It’s June, it’s Crete, and it’s hot. And with the Libyan Sea warm and inviting, and a dozen or more beaches close to Paleochora, there is understandably less enthusiasm for long walks. But I wanted to go to Argastiri, for reasons explained later. So here’s a walk of around 8km, taking less than three hours, perfect for early morning or late afternoon, before or after the heat of the day.

Park here ..

Park here ..

The start (and finish, the walk being circular) is at the cafe/taverna ‘Maganari’, just before Kambanos on the main road north beyond Rodovani. Distance is just 26km from Paleochora through Azogires and Strati, slightly longer and more tortuous through Anidri and Prodromi, but a scenic drive by either route. Park below shady plane trees beside the taverna.

Start this way ...

Start this way …

A few metres past the taverna, take the road (left) signed to Skafi, Argastiri and Tsagariakos, but after 400m, at the 2nd sharp bend, go right on a rough track through the trees. “Does the road wind uphill all the way?” asks Christina Rossetti in her poem. “Yes,” it does, “to the very end” at Argastiri, passing en route the church of Agios Vasilios, a plain building but with extensive views, to the hill villages of Koustoyerako and Livada, and the sea below Sougia. Turn left on reaching the surfaced road on the outskirts of Argastiri, passing the cemetery and Agios Giorgos, a far more attractive church, but without the views.

Agios Giorgos

Agios Giorgos

Argastiri, 650m above sea level, and now with a resident population of only 19 (2011 census), is an isolated village, the access road from Tsiskiana not surfaced until 1997, and only supplied with electricity and running water in the 1960s. It’s name is Greek for “loom”, and the village was famous for its weaving products. During the war, villagers sheltered many Allied soldiers, but did not incur the reprisals and destruction of homes suffered by many other local villages. It’s a very peaceful and panoramically situated place . And my reason for coming here – for the beautiful green stone on Lynne’s grave, found, polished and oiled by Costas, and engraved by Gerhardt, came from a stream-bed near Argastiri.

Argastiri village

Argastiri village

Follow the road downhill out of the village, heading NW after a ‘hairpin’ bend, with very soon the houses of Skafi coming into view.

Colourful Skafi

Colourful Skafi

Below Skafi, where the road bends sharply, are two turnings – the first signed to Loukiana, and the second (take this) to Tsagariakos, rising alongside a shallow stream-bed. Spring flowers are all but over now, although the oleanders are spectacular, and the tall summer-flowering Verbascum macrurum were in yellow bud.

Verbascum macrurum

Verbascum macrurum

Soon the track, now surfaced, climbs away from the gully and heads south. From here, turn and look north, to the summit of Agios Zinas, 1331m, where a tiny white chapel stands out against the blue sky (already marked down for a future ‘Explore’.) Approaching both midday and 30c, I left Tsagariakos for another day, and forked left (it’s marked to ‘Astratigos’, but that’s some distance away), soon reaching Ag. Marina and some shade for an early lunch.

Skafi & beyond

Skafi & beyond

Below the church, fork left as the track winds down towards Pera Skafi. “Pera” translates as “beyond”, “further”, and the English equivalent would be ‘Upper Skafi’. Go left again below the first houses, to join and turn right on the ‘main’ surfaced road, passing what may (or may not) be the village cafeneio, stores and Post Office, but was closed to all three. All that remained now was to follow the road south, gradually losing height. Soon Kambanos, the largest village hereabouts, appeared below, against a backdrop of the White Mountains outlier of Psilafi, 1984m, rising high above the Agia Irini Gorge. Gavdos Island, hazy in the distance, was reminiscent of South Pacific’s Bali Ha’i, with its “head sticking out of a low-flying cloud.” Turning left for 600m at the main road, I was soon back at the car.

If you’re hungry on reaching the ‘Maganari’ taverna (as I was), I can strongly recommend the ‘kalitsounia’ – cheese & spinach pies, accompanied by a somewhat inevitable Greek salad. The route is covered by the Anavasi Sougia/Samaria map (11.13) although the track from Ag Vasilios church reaches Argastiri on its east, not its west side. Please close and re-fasten three ‘gates’ on the ascent.

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Flashback to mid-March 2013, just over a year ago.  Four friends and I were nearing the end of what was almost certainly the first descent of the Kamariano Gorge, north of Sougia.  The difficult part was over  –  a vertical & overhanging 6m drop involving lowering and abseiling.  All that remained was a steep groove into a 3m wall, then an easy walk down the riverbed to the gorge exit, cars, and a celebratory drink in Sougia. I safeguarded Michelle, Phil, Dick and Laura as they climbed down a fixed rope, then clipped my doubled rope into a karabiner, and set off to join them below.

Accident black spot!

The accident blackspot – March 2013

The next thing I knew, I was sprawled in a tangle of ropes, head spinning, with concerned faces looking down on me.  The anchor point I used had failed.  I had checked it (the same one used on a prior exploration), but should have been more thorough, and (with hindsight,) should have used two.  Bruised and shaken, but with all limbs intact, we completed the descent.  Phil drove home and helped me to bed.  Next morning I could barely move.  Friends drove me to Chania, where investigations revealed nothing more than a broken rib and badly dented pride.  My first injury of any consequence in over five decades of climbing mountains and rock-faces, during which I’d used anchor points a million times.  It could have been far worse ….

A year on, fully recovered, it was time (and important) to return to the gorge and “lay the ghost” with another descent.  Dick was on Gavdos island, Phil feigned injury, Michelle was “busy”, but Laura was as enthusiastic as always (and I know, two is below the minimum for safety, and we’ve seen ‘Touching the Void’, but we went anyway.)

Kamariano downThe Kamariano gorge ends on the main Chania road, 2km from Sougia, although the valley leading into it begins far higher, at Mertes (see ‘Explore’, March 2014).  A waymarked path (red paint dots) climbs up left (west) from a clearing, then swings north, contouring high above the gorge.  (Note that the path south to Sougia, marked on the Anavasi Topo25 map, does not exist.)  The path, clear, narrow and scenic, eventually descends to become wider, alongside a fence, through a ‘gate’, and on to a second, where it becomes a track.  Just 75m beyond here (at a cairn of stones) we dropped down into the riverbed.

Kamariano upwardsKamariano gorgeThreading our way between oleanders and gorse, occasionally over boulders, we soon reached the point where things become serious  –  a ledge with an enormous lodged boulder above, and the valley floor an intimidating and daunting distance below.  But first, lunch in the sunshine.  Thus fortified, we were soon at the foot of the “mauvais pas”, pulling in the rope used to first lower Laura, then for me to abseil down to ‘terra firma’.

A long way down

A long way down

Ready?

Ready?

Safely down

Safely down

Several obstacles later, requiring hand and footholds but not the rope, we arrived at the scene of last year’s mishap.  Fully concentrated, it was all quite simple, and in fact there’s a way around not necessitating a rope, although it’s still not easy.  Now all was straightforward, and this time I could relax and enjoy the last half-hour’s walk back to the road  –  the total tranquility, wild flowers, birdsong, and aromatic scent of the pine trees.

Don't jump !Lightning never strikes twice in the same place, they say, and thankfully not in the Kamariano gorge ; this time we were really able to celebrate our descent in Sougia. Then we could relax & watch the world go by while we wait for the ferry back to Paleochora.

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