The residents of Avcılar village at the foot of the Kaz Mountains founded a cooperative and bought seven jeeps. Eleven youngsters good at driving and familiar with the conditions of the mountains were selected to be drivers. They take foreign and domestic tourists on what is dubbed an “oxygen safari” because the Kaz Mountains have a unique view and century-old olive and pine trees. It is said that the greatest amount of oxygen in the atmosphere exists in two places in the world; one is the Himalayas and the other is the Kaz Mountains. However, according to the residents of Balıkesir, the Kaz Mountains outdo the Himalayas. They have a plausible explanation: There are a lot of olive and pine trees in the Kaz Mountains. Neither of these trees shed leaves, which means they produce oxygen every month of the year. Another organism that produces oxygen is the algae in the sea. The Aegean Sea, especially on the coastal side of the Kaz Mountains, is oxygen rich at sea level. The deep canyons of the Kaz Mountains function as a funnel and move oxygen produced by algae to the summit of the mountains.
The oxygen produced by trees encounters the oxygen at sea level in Şahindere Canyon. The village of Avcılar, situated in these oxygen-rich mountains, is part of the Altınoluk district of Balıkesir. The residents used to earn their livelihood from growing olives and animal husbandry. For heating they used to burn wood from the forest. When the Kaz Mountains were designated a national park, the villagers were banned from engaging in animal husbandry. Consequently, they founded a cooperative (2004), bought seven jeeps and started guiding visitors to the meadows on hills with a view of the Aegean Sea, where they used to graze their animals back in the day.
Taking a breather in the mountains
The Kaz Mountains National Park has two entrances. One is the Kaşladağı gate in Avcılar village, and the other is the Zeytinli town gate. Not everybody is allowed in national parks. Accompanied by a trained guide you may tour the mountains. Driving in an open-top jeep on a motorway is quite comfortable. However, driving in the same car in the mountains feels like riding on a horse. Since pure oxygen is good for the mind, this drive may be tiring, but it refreshes your mind. Besides, you will see century-old trees, endemic plants, wild animals and the sea. The Jeep safari travels over a 17–kilometer course. The safari starts with a view of Balıkesir Bay from Dedepınarı at the end of Avcılar village. From there you can see how close Lesbos Island is to the coast of Turkey.
Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s fountain
The visitors in shaking jeeps sometimes see only the green forest and sometimes the sight of the unending blue sea. Accompanied by the sounds of grasshoppers the jeeps arrive at Zeybektaşı hill with mountain flowers and sambucus ebulus, an herb that is called “ayı otu” by the locals and goes well with yoghurt. For centuries Zeybektaşı has been the location for lookouts who try to detect forest fires. Recently a two-story building was erected, and two watchmen observe the forest 24 hours a day. They also chat with safari-goers and take their pictures. They go to their houses down in the village every three days to see their kids. We ask them: “How come you don’t want to live in such a place? Why doesn’t your family move in here?” The answer: “They get bored. The scenery does not satisfy them after spending a few days here.” Sultan’s Fountain is the next stop. It is a brook flowing slowly through the pine and oak trees. The water is so clear that you can see the salmon swimming. Surrounding the brook is a flat green field the size of two football pitches with no trees but a few rose hip bushes and a two-room stone house with a wooden roof. Here there is a spot where hammocks are hung between trees, and there are swings, a trellis and two wooden tables. Some of the tired safari voyagers wash up, while some rest on the hammocks.
Ahmet Erol, our national park guide, tells us the story of Sultan’s Fountain: “It is said the sleds that Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror used to carry ships into Istanbul were made out of Kaz Mountain pine trees. The sultan came here, erected his state tent and cut down trees. That is why this place is called Sultan’s Fountain.”
You can fish for salmon in the brook and have them grilled, then eat them with a salad rich in olive oil.
Stopping by Dereçatı
Overwhelmed by dust and heat, tourists can refresh themselves in the waterfalls and lakes surrounding Dereçatı. The voyagers enjoy swimming by the Aegean Sea at an approximate altitude of 1,700 meters, and then they descend the mountain until they approach Şahindere Canyon, which has a terrifying depth of 600 meters; most of them cannot enter the canyon. After breathing deeply while listening to a grasshopper concert, they return to the starting point, Kışlayeri gate. The jeeps have a capacity of six to nine people. The fee is TL 60 per person.
Other private companies such as Avcılar Village Cooperative of Kaz Mountains Tourism Development (tel: 0535 578 74 36) also organize mountain tours. The fee is TL 60-90. You cannot tour the mountains with your own car and without a guide. You must be part of an organized tour. Our driver was İsmail Yayla from Avcılar village. Actually, he raises olives. He started to go on safaris in summers after the establishment of the cooperative. He now guides domestic and foreign tourists where he used to raise livestock and collect olives. If you happen to get to Avcılar village, buy olives that İsmail Yayla’s wife cures. They are certainly delicious.