Despite a fellow guest at our hotel on Crete saying that hiking through the Gorge of Samaria was the worst day of her life, we went ahead and got Lisa, our hostess, to book tickets. We were retired, not dead. Active swimmers and walkers, we could handle it. What ensued was an accelerated taste of old age. The morning after – she, her husband, her daughter and her father all took turns to tell us that it would be the following day that our aching bodies would really feel it. They were right.
The gorge starts at over 7 thousand feet in the White Mountains and winds up, well down obviously, to sea level a mere 16 kilometres further south: one and a half miles down and 10 miles out, miles of forced march. What’s worse, forced by yourself as you can’t miss the boat trip to the bus home or contemplate being carried out. There was an option to climb back any time in the first 4 kilometres if you felt you were not going to make it, but after that the only options were two donkeys and a mythical helicopter. The helipad was shown on the map but our guide Thomas had not seen the helicopter in all the 17 years he had been doing this daily. Once you’d passed the 4 km mark the only way out was to press on.
The complex we were staying at has the best swimming pool I have ever encountered, indoor or out. Roughly circular but with a 30 metre diameter perfect for lengths. The water is crystal clear and doesn’t appear to be chlorinated or have any other taste – the constant bombardment of sunshine probably does the trick. We swam before a Greek breakfast of yoghurt, honey and fruit. Probably lunched out and then a siesta by the pool until Liz did a salad composé which we ate on our balcony in the last of the sun. Tans came along nicely as did our progress through reading picked randomly from the equally random library left by previous guests.
And we left all this to get up at 5 am to catch the bus to the Gorge from the village square because?
Of course it was as scenic as hell but you were so busy watching where you put your feet on the boulder strewn trail that you had to remind yourself to look up at the towering cliffs, clad in trees whose ability to cling on defied belief. And you were reminded to look up by signs that said “Danger falling rocks – walk quickly”. It seemed silly until something the size of my kitchen sink bounced over the trail and disappeared with a thud. Thomas confirmed that there had been some direct hits. So the signs that had lost a letter and said ” anger – falling rocks” made quite believable the idea of Greek gods having a bit of revenge.
At the 4 km mark Liz’s left calf was giving her enough pain for me to break out the Paracetamol. Climbing is easy. You pray for a bit of climbing. Going down stairs for hour after hour is what does the damage. Thomas laid great stress on our telling him of any infirmities before we started. We didn’t realise that old age qualified – then. We both rented Alpenstocks from him which proved a godsend as our normal support systems (legs) proved less and less reliable.
We started at 7:30 am and there were rest points at 9:30, 11:30 and 1:30. Well, that was the time by which we had to have rested and moved on. We moved on with half an hour to spare at the first stop but by the time we staggered into the last we sat down, stood up and had to move on, or miss the bus. The whole of the gorge is in a national park but when their trail comes to an end there is still 2 kilometres to go to reach the sea, the beach and the boat home. 2 kms? That’s not much further than my Fen Cottage to The Queen’s Head but we sank into chairs offered by some Cretean entrepreneurs and parted with a small fortune for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a seat on a minibus. The passing hikers were evenly split between those who joined us and those who clearly felt that we were wimps. A trio of wimps, who we were pleased to see were young, shared the bus with us and on being dropped in the street in the middle of the tiny cluster of restaurants that fringed the quayside, one of them declared that he had been promised a boat, where was it? “I’m not moving any further” he said. We hirpled the hundred yards to the beach and found ourselves a rock pool to bathe our feet in. Life holds no better moments.
We dried our feet, put on fresh socks, and our trainers again – the sand of the beach was unbearably hot – and slowly found the shortest way to Restaurant Kri Kri where Thomas was issuing the tickets for the boat. You’d think he might have given them to us earlier but this was his quiet way of making sure that none of his charges were missing. Like Brian Hanrahan said of the Harriers in the Falklands war “I counted them all out and I counted them all back”. And for us two back markers – he always managed to casually drop back to ask if we were all right. We lied a lot that day.
We got to sit on the boat as it took us round the coast to a waiting bus. We got to sit down! The sea view was enough to keep us awake but on the bus the magnificent views of the White Mountains of Crete got less attention. The bus dropped us back in the square where it had picked us up 12 hours and a lifetime before. We tried a stretch around the tiny village to ease the pain. If you walk backwards, downslopes are bearable.
The good news was that we had become members of a select club. We told our story to the young woman who checked our hire car on its return. She was so busy sharing her story of pain that we got waved through. So even the Creteans could be the kind of cretins we tourists had been.