Surviving Samaria

September 1999

Crete's must see natural attraction for any reasonably active tourist is Samaria Gorge. This spectacular attraction is 2000 metres deep and at some13km long, is Europe's longest gorge. The gorge itself is 13km long and from the exit to the ferry is another 3km walk. There is no public transport for the last 3km.

Tourists are not allowed down the gorge during the wet season as it is far too dangerous. I visited Crete in early September. September is still in the dry season when anything from a few hundred to a thousand people plod their way down the 16 km trail each day.

The walk begins a few km from the town of Omalos in south-western Crete. I was staying in Paleochora, a small & pretty coastal town west of Agia Roumelli. A bus leaves Paleochora at 7 am each day for Omalos. The bus stops at the gorge entrance. From the other end of the gorge, a ferry brings you right back to the wharf in downtown Paleochora.

You can visit the gorge as a long day trip from Hania and Rethymio however Paleochora is a very convenient location to base yourself and a pleasant place to stay in its own right. You'll spend less of the day on buses and ferries if you are based in Paleochora. Overnight camping is prohibited in the gorge.

The altitude of the gorge entry is 1227m. Spectacular 2000m peaks tower above you as you begin your decent to the Mediterranean through pine forest. We had breakfast at the café at the Park Entry and began our decent at 9a.m. I was walking with two Welsh girls that were staying at the same hotel as I was. The day was sunny and fine. Nobody could have imagined that the weather would change so abruptly. The first few kilometres of the trail descends steeply from 1200m until it levels out at about 700m. We were all looking at the ridiculous foot wear people were wearing. High heel shoes, sandals (not tivas), slippers & soft sole casual shoes were all the rage among the travel "sentiati" around us.
Although the early descent is steep, the gorge is still very wide. Limestone boulder crushes line the dry riverbed. Any running water is buried deep below the visible surface.

As the gorge levels out to its long slow descent to the Mediterranean, the first signs of water appear. A yellow sandy sediment lines the river giving it the appearance of a river lined with gold beneath the crystal clear water. The limestone in the deeper water holes takes on a blue appearance.

We moved quickly through the upper portions of the gorge to reach the more spectacular lower portion of the gorge. Along the way, poor choice of foot wear was taking its toll on some of the other walkers. After a couple of hours, we reached the Samaria refugio. A kilometre or so before the refugio, we walked through a place I call "the valley of the cairns". Stretched over several hundred metres are a couple of thousand rock cairns all over the landscape. Somebody must have been really bored!

As we were approaching the refugio, it began to rain. The rain was reasonably heavily for Crete during the dry season. By the time we arrived, the covered areas were packed with hundreds of people all trying to shelter from the rain. The girls went to the toilet and we decided we might as well push on in the rain rather than stand about in it.

As we continued our descent the rain became heavier. Little rocks were being loosened by the rain and rattling down the gorge walls. A couple of kilometres further down the gorge narrows. It seemed as the gorge narrowed, the size of the rocks being loosened was getting bigger and bigger. I tried to lead the group down the very centre line of the gorge. It seemed as though there was an area about 5 metres wide down the very centre where the rocks didn't reach.

At one point, the track went below a rocky knoll. I stopped and suggested that we head out to climb down the boulder crush in the middle of the gorge because I didn't want to walk near the knoll. No sooner had the words left my mouth than a large boulder as big as a soccer ball came crashing down over the knoll and ricocheted off the rocks criss-crossing the section of path where we would have been walking had we continued down the trail. This shook the two Welsh girls up quite a bit. It didn't help that one of them was deaf in one ear and couldn't tell where the sound of the falling rocks was coming from. After this incident, the two Welsh girls followed me single file along with another couple who had seen the incident. With all these people following me single file and rocks falling all around us, I felt like I was in a movie called "the pied piper meets Indiana Jones." We continued on with rocks falling all around us. What else could go wrong?