Two weeks in Crete on a last-minute deal: from Chania and Rethymon to Iraklio, Chersonisos and Siteia, we packed it all in those 14 days!

Day 8 : 20 July 2003 : Samaria Gorge

The long walk through Samaria Gorge

4am and the alarm clock wakes us up . What were we thinking?

Samaria Gorge was a fair old distance from our apartments in Chersonisos, which meant another very early pick-up (5:05am). The weirdest thing was that at this time in the morning you don't expect to open the front door and see your neighbour across the way leaning out of the front window at you, but that's what happened. Our neighbours from hell were up, or at least the girlfriend/wife of one of them was. She thought we were heading off for an early morning walk down the beach. Almost right, but no beach involved. A walk, yes. A very long one.

For much of the coach journey to Samaria I was asleep, my head bouncing off the bus window with only a flimsy curtain as a buffer. The views were quite spectacular the nearer we got to our destination, by which time I started to come around and, thankfully, capture some of them on camcorder. Our guide for the day, Alan, was chatting away at the front of the bus on the microphone but either

  1. the microphone was broken
  2. the loudspeakers were anything but
  3. Alan was taking part in a whispering competition

Whatever he was saying I hoped it wasn't important (it later transpired that while I was asleep Manda heard him explaining about some poisonous flowers that we should avoid, so perhaps a louder or better mic/speaker/guide would have been wise).

Alan had provided everyone with a schedule for the day's walking. The idea was not to race, not to compete with each other, but to take it at your own pace; the chart suggested arrival and departure times for fixed rest points or lookouts and also suggested how long to stop at each point. To make sure that nobody got left behind, Alan waited for 30 minutes at the start of the walk (a place called Omalos) before setting out on the walk - something he would normally do three times a week. The plan was that if anyone in our group spotted him walking past - and he was easy to spot given his red T-shirt and trousers - they should stop him (although I don't think anyone actually did).

Manda and I started after all of the others - we got delayed because I was trying to find a pair of shades in the shop at the departure point (I'd stupidly left mine behind at the apartment). Regardless, we soon caught up with the rest of our group as we trudged down 'the wooden staircase', the first part of the walk that took everyone deep down into the gorge, and the only section that had hand-rails.

The peaks of Samaria.
A view of the peaks early in the walk through Samaria Gorge.

That was the easy part. The most difficult thing about this first section was stopping yourself going too fast - something to do with gravity. Once it leveled out a little, we bade farewell to the hand-rails and started to get used to the uneven rocky pathways that we would be walking along and clambering over for the next six hours. While this was under a half marathon in length (approximately 11 miles), I wouldn't imagine people trying to do this too quickly, but there are exceptions - Alan had told us about a man who, just a fortnight previously, managed to make it through the gorge in just over two hours. And then presumably waited in a bar for four hours while everyone else did it in a sensible timescale. I wondered whether it was really a set of twins - one goes in, two hours later the other twin throws some water over his face and shirt and staggers out of the exit saying "Yes! Two hours!" to bemused onlookers.

The temperature was not too bad, thankfully - certainly not the 45 degrees that Eleanora had suggested yesterday, but certainly in the early 30s. In the first couple of hours, it was fairly easy going. Sure, there were some sections that were challenging, and you had to be very careful where you put your feet so that you didn't slip or twist an ankle, but overall it was OK. I remember passing the 5km mark and thinking "Wow, that didn't take long". Although it was not a race, we did find ourselves checking our arrival times at each lookout point against Alan's suggested timings, and at each point we seemed to be gaining - 15 minutes ahead, then 25, then 40.

The crystal waters of Samaria's streams.
The crystal waters of Samaria's streams.

One of the best things about walking through a place like this is that you don't need to be too concerned about getting thirsty. There's no need to carry lots of water (which can soon weigh you down), as the fresh water in the streams is good enough to drink. Just a small bottle at the beginning should suffice and you can top-up at regular intervals along the way from the crystal clear streams; hold up the bottle to the light and can you spot any silt or muck of any kind? Can you heck.

