Thursday 26 June 2014

A Walk Across the Beach of Olympos - at the Lycian Shore

In April 2013, my wife and I traveled to the seashore village, beach and nature park of Olympos, near Antalya, on Turkey's world-famous Lycian Shore. This trip wasn't my first visit to this spellbindingly-beautiful place, but on this occasion it occurred to me to take a dedicated photo-trek across the beach that ran from Çıralı, a nearby town, to the antique ruins (and many bungalow-hostels) of Olympos itself.

It was a pleasant spring day, and the beaches were spared of the massive crowds that descend on them during summer. I know that the internet is flooded with pictures and travelogues about this place, but I still hope you will find it interesting through my perspective.

This view greeted visitors on the beach. The majestic, tooth-like peaks of the Taurus mountains emerged almost vertically from the bay. Notice the tiny, speck-sized people in front of the cliffs. 

The bay started out near the town of Çıralı in this small, sandy beach. Notice the jet-black obsidian rocks lying among the beach sand. I had my first swim of 2013 here, but the water was a bit cold.

Just among the obsidian blocks in the water I noticed something like a prolapsed anus. It was obviously nothing of that sort, but a red sea anemone of the genus Actinia, more commonly known as a "sea tomato."

We continued our trek towards Olympos. Just in front of Çıralı, there was an amazingly beautiful stretch of beach where large, majestic mediterranean pines grew in close proximity to the sea. Some people had camped out in the shade of the trees, in what was certainly one of the most serene landscapes one could hope to find on the globe.

It had rained the previous week, and the moist beach sand was blooming with extraordinary succulent plants and shrubs. This red succulent bush with pink flowers was one of them.

Tiny seedlings were pushing up from the sand. Who knew what they would grow into?

These red succulents were very common on some sand ridges. It's a pity I don't know much about botany, I was unable to tell the scientific names of these plants.

Soon, I caught my first animal - a tiny, snake-like skink lizard, of the species Ablepharus budaki.

A close up of the tiny snake-skink. These animals were among my favourite reptiles. Notice how perfectly-formed its arms were, despite being so small. This is why I called these animals "snakes in the making." It was easy to see how, in a few million years, the arms may completely disappear.

When browsing for food, these skinks use their arms for a slow, foraging style of locomotion. But when threatened, they fold them towards their bodies and flee like tiny, writhing snakes. Like snakes, they have no moveable eyelids, possibly in order to protect their eyes from debris as they burrow. 

I let the tiny snake-lizard go off to his or her business. These Ablepharus skinks were only one of the many lizard lineages that have reduced or lost their legs.  

I also uncovered this ants' nest on a sandy ridge. They were busily tending various eggs, some of them large and some smaller. I always feel a bit ashamed upon uncovering ants' nests. I was very careful to replace the stone that covered this nest - I did not want to crush their eggs.

Another resident of a sandy ridge - a tiny yellow scorpion, possibly of the species Mesobuthus gibbosus. It was very small, but stings from this scorpion could be very painful.

After walking for a while, we came across a small cave at the base of a cliff. I went in, and was surprised to find it inhabited by a lonely man in a tent.

I struck up a brief conversation, during which he told me he was from İzmir, (another Turkish city,) had "been through a lot," including a divorce. The poor man had apparently come to the Lycian shore to seek solitude. He had a supply of water and food, which he cooked on a simple fire he kept going by burning driftwood and trash.

I also saw these soot-and-ash drawings, scribbled onto the cave wall right next to the camper guy's tent. I wondered if they represented the guy and his estranged wife, but did not ask him lest I disturb any memories. I felt sad and slightly envious - sad because of the loss he seemed to have suffered, and envious because of his apparent independence from other people. How many of us, even at destitute times, had the freedom to leave everything behind and be as truly on our own as this guy?

At any rate, I felt that he needed to be alone, bade my farewells and left the cave.
I hope things went better for him afterwards.

