The Coruh in 1982

by Dave Manby

Slime's original idea was to hire a minibus and drive it round the corner shove a roof rack on, load it to the hilt and set off. Avis, Hertz et al, however, however had other ideas they didn't like our destination of Turkey and quoted around 1,000 for the four weeks. The next idea was Mike Macdonald's; he suggested we went in Slime's Polo. I thought that the first idea would leave too big a hole in my pocket and the second had too small a hole in the mint, so I went out and bought a minibus. "Gertie" as she became known, was a 12 year old ex-royal Navy, ex-London school, Morris 250JU minibus with 54,000+miles on the clock and cost 109 - a snip- the 9 was for the MOT.

After weekend spent servicing the van and ripping out the uncomfortabe canvas and steel tube passenger seats and converting her into a long distance "cruiser", by building a flat platform with storage underneath and foam mattresses above. And a further two months performance testing around London, we were all set. A couple of problems had come to light: the king pins were to say the least, worn, and the gear box, well, it had seen better days. It jumped out of reverse and the syncromesh on second gear no longer worked. These were, I argued blessing in disguise, the worn king pins would stop the driver going to sleep on our planned all night driving since the stearing wandered, and the lack of syncro would stop aspiring rally drivers thrashing my admittedly warn engine. The final problem was the bald spare tyre. This had a simple solution; I swapped my old Ford Cortina at the wreckers yard for a replacement spare wheel!

We now needed two more paddlers and a driver if for no other reason than it would reduce our per capita costs. Tony Ward managed to get time off work after Slime had written one of his then famous "it's amazing what you can do with Letraset" official looking letters to his boss. (This was 1982 and desk top PCs did not exist so Letraset did look pretty smart). Dave Higson managed to afford the trip by getting a generously paid job and an extended loan from a London building contractor. An old friend of Slime and mine, Richard Dixon, was persuaded to come over from Antigua and spend his holiday driving Gertie over to Turkey and down the oruh valley whilst we were paddling the river. When he arrived, he took one look at the van questioned ours and his sanity and offered us odds against getting as far as Esher . AA five star insurance was bought and a circuitous route planned.

A slight delay ensued as Slime decided to re-pack the saucepans and Dixon insisted on washing it; it was Sunday and we were in Surbiton, so there was no real counter argument. We left on the 25th June. By the time we reached Augsburg and stopped for a quick paddle (and a training swim by one of the group) on the artificial Olympic slalom course, the alternator control box and fuel starvation were causing trouble and we still had not made it to Esher! The alternator control box's problem was diagnosed as a blown zenner diode and was "repaired" by fixing a switch in the wire to the field coil, keeping an eye on the charge meter on the dash and turning the switch on or off as necessary . The fuel starvation problem was traced to petrol evaporating in the fuel pump, thus causing the fuel starvation. British Leyland never expected their JU250 minibuses to make it as far south as the warmth of Southern Germany and so had mounted the fuel pump directly onto the engine block with no insulating gasket. This problem was solved by wrapping some rags round the pump and running a piece of hose pipe through the cab floor and spitting a couple of mouthfuls of water down it every so often to keep it cool.

Next stop Beograd, (Belgrade) and now the water pump was on the way out. Water was leaking out of the seals. We called in on the Yugoslavian equivilant of the AA who were pleased to help. Leaving four of us near a bar, Slime and Mike set off with the AA man for a round of the local wreckers yards. Wreckers yards is the correct term, the road from Zargerb to Beograd, a crowded three lane terrifying madhouse, seemed to average a wreck every mile. Unable to obtain a replacement from a scrap yard or affect one of our usual Heath Robinson repairs, Mike, Slime and the AA man returned to rescue us from the bar. They had been feeling guilty since they had taken all the money. We hadn't been wasting our time either. Dave Higson had cadged a cigatette from a customer in the bar, his mate spoke English and as we got talking, they bought us beers and mentioned that they had a friend who was the local British Leyland agent. He was summoned and just as he arrived Slime and Mike and the money arrived and so we had to buy some beers back and, well, one thing lead to another. The Leyland mechanic, Kristic, was an amazing character who thought British Leyland made the best cars but they just need tuning, ( judging by the way his Morris 1300 ran he could be right). The only problem was his command of English was, though better than our command of Serbian, it was only by two words: "no" and "problem" but they were very apt. The conversation went something like this, but I have to admit drunk had been beer, we had our helpful fellow drinkers assisting and there were six of us asking questions. Things were getting confused.

