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Volume 32, Number 1January/February 1981

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Down the Gorge

Written and photographed by Richard Bangs

This story of the Euphrates begins, however queerly, in a sticky jungle in New Guinea, during a three-day portage on the Yuat River. The temperature was 110 degrees, in humidity so high our fried eggs came out poached, and the flies were swarming over us as we wrenched our inflatable raft over the slippery, sharp rocks that littered the banks of a mile-long unrunnable rapid -and dropped it, ripping a four-foot tear in the bow. Then our guide fell, breaking his ankle, and the other raft, yanked loose from its mooring, plunged over a waterfall. I turned to John, my partner, and asked, "What next?" Slinging sweat off his face, he said, "How about the Euphrates?" "Right," I said, and a year later we touched down at Istanbul's Yeshilkoy Airport, headed toward the Euphrates.

One of the great classical rivers, the Euphrates, like its sister the Tigris, flows through a broad fertile floodplain, spanning southeastern Turkey, Syria and Iraq and ending in the Arabian Gulf. On the lower Euphrates, some scholars say, is the site of the Garden of Eden, and archeolog-ists are still uncovering evidence of successive civilizations that throve along its banks: Assyria, Babylonia, Chaldea and Sumeria.

My interest, though, was not historical. I wanted to test the Euphrates as a potential rafting run. And information of that sort, I found, was less than simple to uncover. I began with tedious visits to libraries that smelled like the interior of Byzantine tombs, but didn't have an artifact of a practical reference; proceeded to Readers' Guides, in eight different languages; and thence to the map room, where I found the first morsel of meaning on a 1:1,000,000-scale map: a faint tracing of the river's course.

The Euphrates springs from central Turkey. Its largest affluent, the Murat, leaps to life in the perennial snows of Mt. Ararat, Turkey's highest peak at 16,946 feet. After that, though, it turns into a flat, fat serpent slithering toward its merger with the Tigris and its exit into the Gulf. But for some 300 miles through the escarpment of the Anatolian Plateau, the Euphrates drops like a steep, twisting staircase, kicking Whitewater spray up against sheer canyon walls and darting down narrow gorges. Midway, the feisty flow has been arrested by the Keban Dam, a power project completed five years ago, but below the reservoir runs the longest, deepest canyon of the 1,800-mile-long river. This canyon had to be our target.

But we still needed practical information. What was the river like in various parts of its course? Where could we launch our rafts and where haul them ashore? What supplies could be found locally? And what sort of authorizations would we need? Above all, where could we get maps -really good, large-scale topographic survey maps of the river area? Though good maps of Turkey do exist, they're virtually impossible to examine; as in many countries, serious maps are classified for military use.

For a while, it looked as if the trip was over before it had begun. We tried the U.S. State Department. We wrote the Turkish Tourist Board in New York for the official tourist map. We explored the Library of Congress. But all we drew was blanks. On the tourist map, for example, the end of Turkey that includes the Euphrates was simply left off, and even the 1:500,000 Tactical Pilotage Charts were still listed as "classified" at the Library of Congress.

Still, we had to have detailed information about the river, so I ventured to Washington, D.C. - to visit the Turkish embassy - went on to the consulate in San Francisco, ferreted out some people who had passed through eastern Turkey and finally, hungry for anything, wrote to the authors of guide books to Turkey, especially Fodor's and the seminal Turkey on $5 and$10 a Day. Fodor never answered, but Tom Brosnahan, author of $5 and $10, sent back an encyclopedia of contacts and information garnered from his years in Turkey as a Peace Corps volunteer and academic. We were on our way at last.

As the expedition jelled, the crew took shape. We would be: John Yost, L vice-president of our wilderness-expeditions company; Jim Slade, leader of trips in Ethiopia, Papua-New Guinea, Chile and Alaska; Tom Cromer, math professor and veteran of several exploratory expeditions; and Micki McEwen, a shrink from Marin County who had floated the Colorado three years previously and has been looking for another river to run ever since. She signed as trip doctor.

