When the bus pulled up in the centre of Chania in the early morning, the four of us were greeted by Thomas, our ‘hiking guide’ for the day ahead. We were about to embark on a 16 kilometre hike of Samaria Gorge, one of the most famous places on the island of Crete and one of Europe’s longest gorges. It often features in lists of Greece’s top ten destinations because of its rugged natural beauty, so we arranged some transport to get there and back with a local travel agency. Looking every bit of the part of ‘professional outdoorsman’ with his curly, sun-bleached hair that fell down past his shoulders and his impressively sculpted calves, Thomas was part of the package.
Leaving town the bus wound its way up into the Lefká Óri or White Mountains. It was still completely dark outside as Thomas stood at the front beside the driver, explaining all the ways that we might injure ourselves once we began the incredibly difficult and dangerous Samaria hike that causes broken ankles and legs on a daily basis. He made sure we were thoroughly aware of the challenge ahead and the risks of the walk, particularly over the course of the first two kilometres, which he essentially described as a treacherous descent over a steep and narrow path of slippery stones.
By the time we stepped off the bus at the entrance to the gorge I was feeling a little bit nervous, given my lack of hiking experience and propensity for walking-related accidents. However, feeling the cold for the first time in three and a half months – it was only about 10 degrees – served as a nice little distraction as Thomas released us onto the trail.
After ten minutes or so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself walking on a clearly established path, rather than scrambling on all fours down the sort of dangerous rockslide for which Thomas had prepared me. Whilst still slippery, it was much easier to traverse than I had imagined, and so I began to enjoy the beauty of the scenery; by now, the pine trees, the faces of the cliffs, and the gorge down below were bathed in the soft light of dawn.
Over the first two kilometres we made a steep descent from the beginning of the trail up on the cliff at Xiloskalo, all the way down to the bottom of the gorge. Throwing caution to the wind, Peter and Maria raced ahead of us down the rocky path – Zac and I only met up with them again at the bottom!
From there, we followed a path that criss-crossed the river, before walking along the white stones of the riverbed. We marvelled at the towering cliffs that rose up on either side of us, pausing now and then to admire them in spite of the warnings, given by both Thomas and numerous signs, of the dangers of falling rocks. Along the way we spotted some of the endangered kri-kri goats that find sanctuary in the Samaria Gorge National Park.
By 2pm we had made it to Agia Roumeli, a little seaside town that marked the finishing point of our hike. It was warm in the sun and we decided to take a dip in the tepid waters of the Libyan Sea before we each devoured a Cretan salad for lunch.
That evening, we were all exhausted as the bus wound its way back along the narrow road to Chania. Thomas once again stood at the front, this time to congratulate us on having completed our hike in the beautiful Samaria Gorge unscathed. After having spent so much of our trip hopping between towns and cities, it really felt good to completely escape the man-made world, to get outside and do something physically challenging in the fresh air and sunshine.
Before bidding us farewell, Thomas took to the microphone one final time to describe the kind of severe muscle pain that we would all experience over the coming days. That man really was the king of fun and positivity.