"Can you fix the van?"
" No problem"
Anyone know where the toilet is
" We have a problem with the water pump"
" Its over there"
" No the water pump in the van is broken"
" No"
" Where are we going to stay tonight"
" You sure? We might as well have one more"
" What should we do?"
" I'm hungry"
" He says you can stay at his house"
" The seals are gone"
" Problem!"
" Can we get another?"
" No problem!"
Did we order this?
You asked for another.

I have left the Serbian out of this converstion; it would only confuse matters for the reader.

We ended up back at his house and were introduced to Slivovitz. After being enthusatically embraced by Slivovitz and Kristics brother as if we were old friends, we were staying the night - movement was hardly possible. The next day Kristic obtained and fitted new seals for the water pump and serviced the van. (From then on I every time drove out to Turkey, until Yugoslavia erupted into internecine mayhem, I would call in on him and his family and be welcomed with a cup of fresh ground coffee and a glass of Slivovitz and depart the following morning loaded up with apples and thick home cured pork sandwiches and a hangover. A few years later I was invited to his son's wedding but was unable to make it over for the event. On another visit I was sat down to watch wedding video; the number of bottles of Slivovitz and Pvo drunk and their effect was fairly obvious and I was somewhat glad that I was not at the wedding because of liver damage and the ensuing hangover!) We left for Turkey the following day something that our hosts could never understand - How could I have friends in or want to go to Turkey. He also wondered how I could have a friend in Lubijuana; a Slovinian. At the time I never really understood the problem. Our communication was limited to gesticulations and bits of translation by the next door neighbour who had worked in Australia. One year I was proudly sat down in front of the TV again, this time to watch the History of Serbia. Even this did not make me realise the country's divisions; the documentary, (in Serbian) looked like another John Wayne winning another war. Looking back with hindsight it is easy to see that the ethnic conflict was centuaries deep.

Next stop Erzurum - no problem. After a visit to the barbers, the shoeshine boys, the Post Office to send those promised cards and the Tourist Office to check casually that there were no problems with visiting the area around the oruh valley, we were off again. Hardly a stop.

Erzurum is situated in a large bowl, with the surrounding snow capped mountain's melt waters merging to form the start of the Euphrates river. Almost Biblican scenes greeted us; oxen ploughing fields, dung being spread out to dry for fuel for the winter, water mills still working grinding flour, the fields irrigated by channels that could be seen contouring round the hills till they reached flat ground, the local dogs carried three inched spiked collars to protect them from the wolves, electrical pylons, one of the few the twentieth century intrusion, providing a nest site for the local storks.

We drove North from Ezerum, up the mountains out of the Euphrates drainage over the water shed and down into the oruh valley. The whole journey had taken just over six days; "Gertie" had a top speed of 50 mph. we needed a stretch, and a sort out. The river here was small with no real rapids, just shallow gravel bars and irrigation dams made from trees and rocks. The locals, however, were totally amazed by the sudden appearance of two kayaks drifting down the river as a couple of us went for an evening paddle.

The following day the others set off down the river from the camp site whilst Richard Dixon and I cleared and packed up. The road, more a rough track, ran alongside the river and as we drove down the valley we saw no problems for the kayakists and so when we came across a side creek that we had to ford we accepted the offer of a tow from a tractor and waited for the paddlers arrival. We had a pleasant campsite with a fresh water spring alongside. We thought we had arranged to meet them later that evening at a suitable campsite. Obviously we had thought wrong, this was a pleasant campsite but the river team failed to arrive. By 11.00am the following morning when they still had not arrived we gladly accepted another tow back across the ford and set off to look for them. We found Slime and Dave Higson about ten miles down steam from our starting point happily sitting on the bank of a pool formed by the irrigation dam teaching the locals, who had looked after them the previous night, how to paddle. Tony Ward had be dispatched in the morning to find Mike MacDonald who had holed his kayak after a couple of miles on the river and had got out and waited for the support van to deliver some tape. Mike after being taken in by the local school teacher was put on the bus and dispatched of to Ispir and the army barracks. So after descending all of ten miles of what can only be described as grade II water we had one holed boat and a team spread over forty-five miles. (This is what happens when you let two Division I slalom paddlers, a British Canoe Union Senior Instructor, and a British Canoe Union Coach out on their own!) This auspicious start had enforced a couple of days delay. Arriving back at the ford there was no convenient tractor to tow old Gertie and her petrol engine across for the third time. By this time Gertie had grown gills and made it across with "no problem", (except a brake light never worked again).

