in the afternoon, the landscape changes dramatically. There’s no warning or intermediate zone. There’s just mountains and then yellow. The yellow fields stretch as far as my eyes can see. The small lumps of hills here are barren and yellow too. There’s barely any trees as golden fields take up every scrap of space. At this speed I cannot determine what the crop is. But the road travels through these fields for a good 200km (135 miles). I realise that if I had been cycling here, I would have ridden through these fields for at least two days; if not more.

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The apple and potato harvest is in full swing. As I drive along I see trucks loaded beyond the brim with these crops. In many cases, men sit precariously on top of the loads. I watch as whole villages harvest potatoes from the ground. A tractor digs them all up and then lines of workers, both men and women by the look of it, pick the potatoes off the ground and put them in huge bags. The bags are then transported on trailers pulled by tractors and horses. I’m not sure how they go from being bagged to ending up loose in the big trucks. Perhaps I never will. It looks like back breaking work and I am grateful not to have been born into this life.

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As the sun sets in my rear vision mirror I stop for a feed at a roadhouse. I eat lamb shish with salad and a big clay bowl of yoghurt. It’s delicious and sets me back the grand sum of 25TL ($AU12.50). As always here in Turkey, everything was home made and freshly grown, from the herbs on the shish to the yoghurt in the pot. I need to find farmer markets or grow vegetables again when I get home because it’s just such a luxury that I have missed for the past few years since I sold the house and vegetable garden that we had in its garden.

I reach Aksaray and contemplate pushing on to Goreme where I believe the most popular part of Cappadocia is. But it is still 166km (100 miles) and Google tells me that it will take about 2.5 hours to get there. It’s 7pm and I am tired from the long 500km drive from Antalya plus the long distance we traveled from Beldibi to Antalya’s airport. I check the internet (thank goodness for my Turkish sim card) and notice that I can get a one-star hotel with average reviews for $AU40 a night or a four-star hotel with exceptional reviews for $AU61 a night. There was a time earlier in my quest for 42 when I would have stopped by the side of the road and slept in the car or maybe booked the cheaper motel. But not anymore. I can skimp on other luxuries. But if I can get an exceptional hotel for $AU61 a night, then I am doing it for the rest, relaxation and chance to recharge my personal batteries. The hotel is wonderful. It would cost me $200 a night easily in Australia. And I don’t know anywhere else in the world where the concierge brings the guests a plate of fresh fruit in their rooms for supper at around 8:30pm. I got an apple, two plums and a banana. No charge. Just inclusive. Oh, and there was a hammam (Turkish bath) included in the price of the room but I am not comfortable with that for the same reasons I had concerns in Japan and Korea (Turkish baths appear to be naked places and I can’t do naked places). It didn’t detract from my absolute pleasure at the luxury of this hotel though. It was a good night of fast wifi, BBC television (British television is so foreign and strange to me) and a soft doona.