(written August 2008)

Life in our modern world is kind of amazing…

Map of AntakyaOn Tuesday we were in Antakya, located near the bottom of a ‘pan handle’ in the south and east of Turkey, not far from the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and boxed in by Syria on two sides.  That day we flew the 1,100 kilometres to Istanbul as we had some essential tasks to accomplish there.  Just four days later, on Saturday and after driving for two relatively long days, we were back in Antakya.

A journey that not that long ago would have been either unimaginable or simply impossible.  Today, such a journey is not even remotely noteworthy.

In this case, our short turn around was due to some responsibilities we had here in Antakya, and so, once our business in Istanbul was concluded, we hurried back.

Whilst we were in Istanbul one of our tasks was to bring our car down to Antakya.  Now, as you do when contemplating long journey in a significantly less than new automobile, I took the car to a Fiat service centre and had it serviced and checked over.

They found a fuel leak (!) which was fixed – which was good.  They adjusted various things and gave everything a thorough going over.  In process of doing that, they checked the brakes and adjusted the hand brake.   All good.

As we departed Istanbul, we were comforted with the thought that everything should be ‘top notch’ and ready for the rigours of the trek before us.

The goal of the first day out of Istanbul was to drive a little over half way to Antakya.  Our resting place was to be the city of Aksaray on the vast high interior Anatolian plateau.

For the first four and a half hours of that initial journey, we moved along rather briskly at 120 kph.  The motorway is both brand new and ultra modern – utilising tunnels and concrete via-ducts to go where previously no road could ever conceivably go.  The remaining two and a half hours of the first days travel were accomplished at a more sedate 90 kph as the roadway whilst being a good quality dual carriage way was not classified as a motorway and consequently, had a lower speed limit posted.  Frequent police radar controls helped to dampen most drivers desire to drive at a speed that logic dictated would have been reasonable and safe on that road.

The Anatolian plain is a vast, well, plain.  On the first leg on the plateau, after the capital city Ankara, there are some lumps and bumps, but, it  progressively becomes relatively flat.  The one noteworthy feature, about 45 minutes before we arrive at Aksaray is the vast ‘salt lake’.  It is always fascinating to observe the broad white levels as the water has receded over the course of the summer.  The observer is left blinking in the harsh white reflected light from the lake bed.

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At the same time, it is always intriguing to see the salt being harvested by big machines out on the lake.  Sometimes they are at a distance where they are glimmering like distant mirages on the lake.

So far, the trip has progressed exactly as it has the many times in the past that we have covered this terrain.

We lodged the night in Aksaray and planned to head off reasonably early for the final leg of our journey.  The planned day’s travel encompassed travelling across the remainder of the plain, into the lofty coastal Toros mountain range, passing through the ancient and extremely narrow ‘Cilician Gates’ and then dropping down to sea level and once on the other side, to follow the Mediterranean around to ancient Alexandretta, modern name Iskenderun, before climbing the Amanus mountain range where, at the summit, we would be crossing over the ancient ‘Syrian Gates’ pass, to finally drop down to the broad valley leading to Antakya.

We commenced the journey at a reasonable time.  We estimated the travel time from Aksaray to Antakya to be about five hours.  It would not be too strenuous.

The first hour is rather straight forward as you drive straight across the plateau aimed squarely at the mountains.  There are no real curves nor hills to break up the monotony.

Don’t get me wrong, I find the view fascinating, the soaring heights of an apparently dormant volcano soaring high in the sky and dominating the skyline on our left.  On the right hand side, the plain itself is amply dotted with strange conical hills, looking to be covered in scree.  I really enjoy viewing those unique rounded hills and would love to know how they came to be – to any geologist reading this, I would profoundly grateful to be enlightened.

Even so, I must confess, it is a rather monotonous drive.  The course of the road is a fundamentally straight line from Aksaray to the Toros mountains.  In 2008, the majority of the road had been upgraded to a dual carriage, but the speed limit remained at the single road level and so we were plodding along at just 90 kph.   That is harder to maintain on a flat, straight road where you can clearly see where you are going for the next hour…

Again, in 2008, the dual carriage did not extend the whole way, and the ultra modern motorway – with its prodigious use of tunnels and concrete viaducts carving a new path through the mountains through a formerly impassible valley was then just a tantalising mirage on the horizon.  We came to the end of the dual carriageway section and entered a long stretch of the old two way road. Two Lane Road Anatolian Plateau

So, until we rejoin the motorway, on the opposite side of the mountains, we commenced playing the ‘passing game’.

