Leaps of faith: canyoning above Kaş

Member of expedition on zip wire.

September 09, 2010, Thursday/ 15:27:00
“All you need is a head for heights, the ability to swim and a taste for adventure.” These words, from the flyer of a specialist outdoor activities travel company in Kaş, came back to haunt me as I peered nervously down into what looked like, at least from my precarious position nine meters above it, a tiny pool of foaming green water.Toes curled around the water-smoothed lip of a gushing waterfall, I knew I had to jump. Knew, too, that I’d leapt from higher places before. But, what made this different from, say, a jump into the wide, deep blue waters of the Mediterranean from some rocky perch was that here the walls of the canyon closed in on either side, restricting the margin for error. Jump too enthusiastically and there appeared to be a distinct risk, at least to this canyoning virgin, of thumping into the far, water-scoured wall of the canyon; leap too timidly and I could end up bumping down the rock-face hidden behind the curtain of the falls themselves.

“Jump into the bubbles” shouted our instructor, Adem, above the roar of the cascading waters, pointing down to a spot just in front of where the cascading white waters of the falls hammered into the murky waters of the plunge pool; “that’s the deepest place.” But what if I jumped too far? How deep was the pool beyond the bubbles if I misjudged my leap? How far would a 75-kilogram weight (that’s me) plunge beneath the surface when plummeting from a height of nine meters? I bent my knees in anticipation of take-off, but somehow remained rooted to the spot.

“Come on dad, just do it,” shouted out my typically impatient teenage son, Jake, shamelessly employing the catchphrase of a famous sportswear manufacturer to goad his father into action. “We’re all waiting.” Made abruptly aware that there were 10 other people lining up behind me, and more importantly risking humiliating my son, I took a leap of faith. Arms crossed across my body and knees bent as I’d been shown by our instructors, I scarcely noticed the canyon walls as I hurtled past them. Before I knew it, I’d hit the pool with an almighty splash, disappeared beneath the opaque but refreshingly chilly waters for what seemed like an age (but could only have been a second or two) before, aided and abetted by the life-jacket that is de rigueur amongst canyoners, popping up to the surface. It was, as the flyer had promised, “pure adrenalin” and I couldn’t wait for the next leap of faith.

Turkey’s adventure sports capital

Kaş, with some justification, lays claim to be Turkey’s adventure sport “capital.” Scuba diving, paragliding, sea kayaking and, of course, canyoning are just some of the activities that attract thrill-seekers not only from Turkey but from all over Europe to this pretty harbor town overlooking Greece’s most distant island, tiny Kastellorizo (Meis in Turkish). We’d met our instructors, Adem, Yaşar and Canberk, along with another couple of customers, a father and son combo from Holland, at the agency’s offices in the center of town a little after 8:30 in the morning. After a short drive up into the incredibly steep backstreets of Kaş, we stopped at the agency’s hotel to try on the obligatory wetsuits. Even in mid-summer, when Kaş swelters in temperatures in the upper 30s, the waters of the Kıbrıs (Cyprus) Canyon, our destination high in the Toros Mountains above the town, are chill enough to warrant such a seemingly incongruous garment. We also picked up a father and his teenage daughter who were staying at the hotel, loaded up the wetsuits and the rest of the gear (helmets, ropes, harnesses and abseiling [rappelling] devices) before snaking our way around the gloriously scenic coast road between Kaş and nearby Kalkan, where we picked up an English family of four.

The expedition team now complete, we wound our way up into the Toros, soon swapping the heat, humidity and crowds of the coast for lush, pine-forested limestone peaks and villages slumbering under cool canopies of vines and walnut trees. We drank a refreshing glass of tea in the central square of the bustling mountain village of Sütlüğen before motoring on a couple of kilometers to the start point of the canyon, just south of the “main” road between Kalkan and Gömbe.

