June 20, 2009
|The Daily Telegraph, 20th June 2009 |
It is early morning and the village is stirring. Women hang washing on balconies and sweep the steps of whitewashed houses. In the waterfront taverns there is the scrape of wood on linoleum as tables are set, while out on pontoons, fishermen tend their nets. Haze lingers on the horizon. In the harbour, a solitary skiff put-puts between the yachts, breaking the glassy surface of the water.
I have come to Ucagiz on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey to explore the sunken city of Batik Sehir by sea kayak. The ruins date back 2,000 years to the Lycian period, although later civilisations also left their mark. I join the group waiting among the kayaks on the sand. Some - including George and John from London - are staying in the nearby resort of Kas, while others like Kent, a Californian, are trekking the mountainous Lycian Way. Our guide for the day is Dave, a retired infantryman with a shock of white hair and a deep mahogany tan.
We don life jackets and gather for the briefing. Dave demonstrates the rudiments of paddling and outlines the route. "This is the distress signal," he explains, lifting his arms overhead, "so don't go waving your paddle in the air unless you want to be rescued!" After adjusting the steering pedals and checking the rudders, we snap the spray skirts in place and push off.
The beginners share double kayaks; the rest of us are assigned single craft. The shallows are soon congested, but after a few tentative circles and slow motion crashes, we file out past the fishing fleet. Mussa, a local fisherman, follows at a distance in the rescue boat. Although it is October, the sun is fierce and I am glad of my hat. Dave sets a leisurely pace as we perfect our technique, but it is not long before we establish a rhythm, the gentle dip-dip of the paddles punctuating the silence.
Beyond the harbour mouth lies open water. Dave gestures across the strait to our first stop: a long, low island. The sea swallowed Batik Sehir in the fifth century, when an earthquake caused the coastline to flood. The high points of the land survived as a chain of islands and today the city ruins can be seen at Kekova and the village Kalekoy.
We paddle on. As the sun climbs, Kekova Island emerges from the haze, its slopes carpeted in dense scrub. Gulets - traditional wooden sailing boats - lie at anchor in its westernmost bay. "This is the only place near the sunken city where swimming is allowed," says Dave, "so it attracts a lot of tour groups." Disco beats drift from the deck of one vessel and, as we quickly pass, a member of the boisterous crowd dive bombs in the water.
We drag the kayaks ashore. In the centre of the beach, in the shade of a eucalyptus, stand the ruins of a Byzantine church. A single wall and tumbledown archway remain, terracotta striations visible in the stonework. A grain store behind the beach is better preserved, the thick stone walls intact.
Back on the water, we round the headland to discover more ruins. Dwellings totter on the limestone cliffs, broken door surrounds stand stripped of their surrounding walls and staircases tumble into the sea. "You have to use your imagination," urges Dave, pointing down into the water, "but those square footings belonged to a warehouse and archaeologists think the hole in the wall was a wine cooler. The houses with the pointed eaves are Roman; the ones with the horizontal lintels date from Lycian times. They were put together in polygonal style, like a puzzle. It made them very strong."
We follow the island east, harbour walls and long-abandoned home shape-shifting beneath the crystal waters. I pause to survey the underwater scene but a sudden splash and bright flash of turquoise catches my eye. The kingfisher alights on a thorn bush close by, a silver minnow twitching in its beak. When it darts for higher ground we resume our passage until the breakwater disappears beneath the sandy ocean floor and the undergrowth swallows the stones.
"Time for an ice cream," says Dave with a grin as we quit the island and head back across the water. Ranged against the hillside opposite and crowned by a forbidding fortress is the village of Kalekoy. A huge Turkish flag flies from the battlements. Kalekoy - or Simena as it was once known - was an outpost of the Knights of the Order of St. John, who built the fortifications to guard against pirate attack. Today, access is still tricky: visitors must arrive by boat or on foot across the mountains as there is no road.
We come ashore among the fishing boats. A delighted restaurant owner opens up to serve us drinks and snacks and we relax in the shade of his veranda. Then I buy a ticket from the man snoozing in the sentry box and climb the steps to the castle, geckos scattering at my footfalls. The site is deserted. Beneath the rough-hewn crenellations, the castle is open to the elements and olive trees grow among the piles of stones. The high walls conceal a tiny amphitheatre but little else. It is worth the climb: sea and sky shimmer through every arch.
"Now for the highlight of the tour!" announces Dave when I return to the boats. We weave through jetties, past cabins wreathed in bougainvillea to the edge of the village. A stone sarcophagus rests in the shallows, a few feet from the shore. Above the weathered base, a huge domed lid rises to a crested peak. "It would have been the burial place of a wealthy person, perhaps a military officer," Dave tells us as we circle the tomb, our paddles catching in the sand. Acroteria -ornamental panels - grace the front elevation and each corner, but the carvings have been lost to erosion.
After one last circuit we depart, skirting barren rocks where bewildered goats have been left to graze. Ahead of us, the water breaks as a turtle surfaces; then it is gone.
We turn towards Ucagiz. A warm wind has whipped the ocean into short, angry peaks and as we battle homeward waves slap our bows. At the east end of the harbour we see more tombs, stacked higgledy-piggledy on the headland, but we do not linger: the afternoon sun is sinking and the mosque is calling the faithful to prayer. Sun, sea and sarcophagi: it has been a splendid day.
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