Battling the Bosphorus


On a 3000-mile trip around the Black Sea by Honda C90, we had to cross the terrifying Golden Horn bridge across the famous Bosphorus. Navigating this in a lorry is bad enough. Attempting it by C90 is tantamount to a game of two-wheeled Russian Roulette….

The Bosphorus is an extraordinary sliver of water. At only 700 metres wide at its narrowest point, it may be just a slip of a thing, but as the natural, geographical barrier between the two great continents of Europe and Asia, and as the only sea passage between the Black Sea and the warm waters of the Mediterranean beyond, it’s been of key strategic and commercial importance since the 5th century BC. Two of the world’s most powerful empires were ruled from here: Constantine the Great founded his new capital, Constantinople, on its shores in 330 AD, and the triumphant Ottomans ruled an empire from here that stretched as far as Ethiopia, Zanzibar (as Zenci and bahr, this means sea of black people in old Turkish) and Hungary. Its importance has persisted into modern times. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877, the Crimean War of the 1850s and Churchill’s ghastly Gallipoli campaign of 1915 all arose out of desires to control the Bosphorus. And today it is the world’s narrowest strait used for international shipping, a vital conduit for the Central Asian and Russian oil industry. A staggering 2.9 million barrels of oil pass through it every day, around 3% of the world’s total daily consumption, and in a single year  55,000 ships will navigate this narrow channel.

A boat by the Bosphorus

Yet the Bosphorus really wasn’t designed for such a starring role. The job should have been given to a much wider, less capricious body of water, not this one, with its treacherous currents and dainty waist. As long ago as the 3rd century AD Apollonius Rhodius wrote of Jason and the Argonauts struggle to row their vessel through these torrid narrows, and countless ancient seafarers met their watery deaths here. In 1680 a wily young Italian called Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli discovered why the channel had been the nemesis of so many a sailor. Having heard rumours from local Turkish fisherman of strange currents in the straits, he discovered, by experiments with a weighted line, that while the main torrent of the Sea ran out towards the Sea of Marmara and Mediterranean beyond, there was a second, deeper current that ran into the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. His Eureka moment not only explained why it was such a notoriously difficult body of water to navigate, but also why the shoreline of the Sea wasn’t sinking, despite its constant outflow to the Sea of Marmara.

It doesn’t take Stephen Hawking to work out that the combination of narrow, unpredictable waters and  a ceaseless procession of 200,000 tonne oil tankers isn’t a good one. Throw into the mix a city of 11 million inhabitants and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. The very slenderest point of the straits is in the heart of Istanbul, and it’s through here that hundreds of ships carrying thousands of tonnes of oil, gas and other goods pass daily. So far the Turks have been lucky, and none of the handful of incidents that occur each year have turned into major disasters. To the uninvolved observer, some even have a hint of black comedy about them. I read one story of a wealthy Istanbul gentleman receiving a phone call when he was at a dinner party one evening, informing him that a ship had crashed into the front of his waterfront mansion. He got up from the table and excused himself to his hosts, explaining, “I’m afraid I must go home, there is a ship in my kitchen.”  A ship in someone’s kitchen is one thing, an oil tanker quite another, and in April 2011 the Turkish Prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced plans to build a $10 billion ’Istanbul canal’, which will enable tankers to bypass the Bosphorus. Hopefully  the project will avoid any ‘there’s half an oil tanker in my kitchen’ type incidents, something Istanbul and it’s citizens could do without.

Since we were on two-wheels, the one thing we wouldn’t encounter was oil tankers. But it was nevertheless a knee-quakingly terrifying prospect. 180,000 thousand vehicles a day flood over the the eight-lane Bosphorus bridge linking Europe and Asia, that’s 7,500 every single hour. All of them larger than a Honda C90. As we joined the pan-continental dash cars, lorries, buses and vans screamed past us, cutting in and out of lanes haphazardly, apparently impervious to each other, jostling to get to the toll-gates as fast as unsafely possible. Already feeling somewhat shaken by the maelstrom of traffic, we pulled up to the toll-gate, the 1500m suspension bridge stretching into Asia before us.

“Do you speak English?” said Marley, my boyfriend, to the man in the tiny booth.

“Yah – 50 Lira” he shouted back.

“What? 50 Lira each bike? exclaimed Marley.

