Rockin' an ATV in Turkey's Cappadocia

WHITNEY PIPKIN
Last updated 05:01 14/11/2013

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I'd already done my share of grumbling by the time I threw a leg over the seat of a dusty four-wheeler and gave the kick-starter a weak attempt.

It was a pleasant morning for Turkey's desert like region of Cappadocia, but a bit too early for this jet-lagged traveller to be chirpy.

Not to mention that there were few things I wanted to do less than take this four-wheeler for a spin.

Let's just say that this was not my idea.

In fact, I'd been the least enthused in our group of eight about the prospect of this testosterone-fuelled outing-on-wheels when some had first floated the idea a couple of days earlier.

We'd come to this region of Turkey to help Iranian refugees and immerse ourselves in the culture.

Did we really want to use our one sightseeing day to putter around on rented all-terrain vehicles?

Half of our group - which included three men and one very brave female - answered with a resounding yes.

So, on the morning of our free day, we parted ways.

My group of four set out on our own adventure, in search of Turkish trinkets that would tell a story from our coffee tables (though we discovered later that shops right near our hotel sold the same pieces for less).

Instead of looking for little caves on four-wheelers (surely our friends would be bored after a couple of hours), we went to the cave city in Goreme, the multi-level underground one where early Christians hid from religious persecution.

I considered our destination to be less touristy than four-wheeling, despite the entry fees and the fact that - were it not for regional riots at the time - it would have been swarmed with, ahem, tourists.

Still, we had a great time. We even tried our hand at pottery making, some more successfully than others.

But when the group met back up for dinner, the ATV-ers appeared to have had, by comparison, the time of their lives.

We'd barely sat down to a Turkish barbecue prepared by our hotelier when the others began regaling us with stories of four-wheeling adventures.

You'd think they'd been on the set of an Indiana Jones movie, the way they talked about discovering hidden temples, wheeling through narrow ravines and barely escaping serious injury on a few occasions.

Their group had spent much of the day traversing the expanse of rock formations south of Goreme and scouting out spots worthy of exploration.

From the hotel terrace we could see the mysterious "fairy chimneys" that distinguish this region on every side. Formed from volcanic rock hewn over the centuries into jutting towers and sloping valleys, the lofty structures are both beautiful and functional.

Many of them have been hollowed out and used as homes or cave hotels.

On morning walks along the rural roads, we'd peeked into those that looked uninhabited (and were wrong about a couple). The elements had shorn off the sides of some to reveal cubby like holes carved into the walls for storage. Some even had glass windowpanes or driveways.

But these structures and caves, our pioneers told us, dotted the landscape for miles beyond where we could explore on foot, just begging to be discovered.

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They'd spent the day climbing through overgrown ravines and up volcanic slopes, collecting scrapes along the way; they'd stumbled upon makeshift ATV parks with hills for jumping and flats for perfecting doughnuts.

And they'd revved their engines to reach high points for breathtaking views (a far better method than the region's pricey balloon rides, they said).

Wielding iPhone videos, they showed us how they'd walked up to seemingly undiscovered caves and scaled the walls to survey their innards. Some looked like abandoned homes, while others featured long tunnels that led from cave to cave.

But it wasn't until their final evening run on the ATVs that our explorers found what they were looking for (not that they'd really known what they were looking for).

With sunset nearing and still several miles from our hotel, they'd ventured into a cave with what looked like religious symbols carved into the ceiling and walls, adding to the feeling that they'd discovered some sort of ancient temple.

"In my mind, if I see it on my own without a guide, I'm like, 'I discovered this. I'm an adventurer,' " said Josh Smith, the one who first planted the four-wheeling idea.

"Everything we saw, we thought we were the first people to see it, despite the fact that we'd seen footprints and trails on the way."

The team had snagged four ATVs for a 24-hour period for just about US$50 ($60) per person. So the morning after their hoorah, it was my turn to give the machine a whirl.

We rose early to squeeze in a couple of hours of horsepower before heading off to teach English classes and visit refugees in a nearby city.

Our first group of four headed out while the others ate breakfast, so that no one had to share a machine.

My husband, who even without coffee was already too enthused about the outing for my taste, helped me start the pesky engine and delivered a quick primer on four-wheeling.

I'd grown up around motorcycles (around, not on), so what could be the big deal?

Equipped with helmets, we were soon rolling down the steep cobblestone road that led toward town.

We hadn't even hit the dirt roads, and I was already struggling to remember which hand controlled which brake. I knew not to use one of them on a downhill, but the information I'd received minutes before had already deserted me.

"Baaaabe!" I yelled in vain at my husband, Cole, who'd already revved his vehicle to the bottom of the hill.

By the time I crept to his side, riding both brakes the whole way down, my shoulders had tensed into a vice around my neck.

Turns out, the steep inclines on dirt are even harder to navigate gracefully. A few minutes into our trail riding, I made it halfway up a hill that my fearless leader had expertly traversed - only to find myself sliding backward, then sideways.

I panicked and was rescued from my own flailing by a fellow rider who held the handlebars of my tilted ATV steady as I bailed off to one side.

So far, I was succeeding at my goal of not having fun.

But with some cajoling, I got back on the proverbial horse - just in time for the good stuff.

