LEFKA ORI - THE WHITE MOUNTAINS

 

On the island of Crete rising high into the sky are three large mountain ranges the 'Lefka Ori' Massif meaning White Mountains or 'Madares' is the largest. They take up a large part of the centre of Western Crete and, without a doubt, are the main feature of the region. The name 'White Mountains' perhaps comes from the fact that the slopes are so high that they are covered with snow until late spring sometimes even late June, then in the summer months the sun reflects on the limestone peaks giving them a candescent sheen. 

The central massif of the Lefka Ori spans 500 sq km and rises to Crete’s second highest mountain, Mount Pachnes (2,453m) – an almost inaccessible peak set in the heart of the range with steep crests and rocky paths. Whilst the central and southern parts are reminiscent of the moon, this is quite unique in the northern hemisphere. There are over 30 summits that are over 2,000 m high. Tracks often follow the routes still used by shepherds. In the winter months the going is dangerous without proper equipment and experience, whilst in summer the major problems are the high temperatures and the lack of any shadow as there are no trees.

 

Deep and sometimes impassable gorges are to be found in the centre and southern part of the mountains. Of the 20 largest gorges, Samaria is the best known, but no less impressive are the Irini, Aradena and Imbros gorges. Closed in by these mountains is the fertile and almost circular Omalos Plateau. Only a few main roads lead to the White Mountains, one from the Omalos plateau and another on the road to Hora Sfakion through the lush green plateau of Askyfou in the east. Also a few dirt roads are west of Omalos on the road to Souyia and Paleohora.

 

The Lefka Ori is home to a unique collection of flora and fauna. The number of endemic species, which is restricted to this area, is especially high. Many of the plants and animals are protected by a national and international agreement. Just before the tourist lodge at the head of the Samaria gorge, a path to the east twists and turns in a northerly direction for an hour and a half until reaching the Greek Mountaineering Club hut at Kallergi.

  

From here, the E4 route leads further north-east into the Lefka Ori, crossing the jagged landscape following paths only just visible, over barren grey rocks. Golden eagles soar in the cold air and cutting wind of these heights. In the isolation, goats and sheep graze on the sparse mountainsides eating wild herbs and shrubs.

 

There are four refuges in Lefka Ori. The Volikas Refuge which was built in 1958. It has basic cooking facilities and a wood burning stove and there is water from a nearby spring. It is approached by a three hour walk from the nearest road at Kambi Keramion at an altitude of 1,450 metres. It can house up to 30 people. The Kallergi Refuge was built in 1970. Its altitude is 1,650 metres and it can accommodate 45 people  with organised cooking facilities and a wood burning stove for heating. It is approached along 5 kilometres of track from Omalos.

 

The Tavris Refuge was built in 1992 and it is located nearby Ammoudari, 7.5 km from Askyfou via a dirt road, some 1,200 metres prior to the Tavri plateau. It can lodge up to 45 people. The path that connects the village with the shelter crosses through a forest. It takes around 1½-2.00 hours. This refuge is used for children's summer camp. On the Tavri plateau a public feast and festival takes place during the first week of June, in the chapel.  After the traditional Skafian service, food and wine are offered to all visitors. The Katsiveli or Svourihti Refuge was built in 1994. It’s located 7 hours from Anopolis, if you use the dirt road by car to the Ammoutsera plateau the course is decreased by 2½ hours. It can accommodate 20 people. 

  

The Lefka Ori are home to both of Greece's caves with depths greater than one kilometre, 'Gourgouthakas' the Cave of the Lion. Located at an altitude of 1,500m in the Atzinolakos area. This cave is also one of the 30 deepest caves in the world. This cave was discovered 15 years ago by a French speleologist and was an extremely difficult expedition especially because of its depth. But a joint team of French-Greeks were successful in August 2008 reaching a depth of 1,110m and 2,850m length. As a result this cave is now considered the 2nd deepest one in the country and the 60th in the world classification.

 
The Lefka Ori have a rich history as a hiding place for rebels during Cretan uprisings against the Venetian and Ottoman rulers, as well as during German Occupation of 1941-1945.
 
 
 
 

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