Travel: Take a deep breath

Leander swam across it to get to Hero. Lord Byron swam across it to be a hero. The Hellespont is the gateway to the Black Sea from the Aegean, a legendary strait dividing two continents. And there's only one way to get across... Take a deep breath Traveller's Guide
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IT WAS important to make the attempt between nine and 10 in the morning, or, in the evening, between four and five, as there is a strong current; about midday, the wind stirs up tiresome waves. We settled on the following afternoon.

But after breakfast, Sevki Suda [my hotel manager] was in the hall, full of infectious eagerness, saying, "Now's the time!", so I dashed upstairs for Joan [my wife]. A little motor-boat, with a glassed-in cabin, belonging to a friend of Sevki, was waiting at the quay. We climbed in and headed upstream - north-east, that is - sticking tight to the Asian shore as far as Nata Feneri. The headland was fortified with embrasures, earthworks and communicating flights of steps, and "18-3-1915" was picked out in huge white lettering across the hillside. (It is the date of the sinking of HMS Irresistible. Downstream, we learnt, the Channak waters were full of ships that went down while trying to force the straits.) Dry land being out of bounds here, we stopped just far enough out to avoid running aground.

It was exactly 9am when I dived in. The boat veered west and I set off after it while Joan and Sevki shouted encouragement from the stern.

The distance to the European shore - "the Thracian Chersonese" - looked far away and very forbidding, but the going was quite easy at first: lighthouses and minarets, the forts and the towers, changed places with heartening speed and the current didn't seem very strong. Soon a long Russian tanker with Bogomiloff, or something like it, painted dismissively across her bows in Cyrillic characters, loomed from the north and passed very close: she left a strong wash which kept lifting me up and dropping me down again. Then came a tanker from Tunis with, I think, Gooriah across her stern in Arabic. She was followed by the Dambovitza from Constanza: and from then on there was always a ship or two passing, most of them tankers and sometimes several at a time. Our boatman stuck a red flag with a crescent in the stern and had another ready to flourish when we looked like being run down.

Nearly half-way across, the current grew stronger and the water was suddenly choppy, ruffled, and much harder to get through. Joan and Sevki kept urging: "Ten minutes fast now and you'll be there!" But I could see by the speed of the changing scenery how quick the current was running. Straight ahead, the flank of the Hill of Kilitbahir was picked out, in the same primeval sgraffito technique as the White Horse at Uffington, with the tall figure of a Turkish soldier on guard over a sacred flame. The giant lines of Turkish verse beside him became more legible with every stroke:

"Stop O passer-by! This earth you tread on unawares

Is where an age sank".

On the Aegean side, just beyond the watershed, lay Gaba Tepe, the site of Anzac Beach in 1915.

Swimming side-stroke, I began to notice a strange hissing and fluctuating sound under my left ear. It was very sinister, like an echo in a vast dark room underneath. It suggested the grinding of enormous masses of pebbles and silt many fathoms down. The surface current flows south-west from the Sea of Marmara but, close to either bank, deep under this, two dark and mysterious currents stream out of the Aegean to the north-east, and I thought that the noise, brought about by the narrowing of the Dardanelles, might be the shock of rival alluvia in never-ending collision. (I mentioned this a few days later to Mr Nuri Birgi, the Turkish Ambassador in London for many years, in his splendid wooden palace on the Bosphorus, and he laughed and said, "Don't you believe it: they're Russian submarines, I often hear them out here at Scutari. They are supposed to surface, but they don't - or only one in every 30 or 40.")

So here I was, floundering across the wake of the Argo, a mile north of Xerxes' and Alexander's bridges of boats, only a few leagues from Troy and about a mile south of the point where Leander, Mr Ekenhead and Lord Byron swam across; but too concerned with the current to think about them in more than fitful snatches. The giant inscription had coiled upstream and off-stage. This was the narrowest and deepest stretch of the whole channel and the vast castle of Kilid Bahr, with its great cylindrical bastions, its flutter of crescent-flags and its two mosques - one with the tall tapering cone of its minaret painted green - were rushing up from the south.

Joan told me later that Sevki was disappointed that I didn't shoot through the stiff midstream current at a lightning crawl; instead, I was advancing at a stately mid-Victorian clergyman's rate. Seeing our prospective landfalls retreating north one after the other, he asked her how old I was; when she said "sixty-nine", he looked surprised, nodded with a fatalistic sigh that was half a groan, then backed her up with encouraging cries: was I all right? I was, though rather tired. I felt Joan might be sitting on her hands to avoid wringing them, and churned on. The Asian shore had faded into the distance, yet Europe still looked distressingly far; but, straight ahead, a row of bathing-huts slid by, quite clear in every detail, followed by a shuttered and derelict-looking hotel; then, quite suddenly, there was nothing at all except a hill-side, some pine trees and a dry torrent-bed.

