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No.11 From Sky to Shining Sea

With a few idle days on the beach under my belt, it was refreshing to be on a tight schedule again. The first bus for the Samaria Gorge leaves before dawn and I was the first passenger to arrive at the central bus depot in Chania to start the journey. Just me, some staff and a friendly stray dog that sleepily stumbled from place to place as she was gently prodded by a sweeper preparing the station for the day’s coming crowds.

I have visited Crete several times and completing the Samaria Gorge hike has always been on my list to things to do. This time though the Samaria Gorge, it was September. Why is that important? Well, September is off-season and the Samaria Gorge is such a fantastic trip that in high season it can sometimes feel like a 16 kilometer queue. Doing it slightly off season means you have some room to breathe in this, one of the world’s great natural landscapes.

The hike offers a range of varied experiences all rolled into one. There’s nature: etched over time by a small river between the White Mountains and Mt. Volakias, the Samaria Gorge is a national park formed in 1962 in part to create protected habitat for the local species of mountain goat, the kiri-kiri. There’s history: the gorge has been occupied since ancient Greek times. You can visit the remnants of an ancient temple on which is built the more recent church of St. Nikolas. And the area was so inaccessible in the past that it occasionally was used as a retreat and hiding place for those defending Crete from invaders. And there’s exercise: the walk is exhilarating and a pretty good challenge, as is swimming in the Libyan Sea.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

The bus quietly winds through country roads, along mountain passes and through herds of goats, reaching the settlement of Omalos in about an hour. The sun breaks the horizon just after we arrive and I am ready to start the day’s descent.

Descent is one of the distinguishing characteristics of this hike. Starting at an elevation of 1,250 meters, over the course of 16 kilometers, you eventually end up at sea level. At the trail head you pay a small fee for entrance into the park. Down the trail the valley vista opens up as you traverse the steep switchbacks and stairs. It’s a glorious sight. For the first hour and a half you walk through mountainous terrain, the early morning sunlight filtering through the dense trees.

In the beginning, experienced hikers will be moving through at a fast clip in order to make the mid-day ferry from the town of Agia Roumelli to the bus in the town of Chora Sfakion. I was in no rush though, so I could take my time and absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the surrounding mountains. After the initial morning rush, the trail was quite empty.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

A little ways on, I began to see odd little stacks of rocks along the trail. Just simple stacks of three to seven stones balanced one on top of the other. They looked decidedly man made. Around each corner, the constructions became more prolific and elaborate until a few hundred meters on they started to overtake the landscape. Who was the “artist” that took time to painstakingly make these earth works with such tender care? I have no clue but the mystery of it makes it all the more intriguing.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

Further on, I arrived at the settlement of Samaria where a lot of those speed hikers that passed me earlier were on lunch break. There is a first aid station here and it’s a good place to hang out with your fellow hikers and some local goats. A note of warning, wasps are numerous and tenacious here. Stay calm and move away slowly once they find you … and they will find you. One savvy hiker I met brought a pipe to smoke to keep the wasps at bay. After battling them in vain throughout my lunch, I realized he had the right idea.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

Before embarking on my Samaria Gorge treck, several people told me, to my disbelief, that some tourists walk the gorge in flip-flops. This seemed absurd to me and I put it down to urban legend. But as I had lunch I noticed a young woman strolling into the settlement in flip-flops. Kitted out with good boots and already with some aches and pains, I couldn’t believe it. Over the next few kilometers, we crossed paths several times and she asked me to take her photograph. Like some sort of magical mountain pixie, she navigated the trail as easily as one of the goats. There is some lesson there about keeping your mind open and not putting limits on yourself. However, unless you are an experienced flip-flop hiker, I would not suggest trying it out for the first time on this particular hike.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

Leaving the the Samaria settlement, I soon came across the most famous part of the Samaria Gorge. It’s the point where the path narrows to just a few meters. The enormous height of the gorge at this point is both breathtaking and treacherous. Signs kindly instruct you to “walk fast” as a way of lowering the risk of injury from falling rocks.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

By this time it is around 1:00 pm, the sun is directly overhead and shade is hard to come by: good idea to bring a sun hat for this part. Here, the trail consists mostly of the river bed. The big boulders, small path, searing sun and a downhill trajectory make for a tricky walk.

