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4.5 Nicosia & Northern Cyprus

Updated: Apr 2

a.k.a. "Drowned in a swamp"

It's the end of February and we've been in the Greek part of Cyprus for six weeks now, enjoying turquoise-blue dream beaches, challenging off-road routes and an impressive island mountain world. Cyprus is so diverse and we haven't experienced everything yet. The second part of our Cyprus adventure now takes us to its divided capital Nicosia and then to the Turkish part of Northern Cyprus.

Athalassa Park, Cyprus
Standing in the wood and yet so close to the city center

There really aren't many cities, let alone capital cities, where it is possible to stay overnight so close to the centre and yet so much in the middle of nature. The Athalassa (National Forest) Park on the south-east corner of the city of Nicosia is just such a fantastic place. We stand here between mighty trees and this natural oasis is right at our feet. Despite the weekend, there is very little going on at this end of the park. We do see a few joggers, cyclists and walkers, but otherwise all we hear is birdsong, the rustling of leaves in the trees and - I almost forgot - the morning and evening marching music from the nearby military barracks. Young new recruits are probably being drilled for the system once again.

above: A world of small animals in Athalassa Park, Nicosia

below: The photo hunter out and about in the mini-jungle

As Nicosia offers plenty of spacious parking spaces close to the city centre, we take the Unimog to its very heart for a change. As soon as we reach the first car park, we find a spot where our colossus easily finds its place. With everything well secured, we continue on foot to discover Nicosia, which has been divided into two parts since the Turkish invasion in 1974. Traditionally, we start such a discovery tour with an overview from the top. The Shacolas Tower is the perfect place for this. In addition to the fantastic view, we are also introduced to Nicosia's history. Sad, sad, what happened there fifty years ago. But we mustn't forget that it was the Greeks who wanted to force Cyprus to join Greece and the Turks "merely" reacted to the provocation. 10,000 had to die, 250,000 were resettled and today the United Nations is paying 2,000 soldiers to monitor the green line, the UN buffer zone, between Turkish northern Cyprus and Greek southern Cyprus. It's crazy, especially as everyone we talk to doesn't actually need any more division. They all live happily together and side by side. So the green line also runs through the centre of the old town of Nicosia or Lefkosa, as it is now called on the Turkish side. You have to see it and visualise it for yourself to believe. Imagine, you are simply kicked out of your house by the authorities because some politicians have decided to turn your neighbourhood into a no-man's land. If you're lucky, they'll just barricade your access road and "only" make it impossible for you to walk to your neighbour's house. On the positive side, it should be mentioned that it has been possible to cross the green zone again for a few years now. We do this on foot immediately after our visit to the tower and stroll along Ledra Street to the Lokmaci checkpoint. ID out, data registered and ID back in. It takes less than a minute to cross the border. So now we are in Turkey, while our FRAME waits patiently for us in southern Cyprus. It may be due to the rising temperatures as lunchtime approaches, but we somehow find the Turkish part of this old town warmer and cosier, certainly more oriental and colourful. Here we pay in Turkish lira again, whereas over there we only pay in euros.

at the top: View from Shacolas Tower to southern Cyprus (left) and northern Cyprus (right)

top right: Büyük Khan, the perfect place for a break in historic surroundings

below: Peculiarity in Nicosia: The year of construction of the building can usually be seen at the entrance

Back in the EU, we walk along the green line and admire how the locals have lovingly decorated this unwelcome border. After fifty years, there are certainly many loopholes to get round this official political madness. They are still endeavouring to lift the border today, but nobody we meet seems to believe in it. The situation between the EU and Turkey, between south and north, is too muddled.

above: along the green line we admire the barricades artwork

below: city wall at Famagusa Gate and the Liberty Monument (left)

Returning from the south to the north with FRAME is also no problem. However, we are told that if we want to leave Northern Cyprus by ferry in a few days' time, we would have to pass this border again the day before. That seems a bit inconvenient. As an alternative, we drive to the local road traffic office to extend our vehicle visa until mid-March. We get the entry and the stamp on the form within seconds. But until we found the office, we wandered around for almost two hours. Someone even wanted to weigh our vehicle briefly and was very offended when I categorically refused. Conclusion: Ask the right questions and, above all, ask the right people! The truck weigher was definitely not the right chap!

