Hiking in Crete

What does a mountain leader do for a holiday….? Go for a swim trek. It’s the same principle as a trekking holiday except you swim – about 5km every day – exploring coastlines, taking in beautiful underwater scenery and encountering aquatic wildlife. With a guide and support boat my swimming holiday to the south coast of Crete would be an exciting contrast to my day job as a mountain leader in Scotland.

The temptation to tag on some hiking in the white mountains of Crete however was hard to resist. I hatched a plan to walk to the start point of my Swimtrek holiday in the village of Loutro. Over four days my plan was to walk across the White mountains – rugged desert-like limestone mountains up to 2,500m high – then south through dramatic gorges to the coast and the crystal clear waters of the Lybian Sea.

Early in the morning on the 11th of October I arrived at the Port of Souda on the North coast of Crete on the overnight ferry from Athens. I took the bus to Chania, the main town, bought six litres of water and four days food, then jumped on the 8:15am bus to Hora Sfakia. The bus went east along the coastal plain then turned south, up steep hairpins and gaining height into more and more mountainous terrain. At a small village called Amourdi, at an altitude of 800m, the bus dropped me off.

As I heaved my rucksack onto my back I felt excited and nervous. These mountains were unknown to me. What would the trail be like, would I find water enroute, would I find somewhere to bivvy overnight, how bad would the thunderstorm be, forecast for day two of my trek? For now my priority was to find the beginning the trail, then head west up steep pine covered slopes. I wanted to get as much walking done as possible today while the weather was good and hopefully reach a shelter near Katisveli Mountain Refuge before dark, a distance of about 20km with 1,700m ascent.

With lots of water, camping gear and all my swim stuff, my bag was on the heavy side and I made slow but steady progress up a clear path through pine forests and mountain pastures where sheep and goats grazed on thorny plants. At an altitude of 1,300m the vegetation thinned out, the terrain became steeper and rockier, the trail became vague and indistinct and cloud enveloped me reducing the visibility. Marker posts every 200m or so showed me the way and I ascended slowly. After an hour I got above the cloud layer. Below me was a thick layer of cloud and above the skies were clear, revealing multiple limestone peaks reflecting the bright sunshine.

The desert like limestone landscape was alien and strange to me. It was barren; the rock was shattered, sharp and hard; depressions, swallow holes and crevasse-like caves replaced familiar lochans, consuming rather than collecting water. Massive cave systems lay hidden under the mountains transporting fresh water to sub-sea springs 2000m below: swimming through them later in the week, these would be experienced as cold spots that would chill us until we reached the sun-warmed seawater.

The only water I’d find on my four day trek were infrequent, spring fed wells and water tanks maintained by shepherds. Although these were marked they could be dry. To be safe I began my walk with 6 litres, three days water if I was careful. Mid-afternoon on day one I’d drunk 1.5 litres already. My pace was slower than I’d hoped. I wasn’t going to reach Livada, the nearest water tank, nor the Katisveli shelter before dark. I resolved to go a little further and look for a place to camp. A few km further on I came upon a small ruined stone shelter. This would do…. I spread my tarp over it and bivvyed underneath.

I got everything set up before dark, the tarp was nicely taut and I had lots of space to cook up dinner and organise my kit.

Initially the sky was clear but as forecasted it clouded up and rained lightly overnight. I woke to thick fog and drizzle. I resumed my trek, aiming to get the the water tank at Livada by mid morning then the shelter at Katisveli by lunchtime. The weather improved through the morning. In terms of route finding the path remained very vague and the waymarking posts had long since run out. Despite this my confidence grew: my ability to interpret the map improved and I began to really enjoy navigating my way through the landscape. I took time to photograph all the thorny plants and pretty crocuses that were flowering.

At Livada, to my relief, I found the water tank and replenished my water supply. Nearby there were some stone buildings, still in use by shepherds, constructed using a technique called corbeling, where each layer of stone encroaches inwards to form a roof. The same technique was used in Neolithic, bronze and Iron age buildings in Scotland.

Further on I reached Katisveli mountain refuge. As expected it was all locked up. Nearby however there was an emergency shelter with four beds, built by the Chania Mountaineering Club for hikers.

I left my overnight kit in the shelter, had some lunch and headed off to hike up Panches, the highest hill in the White Mountains (2,454m). After an hour I reached the col below the summit and met the first people I’d seen so far. They’d hiked up from the south where a track provides road access close to the top. The company of friendly trekkers from Ireland was very welcome on the summit. After a few photos and gleaning some trail information from their Cretan guide I headed back to the shelter at Katisveli.

Overnight it rained heavily and I was very thankful to be in the shelter. My goal on day three was to head south and descend to about 1,300m via a mountain trail called Zanarou that hugged the side of Eligia Gorge.

Progressing down the upper part of the gorge the mountain sides became steeper and more precipitous. I puzzled how and where the path would go, ascending from the valley floor at 1,600m up to 1,900m before contouring the rim the gorge in a southerly direction. In time the route revealed itself. A carefully constructed path zig-zagged up the steep side of the gorge then began to level off. It was a fantastic route, exciting and airy with brilliant views. Wonderful Cyprus trees grew from cracks in the rock: twisted and ancient-looking.

High on the trail below Zanarou mountain I found a spring to refill my water bottles: the cold, clear spring water is apparently a reliable source of water all year round. Rock overhangs by the path offered a good spot to bivvy but I decided to keep descending: I had my heart set on camping in a beautiful pine grove.

Soon after it began to rain and I made good use of all my waterproof gear including an umbrella. I kept descending and eventually the Cyprus trees gave way to Scots pine and the steep rocky mountain terrain turned to meadow and pasture.

I set up my tarp and enjoyed the view, comforted by being out of the barren White mountains and only half a day from the end of my journey.

Overnight, at around 4am, I heard gunshots. They were close! I could see torchlight sweeping back and forth through the forest. Hunters I guessed: perhaps wild pigs or rabbits. Again gunshots, closer still. I was anxious not to be mistaken for their prey and was about to shine a torch in the direction of the hunters when one of them approached, said hello and wandered on scanning for eyes reflected by torchlight.

Dawn was a welcome sight, colouring the trees and scrub a lovely orange colour. By 8:30am I was packed up and on my way again. To begin with it was pleasantly cool but as I descended it began to warm up. The lower I got the warmer it became and the more people I saw as well. My route to the sea was via Ardena Gorge. Walking along the bottom of this canyon I was taken aback by how impressive it was. Vertical yellow-red cliffs 200-300m high towered above me. Vultures circled high above and amongst the rocks lizards and snakes darted away from my boots.

Quite abruptly the sides on the canyon lessened and the sea came into view, Marmara bay. A small pebble beach and taverna lay before me. Sunbathers were enjoying the heat of the sun and swimmers were lazily cooling off in the most beautiful clear blue water. Hot and sweaty in my beat up walking boots and torn trousers I walked up to the beach, dropped my heavy rucksack down and sat down. It was a blissful moment. Amongst people again, by the sea, I reflected on my time in the mountains. It had been a fantastic trip. The solitude over the last four days had been precious, giving me the time and space to think, to relax and reboot. Now, by the sea, all I could think of was how amazing that water looked. I was really looking forward to spending the week swimming in the company of new friends. My final destination, the village of Loutro, was an hour farther round the coast.

My week of swimming was fantastic: beautiful water, lots of swimming, good company, delicious food. Highly recommend it to everyone.

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