I’am feeling a strong sense of deja vu as our boat meanders through reed beds in Turkey’s Dalyan Çayı River.
My group and I are in search of loggerhead turtles and have joined one of the many daily boat tours that wend at a relaxed pace through these waterways to eventually reach Iztuzu beach. Along the way we view sights that wouldn’t look out of place in an Indiana Jones movie. Carved into the mountains around us are ornate temple-like structures, Lycian tombs dating from 400 BC.
“Scenes from The African Queen were filmed along here,” says our guide. And suddenly everything falls into place. It’s not Harrison Ford I’m channelling, but Humphrey Bogart. I picture ol’ Charlie Allnut, knee-deep in leeches, hauling the Queen and Hepburn to safety through the maze of high reeds.
By the time we reach our destination we’ve already had some adventures of our own. Prior to lunch we made a stop at a natural mud spa where the sulphurous stuff is reputed to have healing and beautifying properties. We smeared each other with the grey silt as we wallowed in a bath of it, before baking ourselves dry in the sun. Even after a thorough rinsing I smelled like a rotten egg.
I’m surprisingly moved, when we reach our destination, to be gazing from our boat directly at prehistoric-looking giant turtles as they glide around us. Their habitat here has been protected since 1988 and as a result, the beach is pristine. Wooden stakes in the sand demarcate the turtle breeding grounds, out of bounds to humans, and the beach closes from 8pm-8am to leave the residents in peace.
All-inclusive daytrips such as these seem to be tourism’s bread and butter in the region where we are staying. In the last ten years Fethiye has become incredibly popular with British tourists. Some might say it’s been spoiled. There’s certainly no shortage of “British restaurants”, alongside nail bars, tattooists and knock-off goods stalls in the small resort of Oludeniz where many flock, to bake in the day and party at night. But for the adventurous tourist there is much to recommend it. It’s easy and cheap to arrange a day out somewhere more interesting to do something amazing.
We elect to take a “jeep safari,” early one morning, piling into an open jeep which picks us up from our hotel along with a family group. It soon becomes apparent, as we meet up with several other vehicles from the same company that this will be a boisterous sort of trip, featuring water pistols. If you can bear being shot in the face with a super soaker every ten minutes, it’s actually quite a wallet-friendly way to take in some incredible sights. Away from the tourist hubs, we ride through aromatic forests and the air smells of tree resin, like a sauna. We swerve to avoid tortoises. I cringe a little as we pass bemused-looking farmers, our horns tooting, super soakers soaking. The land which looks so dry is fecund with luxurious produce. Pomegranate trees, peaches, chillies, almonds and figs all grow here.
We stop at Saklikent, a deep gorge and a popular spot with tourists and locals alike. The walls of the canyon are like cool marble offering welcome relief from the heat. At 300 metres, it’s one of the deepest in the world. Many people coming in the opposite direction are painted grey from the “medicinal” mud they have scraped off the riverbed and daubed on themselves. At one point the river is high and fast. Burly men stand at the best crossing points, offering a helping hand in exchange for a tip. On your return you may be surprised to be presented with an unflattering photograph of yourself, scrambling over slippery rocks, yours for a couple of Turkish lira. If there’s an opportunity to busk, undoubtedly an enterprising local will seize it. Later that evening as we were dining at the fish market in Fethiye Balikpazari, just as we are all loosening our belts and bemoaning our lack of restraint, a serious young boy approaches with a set of bathroom scales offering to weigh us for a tip. “You’re very slim! 40 kilos!” he estimates rather optimistically.
The fish market in Fethiye’s pretty old town is charming. Diners choose their seafood from market stalls and the restaurant cooks your fish to your instructions. Dishes are accompanied by mezze and it’s a way of eating that feels very relaxed and sociable. People-watching in the fairy light-draped square is a perfect way to pass an evening.
Turkish food is a real delight for anyone who likes to graze on lots of varied little morsels. One of the culinary highlights of our visit was lunch at Cinbal – one of the oldest restaurants in the area. After visiting Kayakoy, an abandoned town where silent ruins are intertwined with dusty fig trees, we stop there for refreshment. Sitting outside on raised daises covered in rugs and cushions, under a canopy of grapevines we eat a traditional tandir lamb dish, which comes wrapped in foil over a metal bowl of charcoal. Served with melt-in-the-mouth aubergines, yoghurt with smoked chillies (addictive and slightly painful), salad and flatbreads, the meat is extremely tender. We wash it down with icy Effes beers. And force ourselves to find room for baclava with ice-cream for dessert.
It would be madness to visit Fethiye and not spend some time messing about in boats. We hire one at Fethiye marina and spend a wonderful lazy day snorkeling and lounging in and out of the sun. I walk the 5k back to my hotel from the Marina, passing a string of trendy-looking bars with traditional musicians playing outside. The effect is rather like twiddling the dial on several local radio stations.
The Tuesday market is a big deal in Fethiye. As well as countless stalls selling fresh local produce, there is silver jewellery for sale, clothes, homewares and various knock-off doppelgangers. Some real bargains can be found here. I pick up some of the handpainted bowls we see everywhere on our trip for less than half the price of any other vendor. They’re beautiful: cheerful and intricate and every one different. We haggle successfully. 10tl each (£3.60). Incidentally, the market is the only place where haggling was welcomed. The hip youngsters staffing tourist shops in the old town could barely conceal their contempt when we questioned their prices – at least double what we saw in the market.
On our final evening we visit a traditional Hamam in an original 16th century Ottoman building. I sit in the fragrant steam until I’m limp from the heat before a beefy Turkish man with a loofah mitt scrubs off all my dead skin. It’s a funny thing to let a stranger do to you, but feels so good that it’s easy to forget about your modesty. A second chap froths up a basin of soap into a snowdrift of bubbles which he massages onto weary limbs. Afterwards my friend and I are wrapped in towels and propped on a bench by the door, open to the street, to cool off. I can’t stop giggling, but I’m floating on a cloud of bliss and it’s not hard to understand why this tradition has survived.
When I return to to Turkey, and I’m sure I will, this will be on the list of experiences I want to repeat – but then I could say that about just about everything I encountered in this magical country... except for the full-English breakfasts and beachside tattoo shops. I’ll probably give those a miss.
Fly from Edinburgh to Dalaman for around £438 return with Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com); double rooms at the Delta Hotel start at £49 per night for B&B, www.hoteldeltafethiye.com, visit www.fethiye-turkey.co.uk