This time though the Samaria Gorge, it was September. Why is that important? Well, September is off-season … in high season it can sometimes feel like a 16 kilometer queue.

Up until this point the trail has been mostly deserted but now I am encountering a lot more hikers coming in the other direction. These hikers seemed less prepared than those I started out with at the top. Come to find out that some tour groups take the boat to Agia Roumell but only walk up to the big attraction where the path narrows. I can only imagine that this might not be much fun in mid-summer.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

At the end of the Samaria Gorge trail, there is the customary snack and postcard shop. But wait, I’m still not there yet. I need to get to Agia Roumelli to catch the ferry. It’s a short three-kilometer walk through the outskirts of the town. Or for a small charge you can hop on a van. My feet said, “take the van”.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

The ferry to the town of Chora Sfakion leaves late in the day. So after locating and buying my ticket, I head to the real treat of the whole journey. The Libyan Sea is a shade of blue I had not experienced. Photos can only suggest the intense color of the water. Add to this a jet black beach, a strong wind, and an absolutely wild surf. It was like jumping into river rapids. I figured out that if I walked up the beach a hundred meters or so, and jumped in, within a few minutes I would be back where I started. The combination of exhaustion, intense sun, a billowing gale and plunging into this deep blue sea was unforgettable.

The ferry docked as large waves pounded the shore, showering all within proximity. Quite the dramatic scene to observe. Someone at the back of the ferry was waving vigorously signaling that it was time to board. En masse we passengers suddenly realized that in order to get on the ferry we would need to go through this test of water. Huddled together and wincing at the prospect of being doused, we dashed for the boat, encountering a few waves along the way. “Chaos” is not too strong of a word to describe this scene.

Upon arriving at Chora Sfakion there is one last bit of chaos when all the ferry passengers climb a few steps to meet the waiting busses. In the confusion it seems like this can not possibly work out … but it does.

Details

Here are a few tips to make your Samaria Gorge experience a successful one.

– The walk is mostly down hill over rocky terrain. Walking in these conditions puts enormous pressures on your joints so be prepared. If you are relatively fit you will be fine.

– Wear good walking shoes.

– Bring plenty of water and enough food to fuel you for 16 kilometers. There are plenty of places to refill your water bottle with natural spring water, but no food available until you reach Agia Roumelli at the end of the gorge.

– This is one of the safer and better organized hiking experiences you will find. There are plenty of people around and Rangers on donkeys posted along the trail to rescue you in case of injury.

– Bring a bathing suit, a towel and flip-flops for the big plunge at the beach in Agia Roumelli.

– Pack a disposable rain poncho in case of rough seas on the ferry.

– There are a few places along the way where tickets are required; 1) the round-trip bus ticket that takes you to Omalos and picks you up in Chora Sfakion to take you home, 2) the entrance ticket to the Samaria Gorge, 3) the three-kilometer bus to the ferry (optional), and 4) the ferry ticket to Chora Sfakion to connect back to the bus home.

Finally, if you prefer a more guided hike, I highly recommend you contact the company Natour Lab. they are an experienced team specializing in local hikes. They also hold cooking classes on how to cook naturally using traditional Cretan methods. Definitely worth checking out.

www.natour-lab.gr

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Planning a visit to the Samiria Gorge? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days at the end of your hike.

80°
clear sky
39% humidity
wind: 9m/s ENE
H 81 • L 77
78°
Thu
78°
Fri
79°
Sat
78°
Sun
79°
Mon
Weather from OpenWeatherMap