Friday, 27 August 2010

Off to Lakoban

Our man Hüseyin naturalist and bear expert.

The prelude to this journey can be found in the section called 'Finding Hassan' ( see links at the top of this page ) which ends after many adventures with my family and friends meeting up with our guide Hassan from Macahel at the town of Hoppa on the Blacksea at the border between Georgia and Northeast Turkey . We pick up the story after we found our driver Mavlute with his van along with our interpreter Hüseyin. Our journey to Macahel was about to begin.

After eventually finding Hassan the tension and anxiety of the past four hours swiftly drifted away. We had at last embarked upon our journey to Macahel. Our van slipped quietly into the busy traffic while Hüseyin started to grill us with all manner of questions. He appeared very keen to understand this unlikely troupe and we later discovered his idea of English tourists was very different from who he had just picked up with Hassan. We were not typical hikers but two middle aged couples with their younger daughters. We later understood Hüseyin had only previously met English urban academics who in his book were unfamiliar with the type of world we were about to encounter and I suspect demanding requiring showers, hot water and all manner of creature comforts. As we made our way out of Hoppa, Hüseyin revealed his credentials and how he had come to be with Hassan. We soon learned Hüseyin Ambarlı, to use his full name, was and still is an academic studying for his PHD in Ankara. He was working as a wildlife researcher studying brown bear ecology and human bear-conflict in the region. Hüseyin had met with Hassan while using Macahel as a base and had got to know him well over that period. A couple of weeks previously they had met up again and Hassan had invited Hüseyin along for the trip to act as interpreter and guide. We were overjoyed to discover we had a professional naturalist on our trip. Sadly Hüseyin was only to be with us for the first part of our trip but his skill and insight was to be invaluable.

Mavlute at the wheel to Lakoban

As we shared our stories and discovered more about each other Mavlute steadily drove our van out into the lush countryside and up into the hills. The landscape began to soften and we came to a small town with a simple petrol station where Mavlute pulled up. To our surprise a sprightly young lad jumped aboard. We later learned this was Gem, Hassan’s youngest son who was going to accompany us over the next ten days and curiously many more people were going to accompany us along the way .Rarely introduced ,they would just become part of our group.

Gem was to become an invaluable member of the team .Soon to be a great friend of the girls and a credit to his family.

Mavlute hit the road and we continued to soak up the mountainous countryside.Small farmsteads littered the hills with their tea plantations hugging the slopes, all neatly clipped like topiary hedges softly following the incline of the hills. The late afternoon sun gently followed us high up into the hills ,castings its rays across this subtropical paradise. Swirling mists could still be seen in some of the valleys and Hüseyin told us how the warm Black Sea winds rise up into the mountains creating a heady and mysterious climate. The air was humid and hot but as we drove higher the heat gave way to a cooler refreshing breeze as we continued to climb passing massive excavations below Artvin ,soon to be a reservoir to feed Turkey's industrial ambitions for the 2001 st century.

Man's destruction or simply reservoir excavations? The town of Artvin looks down on these monumental excavations as the sun drops below the mountains.

Mesmerised by the drone of the van our world swiftly took a jolt as Mavlute turned off with a lurch from the main mountain road onto a rough track and still we climbed.

The road turned to a rough track as we climbed higher pursued by the swirling mist.

As the sun slipped behind the mountains the track grew narrow and uneven and still we climbed. The road got steeper and each bend in the track revealed the valley far below vanishing into the dusk. Soon all we could see was the world picked out by Mavlutes headlamps and the thought of the terrifying drop down the side of the mountain only heightened our sense of adventure.
Our track picked out by Mavlute,s headlights

After a while we lurched from the road into a farmstead surrounded by the sound of cascading water. The rush of the river around us seemed to exclude all other thoughts with only a single light from the house picking out the details of the farm. This was a trout farm and we were collecting our fish for tomorrow but at the dead of night. Hassan was welcomed by our trout farmer and they quickly went to work in what seemed pitch black catching fish with a large net torchlight . The trout ponds were seething with fish which provided a surreal backdrop to this unexpected event. In what seemed tens of minutes we were off again in Mavlutes van with the next days lunch flapping frantically at Hassan’s feet. The road continued to climb and the trees began to thin until the headlamps could only pick out the swirling mists amongst the scrub beside the road.
By now we were tired and thinking of the possibility of a bed and a long sleep after an exceptional day .Our van lurched hard to the right and we could see dimly in the headlights shacks squatting high up on the slopes, had we arrived? After a great deal of conversation between Hassan and Mavlute we drove slowly up a steep track. The mists made it difficult to pick out any of the shacks but this at last was to be our home for tonight and a little longer than expected.
Greeting us at the door was a wonderful family, all smiles and I guess happy to see us, if rather late. Inside the house it was every inch a log cabin. The walls and ceiling all made from sturdy wooden boards and all quite new. Before we could settle down we wearily unpacked the van with our rucksacks and were shown our rooms. Simple and cosy with ample duvets. We soon learned the old house had burned down a while ago and we were in new house which our hosts had built with the idea of taking paying guest, hikers.

Tables were swiftly moved and we had a dining room table fit for a feast within minutes. Our host’s wife and a couple of other women started to load the table with food . After such a long day we were all relieved to eat supper and when finished we piled into our beds. I wished Melissa and Iona good night , I could hear rain tapping on the roof but I had no idea the following day was going to reveal so many surprises.

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