Sunday, 11 October 2015

Samaria Gorge

The final section through the gates
The Samaria Gorge is the longest of the many gorges that run from the heart of the White Mountains to the Libyan Sea to the south. It was declared a National Park in 1962 and is one of the highlights of any visit to Crete.  It is 16 kilometres long from the start at Xyloskalo on the Omalos plateau at a height of 1230 metres to the end of the gorge a couple of kilometres north of the landlocked coastal village of Agia Roumeli. From here it is possible to get ferries west and east to harbours that are linked by roads that have been carved through the White Mountains to the more developed north coast of the island around Chania. Because of this complication it is difficult to attempt the gorge other than by booking an excursion which provides a coach/bus to Xyloskalo in the early morning and one that returns from Chora Sfakion in the evening. I had been unable to book a trip during the first week because the gorge had been closed but was told that an excursion was to run on the last day of the holiday - not ideal but not to be missed either.

It meant an early start in the village where I joined a friendly couple from north Yorkshire as we waited for a minibus to collect us and take us to a nearby resort where a large party of well equipped Germans were filling a luxury coach. The three of us were surprised that all the German walkers were to be guided down the gorge. We were addressed as self guided walkers and made to feel slightly second class when the tour guide harangued us to make sure we were down in time. The boat would leave at 5:30pm and would not wait for self guided stragglers. Still that gave at least 7 hours 30 minutes and the guide book said that 6 hours was a reasonable time to make the descent.

Map of Samaria Gorge
Cumulative                 Distance     Descent     Time
Ag. Nikolaos              3.8km        580m         1hr 00mins
Samaria old village     8.1km        885m         1hr 48mins
Christos                     12.3km      1075m       2hrs 56mins
Ag. Roumeli exit       14.0km      1135m       3hrs 27mins

It was 9:45am when we alighted from the coach at Xiloskala and made for the stone hut at the entrance to buy a ticket for the gorge, a modest 5 euro. There were 10 or so coaches already parked and as I began the descent it was a busy path of mainly German but also Italian, French and Scandinavian walkers. The British obviously preferring the good life on the beaches but then it was Monday the day before the flights to and from Britain tended to take place.

The initial descent was steep down an ever ending set of loops, it was quite a well made and wide path but it was clogged with walkers. The views behind looking towards Gingilos were impressive and a reminder of the superb walk up there a week earlier. Ahead the path descended through pine and cypress trees which provided shade and cool on what was becoming a hot day. I was feeling fresh on the descent, normally it is something I do at the end of the day after 5 or 6 hours of climbing hills and walking along ridges. I had overtaken over 300 people by the time I reached the first water source at Agios Nikolaos after an hour.  It is located at almost the halfway point of the descent by altitude. There was no need to halt as I had water so I began the next section to the old village of Samaria.

The gradient lessened and the walkers were thinning out, the dry bed of the gorge was crossed several times. The tree cover provided protection from the sun but prevented any views out of the gorge. The quietness was eerie particularly as I approached Samaria and there seemed to be no one ahead. Just before reaching Samaria there was a mule tethered to a tree, it presumably had brought supplies to the old village that is no longer inhabited but serves as a base for a 'Doctor' and is well provided with picnic tables around the several springs of water. There were 50 or so walkers taking a rest and I joined them to eat my packed breakfast, a cheese and tomato sandwich.

I was still feeling frisky so continued along the next section that was level as I passed the old settlements and then began to enter the narrower sections of the gorge. There were views of the mountains to either side and rock faces that were too steep for vegetation. There was not much descent but much of the route was along the bed of the gorge and the sense of enclosure was more intense. At Christos the bed of the gorge widened and trees provided some shade around the numerous springs that had been developed. There were twenty or so other walkers resting and I took the opportunity to fill up on water, check the map and eat an apple.

From here the gorge descends to the 'iron gates' a very narrow cleft and there was a reasonably sized  stream gurgling through the rocks. It required several crossings but the rocks were dry and it was no real obstacle although some walkers took stage fright and had to be by passed. Slowly the gorge opened again, crossed a couple of bridges and emerged at the exit hut where tickets were taken to ensure that no one was lost in the gorge. You can catch a bus from here to Agios Roumeni but it was too early and the two kilometres of paved roads after all the loose scree made it a pleasant walk down to the coast with the sun helping to develop my thirst. I headed for the sea and found an excellent taverna, I was the first customer of the day and ordered a Greek salad and large beer.

Although I had kept a good pace all the way down, I was surprised to have made it in three and a half hours, it gave me almost four hours to kill before the boat was due to leave. I spent the first hour and a half enjoying the massive salad and talking to a Swedish couple who had arrived. Then a walk to the grey sand beach at the far end of the village for a lazy float in the Libyan sea. I returned to the village and ran into the north Yorkshire couple and we spent the final hour over more beer and discussion with a Norwegian guide who took walks into the White Mountains and sea kayaking trips. He did this for six months every year returning to Norway to work as a bus driver in the winter.

The ferry was fairly full with about 400 people and it was a beautiful sail back along the coast with excellent views of the White Mountains. The late afternoon sun and gentle breeze were a perfect accompaniment. We arrived at Chora Sfakion just before 7pm as the sun set and walked up to the bus park where a dozen coaches awaited us. The man from north Yorkshire had taken the registration of ours so we were early on the bus and then had to wait for late stragglers from the guided party.

The journey over the switchback roads in the dark in a large coach was slightly unnerving with vertical precipices of several hundred metres adjacent to the coach windows. We were delivered back to the village by 8:30pm in time to go out for a last meal. I was suffering from back ache and was glad to get the meal over with. It had been a great excursion but it would have been nice to have had the next day lazing by a pool instead of packing and leaving early for the drive to the airport and the flight to the tortuous charms of Gatwick.

Looking back across to the Gingilos screes
Above Samaria
Mules for supplies to Samaria
White Mountains to the east of the gorge
Passing Samaria the settlement halfway down the gorge
Above Christos
Rockfalls are frequent
Entering the Iron Gate
Exiting the gorge
Lunch at Agios Roumeli
Looking up the gorge from the ferry

1 comment:

  1. Great reminder of my first holiday with my husband. We shall made great time thru the gorge and then spent the few hours waiting for the ferry by swimming off the beach.
    The guide, who grew more and more hysterical as we neared the gorge in the tour bus ("every year people die in the gorge!!! ") told me that the miles are the only ambulance available.