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Home of two-thousand-year-old trees, Çığlıkara is the world’s largest forest of pure cedar.
It was a warm morning in February. Typical Mediterranean false spring. The heady scents wafting up from the moisture-laden underbrush were making me dizzy. Only the previous day when I set out from Ankara it had been snowing. You know what they say - you can experience all four seasons in a single day in Anatolia. Well, it was precisely for that reason that we set out.
Leaving Kaş and the sun-soaked Mediterranean coast behind, we took the turnoff for Elmalı and found ourselves climbing into the Taurus. Around and around the hairpin curves we wound. First the scrub gave way to tall pine forest, then the cedars began to appear. All along the road through the Kıbrısçık Nature Preserve, we traveled in the shade of these great trees. It was as if the spring weather we’d enjoyed only a couple hours earlier had been in another country. Then suddenly it turned dark. Lightning flashed as if to rend the sky in two, and rain poured down in sheets. When we reached the village of Kızılağaç in Elmalı township, a glistening rainbow was awaiting us. According to our map the road ended here. So we traced out a new route for ourselves, one we’d never seen before, whose road we didn’t even know. Our goal, the Dokuz Göller, or Nine Lakes, in the Çığlıkara Nature Preserve.
A CEDAR CHEST FOR A TENT
Following the directions of the forest ranger in the village of Kızılağaç, we found the muddy mountain road. We had only managed to go about three or four kilometers when our vehicle got stuck in the mud. Parking it in a clearing, we hoisted our backpacks onto our backs and continued on foot. The mud and puddles on the road started turning to ice as we climbed higher, and then the road was covered with snow, which got deeper and deeper until it was finally up to our knees. It was quite dark now, and the frost was starting to sting our faces. How long we trudged along in the cold I don’t know. But, in the faint glow of our flashlights, we finally reached an old, abandoned house with all broken windows, probably former housing for the forest administration. In the only room with an intact window, we found a giant chest made of cedar that ran along an entire wall. In the joyful relief of not having to pitch a tent, we spread our sleeping bags and snuggled up inside the chest. We also lit our kerosene heater and immediately the room was quite cosy. Sipping piping hot ‘sahlep’, we drifted off to sleep in our cedar-scented shelter.
THE LONE RANGER IN THE FOREST
When we woke up in the morning, we found ourselves in a paradise of white. The mountains, covered with giant cedar trees, were buried in snow. We walked for hours, sinking knee-deep at every step and spotting tracks of boar, wolf, even lynx along the way. The road was constantly forking, and we took the left each time. Whether it was instinct or what, we always had the feeling we were going the right way. We walked all day on the mountain paths. We must have covered twelve kilometers when some little wooden barracks appeared in front of us. Their doors were all locked, but one of them showed signs of life. It was dark now and we couldn’t take the cold any longer, so we knocked on one of the doors. A short, dark man opened it and immediately threw himself around my neck. “Welcome!” he shouted ecstatically. Was he expecting somebody? Had he taken me for somebody else? He just kept on yelping as we stared in amazement. This solitary man was Turay Küpküp, the forest ranger. He lived up here in the mountains for months on end, keeping watch over the facilities. It seems the Forest Administration maintained a guesthouse here. And there was nobody either coming or going when the roads were closed. We sat up till midnight, drinking tea and listening to Turay’s endless prattle. Then we curled up like cats around the stove and went to sleep. Perhaps from happiness at finally being able to speak with a human being after all those months, Turay never slept a wink all night. And that day I understood what it means to be able to commune with another human being.
THE WORLD’S OLDEST CEDAR FOREST
Early the next morning we set out to explore the environs. We wandered like a pair of dwarfs in this forest covered with the biggest trees I’ve ever seen in my life. The body of water visible from the top of the hill must have been the lakes. We were a little disappointed. We had pictured nine lakes. It seems the nomad caravans had been stopping here for hundreds of years and the drivers, to water their camels, had dug out large troughs which had then turned into small ponds. When the snows melted in spring, the water collected in a clearing in the forest, forming a large pond. But in the heat of summer the ponds evaporated, leaving only a couple of ditches filled with water.
The Çığlıkara Nature Preserve is the world’s oldest and purest stand of cedar and was therefore taken under protection in 1991. It fills one with sadness to see in the forest the trunks of giant trees felled in the distant past and then left behind. It would take at least a thousand years to restore this forest to its pristine state. My heart brimmed with excitement as I touched the trunk of a more than two-thousand-year-old monumental cedar. Just think of it - how many states have been founded, how many thousands of people, how many different kinds of wild animals must have taken shade under this gigantic tree...
TWO-THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD FOETID JUNIPERS
But cedars are not the only trees at Çığlıkara. There is another species of tree that is also under protection here, the foetid juniper. With its red wood and bark and its trunk of dirty white, the almost two-thousand-year-old foetid juniper survives here in this protected zone. Due to overuse of its wood for lumber, this tree, which is found in very few places in Turkey, is also on the brink of extinction today. But the protected species at Çığlıkara are not limited only to trees. Among the other inhabitants of this refuge is the woolly dormouse, an endangered species of rodent that lives only in the Taurus, and the lynx caracal which makes its home in rocky mountains, again the Taurus in particular. During the daytime the forest resounds with the sounds of green woodpeckers, falcons and golden eagles. And in the early morning hours herds of wild boar with their scores of young gather to refresh themselves in the ponds. We stayed two nights at Çığlıkara. It rained incessantly the whole time. We came in snow and we left in snow, and we were smitten by the mountains at first glance. Turay Küpküp waving sadly behind us remains engraved in my memory as a lonely ranger. This forest of world class beauty is one of the rare places I visit every year, no matter what, to be alone with nature. And the cedars of Çığlıkara have become my old friends, where I can lean my head back and inhale their incense.