Saint Maria: looking down and looking back

A long hike through the White Mountains in the shadow of the WWII’s Battle of Crete is revealing for Tim Dawe.

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The Samaria Gorge trail is high in Crete’s wild White Mountains 50km from Chania (pronounced hahn-yah). It promotes itself as the best gorge walk in Europe. Who am I to refute such a robust, albeit unverifiable, claim? However, it is breathtaking – in both senses.

Smart walkers arrive early to avoid the heat and crowds. In scorching summer as many as 2,000 hikers walk in close single file. I am fortunate to arrive on a beautiful spring morning. Boarding the 6:45am bus from Chania in darkness, I later witness the sun rise over the steep-sided mountains. My bus window fills with deep valleys and pointed peaks, then blurs as the rollercoaster makes a 300° bend.  Suddenly we’re in a pudding bowl – the productive Omalos plateau – sharing the road with goats and sheep and stopping briefly for a driver-farmer greeting. The road ends at Xyloskalo (path), a tourist café/shop servicing the entrance to the national park.

I wonder what I get for the €5 entrance fee. The downward path starts with smooth stone steps and solid handrails. Every few kilometres a duty ranger with a donkey monitors the processions. There’s usually a shady picnic spot and toilets and interestingly, a brick shelter in case of bushfire. Maybe the donkey is a mountain ambulance but that’s more hiking assistance than I’m used to.

Western Crete’s White Mountains, of which the gorge is a part, have always been a remote and impenetrable place. After the Battle of Crete in 1941 Australians and New Zealanders, many escaped POWs, fought a two-year insurgency campaign alongside Cretans in these mountains around me. There were 274 Aussies and 300 Kiwis killed holding back invading German forces.

The Samaria National Park was established in 1962 as an ecological reserve, primarily to protect the kri-kri, Crete’s native goat, from over-zealous hunters. Its main feature is the 18km trail from the Omalos plateau (1230m) to Aghia (saint) Roumeli village (0m) on the Libyan Sea coast. The park is professionally managed conserving endemic, some endangered, flora and fauna.

I clamber down and down through beautiful mountainsides with Cyprus pines and backlit plane trees, and all around are ravines and faraway peaks. It’s shady and cool and only a little strenuous. While not summer-crowded, by 10am it’s impossible to be alone for long. Land either side of the track opens out slightly as I cross streams and descend through the rest stops of Neroutsiko and Sykia, pausing at the tiny church of Aghios Nikolaos, a popular saint in these parts, aka Santa Claus. Its icons and ceiling are blackened from thousands of votive candles. In another 3.3km I am at the ruins of Samaria village, named for its 14th century church, Saint Maria (Sa-Maria) of Egypt. I’ve done 7.1km of rock hopping – it’s time for lunch and a rest.

With others I find a shady spot near a fountain in what looks like the village square. Some of the others turn out to be tame kri-kris being hand fed. I thought goats ate anything but these refuse my lunch for freshly picked leaves. The kri-kri has long swept-back horns and is a handsome animal…for a goat. The only habitable building houses the park administration and first aid post but other buildings, including the church, remain only as outlines. A sensible person would linger in this cool shade. The temperature rises and so do I.

I leave the village by what seems to be its front door, as shortly I am in a wide expanse of the dry riverbed – the road to the coast. It’s a new environment of mainly rock, broken on the floor and soaring to 300m either side. It’s hot and potentially dangerous. As the riverbed narrows and winds, loud cracking noises behind precede falling rock…somewhere. About the 11km mark walkers congregate at The Gates – the narrowest part of the gorge and the highlight of the trek. We line up to walk through the 3m gap with vertical cliff faces hundreds of metres high. A most photogenic spot.

The next 2.5km slopes more gently but is still a slog under sun and hot rock and without wooded valley vistas. At the lovely Perdika rest area I concede to weariness, and a longer rest. Later the little streams become pools of green algae and the mountains, small round hills. The end of the trail is abrupt; a small building, a ranger taking my ticket and a shop selling much-appreciated ice cream. I am outside the park now, walking through a small, unkempt farm to a road and finally, the sea. Ag. Roumeli looks lively and prosperous with bars, cafés and pensions despite having no visible means of production – and no road in or out. I think of it as a coral polyp anchored to the coast, sustaining itself with walkers’ wallets floating past.

We gather in subdued groups until two ferries arrive in strong winds. Which one goes where, and does it matter? Apparently not, as in the mad scramble I board the bigger one that heads east, to Hora Sfaklio. It’s the town now etched in memory where 6,000 Allied forces were evacuated on the night of 29-30 May 1941 before the surrender of Crete. Arriving at the neat and now peaceful little seaside town, within 50m walk I see a memorial on the harbour wall. It proudly flies the Greek flag – with the Australian, New Zealand flags – in thankful solidarity for the ANZAC sacrifice 75 years ago.

My bus is waiting for our slow zigzag climb north. Higher up, the remains of the day glow on tourist hotels and magnificent mansions clinging to the base of mountain cliffs – more coral polyps. Sun sets on an exhilarating and satisfying Cretan walk.

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