It’s been a hard day’s walk

Following on from the last travel story I wrote for the Mail & Guardian  newspaper, I wrote another one, this time about hiking along the southwestern coast of Crete in the height of the Mediterranean summer.  

M&G 1

It’s blistering hot, the unforgiving sun beats down on the bare cliff top, burning up off the red, rocky ground. She’s glistening and red-faced, her shirt soaked through under the straps of her backpack. She’s desperate for more shade than these straggly bushes can offer, and what she wouldn’t give for a drink of ice-cold water, but this isn’t the time to stop, nor moan – she has a long way still to go and the afternoon is creeping on.

A few months earlier, when packing her well-worn red backpack in the dead of a Highveld winter, she didn’t imagine this particular turn her journey would take. She’d packed for summer on the Mediterranean – bikini, hat, sarong – and for months travelling through an impressive list of countries – toothbrush, camera, walking shoes. But she hadn’t packed to hike, for two days, alone, in the debilitating heat of Greece in mid-August. Yet here she was, walking part of the E4 hiking trail along the southern coast of Crete in smooth-soled sneakers, slugging tepid water and dreaming of an olive oil-drenched Greek salad at her day’s end.

Like any good wanderer she’d decided on a whim to extend her hike through Crete’s well-trodden Samaria Gorge, going on the suggestion of a local friend who’d hiked that way years before. She had no map, instead relying on her friend’s vague directions and her trust that nothing could go wrong. And so it was with sneakers laced up tight and her sarong-come-sleeping bag packed along with the makings of a few skimpy meals that she entered the pine-clad slopes of the Samaria Gorge and kept walking.

The 13km trail through the national park is a popular attraction that requires a degree of fitness. The terrain is rough, starting at an altitude of 1 230 metres in shaded pine forests, the dry needles crackling in the heat while cicadas sing their high-pitched tune. The trees give way to the dry riverbed and the rock-hewn trail which shepards hikers through the narrow, steeply-sided gorge, now unprotected from the white-hot midday sun. It’s not a walk for sissies, but if dozens of tourists in ill-fitting footwear carrying handbags could do it, so could she. And so she ignored the discomfort of her pack and pinch of her sneakers and kept on walking. All the way down the mountain, along the gorge, through the white-walled village of Agia Roumeli and into the blissfully refreshing deep-blue Libyan Sea.

To the west by ferry is another coastal enclave, peacefully undeveloped along its long pebbly beach. From the harbour and through the tiny town of Sougia she notices some tents. More tents follow, along with a few camper vans. There are people on the beach too – families, groups of friends, couples – and they are all nude, and very, very tanned. Once a popular hippie hangout and with the whole beach to choose from, Sougia is free camping bliss – and a great place to get an all-round tan. These campers seem content to holiday naked, so she joins in, peeling off her shyness along with her shorts and rinsing off the salty sea water in plain view, with nary a blush in sight.

Later, and now wearing leggings and a t-shirt against the night-time chill, she lies stretched out on her sarong, burrowing a dent into the still-warm pebble ands counts three shooting stars in the mass of twinkling lights. She feels right at home here, settling down to sleep under a starry sky. That was day one.

She rises just as the horizon was turning pink, the beach still quiet as she straps on her backpack and sets off for the second day of her hike, this time another 14km westwards along the E4 trail from Sougia to Paleochora. Her information is limited – a tourist map and some brief directions from a barman in town. Setting off she feels the weight of her decision to hike alone; in hindsight company would have been good, if only for the moral support.

In the cool of the morning and the shade of the red-walled gorge, the walking feels good. Sure-footed mountain goats barely give her a second glance from their stone perches, their bells tinkling in time to the buzz of insects in the pine forest. At the top of the slope the landscape opens, the path leading between small, hardy bushes across a treeless plateau and down into the valley of Lissos. She strides along jauntily, enjoying her strength and the view of the ocean and steep cliffs in front of her. The azure sea to her left and the dry brown hills to her right would be her companions that day.

Clambering down the slope into Lissos she feels like she’s stepped back in time to an ancient civilisation. These crumbling walls were once homes, impressive stone slabs, now covered in a tangle of vines, once supported temples and these gnarled and knotted olive trees were once harvested by the people who called this peaceful inlet their home. Tempted by the stillness – and by the chance to rest and swim – she stays too long, and the climb out of the valley takes her directly under the remorseless midday sun.

She scuttles from bush to bush, growing increasingly discouraged at the lack of path markings and feeling herself wilt under the incessant heat. Desperate for respite, she takes refuge amongst the pokey branches of a carob tree – by this stage she is sweating from every crease and fold of her skin – and stays there for three uncomfortable hours.

She has no idea how far she’s walked, nor how far she still has to go, so she rouses herself and creeps out into the still-hot afternoon. The trail winds back towards the sea along the cliffs falling into the bluest sea. And there, far in the distance, she can make out the peninsula of Paleochora. Her shoulders drop; it is still miles away, and her water – warm enough to make a cup of tea – is running low. But there is no stopping nor going back – she has to keep walking.

Another hour later she is beginning to panic, her tongue is parched and her mind is consumed with thoughts of an ice-cold drink. She barely notices the orange-red-gold of the setting sun, her eyes focused on the twinkling lights of Paleochora. She walks. And she walks. Along a dusty path that leads her down towards the sea, gently lapping waves teasing her, testing her as she labours on. How much further can it be?

At last, and with the last of her resolve, she reaches a beach. Not Paleochora but, 11 hours since setting off, her final destination for the day. Not stopping to douse herself in the sea, she races to the tiny canteen at the end of the beach, grabs a two-lire bottle of water from the fridge and gulps it down. What a sight she must make to the last of the sun revellers, in her dusty sneakers, sweat-stained t-shirt and red face streaked with grime. She doesn’t care. She has a Greek salad – green pepper, tomato, feta and olives in a liberal dousing of Cretan olive oil – in front of her and the knowledge that she has met her challenge and made it.

What a day. What an adventure. The reward: Swimming naked in a sea far away from home before falling asleep under a starry sky to the sound of waves at her bedside.

Stacey Nel loves travelling just as much as she does hiking, and will undoubtedly say yes to any adventure. Some of these are on her blog, girlonawander,worpress.com.

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