Our journey to Belemedik and Hacikiri was the last frontier of our travels on the caravan road. Tiny isolated villages that most Turks hadn’t even heard of, but for us our holy grail, our Tate Modern. These little towns had been the sites of the camps where Sgt. Maurice Delpratt spent most of his time as a POW, working on the Berlin to Baghdad Railway.
First we had to get from Afyon to Adana, nearly 600 kilometres away in central Turkey, and another city that tourists don’t frequent.
We had originally planned to go by train, on the Toros Ekspresi, that would take us (slowly) across the Taurus Mountains, through the tunnels built by the POWs and across the stunning Varda Viaduct.
Regrettably our travel agent’s predictions of unreliable trains proved correct, and we had to make the journey with Rafet and our trusty Mercedes camel. This made Rafet happy; allowed us to experience several more white-knuckle experiences of Turkey’s insane traffic; and allowed us to stop in Konya, one of the country’s most conservative and religious cities.
On balance, the road trip was probably more pleasant than the train, and certainly faster, though we can’t say that Rumi’s tomb and the Mevlana Museum really justifies a detour to Konya. Many devout Turkish tourists clearly disagree.
As we approached Adana, we discovered that the Merc didn’t have a highway toll-reader, so we had to use the back roads, and fully depend on Rafet’s “ask a passer-by” method of navigation. This became even less amusing as he tried to find our hotel. Like at Afyon, our overly-cautious travel agent had opted for a “tourist” hotel, and once again it was stuck in the middle of nowhere, and hard to find.
Next morning we were up early to catch the train back to Belemedik, since the local Ekspresi was running. This took us over the Varda Viaduct, to the tiny Hacikiri station, and right through the series of tunnels built through to Belemedik by the POWs.
This was very exciting, and we were truly awed by the enormity of the task facing the tunnellers. There is nothing much between Hacikiri and Belemedik other than mountain, so the railway track between the two construction camps is virtually one huge tunnel, deep inside the rock.
We were met at Belemedik by Rafet, who had driven up from Adana. Belemedik today comprises just the railway station and a few houses, and Rafet was clearly struggling to understand WTF was going on. However we insisted on exploring every dirt track (you couldn’t call them roads), and were rewarded when we finally found the ruins of the old construction camp.
The Belemedik camp was the regional admin centre for the construction of the railway, and the German and Swiss engineers and managers lived there. As well as barracks, offices and stores, the camp had major infrastructure like a hospital, church and mosque, and luxuries such as a cinema. Some of the luckier POWs were held there, but most POWs were sent on to smaller and far more rudimentary work camps, like Hacikiri.
Maurice played a part-quartermaster role at Hacikiri, and often came up to Belemedik to collect mail, Red Cross parcels and probably the pay for the men. The Turks decided (correctly) that the rugged and isolated location made escape all but impossible; the Germans decided to treat the POWs like employees – if they didn’t work they got no pay, which meant they couldn’t buy food to live.
While most are all but ruins, we found quite a few stone buildings that were part of the Belemedik camp, including what seemed to be the hospital, some barracks, some houses, the water-well and what was probably an explosives store.
With a bit of local help, we also found the memorials to both Turkish and German workers killed in the huge construction project. The remains of Allied POWs were moved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the like.
We finished our visit with a picnic near the station, and then it was off to Pozanti, the only sizeable town nearby.
It was here that we discovered that Rafet thought we were driving on to Cappadocia that afternoon. That was what his itinerary clearly showed, despite the fact that we had stressed repeatedly to our travel agent that we needed two nights in Pozanti to ensure we had plenty of time to explore Belemedik and Hacikiri. Honestly, which bit of “these will be the most important two days for us, and the main purpose of our visit to Turkey” didn’t they get?
After some heated phone calls by the side of the road, and the third in a chain of agencies chastised by the other two for getting it wrong, we headed off to our hotel, fortunately booked by the first agency.
The hotel complex was the curiously named Pendosis Vacation Village – why anyone would want to “vacation” at Pozanti is a mystery to us. But there was more – it soon became apparent that Pendosis was a contender for the “Fawlty Towers of Turkey” grand prize.
Pendosis was the original Roman name for this highway town, and the new namesake is a grandiose imitation of a Roman village – scattered villas, cobbled paths (some in need of repair), and lots of old-looking “artifacts” strewn about by an incompetent relative or a drunken landscape architect. Even though the complex is only a few years old, many parts appear to have never been finished, and many things weren’t working properly. The Spa & Wellness Centre now only comprises the signs directing hapless visitors to an empty building, the swimming pools were murky, and the grounds had hardly any working lights.
Fortunately, the rooms were actually comfortable, with commanding views of the Taurus Mountains, the staff were nice and the food was quite good. The meals were served on a charming outdoor terrace on the edge of the hill, with similar views.
As the most remote place we planned to visit, the way to Hacikiri was always going to be a challenge.
Helen had a few screenshots of Google Maps, but Rafet was not a great believer in maps. He had been questioning the locals about the road, resulting in conflicting (and hence worrying) directions. Finally Rafet found a local who had actually been to Hacikiri recently, and soon we were off on the Google Road – the maps were right!
As we climbed up into the mountains, and the roads became dirt, and the dirt roads became goat tracks, and the signage disappeared, we realized that all past versions had but been pale imitations. This definitely was the fabled Road to the Tate Modern.
We saw goats; we saw peasants on donkeys; we wound round tortuous corners; we had to choose turnings (without signposts) by intuition; and then, suddenly, we were at the Varda Viaduct.
Even Rafet was impressed, and even more so when Helen assured him that the shack we could see on the other side of the ravine was in fact a teahouse.
There is no way to play down the impact of the bridge. It is stunning – as an engineering marvel of one hundred years ago; as a still-in-use railway bridge that we had passed over in the train; and simply as an object of great beauty.
Bridging this deep ravine was the most challenging element of the rail project, and it alone took eleven years to complete. Once the Varda bridge had been built, the twelve-kilometre tunnel from Hacikiri to Belemedik was then the last great challenge.
After suitable admiration of the bridge, we drove around to the enterprising teahouse, overlooking the bridge on the Hacikiri side. Then it was time to go the last five hundred metres of our long journey from Australia, to the village of Hacikiri.
There is very little left at Hacikiri from 1915 and the POWs; just a few railway buildings, some stone ruins similar to those at Belemedik, and of course the major memento – the railway tunnels that the POWs built.
Unlike Belemedik, most traces of the camp at Hacikiri had disappeared. As we pondered the men’s unwilling, dangerous and malaria-ridden lives there, we wondered if their circumstances ever allowed the prisoners to appreciate their stunning surroundings.
Interestingly, Hacikiri has a small mosque and a few other public buildings, and quite a few more houses than Belemedik. Presumably this is to do with its proximity to good farmland, and to its much shorter (though rugged) road access to neighbouring towns and to Adana.
After nearly three years at Hacikiri, Helen’s grandfather made it back to Afyon in 1918 for the Armistice, and then Smyrna (now Izmir) to catch a ship back to London and then home.
The journey of John’s grandfather was less tortuous and much shorter, though his presence at Gallipoli did cost him an eye.
But we give thanks, to the prisoner and to the wounded man, for it is those circumstances, most unpleasant for them at the time, that brought both Maurice and Ernest home safely, and eventually brought us into this amazing world.
No more war !!