“Yah – 50 Lira one bike”

“No way! What a rip off, that can’t be right”. I squawked in protest. 50 Lira was around £20, which seemed an extortionate fee for such a short crossing. We were definitely being had. The altercation quickly escalated, with the booth troll stubbornly insisting on the inflated fee, and Marley equally stubbornly insisting we didn’t have 100 Lira between us to pay the toll. Behind us an irate queue of traffic was mounting, and three corpulent men in a white van behind us began to shout impatiently out of their window. After a five minute impasse Marley used up the last shred of his patience and yelled, “Oh fuck it, just go.” And go I did. I yanked on my steed’s throttle and bolted out of the gate as fast as its limited cc would allow, the noise of our accelerating bikes instantly accompanied by ear-splitting alarms. Not daring to look back, we fled across the bridge, pinned to the inside barrier by howling lorries, expecting to be arrested at any minute. Despite our surfeit of hi-vis, the other drivers hardly seemed to notice our presence, swerving at the last minute to avoid running us into the sides and whistling past our heads at terrifyingly close proximity. It was 1500 m of my life I hoped I never have to repeat.

At the first opportunity after the bridge we turned off the motorway and stopped at a cafe for reviving cups of tea. Marley’s blue eyes looked double their usual size and he sat and ate a large plum in stunned silence. “Fuck me” I said, “We’re lucky to be alive”. The sweat was pouring off both of us and I was past caring where we were going to camp for the night, I just wanted to get as far away from that horrible bridge as possible. “Shall we just get the ferry to Russia now?” I suggested, half-jokingly. The sun was now sinking rapidly in the sky and whatever we did we needed to do it soon. We’d promised each other we wouldn’t drive at night, which meant we had another hour at most to find a good camping spot.

Within  a few miles of the cafe we were winding along a deserted road through pine scented woods, the Black Sea glinting through the trees far below us. What a relief to be away from that madness, to have made it across without loss of limb or life. But our relief was short-lived. Suddenly, out of nowhere, appeared dogs. Not just one or two dogs, but hundreds of dogs. Hungry, feral looking beasts of all shapes and descriptions. They seemed to wake up when they heard the buzzing of our engines, appearing from the darkness of the woods to snarl and snap at our legs and wheels, and chase us along the road. “Just keep going!” I could hear Marley shouting behind me, “Don’t stop, just ride straight through them.” Easier said than done when you’ve got packs of hungry dogs trying to savage your legs. Amidst all the chaos, barking and swerving I noticed something odd: all the dogs had numbered green tags in their ears. Even more strangely, when we were in Istanbul last year Marley and I had both commented on the notable absence of stray dogs (and homeless people) in the city. As bizarre as it was, the only logical suggestion for all these dogs being here, in the woods that surrounded the capital, was that they had been purposefully rounded up, tagged and dumped here, out of the sight of the several million tourists who visited each year. Perhaps there were also colonies of ragged tramps living in these same woods, tagged and removed like the dogs that now snarled at our heels. As we rounded one corner I caught whiff of a noisome stench  and saw one particularly sorry looking canine crouching over the rotting carcass of a vast wild boar.

Wild boars, ravenous dogs and extreme exhaustion effectively quashed our desire to camp and two very tired bikers staggered into the Seref Hotel in Sile late that night. Our promise not to ride in the dark had been overruled by the desire not to be eaten by dogs, and we’d ridden the last hour, wide-eyed, well after the last streaks of dusk had melted from the sky. Our hotel was perched on the shore of the Sea, and a bright full moon lay over the water. It was a perfect sort of night for sitting gazing over the Sea and as we sat and drained  the last of our whisky miniatures on the balcony of our luxury ‘camping’ spot, I thought about the last few days. Tiring, and at times terrifying as the moped safari was proving to be, it was also every bit as enlivening, exhilarating, beautiful and stimulating as I ever could have imagined. Riding the bikes, smelling the country as we trundled along, feeling the wind slicing through my helmet and seeing the world change before our eyes was utterly wonderful. With the benefit of hindsight and whisky I mused that I’d rather be riding over the Bosphorus bridge any day than sitting in an office back at home

This is an extract from a planned book about our journey around the Black Sea which, for various reasons, never got beyond the initial stages.

To read more about this trip see

The C90’s resting after their exertions