After the encounter at the cave, we took a wide detour to the town of Çıralı, and saw, among other things, this tiny primary school building. It was a public holiday and nobody was attending school. I imagined Çıralı would be an idyllic place to go to school, had the school's curriculum not been the spectacularly useless one that gets pumped into children's brains in Turkey.

The school building bore all the hallmarks of official Turkish architecture; a bust of Kemal Atatürk, Turkey's revolutionary leader, freshly spray-painted gold for the past day of public holiday celebrations, "official" looking tiles that look like they've been peeled off from an abattoir, and that awful shade of salmon paint that graces many schools, court-houses, barracks and prisons across Turkey.

I started turning over stones in the school yard. A shocking find was this yellowish-orange Scolopendra centipede, a subadult. It was almost as thick as my pinkie.

A less-threatening schoolyard friend was this cuddly jumping spider with an orange butt.
I could not identify its species. Check out the two small eyes on its back, no doubt watching me lest I made a move to grab him.

Another arachnid at the school grounds: A harvestman, or opilione, was striding among the tiny, pollen-bearing cones of mediterranean pines like a character from a Tim Burton animation.

Although they look like spiders, opiliones actually belong to a unique group of spider-like animals. Take a look at its body, it consists of only one, box-like segment. Despite their clumsy looks, the opiliones are successful members of an elder group - their earliest ancestors lived more than 400 million years ago.

A true spider this time, a wolf spider (Lycosidae sp.) on the prowl.

Yet another jumping spider. I saw this guy prowling just behind the windows of the tiny school building. It had expressive eyes, almost like those of a more "advanced" animal.

Tiny pink flowers blossomed among the rocks and the sand.

 Everywhere was full of spring flowers I could not identify. These spiky, bush-like species were very common and eye-catching. Local people thought them to be poisonous.

Back on the beach, we saw this camper-dude, talking to his girlfriend on a cellphone. Tour boats lay beached on the background, waiting for the seas to calm down. In summer, these boats ferried tourists and visitors from Olympos to even more secluded, unspoiled bays and beaches around the region. These hidden bays made the Lycian shore a notorious den of pirates in the past. The majestic Tahtali mountain was visible in the background.

A view of the shoreline, halfway to Olympos from Çıralı. There were some nice restaurants and cafes along this stretch. One of them, named Karakush Restaurant, served an amazing dish of fresh squid and prawns.

Fiery red flowers near a seashore restaurant.

Finally, we arrived at the ruins of Olympos. The ancient city lay on the shores of a river as it emptied into the Mediterranean.

Olympos was inhabited since the antiquity. It prospered as a leading city of the Lycian League before falling victim to pirate invasions. A young Julius Caesar retook the city in the name of the Roman Empire, and afterwards the city was inhabited by Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese and Rhodians, before falling into obscurity. Until the mid 1950s, the only inhabitants of the city were local yürüks, tribes of nomadic Turks.

In recent decades, Olympos became a "secret destination" for backpackers and hippies, before turning into a bloated parody of itself. In summer it becomes extremely crowded and noisy. While the crowds were not around, however, it was still a beautiful place.

This was the majestic gate of the temple of Marcus Aurelius inside the ruins of Olympos. The legendary travel writer Freya Stark visited it in 1952, and described it as having "...that feeling for perfection by which the classic keeps man through all his ruin."

A fat lizard, a gravid female, was basking a short way from the temple gate. It was possibly of the species Anatololacerta pelasgiana - the Pelasgian rock lizard.

Byzantine mosaics, overgrown with moss, carpeted the forest floor.

Tiny, minaret-shaped Clausiliid snails wandered among the moss. I loved the intricately fractal-like, striated patterns of their shells.

Crocus-like flowers blossomed among the ruins.

I wished I could be reduced significantly in size, just so that I could lounge on these pads of wet, green moss. 