“Can I… should I… possibleimpossible… silly… wise… suicidal…”

What a fun game to play.

I’m only doing 90 kph, but the heavily laden lorries are trudging along at a slower rate than that, hence even I must be an active participant in the passing game.

Inevitably, in the normal course of things, I came up behind a groaning lorry belching black smoke as it was expending all its efforts to plod along.  I am travelling faster than the lorry, and as I drew near the solid obstruction of the rear of the lorry, I went to apply the brakes on our wee Fiat Uno.

It was, however, on applying moderate pressure on the pedal, that it disappeared, dropping straight to the floor.  It was like there was absolutely nothing there.  My speed remained unchanged – we continued to close on the imposing bulk of the heavily burdened lorry.

The car did not slow, but, in truth, my heart rate did increase rather dramatically at this point.

This is not a dual carriage way – I am immediately aware that I have four limited choices:  slow down (preferred option – brakes performing normally), or, failing that, hope that it is clear to pass (which is not likely), or, failing that, use the lorries back end as a brake (definitely not my desired choice), oh, there was always the options that I could just drive off the road and avoid hitting the lorry (but hitting whatever is off to the side of the road and discovering all the delights of bumping, banging and who knows what’s lying hidden in the wastes of that somewhat desolate plain).

Generally, I am a conscientious driver, paying attention and trying to be ‘full-time’ focused on driving.  But now, with my brake pedal sedately resting flat on the floor, my driving awareness had leaped up a gear…

The brake pedal lying passively on the floor tends to do that to you.

Thankfully, on my vigorous, urgent, repeated, frantic pumping of the brake pedal, some pressure returned bringing some feeling to the pedal.  It was no longer the same limp limb passively lying prostrate on the floor and the car began slowing – but not as it should.

Not at all as it should….

Our meeting with the posterior aspect of the lumbering lorry was hence postponed. 


And thankfully, I did not need to attempt to pass, nor to discover what was lying out in the plain.

To say this experience was disconcerting is a bit of an understatement.

It is also needless to say that now my driving had taken on a new, urgency, an intense intensity.  I applied a whole new level of caution – my mind was actively engaged in pondering through the ramifications of ‘what do you do if the brakes fully fail…..’.

This is a rather lonely stretch of road – not much happens out there other than the odd shepherd and his flock of sheep or goats.  Nevertheless, necessity being the mother of invention and all that, I am on active look out, scanning for an unlikely repair shop.

2007-03-07 Istanbul-Antioch DSCF9626 Taurus mtns adjusted snow
Correct bit of road, wrong time of year…

Because this is not our first time down this road, I anticipated the possibility of a repair shop at the top of the long hill that was looming in the distance ahead of us.

I pressed on across the plain, contemplating the implications of entering the mountains, going up the hill, cresting and beginning the descent on the opposite side.  My mind was fully occupied with these thoughts and the myriad of implications.

Don’t get me wrong, the brakes were now working – sort of, after a fashion.  But they were really, really soft.  Consistently, on first application, there would be nothing or next to nothing, but on pumping, some braking would grudgingly return.

My driving reflected this reality being clearly in the forefront of my mind.  Where possible, slow down ‘naturally’ by lessening the petrol…

We drew up and crested the long hill rising up from the plain, and before the long, narrow, twisting and winding descent to sea level on the opposite side on the mountains, we came to the little village of Ulukışla.

I  wonder what it must be like to live in a place whose name means: ‘With Great Winter’.  Thankfully, this was not winter.

Ulukışla is a shunting yard for the railway as they prepare trains for the descent and reorganise the trains that have made the laborious climb up from the coast.  There is really not much else in the village.

We drive through the village, slowly, and it is only as, with hope waning and we are passing out the other side that I see a row of vehicle repair shops.

I immediately turn in.