As Yost and Slade were to be in New Guinea until June, Tom, Micki and I agreed to go on ahead to see if the government would permit our little enterprise. If not, well, we could at least hike the back country, maybe even climb Ararat. We'd find something to do - a two-week tour of the Covered Bazaar; a swim across the Bosporus; belly-dancing lessons. We'd find something...

As we squeeze through Immigration at Yeshilkoy, two thoughts prevail: can we clear our gear through customs, and will somebody meet us? Sure enough, we sweep the waiting crowd and a smart hybrid of Mark Spitz and Omar Sharif, complete with Middle Eastern moustache and nervous cigarette, holds up a sign hand-lettered with my name. He is Mustafa Nurettin Suleymanfil, or Nuri for short, an agent for what, apparently, is the only tour company desperate enough to react to the telegrams I had sent. With his help, we get through customs unscathed and grab a taxi before a taxi grabs us.

We drive along Kennedy Caddesi by the Marmara Sea, past small fishing piers and outdoor cafes, along the Byzantine city walls. Istanbul has the highest traffic fatality rate in the world, I read somewhere, and our driver clearly wants to keep his city number one. As we weave within millimeters of disaster, he looks over his shoulder and practices his English with an old Turkish proverb, "Every day is a holiday for a madman." As we shut the car door I wish the cabbie happy holidays.

But we're not so happy with our own holiday; there's a lot of arranging to do, like sending Tom off to ride public buses on a 600-mile circuit of the Euphrates watershed. His job is to learn as much as possible about the river, its flow, obstacles -anything. Officialdom has yet to yield anything concrete about the river, so we are gambling that first-hand contact with local people and actually looking at the river will tell us something.

It does. A week later, Tom phones us in Ankara. He's fine, travel conditions are fine, and the main Euphrates below the Keban Dam looks terrific - but too big to handle without a crack crew. That means Slade and Yost, who aren't due from New Guinea for another 10 days. So what to do until then? Why, take a raft down the Choruh River in northeastern Anatolia. It'll be good training for the Euphrates, and besides, according to one guidebook, the Choruh's scenery "is enough to bring the most blase to a halt, with forests, peaks and precipices unlike anything you've ever seen before."

So we fly to Erzurum, hire a minibus and, after a long, hot ride over high passes and along broad alluvial fans, get to the Choruh. The noisy laboring engine fades down the road into silence; suddenly all we're left with is the small sound of the river gurgling. All the chaos and clamor - of airports, Istanbul, Ankara, Erzurum, taxis, carts and buses - all that is left behind. It's just the river and us.

Before we go, I have to give Micki, Nuri and Vic, another recruit, some paddling pointers, but then we assume positions -two in the bow, two middle-stern, and me in the far aft acting as paddle captain and rudder - and shove off. It's a quiet launch ing: no fanfare, no whoops of delight. The current grips, pulls us sideways as we fumble with the paddles to coordinate strokes. After a few slipshod riffles, though, we seem to be getting the hang of it. We're not exactly in total command, but we're ready...

The first day is quiet, the river rolling I softly past stark landscapes and indescribable vistas, but the next day more character creeps into the canyon. There are cattle, water buffalo and sheep, and gaily dressed Black Sea children. We pass willows, Russian olives, red poppies, ground lupins, yellow daisies and tamarisk, and spot several new bird species, such as the ankaz, red-breasted geese that migrate from the Arctic. The water is fast, minced with small rapids; the weather is wet and cold, not what any of us expected in summertime Turkey.

During one storm we seek refuge in a cave and break out the backgammon board: we're in the Middle East, after all. At this point, Nuri, who has spent a lot of time on a river for someone who can't swim and has never been on a raft, opens up as we talk about Turkish hospitality. "You must share everything you have. You must not refuse any hospitality. You must try everything offered to you. If people seem not so friendly, just smile and ask for help. They will then help." We find later this formula works every time.