After a lengthy tour of Olympos, we returned to Çıralı from a route behind the beach. There, I came across this nice, small house, isolated from the bustle of motels, camping grounds and restaurants. I immediately had fantasies of moving to such a place; devoting myself entirely to painting and writing, and living to old age in the beauty of the Lycian shore. If pressed for money, I could Airbnb an extra room for tourists or other visitors. To this day, I wonder if it is the desire for a "better" life, with more accomplishments, or outright cowardice that held me back from taking such a path.

Striking, silver-colored plants grew among stony slopes near Çıralı.

There were many interesting plants in this region, the area around Olympos is one of the crucial biodiversity hotspots of Turkey.

Thus ended our excursion in Olympos, a delicious transect through nature, history and human experience. Snake-lizards swam through the moist springtime sand, boats lay in wait for the season to sail, some people pondered their loss, others celebrated newfound love, while jumping spiders, aeon-old arachnids and fractal snails crawled and slithered across thousand-year old ruins. Layers of memory, sweet and painful, permeated everything and anything.

I'm certain that with the right mindset and the right repository of knowledge, one can get an experience as rich as this one from most settings. Life is more interesting than any of us can possibly fathom.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Searching for Giant Grasshoppers on an Empty Highway

Just earlier this night, in June 2014, my wife and I went on a wild, action-and-mystery-packed car ride. I was driving madly along the narrow, dark village roads around the peninsula of Bodrum, not going to any particular destination, but looking for specimens of Saga, a giant, arcane insect that I knew lived in these areas.

Driving slowly along an empty highway made it very easy to spot insects and other animals. This big, brown katydid, (Tettigonidae sp.) was one of my first discoveries.

This other, green katydid was unfortunately ran over by a passing car.

After an hour or so of driving, we beheld what I was searching for. Just before us stood a wingless, long-legged insect the size of a kitten. I hit the brakes, turned on the emergency stop lights and jumped out of the car. It was a giant bush cricket, the legendary Saga, a katydid so specialised for a predatory lifestyle that all of its legs bore saw-like teeth, like a praying mantis multiplied by three. This reddish-gray one was as big as my hand and very vicious - I could not take it up to the car with us.

A while later, we saw a second Saga. I managed to capture this comparatively docile specimen, and away we rode into our hotel. I actually wanted to drive an extra hour and visit Bodrum, get a table at a rock bar, and feed our newly-captured insect bits of meat while listening to rock music and drinking raki, but my wife was very tired, and I had exceeded my quota of insane acts for the night. 

Back at the hotel, I took some photographs of our guest. It was easily one of the most awe-inspiring insects I had seen. It moved in a wavering, dance-like motion, no doubt the reason behind one of its more badass common local names - the "spiked magician."

Here is a shot of the Saga, compared with my fingers.

Easily a "poor man's weta." Encouraged by the giant cricket's docile behaviour, I let it climb onto my arm.

The sensation of the Saga walking on the inside of my arm was a strange experience. Its giant, adhesive feet hurt my skin ever so lightly, like kisses from tiny girls who liked to bite. 

I also wanted to see her feed. I caught a normal-sized katydid from our hotel room balcony, and presented it to the Saga. Strangely, she was scared of the smaller creature, and did not attack it. I then set the smaller katydid free. Note the enormous size discrepancy between the two animals, which are actually related. The giant Saga is further interesting in completely lacking wings.

The morning after finishing this entry, I released the Saga into the wild. It considered myself lucky to see such a large insect. I now want to go on more night rides across the Bodrum peninsula. Who knows what other critters may be lurking out there?

UPDATE: I assumed this giant cricket was a member of the species, Saga pedo, but the commenter "Kurt" has kindly corrected me. He has pointed out that this beast was not a S. pedo, but a member of the closely-related species Saga natoliae, or Saga ephippigera, both of which also live in Anatolia.

The entire population of the species Saga pedo consists of parthenogenetic females, which give birth to their own clones. This specimen, on the other hand, was a male, as evidenced from its rear abdomen. Such giant locusts, if male, belong to the aforementioned cousin species, S. natoliae or S. ephippigera. Thanks for the correction Kurt!