We pulled up to an outcropping of caves and started exploring. My husband is a professional explorer, mind you, so before I could dismount, he was halfway through the cave, waving for me to join him.

This cave was more of a tunnel than anything else. A narrow trail sliced through the centre, causing us to hunker through some parts and hop over others.

It fed into a breezeway of sorts between the two rock faces, where young olive trees sprouted in the impossible soil and bright sun.

We waved to the other couple with us as they explored a similar string of caves across a small valley.

We must have woven our way through a half-dozen rock formations, all knit together by the tunnels, when we reached what appeared to be the end.

The exterior of another cave rose before us, but the only way to go was up. When my husband found the rock sides of its surface too sandy to scale (to be sure, he did try, to the detriment of his REI pants), we turned back.

By the time I reached our ATVs, realising that I wouldn't have seen these caves without the help of this unwieldy vehicle, I'd had a slight change of heart.

Hot-air balloons played peek-a-boo with caves in the distance. Visitors had boarded them in the wee hours of the morning to catch aerial views of the unique topography.

But we had simply walked out our back door, mounted our machines and headed out.

Instead of spying down from above, we were exploring the place in 3-D (even if I had trouble navigating some of its hilly dimensions).

We walked right into these centuries-old structures that had been changed by the hand of time and the tools of men who carved them into living spaces.

I was feeling a bit more comfortable behind the handlebars and ready to see more. I preferred the flat and fast sections of the terrain to the undulating hills, especially if I could pull out front to avoid the dust storms that each of our ATVs kicked up.

But most of the "good stuff" lay at the other end of trails that, for all I knew, existed for Turkey's version of the Motocross X Games. I tried to picture myself catching air at the top of the hills the way I'd seen on TV, maybe letting go of a handlebar to throw up the horns.

Despite my imaginings, though, I looked more as if I was driving a motorized wheelchair at a grocery store than anything that might appear on ESPN.

I approached each hill at what I deemed to be a comfortable pace, giving my machine enough gas to putter over the summit before riding the brakes to the bottom of the next one.

I heard my riding companions let out woo-hoos, and the thought crossed my mind that I should loosen up a bit.

It's not that I wasn't having fun, just that I couldn't stop thinking of how un-fun it would be to have this sucker flip and run me over. And my slow-and-steady approach did work well on a particularly tricky section of the trail - until I got stuck, that is.

We were approaching what looked like an expansive cave home when the trail began to narrow into a single deep rut.

We soon realized that we had four wheels on a path clearly meant for two.

At a sharp turn, the trail cosied up to the side of a rock face and made our strategy of straddling the rut with our wheels impossible.

I watched my husband put one foot on the rock and expertly steer his machine around the corner. It looked easy enough.

He stopped to talk me through the manoeuvre. I put my foot where his had been and gave the engine what I thought was "a little gas."

One giant "Vroom!" later, my four-wheeler was stuck. One wheel had travelled up the side of the rock, another was in the rut and the other two were waiting in midair for some direction.

This time, I felt very little shame about abandoning ship, as it were, and letting my husband guide the machine to safety. With all four wheels on the dirt, I took in the view of the cave home, which had a long driveway and - you guessed it - a motorcycle parked out front.

Back on the flats, I kept my eyes on the scenery, stopping to snap photos with the bulky camera I'd brought along, letting the group leave me in its dust for a moment.

While the others seemed to be enjoying the ride, I preferred the destination part. I loved pulling up to a summit (though I couldn't pull off a cool sliding stop) to take in a view and catch a dust-free breath.

Soon, we had to return to the hotel so that our other four travellers could have a turn. We handed over the keys and sat down to a well-earned breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, yogurt and a weak attempt at American coffee.

I sank into my chair and savoured the feeling of dirt under my fingernails. I had to admit - though only to myself - that à-la-four-wheels wasn't a bad way to travel.

Pipkin, a freelance journalist who lives in Alexandria, Virgina, blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com.

WHERE TO STAY

SOS Cave Hotel, Aydinli Mahallesi, Cakmakli Sokak No. 4. A cave hotel overlooking Goreme and its unique rock formations. The staff is accommodating (and can help you book ATV rentals). Rooms, including breakfast, from $50 per night.

Divan Cave House, Aydinli Mahallesi, Gorceli Sokak No. 5. A hospitable cave hotel with panoramic views from the terrace and a good breakfast. Rooms from $80 per night.

WHERE TO EAT

Koy Evi Restaurant, Gaferli Mahallesi, Aydinkiragi Sokak No. 40. Serves traditional Cappadocian food such as stuffed eggplant, grape leaves and tandir chicken. Ask for the special that includes samples of their best dishes. Meals start at $15.

WHAT TO DO

Cappadocia Adventure, Turgut Ozal Meydani No. 1. One of many ATV rental companies that line the main street in Goreme and offer a wide range of prices based on the duration of the rental. Eight- or 24-hour rentals run between $50 and $125 per rider.

Butterfly Balloons, Uzundere Cad No. 29. See the fairy chimneys and rock formations from above. Baskets seat 12 to 20 people and start at about $240 per person.

INFORMATION

visitcappadocia.com

- The Washington Post

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