Dagdere Göleti Reservoir Cyprus
Pitch above the Dagdere Göleti reservoir

The plan for Northern Cyprus is to cover all the sights and beautiful beaches from the top left to the top right. But our fate seems to have other plans for us.

But for now, everything is still going according to plan. From Nicosia, we drive towards Camlibel, passing hotel-like complexes with suggestive names such as Playboy, Harem, Crazy Girl, etc. We seem to be passing through Northern Cyprus' sin mile. About a dozen such establishments on two to three kilometres of dead straight road. That really gives the buyer a lot of choice. However, we now choose the route to the cemetery, as there is a designated water source there, to equip ourselves for our next off-road adventure. In Nicosia, we have of course already stocked up on food and drink and, as usual, got ourselves a local SIM card. The delay with the vehicle visa forces us to move into an emergency sleeping place once again today to avoid driving into the night. At dusk, we set up camp far too close to the main road, but at least we have a great view of the Dagdere Göleti reservoir. We are definitely not road campers, so the night will be tough, with heavy lorries snorting up and squealing down the road.

The next morning we run one last errand. Diesel refuelling at an incredible 98 eurocents. The cheapest we've ever got since we started travelling with FRAME. That makes refuelling a bit more fun again. Fully loaded and well equipped, we look for a route to the north-western tip of the island. At Akdeniz we first head back to the coast, from there we make our way north towards the tip.

Northern Cyprus Army
A farewell salute from the friendly soldiers

Passing abandoned eco camps and equally empty king's tombs, we seem to have long since left civilisation behind us. Then we suddenly come across a few dozens of soldiers resting in the sand. My co-pilot warns us: "Watch out, military! You can't go through there!" But I don't see any prohibition signs or barracks, just lots of young people in uniform sitting and standing around and looking at us with excitement. One of them quickly stands in front of the troop and speaks to us a few words of English. They are friendly as always and yes, no problem, you can drive through here if you really want to. After just a few metres, we realise that we don't want to. The path leads into the rough and then gets lost somewhere in the sand. We drive back and say goodbye to the nice guys with a lovely sound from our Jacob's horns and get a hearty salute in return.

below: The king's tombs of Akdeniz

The tracks that follow are still very wet and muddy in places, but the area is incredibly lovely and actually much less polluted than predicted. In hindsight, we also understand the reason for this: Hardly anyone drives through where we are currently travelling. And in fact we don't meet a soul from the soldiers onwards. After some off-road driving technique training and video recordings in terrain similar to the Amazon, we try to reach the sea again for the night. It's barely ten kilometres to the north-west tip, but such a distance on these tracks can still take several hours. The descent is steep and the washed-out ravines are sometimes as deep as our tyres, i.e. over a metre. Driving into them would be the end of the journey, and a tip-over might even be likely. There is a tense silence in the cockpit and full concentration to get past the washouts with centimetre precision. But as soon as we reach the bottom, the next challenge presents itself. Swamp! I don't even need to walk this passage, I quickly realise that I won't be able to get our eight tonnes through here. An alternative track to the right also seems to be blocked by falling rocks and turning round is currently impossible. We consider all the options and all the risks. We decide in favour of reversing up along the washouts. Only ever drive forwards in where you can get back out again, is the maxim. However, I still have the greatest respect for reversing and when every centimetre counts and the road is steep, the adrenaline really kicks in. But we want to do everything properly and as safely as possible. So today, for the first time in two years, we take out our SENA Bluetooth intercom system to ensure optimum communication between the driver and his assistant, who prefers to view the key section from outside and at close range. It works like a charm. The instructions come clearly from the outstation so that I can manoeuvre our little house backwards past the danger with millimetre precision at a snail's pace. We are really proud of our achievement and glad that we thought of this communication gadget during the preparations. We had never needed it before, but it did us a huge service today.

In the euphoria of our masterly performance, we are probably two levels too relaxed as we approach the next difficulty. A slightly larger puddle, which we have actually travelled through several dozen times today and in the last few weeks, lies ahead of us. In my usual manner, I walk through it and check the depth and ground conditions with the bamboo stick I'm carrying. It doesn't seem particularly difficult to me, and with a bit of smacking in, I think I can quickly get out on the other side. A minute later, we are stuck.

