Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Samaria Gorge – you’ve started now you’ll finish

Gouves sea front
“You must be mad!” George said as he served me Nescafe Frappe (cold coffee whisked with ice) In his view this was madness on two counts – the first that I was planning to walk the Samaria Gorge in Crete in mid-summer and the second that I took my coffee “sketto” - without sugar.

The temperature was in the 30s but I didn’t think I could miss the chance of the gorge walk on my fourth visit to Crete. The thing is you can’t just do part of the gorge once you’ve started you have to finish. You can’t take your own rental car to the top at Ormalos and then leave it. The only exit from the mouth of the gorge is by sea at the coast. So you have to take one of the many excursions offered by the tourist agencies.

Sunrise over Rethymnon
It is easy to forget how large Crete is – 260 kilometres from East to West - so unless you are a few kilometres away the coach picks you up around 5 in the morning and by the time you have stopped to pick up the full quota it is 10 o’clock and time for breakfast, honey and yogurt. 

Do not turn this down. 

Unless you have brought a picnic this will the last food you have before emerging from the gorge around 4 or 5 hours later. 

Expect beauty, calm rest areas and fresh cold water from numerous springs. 

Don't expect cafes or any sales of food. No commercial operations are allowed. The Gorge is a Greek National Park and part of the World Biosphere programme.

So what is the Samaria Gorge?

The Samaria gorge was created during the Pleistocene glaciation  - the Quaternary period 2.58 million years ago.  
The rock formations in the area are formed from dolomite stone  and this is soluble over time – (many, many thousands of years.) Glaciers and water have worn the river bed down to sea level. 

The Gorge is 16 km long, starting at an altitude of 1230m. The walk takes you all the way down to the shores of the Libyan Sea in Agia Roumeli.
The"doors" sometimes called the Iron doors (no iron in sight).
Although the walk is all down hill the steepest section is the first quarter so if you give up then you have to walk back up. There is no way out except by the only possible emergency service – being led on a donkey by one of the gorge’s guards.

So you keep going and try to look at the splendours of the landscape not at your feet. But this is not easy. There are paths but they are so well trodden that the boulders are worn smooth and shiny. The truth is you have to concentrate so hard that all that you can think of is staying upright.

I was lucky enough to meet a delightful Belgian woman on the bus. She spoke about 4 languages and was still learning another one - but was particularly fluent in English. We made friends anyway but our comradeship was enhanced by adversity. I’ve had the same experience when walking in the pouring rain in the Scottish Highlands. You don’t say it but your faces say “Why are we doing this?” 

Are we there yet?

As we walked and stumbled - we mentioned the swim we would get in the cool water at the port. We talked about the peculiarities of the English language and most of all we talked about how far we thought we had gone.

I explained the term “How the crow flies” as a means to measure distance directly and was hoping that this was not the measure used in the guidebooks. I hoped that 10 miles of distance of the walk would include the twists and turns along the way – avoiding the steep paths and the mountainous boulders at the bottom of the ravine.  I suspect that this was not the case and the distance of the walk is more than 10 miles and not “as the crow flies”.
The joy of completing the walk was added to by the pleasure taking off the walking boots at the end. Was it 10 miles or 100? We didn’t care.
New walking boots

The only way is down
Boat trip - Aghia Roumeli to Hora Sfakion
I’ve done plenty of walking in my time and always worried about the challenges of steep hills – but I had heard walkers and hikers say they hated walking downhill more than up and had never fully understood it - until the Samaria Gorge.
What makes walking down more intense is that you do not usually use the muscles you use to go downhill the rest of the time. And you have to hold your weight in position with your knees bent for several hours without sitting or falling. So imagine learning to wind sail for around 4 hours without a break or alternatively hovering over a toilet seat (some women specialise in this and will know what I mean) for the same amount of time.
So for the next few days I could be heard making little cries of agony each time I had to take a step off the curb or walk the gentle slope down to the beach.

Still it was worth it – the water melon juice in the Samaria Restaurant was unforgettable. The cruise along Crete's south coast awesome in the true sense of the word.