Again the morning mizzles with icy rain. We continue downriver, moving like rusted toy soldiers, singing songs to keep our spirits afloat. The map shows a town coming up, so we round each bend with necks craned. Until, at last, we see a huge, yellow, medieval castle. Pointing to the clouds, perched on a crag above a gray brown village, it's a fairy-tale picture, and we're entranced - so much so we don't even notice the rapids ahead.

"My God, look!", Tom screams. Immediately downstream the river is going berserk, kicking brown water skyward in chaotic sprays. It's definitely a major rapid, bigger than anything we've encountered to date and, from its looks, as formidable as the Colorado. We paddle frantically, but it's quickly evident we don't have the arm power to get to shore. So, on command, we jump into the frigid water - which luckily is only waist deep - and tug the boat to safety. We moor, and set dripping, off to town, collecting the curious along the way.

Isper is a town lost to another epoch. Dominated by the enormous Seljuk castle we saw from the river, the town looks and feels like a living tableau from another age. Veiled women pad through the muddy streets, while the men congregate in crowded, smoke-clouded tea houses and feverishly pitch backgammon dice between swigs of tea from tulip-shaped glasses. We are told we're the first tourists to come to Isper in 10 years, so, like good tourists, we decide to visit the castle.

Carved out of granite and fortified with limestone walls, the 12th-century castle seems a well-planned fortress, protected from the north by a river too wild to cross and from the south by the town itself; a lookout could easily detect invaders from the east and west. But it serves higher purposes today. The highest castle tower flies the white-crescent Turkish flag and carries a series of loudspeakers, through which, five times a day, the muezzin chants the call to prayer as it has been chanted for nearly 1,400 years.

As we step down from the castle hill, a woman appears and motions us inside her home. In the anteroom a pale grandmother sits silently. In a back room sit two very young girls, wan from lack of sun, weaving a nine-foot-wide silk rug. Fingers fly as they tie endless knots, following a pattern on scale cards, using vegetable-dyed yarn. We're told it will take the girls two years to finish the rug and that it will sell for $235 a square yard. The family drowns us in hot tea, for which they refuse payment, but they gladly beam for a snapshot of the clan. The next day, June 6, is declared a holiday in Isper so everyone can come watch the Americans odyssey down those rapids that surprised us before. Everybody is excited because the Isperians, who call the Choruh "the crazy river," claim nobody has yet survived the rapids. More than 500 people crowd the bridge, and more gather on the shores as, at nine o'clock, with a swell of cheers, a soldier shoves us into the current -where we're quickly swept downstream into the gullet of the rapids. Instantly we crash into mountainous waves, list one way, heave another, broach, churn, and, to a thunder-roll of applause, emerge right side up at the bottom.

But now the river kicks into overdrive and our audience, following us on a dirt road along the river in a parade of bicycles, vans, trucks and cars, frantically waves a warning. We manage to swing in, and sure enough, an unnavigable rapid blocks our passage.

Portaging on most rivers is a grueling, time-consuming task. But here, we discover, Turkish hospitality makes the chore a snap. Thirty men and boys help us hoist everything to the road in minutes, where it is loaded onto a van. Then we rock and roll down the road, past the obstruction, listening to a current Turkish pop singer on the tape deck. Exploratory rafting was never so cushy. Half an hour later we're back on the river.

The rapids continue, ever increasing in frequency and magnitude. Cedars join the life zone; the canyon is growing greener. At noon we park under a suspension bridge and walk up to the local post office building, where Mehmet Giiltekin, a retired school teacher, offers us tea and bread. Mehmet, who has never met any Americans before, politely tastes our Cheese Whiz and peanut butter, but has difficulty disguising his displeasure with the foreign food. However, he loves our company, even if he can't comprehend our conversation. (Nuri, embarrassed to be wearing anything as outrageously un-Turkish as shorts, is pretending to be an American too.) As we return to the river, the sunshine breaks through for the first time in days. Magnifi-centvistas, Grand Canyon-like, are around us. Swirling around one bend we look up to see the highest peak in the range, Katchkar Dagi, some 12,800 feet high.