At the beginning it was barely more than thirty centimetres, not even half a wheel's depth in the mud. Then I made a few self-rescue attempts backwards and forwards again, but I soon realised that this was getting me deeper and deeper into the mud. All the moaning and complaining is useless, we're in a quagmire and we need someone else's help. Whether in the sand of the Moroccan desert or in the mire of the Scottish moorland, we have always been able to free ourselves using our own strength. Here and now it's hopeless, so let's take a deep breath and think carefully about what to do.

At the beginning everything looks quite harmless...

We only arrived in this country yesterday, but fortunately we already have a local SIM card and an emergency number that we remember from the last tarred road. Network coverage is just about guaranteed, so we make a call. The local fire brigade answers, which in turn refers us to the police. Here we meet the British voice of Ahmed. This is a great relief for us, as we can at least avoid the communication problems we often have with the Turkish-speaking population. He promises to organise help for us and we are reassured for the time being. In the end, however, we only get a telephone number for a local farmer with a tractor. And the communication problems start again. The lovely man is also unable to receive our location details via WhatsApp. In the end, he also says that his tractor is not strong enough to pull our eight tonnes out of the swamp. We soon speak to Ahmed again and ask him once more for direct help. More than an hour has passed and the afternoon sun is gradually fading. Finally, we receive the news that a tractor is travelling in our direction. Ahmed has organised this from the patrol. When we speak to him on the phone, we get the impression that he is somewhere in New York in pursuit of a gang of criminals. Sirens and loud screaming in the background make us realise that he probably has more important things to do than pull two drowning Swiss guys out of the mire. We wait and fear for our FRAME, because its rear axle seems to be slowly sinking deeper and deeper. I run up the hill in the direction of travel countless times to ensure the network connection and, of course, to spot the approaching help. My ears are already imagining that I can hear the sound of tractors, but then nothing comes. Maybe they've forgotten about us?

Two and a half hours have now passed and cool shadows are spreading around us. If this continues, we won't get out before nightfall. It's starting to get chilly and the thought that we might have to spend the night in the swamp in a totally precarious position brings our mood to rock bottom. The question of whether and how we could have avoided this becomes a contentious issue of anxious waiting. Our nerves are on edge.

offroad stuck in the mud with an Unimog
The first rescue attempts fail

In hindsight, there are two signs of danger that I overlooked and which, if interpreted correctly, could have saved us from this misery. Firstly, we are actually standing in flowing water, a real ford. It's not just a place where rainwater has remained and is drying up again after a few weeks, it's actually a small, inconspicuous stream that is now slowly but surely washing us into the reeds. Secondly, there are metres of reeds to the left and right of this ford. A clear sign of high humidity and permanently soaked soil with a correspondingly swampy subsoil. Seen from our side after the ford, on the way up the hill, we also see piles of stones in the middle of the track while we are waiting. The locals have probably put a sign here to stop travelling on this path. Unfortunately, this was not the case on our side, we were probably coming from behind, where no vehicles were expected. All these thoughts are now pointless. We are stuck, have been waiting for our rescuers for almost three hours now and are getting hungry too! At some point shortly before sunset, my ears no longer deceive me. The sound of a tractor gets louder and clearer and then they finally arrive. Omar and his friend have travelled over an hour to get us out. They get straight to work. Unfortunately, the guys don't have a suitable tow rope with them. Never mind, I have two of them with me and they are as good as unused. So the baptism of fire for my recovery straps takes place in the mud. The front attachment point is attached quickly and easily and then I press my thumbs and gently step on the accelerator to help the tractor pull up. With every attempt, we sink in deeper, we suspect the worst. Now we try it from behind, here the attachment point is just above the water. But even pulling backwards is hopeless. The tractor digs itself into the dry earth with its man-sized wheels and our FRAME doesn't budge. We are almost in tears, rien ne va plus! I have a quick chat with the young men and the only option we have left is a second John Deere, one of the most powerful tractors around. It's already clear: by the time the second tractor gets here, it will be pitch black. We don't have a choice anyway, so we get ready for a muddy spectacle in the dark.