From the ridiculous to the sublime

A battered car-load of local villagers stared at us in bemusement as they passed slowly by. Ten foreigners struggling into tight-fitting, rubbery black wetsuits by the side of the dusty mountain road was, to be fair, a sight so ridiculous it was not to be missed. After checking our harnesses and helmets were fastened securely, we followed our instructors down a dirt forestry track into the mercifully cool depths of the canyon. “Don’t rush, walk very carefully. There are rocks underwater, and you can easily twist your ankle,” shouted Yaşar before we followed him, wading ankle, then knee and finally waist deep through a pretty mountain pool at the bottom of the gorge. “Now here,” he continued as the pool gave way to a stretch of shallow, fast-flowing water running between dry, stony banks, “follow my wet-trail over the rocks.” Faithfully we followed the drips left by Yaşar as he boulder-hopped his way along the canyon floor, the sides of which were already growing in height and the width of which was shrinking alarmingly.

Switching off from the lively banter of the guides and the chatter of my fellow canyoneers, I admired the sublime beauty of our surroundings, with sheer canyon walls giving way to less steep but still impressive crags, a riot of vivid green shrubs and small trees sprouting improbably from tiny fissures in the steep valley sides, the brilliant blue of the sky little more than a ribbon above us. The slosh of 13 pairs of legs through the pools in the canyon floor and the occasional exhortations of our instructors apart, the canyon floor was eerily silent -- until I realized that peripheral sounds such as bird-song were largely drowned out by the constant background hum of roaring water.

Backwards into the deep

We had made several smaller jumps before reaching the nine-meter “biggie,” each one a slightly more testing “leap of faith” than the last, but we soon learned to trust our instructors implicitly -- if they said it could be done, it could be done and, of course, they showed us how. But even after the big leap there were more thrills to come. In one dramatically narrow section of canyon, Adem and Yaşar cleverly rigged up what they termed a “flying fox” but which was more familiar to me as a zip-wire. Here we took it in terms to slide, yawing wildly, down through the narrows and into, you guessed it, a plunge pool below. Most dramatic, though, was what I can only describe as a free-fall abseil. Here the standard jump was not possible because the plunge pool was too close to an overhang. The possibility of either undershooting and crashing onto the overhang or overshooting and landing painfully in the shallows posed too great a risk. Somehow I’d ended up first in line for this one, and though as a climber I’d done a fair bit of abseiling before, I’d never done it down a gushing waterfall.

“Keep going,” shouted Adem above the din of the falls as, legs braced against the rock, I slid down the rope. “OK, stop. Now just push off and let go of the rope.” I twisted my head round and peered down at the bubbling waters about three meters below. This went against all my climber’s instincts -- nobody let go of an abseil rope before they were safely down on terra firma. But hey, this was different, this was canyoning not climbing, and with only a moment’s hesitation I released my grip and plunged unceremoniously down, whacking back-first into the boiling waters of the pool. Brilliant.

Lunch and ascent

Although the section of canyon we negotiated was only some three-and-a-half kilometers long, it was surprisingly tiring, what with all the boulder-hopping, cliff-traversing, pool-wading, jumping and abseiling, so the simple lunch of cheese sandwiches enlivened by tuna, eggplant and barbunya (beans in olive oil) straight from the can was more than welcome. And what a location to lunch, in the sun-dappled floor of a silent, remote canyon in the depths of the spectacular Toros Mountains.

The end of our journey was marked by a delightfully rickety old wooden bridge spanning the gorge. Clambering up to it, we paused for a moment to admire the view down into “our” canyon then, still in our wetsuits, zigzagged up a traditional mule path to our waiting minibus. It was hot work, especially as Jake challenged his ageing father to a race to the top, but it was all part of the experience.

You may be required to make a number of leaps of faith on a canyoning trip (though you can always abseil instead of jumping), but the rewards are immense. As Jake said, “Just do it.”

 

Canyoning information: Kaş-based Bougainville Travel (Tel.: 0 [242] 836 37 37; www.bougainville-turkey.com) organizes canyoning trips in the Kıbrıs, Kaputaş and Saklıkent canyons. Trips cost 30 euros per person, including transport and lunch.

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