More days of scenic but none too exciting paddling followed, interrupted by the occasional friendly fisherman throwing his nets. The driving however increased to a decidedly grade V. The difficult driving and the fact the maps and roads did not coincide meant that the river crew once again failed to meet up with the van and our sleeping bags for the night. Again we were taken in by the local village. This village was an hour's walk away from the road and had only seventeen houses. Fortunately one of the villagers was a migrant worker who was home visiting from France and so we had a common language but I wished I had paid more attention to all those irregular verbs a "O" level. That evening they produced a splendid supper that kept on and on arriving and blankets and beds. After three hours of translation for the rest of our group I was ready for bed.

The next morning after a splendid breakfast and a kayaking lesson cut short when the village headman capsized and nearly swam the grade III rapid below the village we set off on down the river still marvelling at their hospitality.

That night we arrived at Ispir and checked into a hotel. The manager thought nothing of allowing us to repair the kayak on his entrance lobby floor. The attendant locals were suitably impressed (but somewhat gullible) when the old shoeshine man came across Dave Higson's calliper and boot for his Polio and were told that it was as a result of the Falklands conflict. How or why England had been eliminated from the World Cup was impossible to discern.

Ispir marked a change in the river: the valley narrowed and the gradient steepened and we started to get good white water paddling of the best kind - rapid, pool, rapid, pool, and every so often a longer rapid. We came across our first really big rapid, one that we christened in later years "the Bitch" and formed the centre of the Joan Collins set, "Joan", "Alexis", "Dynasty", "the Stud" being the others. We carried........with all the normal excuses and after a long look at the distinctly grade VI route down the left. It was runable, just, and it was annoying to carry a runable drop, especially as it proved to be our only portage. It was the first "big one" and also one of the first rapids of any size the line was tight and protected and by lateral stoppers and a swim would have been very unpleasant. Though this was the only rapid that we portaged it was not the only rapid we got to inspect.

A peaceful camp was interrupted in the morning by the local highways department stopping for a chat. A lengthy game of charades followed and when we worked out that we couldn't go downstream as it was too big or too small or too narrow or not enough room, but whether this was referring to the road or river or the van was not apparent. Unfortunately there was no judge to adjudicate and so we decided to head on downstream to find out. Three hours later we rounded the corner to see Gertie waiting for us - with a cup of tea and lunch, we hoped - on a bridge over the river. It transpired, however, that it had taken Dixon some effort to manoeuvre the minibus on to the bridge. He had stopped for us to see just how tight the bridge was. The bridge was a beautiful old wooden bridge and there was an inch and a half to spare on the width and two and a half on the height after the spare kayak had been removed. Getting the bus lined up to get on to the bridge was also tight and involved jacking the bus up and the pushing it over to move the rear wheels over for the last few inches. The alternative was a detour of over two hundred miles. That night was spent in Yusufeli hotel after a few beers in a beer garden (the first since Europe). It was a strange place the beer garden obviously a new and some what out of place in an otherwise strict Muslim region. The start of tourist pollution maybe but probably more the influence of the migrant workers returning from Europe and the influence of Turkey's policy of making those from the East spend their national service in the West and vice versa. Either way the bar needed new speakers! As tourists we were fascinated by the local culture and attractions; however we were also the locals tourists attraction.

The following day we carried on down the river, bigger and better rapids with more volume as the Bahal and Oltu rivers emptied into the oruh. Towards the end of the day we came across a Swiss-Hungarian rafting group who appeared to be swimming the river with an Avon yacht tender in attendance. We came across them when the raft had become stuck in the middle of the river, a trailing line had snagged. We helped them sort that out and they asked us to guide them down the river. We agreed, but unfortunately the next rapid crept up on us a little suddenly and - well it was fun watching the chaos from the bottom! After rescuing their rafts and finding the waterproof barrel with their valuable refugee-status Swiss passports we adjourned back to the bar in Yusufeli and to swap river stories and hear how they had escaped from Hungary. Apparently neither we nor S.O.B.E.K. were the first crew to attempt the river. A Czechoslovakian team had attempted the river in 1976?77? but had spent three weeks, most of their, time detained by the army as suspected spies.