To walk the Samaria Gorge has been a goal of Andy’s ever since he first saw the it some forty years ago. It’s taken a while but he finally arranges it and takes the easy way out using a tour operator to set it up.
We travel up by coach to the Omilos plain in the dawning light, up to the Lefka Ori, the White Mountains. They are always white topped whether in winter with snow or in summer with the limestone reflecting brightly in the sunshine. We drive through still sleeping villages of orange and lemon orchards, past chestnut trees and goats who find the asphalt attractively warm and we have to slow until they deign to move.
Karolina, our ‘keeper’, warns us that this is not a walk in the park, a trip to the shops, no high heels or flip flops, this is serious ‘hiking’. I have imagined the worst terrain and I’m nervous to see if my knee will hold out.
The Samaria Gorge is a National Park and we are clocked in as we enter. In the height of summer thousands of people walk through daily. There were about 40 on our bus alone but it was amazing how we dispersed. Often we felt we were the only people there.
Immediately we were plunging steeply down on a well maintained stepped path, glad of our sticks to give us extra support, surrounded by green scented pines and ancient cypresses, it was four kilometres and some two thousand feet before the path levelled and continued south. Sometimes a wild goat caught our eye and we passed by a forest ranger and mule, there was a magical mysterious feel to the place. When we stopped to look around we could feel the silence, thick as silk, occasionally broken by a bird or wind high up in the pines. It is awe inspiring scenery but why do we humans seem to have an urge to add to nature? Here and there, atop massive rocks and along branches of trees are little cairns, rows of small round stone towers; the hollows of some trees are jammed with stones and under huge boulders bits of trees have been wedged. Do we feel we can improve on nature, do we just have to interfere or maybe we simply have the desire to be a part of this that is so beautiful.
At the half way point, deep in the gorge, isolated in winter by raging torrents we come to the terraces, the mulberry trees and the old buildings of the village that gives the gorge it’s name, a derivative of the Saint Maria of Venetian times. Before 1962 the village was lived in and the people grew olive and citrus trees, raised sheep and goats and had bountiful fresh water – now bottled of course and sold throughout Crete. Here we stop briefly to have a bite to eat and to drink from the fresh water springs that are found at intervals along the path.
Suddenly we are very tiny, surrounded by sheer majestic rock, ancient and fossiled. The sides narrow, we look up, it’s stunning and there are eagles soaring. The boulder field is hard going, I feel my ankles and my summer feet, unused to shoes, are sore but it’s OK. The river is underground to rise up further down the gorge where we cross it by stepping stones or rough tree trunk bridges. Where the water runs, it rushes – sparkling, crystal, white; the colour of raki or ouzo. In Scotland, the beautiful river Findhorn runs in shades deep, dark like beer or whisky.
Through the Siderportes – the Iron Gates – the narrowest point, we go. There are more people here, come up ‘the lazy way’ from the sea! Triumphant we reach the exit where we are counted out. However desperate we feel we daren’t stop for a beer here as we think we’d never get up again but continue on down to our meeting taverna, a further two kilometres in Ayia Roumelli. I leave Andy to his beer and I go to submerge my tired body in the Libyan Sea – bliss!
Then it’s a ferry ride out to Souyia and tortuous bus journey back to Chania by which time we are nearly asleep.