Hiking/walking, Crete Island
As I rose to continue, my legs reminded me they weren’t entirely enjoying this but I got into a rhythm again. Then, sometime before the next stop, I was all alone. For about half an hour there was an eerie silence with no voices, just the occasional twitter of the forest birds. The feeling of being alone has rarely been more paramount in my life as the gravel crunched beneath my hiking shoes.
Eftichis and his ranger friend had told me, “It’s all easier now, more level”. It wasn’t easier because of the rocky ground. In total there were about four level smooth patches, all about 25 metres long, which deceived you into thinking the going might get better, but they were false prophets.
The 7 km halfway stop is reached and you feel like you’re really making headway. Out come the boiled eggs and banana, washed down by water from one of the many spring water fountains en route. Everyone stops at the major rest points.
At around 10 kms and several creek crossings later, my legs are telling me they’re not happy, but I expected this and I try watching a Polish man’s feet in front of me until we near the Iron Gates, where the gorge narrows to a reputed 3 metres wide. Personally, I think someone needs to take a tape measure down there, it’s more like seven or eight. Still, with sheer walls towering thousands of feet above, you can’t help but look up and be impressed.
You have to walk along a makeshift boardwalk parallel to the stream or get your feet wet. I should add that these numerous bridges fall well short of Australian O.H.&S. standards but I am grateful for them nonetheless.
Fondest memory: The last 2 kms can’t pass quickly enough; the thought that it’s then only another two to the new Agia Roumeli, the ruins of the last one you pass as you leave the park. These days it’s all tourists and tavernas by the beach and I collapse into a seat and order some moussaka. At the end of the repast the worst thing all day happens; I have to stand up again! My legs send me numerous messages that I sadly have to ignore in order to go to the toilet.
The ferry, the world’s second slowest, arrives over an hour late. The slowest ferry must only have reverse because the trip to Sfakia, where our coach awaits with 13 others, takes an hour and a half, a trip our Santorini ferry would have done in 15 minutes. This place is so remote it’s the only way out other than return up the gorge.
Meanwhile, back at Chania, someone’s having kittens and when the phone rings on the bus I have an educated guess who that might be. Our proposed return time of 8 p.m. is closer to 10 p.m. when I finally fall through the door. It had been a 17 hour day, but boasting rights have
The brochures, like my dream, lay scattered on the table – “The bus is full”, the man from the travel agency said. I was devastated; probably the number one thing I’d wanted to do on the trip was walk Samaria Gorge, it has such a reputation. It’s on every hiker’s bucket list and now I couldn’t go.
I’d either been to the travel agent personally or rung them four times; each time they told me to call back later. First the bus was going (at 3 p.m.), then the park would be open (sometime after 5 p.m.) but he told me to ring after 7, later if possible. Now it was 8.30 p.m. and the ferry connection is secure but there’s no seat for Ian.
I vented my anger at how they knew I wanted to go but hadn’t held a seat for me when I was quite prepared to pay in advance; then I handed the phone over to Lorraine, she does the anger thing much better than me, and she told him what she thought. When I got the phone back the man was a little more apologetic and got our phone number and said he would see what he could do.
Mentally I moved on, we started talking about alternatives and I pushed Samaria to the back of my mind. Then, around 9.30 p.m., the phone rang and a girl said they had arranged a seat for me on another bus but with their guide. I was going. Finally, the bus, the guide, the gorge rangers, the ferry and, most importantly, the weather, all came together.
It’s an early start, Lorraine shunted me out of the room around 5.20 and I was on a cold concrete doorstep at 5.30 watching the last dregs of the May 1st celebrations sway along the dimly lit alleyways while the new day was being ushered in by the early morning food deliveries as the breakfast bars’ lights flickered on. I reflected it was like a changing of the guard.
I waited for 20 minutes, anxiety slowly building until a slightly overweight German of similar vintage rocked up. We greeted one another and he mentioned his wife couldn’t make it; I figured my seat on the main bus was secure at last, and so it transpired as the last trekkers, the guide and a Mercedes coach all arrived in quick succession.
We slowly rolled out of Chania on the 1 ½ hour relentlessly winding trip up into the White Mountains where 57 peaks of over 2,000 metres are to be found. Orange trees were everywhere until we broached the 1,200 metre mark along a plateau and soon after pulled up.
Here, seeming so incongruous in this remote location, there’s a cafe right at the start. That they did an immediate roaring trade moments after we pulled up goes without saying. I tucked into a tasty apple pie with a hot chocolate chaser before getting my park pass off Eftichis, our guide. We all set off randomly down the uneven path, interspersed with steps every ten metres or so.
It’s almost embarrassing when two super fit athletes run past us. They later return, obviously having gone to the first rest station and back.
Above us all, beacon-like in the morning sun, glows the stark dolomite peak of Mount Volakia. As you stopped to rest from time to time, bearing in mind Eftichis’ words “take your time”, Mount Volakia taunted your eyes. When you reach the 1 km mark there’s a certain amount of joy knowing that you’re actually getting somewhere. You descend further; this is not an easy walk. Though the path may be wide, it’s the constant downward angle and uncertain footing that takes its toll.
Fondest memory: I filter down the path, seemingly squeezed between pine trees as their shadows become more intense beneath their branches, around another turn and the spring leaves of a plane tree sparkle in the back light of the sun.
Then the path loses its steps and it just going down over rubble, 3,000 feet in 4 kms. At 3.8 kms the first major stop with toilets is advertised. It’s welcoming until you discover that the toilets are of the squat variety; lucky I didn’t have a need.
The stop was nigh when Eftichis caught up with sweat pouring out of him and he sat me next to one of the rangers when we stopped. Eftichis knew all of them, he’d worked as one for the previous 20 years but this year they hadn’t renewed his contract, which was a bit of a sore point.
Then a female guide who had worked as a ranger sat down and, as I asked some pointed questions of them all, interesting facts emerged. There are signs en route warning of rock falls; in the last 30 years 4 people have died and dozens have been injured due to such happenings, but they are not the most common.
The woman almost screams that the worst problem is women not cutting their toenails. The constant down pressure is something that comes to haunt you and it can be extremely painful. I tell her I was aware that might happen and cut mine the night before and I seemed to get a new respect. I didn’t tell her my nails still hurt. She also says that women need to remove their rings, particularly in summer when their fingers swell; on more than one occasion they’ve had to cut rings off.
There are a lot of ankle injuries which comes as a surprise to no-one; donkeys are used to carry people out and, on some occasions, helicopters are used. People have died here from heart attacks and two Poles, who went right at the very top instead of down, were found dead three days later in some remote place.
Walking down the gorge of Samaria is a great experience. It’s a fascinating landscape. At the beginning, you have to walk down in serpentines and will see below the ground of the gorge and above you the big mountains, it looks great! Then, the way will lead you through the gorge, with a view on the steep rock faces, several clean sources (you should drink and refill your bottles!), and a river. Sometimes you have to climb a bit over the rocks. About at the half of the way, you’ll find the abandoned village Samaria. I still wonder that there used to live people there!
The way is about 16 km long (the longest gorge in Europe!), it took us 5 hours. We were told that the altitude difference is 1200 meters. It’s an exhausting walk and especially during the last kilometres, I had the impression that it never end. But finally, we arrived and swimming in the sea was a great reward after this long walk! And the next day, I had sore muscles…
There’s a little village at the end of the gorge, and the only possibility to leave the place is by ship. We had a guided tour which was practical as everything was organized. We haven’t seen much of the guide, though, he was quite fast! There are lots of tourist in the gorge, especially at the beginning it’s a bit unpleasing, but then the people spread in the gorge, so it’s okay.