Close to the half-way point we rounded a corner and saw a truly strange sight ahead of us. Either side of the established pathway was a 'field' of small stones which people had taken to piling up into small ... erm, piles. I believe that they are called 'cairns' or something like that (spelling probably hideously wrong), and one of the other walkers said that you see them on walks in England, and that they signify an 'offering to the four winds'. A little thank you for a safe journey so far. Evidently a lot of people had been very thankful so far:

Little piles of rocks left as offerings to the four winds. Or something like that.

We bumped into the lady who explained what these stones meant several times during the walk - sometimes she was overtaking us, sometimes us her. It's like this on the walk - on several sections during the walk we were using other people as benchmarks, and some of them even got nicknames:

  • There was Noah - a large-set man who looked like the professional walker with his big boots, chunky socks, massive staff (which, along with is grey hair, earned him the Noah tag) and steady pace
  • There was Lara (as in Croft), so named because of her attire - tiny shorts, crop top and her even quicker pace (overtaking her and her boyfriend gave us the greatest satisfaction, heh)
  • The German bodybuilder - and his other half. He didn't get a nickname (on reflection, Arnie might have been suitable ... if you overlook the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually Austrian). They were wearing his-and-hers military sports gear (khaki cotton), but he seemed to have drawn the short straw with a vaguest hint of covering with his shorts.

The half-way point is in the long abandoned Samaria Village, just a stone's throw away from the equally ruined Church of Santa Maria (from which Samaria got its name). This was our cue to take a decent rest, eat our sandwiches, top-up the water bottles again and watch the kri-kri goats bound up rocky walls that looked impossibly steep. However, the rest timings are there for a reason: after this much walking (8km so far) over such terrain, a long rest is not advisable lest the calf muscles decide to seize up. So we obeyed the recommended 20 minutes stop and then soldiered further on into the gorge.

From here on in it just got harder. The sun rose to its highest point and there were fewer shady places. The water top-ups became more frequent and the walking became more like a mindless trudge - the legs picked up the feet and put them down, but the control we had early on was going. This was the point that most people, I imagined, had accidents - weary muscles, aching feet and slippery rocks are not a good combination, even less so if the path you are on is overlooking a deep drop to a dried up river bed below. We both took extra care at this point; we also noticed that all those gains we'd made in time earlier had well and truly slipped away. No more 10 minute gains to be had now.

Manda at the Iron Gates.Manda at the Iron Gates.

The gorge walls started to get closer to each other and we knew that we were getting nearer to the Iron Gates - the most photographed section of the gorge (on just about every promotional leaflet) where only 3 metres separates them. Or at least it seemed we were getting nearer, but it was perhaps a good hour after these first tentative signs that we reached the gates themselves.

The Iron Gates at Samaria Gorge.
The Iron Gates at Samaria Gorge.

From here on in things seemed to get easier again. It was a little flatter and there was also the promise that we were nearing the end of the trek. However, even when we reached exit control (where they collect your tickets and work out how many have not been handed in and and hence how many people the rescue parties need to look for) we were not home and dry yet - there was still a good half an hour of walking under the blazing sun.

Finally we exited the gorge proper and got back on to blissfully flat paving - our route to the meeting place, a bar called Gigolos in a village called Agia Roumelli. Alan chose this spot as it was easy to spot the ferry that we needed to catch out of this sea-side village while simultaneously being able to nurse a well-earned beer.

As we had got there reasonably early (about an hour ahead of our schedule), I had time to take a dip in the beach, a peculiar mixture of extremely hot black sand and the most crystal clear water I'd seen since drinking out of the stream earlier in the day. A perfect way to round off a very tiring day.

Agia Roumelli beach with its black 'sand'.

All we had left to do was catch our ferry which called in on the pretty village of Loutro then dropped us in Chora Sfakion to meet our coach. Another long journey and we eventually made it back to the apartments near midnight. And believe me, sleep came very easy.