It’s the hill that marks my passing from youth into middle age. Emre, my guide, ploughs down it with the exuberant zest of a reckless 19-year-old, expecting me to follow. I take one look and decide it’s a one-way ticket to, at best, embarrassment and, at worst, bones sticking out of flesh at gruesome angles.
Like a tetchy horse refusing to jump a fence that’s just too big at the end of an exhausting race, it’s taken a while for my nerve to be so thoroughly shot to pieces. I’ve dutifully followed Emre through puddles, around needlessly steep, banked curves and along narrow dirt tracks laced with evil, bone-juddering bumps.
It’s supposedly fun to rattle around Cappadocia on a quad bike. In theory, it should be the perfect combination of sightseeing and adventure: bombing through the valleys of weird rock formations, with the wind on your face and the occasional wrestle with the steering to conquer uneven surfaces.
Unfortunately, however, quad bikes have been banned from most of the valleys. They can still go on tracks that skirt the edge, and up to a few rather splendid lookouts, but a lot of filler has been added to pad out the two-hour tours. And that means plenty of pseudo stunt-driving around a specially created course. Although he’s 19, Emre’s puppy-dog face makes him look like he’s still in school, let alone the owner of a driver’s license. He wants to take the riskiest route around every bend and attack every bump at a speed that’ll see his quad go photogenically airborne.
I gamely follow, secretly wishing I could just follow the track at a nice steady pace. These things are dangerous. Someone could get hurt. My teenage sense of reckless adventure, it seems, has been replaced with my mother’s sense of not being so daft.
In truth, this has been coming for a long time. I’ve a hefty track record of bungling incompetence and lily-livered cowardice when it comes to motorised adrenalin rushes. Jet-skis? A non-stop trial of terror, with back-jarring slaps against the waves, and frequent control-free plunges into the sea. Motorbikes? The 75-year-old instructor who had me ride tandem in a last-ditch attempt to drill in the basics ended up beneath both the bike and the confused idiot who kept leaning the wrong way. Go-karts? One misjudged corner, one horrible spin into a bank of tyres, and I was quite content to timidly dawdle while being repeatedly lapped (and laughed at) by people less hapless.
This fundamental incompatibility with things that rev and roar may stem from a total lack of interest in cars. Manly small talk about highest speeds and all-terrain handling usually ends with me shrugging my shoulders and admitting I quite like the red one as long as it gets from A to B without serious incident. I’ve as much passion for Ferraris and Harley-Davidsons as I have for, say, toilet roll or curtain rails.
As we head out into the countryside, the dirt tracks morph into the sort of thick, clay mud that turns walking shoes into unwieldy moon boots within a few footsteps. The quads churn through the muck, spitting it out like woodchips from a chainsaw. The gunk is spat all over my only remaining pair of clean trousers, splodging ungraciously over my shirt and speckling my face as if part of an unsolicited spa treatment.
This should be enjoyable, I chunter to myself in a mantra of attempted delusion. Emre turns round and puts his thumbs up. I respond in kind, but it’s a feeble, whimpering lie. All I want to do is ditch the bike and go for a blissful, leisurely stroll through this landscape of phallic rocks and rusty-red mountains. At least then I could take it in rather than constantly having to look in front of me, desperately trying to retain control as I hurtle towards a bush after a misjudged obstacle.
He grins. He shouts, “WE GO FAST NOW!” I grimly hit the accelerator out of politeness, even though I’d prefer to go at an ambling pace that allows me to take photos. It’s all about saving face; my adolescent Pied Piper has to think that I’m thoroughly enjoying every second of the experience.
But the hill — which to me seems like a 90-degree drop-off — is the breaking point. I take the long, safe way round. I’m met with the doleful, distraught face of a kid who’s just been told Santa’s not real. I’m sorry, Emre. I’m so, so sorry.
Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)