The next morning we go on again, digging the paddle blades through a gorge stratified with textbook geology; the earth has done some fancy dancing here. Every inch of level ground at the river's edge has been cultivated, so we're never more than a few deft strokes from peaches, cherries and a raft of vegetables. Starvation is not one of our chief concerns. As we glide past we yell "Merhaba!" to astonished farmers.

The rapids are now so formidable it seems a miracle each time we come out of them intact. Tom says they're the biggest he's ever run - and he spent eight years as a Colorado River guide through the Grand Canyon. His remark doesn't seem to sit well with the tyros of our crew. After a five-minute rapid - the longest I've ever navigated - we pull in beneath another castle for lunch and Vic measures the current: seven miles an hour. The Colorado averages four. On that news, lunch is a brief affair as anxiety overrides appetite. The ferocity of the water is only matched by the wildness of the canyon, and we seem lost in the Pleistocene. Until, that is, we carom past the village of Tekkale and see a television antenna on top of a mud-brick house.

Late in the afternoon, we approach yet another cataract hiking spray high into the air. Our established routine at this point is to paddle feverishly in a cross-current traverse to shore just above each rapid, where our phlegmatic Vic heroically leaps to shore, throws the bow line around an anchoring tree or rock, and holds tight. Then as Vic holds the rein, Tom and I scout the impending rapid, to plot a course between the holes, waves, rocks, whirlpools and eddies.

This time, though, the current suddenly double-clutches into high, pulling us toward the killer curve like a swaying trailer on a mountain grade. There can be no worse feeling than entering an unrecon-noitered, unknown rapid out of control

Niagara Falls could be around the bend. I suddenly remember the Australians in Papua-New Guinea who tried rafting the Fly River without proper scouting. As the river, without warning, poured into a limestone cave, so did they - and only a punctured raft poured out the other end.

On that note, we smash into the initial wave, a monster that pitches Vic over the prow and snatches his paddle. Micki lunges for Vic and pulls him back, but the paddle swims away. I toss Vic a spare, but as I stick mine into the froth we drop into a sharp souse-hole. I'm snapped forward, a pellet in a slingshot, against the front thwart. I scramble back to my position, but another hole sucks us down and this time I'm whipped backwards into the boiling water with my legs draped over the back tube. Tom drags me in just as we swirl into a soft eddy at the rapid's end. No one argues when I call for camp.

The next day, more rapids. They've ceased to be fun. Each one brings a flood of difference, of apprehension. Midday is spent in a series of three portages. By three o'clock Tom is bent over the gunwale vomiting; the sky looks as though it's about to do the same. "Euthanasia! Give me euthanasia," Tom babbles, and Nuri is puzzled. "But you're only 27. You are youth -in-Asia." That does it. We call it a day.

Friday, a drenched Nuri accompanies me, for the first time ever, in scouting a rapid. It's nothing compared to some of the past runs, but still mean. Nuri stares and trembles.

"Let's go do it." I slap his back.

"It's too fast... We can't."

"We've run bigger."

"I'm scared."

A powerful admission for a proud man. But I'm scared, too, and have been for days. I tell him that and we return to the boat, canvass the crew, and with mixed emotions elect to end the trip here. We want to save something for the Euphrates, even if it's only our necks.

Back in Ankara we link up with Jim Slade and John Yost, who've flown in from New Guinea, hop a plane to Elazig and take a minibus west to the Keban Dam, which backs up the largest reservoir in Turkey. The dam sits in a cloud of mist, with 36,000 cubic feet of emerald water gushing down its 4,200-foot-long concrete spillway every second. When the water strikes a lip at the base it shoots hundreds of feet into the air in a tremendous arc, then crashes down in a deafening tumult. After a year of dreaming and planning, we're all standing on the bank of this classical river, overwhelmed by the man-made creation that's controlled the flow that once ruled men and their civilizations.

By 12:30 we're on the great, green, cold expanse called the Euphrates. It's beautiful, but somehow anticlimatic. It feels no different from the Colorado, the Blue Nile or a dozen other big rivers. I somehow expected a deeper sense of ancient history, ruins at every bend, caravans crossing the shallows. The yellow canyon, illustrated with folding whorls and faults, is still, save for the sounds of birds. It feels as though we're floating through an empty coliseum, layered and deep, reverberative, punctured with caves and rimmed with winding paths.