Unimog stuck in the mud Northern Cyprus
...finally in an inclined position and submerged over 1 metre

Less than an hour later, two John Deere trucks and four young men are armed with my two recovery straps for the final attempt. In the meantime, we have filled the ruts, which are half a metre under water, with stones. The gods know exactly what it looks like down there. It's deep, sticky swamp! The idyllic reed landscape now becomes a major roadworks site. All three vehicles have their floodlights aimed at the straps. And off we go. But - oh pity - FRAME is still not moving. Meanwhile, the rear wheels are no longer visible and the vehicle is leaning terribly. Last option: pull out the back with the force of these two tractors. The buzzers change position once again and now we have to dive under water to attach them. We frantically force our thoughts away from spending the night in the mud and towards the sudden success of getting out of there in the next few minutes. It's now or never!

Stuck in the mud Unimog offroad Northern Cyprus
After seven hours of trepidation, the ordeal comes to an end

The lads pull like mad. Jerkily and again and again. My co-pilot is close to tears when I finally realise in the headlights that we are actually moving backwards centimetre by centimetre. "We can do this! We'll get out of here!" I try to cheer her up. And indeed, after two minutes of jerking, we suddenly start to move faster and faster, out onto dry land.

My God, we are relieved now. It's almost a miracle that we've made it after so many failed attempts. The joy of our rescuers is almost as great as ours. They finish their mission impossible with two salute shots into the night sky and chug away well rewarded.

We stay only twenty metres away from the swamp hole for the night. Not ten horses are going to take us anywhere today.

Our recovery straps are washed properly and laid out to dry

At our outdoor shower here in the middle of the untravelled track, I get rid of the mud I was standing in up to my hips. We'll do the FRAME damage survey tomorrow in daylight.

New day, new luck. Our Unimog is dirty as hell, but the next day it drives as if nothing had happened. The strain of seven hours in the mud, with the front axle half a metre and the rear axle a metre under water, doesn't seem to affect the Unimog at all. Only our rear licence plate somehow got lost in the action. Perhaps it is hanging somewhere as a trophy or will be found again in the summer when the ford finally dries up.

Unimog offroad stuck in the mud Northern Cyprus
Compulsory laundry after the swamp spectacle

We drive a few kilometres further on to a green meadow for a general cleaning and a more detailed check of our equipment and vehicle. Even today we don't see a soul in this godforsaken area. It is a beautiful place and we are in no way angry about our experience yesterday. Quite the opposite. Our Overlander friends also tell us via our social media channels that experiences like this are simply part of it. As they say so aptly: "You haven't been 4-wheeling, if you haven't been stuck." It has always been clear to us that if you want to explore the limits of what is possible, you have to go beyond them. And every experience, no matter how painful, makes us better and stronger.

A frequently seen neighbour of our wild pitches: Giant fennel

After our swamp adventure, we only really want to tick one more thing off our list: Discovering and relaxing on a beautiful sandy beach. To do this, we drive from the far west to the far east of Northern Cyprus, to Golden Beach. On the way there, however, we stop briefly at a garage to have FRAME inspected by an expert. We can hardly believe that it has really survived this without any harm. A small oil leak on the front axle finally convinces us to replace a sealing ring there. But whether this is actually caused by the swamp tragedy is uncertain. It could just as easily be age-related wear and tear. Anyway, we'd better replace it, although unfortunately no original Unimog parts are available. Whether this is the right decision in the end remains to be seen.

Affodil, Golden Beach, Northern Cyprus
Aesculapian affodil, our companion on Cyprus

We enjoy the reward for our exertions at Golden Beach in the Dipkarpaz region. Totally secluded and much less polluted than we had been forewarned, we come across a two-kilometre-long sandy beach with turquoise-blue water. Marvellous, dreamlike! The only neighbours we have within walking distance are Hassan, his wife and their two dogs Alex and Ella. Hassan, a Rudolf Steiner devotee, lives here permanently and runs a small restaurant and eco camp in the warmer months. He is not only the king of this little paradise beach, he is also incredibly friendly and accommodating. We could certainly have stayed here for a few weeks, but we still have a long journey back and the return ferry to Tasucu is already booked. Adio and Güle Güle (North) Cyprus, we'll definitely be back!

below: Weather moods on the kilometre-long deserted Golden Beach

Next blog: TBA


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