Now, T. sitting beside me is puzzled and wondering why as we have never, ever, gone into Ulukışla before.  It is not a very attractive village – completely run down, dumpy and dirty.  It is clearly a place that never had a ‘golden age’ – it has always been what it is…

Confession time: the truth be told, I had not pointed out the deficiency with the brakes to her, feeling there was no point in causing undue worry.

But, now, well, the cat is out of the bag.

To make matters more, uh, interesting, this day was the Zafer Bayram – or Victory Day holiday, commemorating victory in the War of Independence.  So it is a high and important holiday.  Most everything is closed for the holiday.

As I carefully drive past the various workshops and repair shops I notice that many of the shops are indeed closed (as you would expect) but a few are surprisingly open, which is good.  But most of them are Auto-Electric shops, which is of no aid to me as I do not think my problem is electrical.

I pull in to one promising looking repair shop, but, alas, no one seems about.

We depart that shop and meander along to another, where there is a chap.

I pull the car in and explain the problem.

He replied by saying that he can only adjust the brake shoes if that is the problem, but, because of the holiday, he can not get replacement parts in the village.  Adjustment he can do, but if something is broken…

His suggestion to me was that we carry on to a bigger town and have it looked at there.  This truly is not what I want to hear.  The notion of carrying on down through the mountains, on a very narrow, windy, congested two lane road crowded with a prodigious numbers of slow-moving lorries and all the while with questionable, queasy brakes was not something that I truly wished to undertake or experience.

But before he sends us off, he says he will have a little look around, check the brake fluid and such.  He then starts up the car, backs up and hits the brakes.

He gingerly drives back in and says he will take a look at it.

It is at this juncture that he feels the various hub caps and discoveries that the rear left wheel is extremely hot – in fact it was too hot to touch.

So we spent the next half hour waiting for it to cool enough for him to begin to investigate what is happening.

As we were not prepared for this degree of roadside expenses, I asked and learned where the nearest bank was.  T. was then dispatched to go off to the ATM and get some cash – we had only about 20 between us.  Even in Turkey, this was only enough, in 2008 for a simple meal – today, it will only stretch to a couple cups of coffee.

When things were cool enough to handle, he removes the tyre, the brake drum and it all seemed okay (I guess).  He then pulls the bearing and greases and re-fits it.

Then he re-adjusts the hand brake.

Finally, he checks the other side which he determines is good.

In the end, the only explanation he could suggest was that the hand brake was tightened a wee bit too much (in Istanbul) which could result in there being a bit of contact between the brake shoes and drum.  This friction could result in the drums running hot.  When things get hot, they,  well, expand and get larger and hence things would naturally get tighter and therefore run hotter which in turn…. a vicious, self sustaining circle.

Only much later did I consider that maybe, that morning in setting off, I failed to release the hand brake fully.  I released it to be sure, but, if it wasn’t 100% released, then, as it had been tightly adjusted, this could have been sufficient to engage a bit of friction, which ultimately was the cause of my, er, excitement on the road.  Hmm….

Anyway, what he said at the time seemed a reasonable and plausible explanation, which also gave a degree of confidence to head out into the mountainous roads and heavy traffic with far less trepidation.

Therefore, as a result of waiting for about an hour and all the work, dismantling, reassembling, greasing and adjusting that he had completed, the brakes were back to feeling normal.

The charge for his labours, on this high holiday – 20.

As I drove away, I experienced how utterly delightful it is, when you put your foot on the brake pedal and it virgoriously resists you.  How pleasant when it does not immediately flee to the floor.  How truly joyous that on the application of the brake pedal, the automobile begins to slow in accordance with the amount of pressure applied to the now normally resistant brake pedal.

How often I have leapt into the car, fired it up and pelted off without giving even a moments thought as to the stopping exercise.  It is great when the car thunders into life and propels me down the roadway – but it is equally, actually more important, for me to be able to bring it to a safe stop when required.

It seems, in life, it is all too easy that some essential, but boring, banal elements can quietly be taken for granted – commonly, we only notice them when they cease to be.

A challenge then, is to be alive to all aspects of life, appreciating and being thankful for those ‘mundane’ and yet essential aspects.

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