At dusk, as we camp, we see two other inflatable rafts drifting toward us. Is this possible? We thought we were the only inflatable for 1,000 miles and at least as many years. The vessels gradually wave into focus as though emerging from a desert mirage. They're jerryrigged rafts, tractor-tire innertubes lashed to planks, piloted by farmers. They wave, and pass on toward unknown destinations. Micki invents and cooks "Beef Euphrates Italian," and, as we lie sleepily looking at the night sky, I remember that farmers and herders along the Euphrates have been using inf latables for millennia. Cuneiform tablets tell about crossing this river on inflated animal skins, Herodotus mentions it, and so do 19th-century travel books. Our $2,000 raft has a long history behind it.

The next morning I poke my head from my fiberfill sleeping bag and witness, in the flat dawn light, a tractor in the middle of the Euphrates. I get up to take a better look. The river is gone. A tiny trickle remains, bubbling 50 feet from the raft. They've turned off the dam! It's an astonishing sight. The mighty Euphrates, river of antiquity, ignominiously reduced to a rivulet, the victim of the flick of a switch at the Keban Dam. The tractor driver assures us the water will be back up tomorrow, so we take the day off.

But the river's still not there the next day. We break the wait by hiking across the ridge behind us, where we discover the real Euphrates rushing by in sizeable volume. We're on an island, it turns out, and have parked in a channel that exists only in high water. We wrestle the boat down to the trickle and proceed to drag it over the rocks downstream. After a couple of hours of pushing and shoving we meet the current from the opposite side of the island: smooth sailing. Within hours we've floated 20 miles to Kale, at the head of the Kermer Khan Canyon, where we set up camp on a high sand beach.

Through this Grand Canyon of the Euphrates, the river cuts its most imposing course, scything around a lava mass erupted from the Karajali volcano, and stabbing across anticlines of the Taurus Mountains. Here, too, are the river's biggest rapids. Lulled by days of flat water, we're taken by surprise when we plummet into the first cataract. Our boat is tossed like a tiny cork, and as it slaps on end I'm washed overboard, Micki loses her paddle, and our sense of anticlimax evaporates. This is not a complacent river after all; we have to listen to it, reckon with it.

As, all afternoon, we do - in a series of Arizona-size rolling rapids that lash us with some honest thrills. Beyond the oblique canyon we can sometimes see snow-capped mountains and, at tributary mouths, we occasionally spot Kurdish women fetching water in long-necked clay jugs.

Late on the sixth day we enter a travertine gorge pocked with shallow caves. High on the west bank, fitted into a limestone alcove, sits a remarkable sight - a masterfully constructed, ancient, abandoned Byzantine monastery, one with no written history that we're aware of, but as impressive as any in Turkey. Honeycombed with dank passageways, festooned with swallow nests, graced with Roman-arched doors, filled with bats and with no easy access to the world beyond the river gorge, the place is a hidden wonder. We can't help but feel we've stumbled across something significant. It's like finding gold while stranded on a desert isle: we can do little with the discovery, but feel richer nonetheless.

On Sunday, after the river has broken from the canyon, dropped off the Adiya-man Plateau and started its long, sluggish journey across the flatlands, we round a bend and see a glint of steel spanning the timeless flow: the Akinjilar Bridge, our takeout. As we pull in under the abutment, some teenagers manning an open-air soda fountain for bus travelers scramble down to meet us. We're not the typical afternoon visitors. One boy, recalling his English lessons, yells a greeting: "Hello! Welcome!" His eyes betray his incredulity. "You 'fraid this?" he asks, pointing to the river. I can't resist. "No,"I say, "Eu-phra-tes."

Richard Bangs, a former script writer and magazine contributor and editor, now heads a company that organizes and guides tours of remote areas, most of them by raft but others on skis, boats and bicycles or on foot.

This article appeared on pages 27-32 of the January/February 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1981 images.