Abruptly and bewilderingly, the coast was in full retreat. The channel was widening fast and I had alarming visions of being carried down the Hellespont and out into the Aegean between Cape Helles and Kum Kale. Describing this reach, the chart says - at least I think it does: it is rather indistinct - "current 4 knots at times"; and, all at once, there was a strong and discernible drift upstream. (The abrupt emergence of this deep-flowing and furtive north-east current is shown on the chart by little arrows like air-gun darts all pointing upstream.)

I tried swimming on my back but, with the contradictory behaviour of the water, the steamers' wash and, I suppose, by now, the noon-tide waves, I couldn't see where I was going, so thrashed on as before, very tired, and in a sort of trance. Suddenly the boat slowed and Joan shouted "You've done it!"; I dropped my legs; my toes touched pebbles; and soon, a couple of hundred yards from a wooded headland and a row of poplars along a valley, I was stumbling into Europe among shingle and boulders slippery with green weed.

Splashing back into the water and hauled on board, I drank some tea brewed by the fisherman, then swallowed a slug of whisky brought by Joan. It was a joyful moment, and we headed full-tilt for Canakkale and Asia, where Xan and

Magouche were waiting with champagne: they had been following our course with field-glasses from a balcony, like Zeus and Hera on Tenedos.

I had reached the other side at 11.55 am, after swimming two hours and 55 minutes: I'm still not quite sure of the distance, but I think it was about three miles, perhaps more. Sevki said the poplar-clump was called Havuzlar - "pools" - and it is marked on the Admiralty chart as Avuzlar. But, going by the rather blurred photocopy of the mid-19th-century Admiralty chart in the British Archaeological School in Athens, it may perhaps have been a mile farther south, at the mouth of a stream called Suandere - which must be the same as Sogandere (the Turkish g with a diacritic on top is hardly pronounced at all).

Thank heavens, the sea had been warm. I was cold to touch when I got back on board, but didn't feel it. The attempt would have been no good in the evening: at my pace, dark would have overtaken us; and the next day turned out cold, windy and overcast with an angry ruffle a-midstream. The Hellespont is much warmer than the Bosphorus, which flows, after all, straight out of the Black Sea, where the Danube, the Dniestr, the Dniepr, the Donetz and the Don pour into it from the west and the north; but these frigid Euxine waters are warmed by their torpid sojourn in the Sea of Marmara before they dash south-west through the narrows and into the Mediterranean.

Everyone agreed that our day had been the last chance this year. Too tired to eat anything, we slept like the dead, then sent for tea and toast and some wonderful Asia Minor Welsh rabbit came up as well.

My limbs having turned to stone, I slunk off in a taxi to a nearby hammam and lay dissolving on the marble slabs, watching the daylight fade beyond the colander-perforations in the cupola. Meanwhile, a burly masseur was slowly taking my body to pieces and then assembling it again by trampling up and down my spine like a processional elephant in a durbar. Outside, dusk was falling. Light as air now, I settled in a coffee-shop at the end of the lane and ordered a narghile. Remains of the sunset still touched the mackerel-sky, and well-being seemed to drop from it as I sat smoking and looking at the reflected lights twinkling and moving about in the straits.

A prayer had been answered. A cheerful feast and several bottles of Dolucar and Kavaklidere - our companions all across Asia Minor - lay ahead; I knew that I was only the last in a long line of copy-cats; but I felt sure that I had beaten all records for slowness and length of immersion; certain, too, that this was a wreath no future swimmer was likely to snatch at. Serenity was complete.

An extract from `Travellers' Tales: Tales by members of the Travellers' Club', edited by Frank Herrmann and Michael Allen, published on 19 July by Castlereagh Press at pounds 18.99

Getting there

Frequent scheduled flights link London with Istanbul. A return trip on British Airways (0345 222111) or THY Turkish Airlines (0171-736 9300) from Heathrow costs around pounds 250 including UK tax of pounds 20; you may find a cheaper fare on Istanbul Airlines (through Crescent Holidays, 0181-688 7555) from Gatwick or Stansted.

From other UK airports, and to other Turkish destinations, there are plenty of cheaper charter flights around, too. They have the advantage of serving a wider variety of airports - predominately Antalya, Bodrum, Dalaman and Izmir on the Mediterranean coast.

Check for late deals with a high-street travel agent, or look at the advertisements on ITV Teletext. You can expect to pay around pounds 200 return (including tax), though if you are lucky, cheaper last-minute bargains may be available.

Getting in

British tourists have to pay pounds 10 upon arrival for a visa.

Getting around

Domestic flights on THY are relatively cheap (around pounds 25 for the Istanbul- Ankara hop, for example), but the main mode of transport is the express bus. These are huge, air-conditioned conveyances with an on-board courier who dispenses free soft drinks and eau-de-Cologne to passengers. On main routes, buses run frequently - at least every 15 minutes on the six-hour trip between Istanbul and Ankara.

Further information

The Turkish tourist office in the UK (First Floor, Egyptian House, 170 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DD; 0171-629 7771) has an excellent range of national, regional and city maps.