WALKING THE SAMARIA GORGE

  

Walking in the Samaria Gorge is something that many tourists have on their 'wish list' or 'things to do'. Understandable, as it is the longest and most beautiful gorge in Europe. Declared a National Park in 1962, this famous landmark is 13 kms long, carved by The Tarraios River which flows through it to the sea. Often said to be 18 km long - this actually refers to the distance between the settlement of Omalos on the northern side of the plateau and the village of Ayia Roumeli (site of ancient Tarrha, Greco-Roman era) the actual gorge is only 13 kms long but you will have to walk the extra 3 km to the sea from the exit of the National Park making it 16  km.  It ranges from 3 metres in width at its narrowest point to 150 metres, it extends over an area of 5,100 hectares and is visited by some 300,000 people a year. It takes between five to seven hours to pass through on foot. A small mountain stream with often icy cold water runs along its base, if you walked the ravine's length you would have to cross this stream forty seven times in total. At certain points along the route its vertical walls reach a height of 500m and the mountain peaks of Volakias, Gigilos, which surround it, Zaranokephala and Pachnes are over 2000m high.  The Samaria Gorge is open from May to October when passage permits because of the unpredictable weather and flash flooding prior to May. Mid April to Mid June is the best time. The route is enriched with rugged landscape flowers, perfumed herbs of sage, rosemary and thyme, trees, little fountains and abandoned settlements and wild goats known as 'Kri-Kri', as well as birds of prey.

 

Current Weather at Samaria Gorge - http://www.meteo.gr/stations/samaria/

 

The National Park is open daily from 6.00 am. to 3.30 pm. The gorge must be crossed during those hours. It is strictly forbidden to spend the night there. On entering the gorge you buy a ticket with the current date on it. This ticket must be shown at the control station on the other side. If you lose it you must pay again, and if the date is not current they will assume that you have stayed overnight. The only time it is permitted to stop overnight in the gorge is on the feast day of 'Ossia Maria' 'Saint Mary of Egypt' the small Byzantine church in the village of Samaria. On the first weekend of April a two day festival takes place. Your must contact the Climbing Club of Hania and let them know prior to visiting to check on conditions etc.

 

The following are strictly forbidden: swimming in the river, cutting flowers, including the endangered large peony, 'paeonia clusii' hunting or disturbing the animals, lighting a fire or smoking, creating noise pollution (radios etc), walking outside the marked path and littering. Inside the gorge you will see signs informing you about the designated rest areas, the water sources, and the location of first-aid stations and fire stations.

 

There are maps showing the path and facilities en- route, others with the vegetation zones marked, and lists of park regulations. Be wary of the kilometre markers as these mark only distances within the park, not the full extent of the walk. There are staff members that have been trained to deal with health emergencies, and there are horses and mules for the transportation of patients as well as a heliport for emergency cases.

 

YOU WILL NEED


Rugged boots and heavy-duty socks. Bring something to treat blisters or minor injuries.

  • Take a water bottle, but donít bother taking lots of water because you can refill your bottle with fresh water at countless spots on your way along the gorge. Try to drink at least 5 litres during the route.

  • Some food. There is no food available inside the National Park.

  • Sun tan lotion and a hat or cap.

  • When taking pictures, be careful to watch your step.

  • Keep to the main track and if youíre not sure where it is, wait and ask someone.

  • Bring warm clothes as temperatures can descend dramatically towards evening.

  • Make an early start - this means cooler temperatures and an even better chance to get ahead of the crowds - and there will be crowds this time of year.

 

HOW TO GET TO THE START

  

Buses marked Omalos leave Hania for the Samaria Gorge every day between 6am and 8am. Entrance fee to the gorge is 5 euros. There is a regular boat service leaving from Ayia Roumeli, to Hora Sfakion or Soyia. From Hora Sfakion, buses return to Hania.

If you prefer a guided tour you can book online or many Hania-based Cretan operators also provide organised tours to the gorge. 

 

On the roughly six-hour-long hike, keep a lookout for stunning scenery and rare fauna and flora. Rare birds, there are more than 50 species - include the dark-brown & white Bonelliís eagle, whose European population is estimated at less than 1,000 pairs, and griffon vultures, one of the largest birds in Europe, whose wingspan may reach 2.8m. You might also catch a glimpse of the emblem of Crete the 'kri kri' goats that are only found on Crete.

 

THE ALTERNATIVE

 

You could start the route after 12 noon then youíll miss the crowds altogether, but youíll have to spend the night in Ayia Roumeli because the last boat will have left by the time you get there.

  

At the southern end of the plateau of Omalos the road rises a little to an altitude of 1230 m and you get to the rim of the plateau where it drops precipitously into the gorge. The area is called 'Xyloskalo' meaning 'wooden staircase' (or ladder). As the entrance of the gorge is very steep the inhabitants of the area in the past had to built a makeshift staircase out of wood and trunks of the nearby trees enabling them to get in and out of the gorge in some form of safety, rather than scaling up and down the steep descent. 

 

This area can get very busy there is a large car park for buses and cars, a café and snack bar with toilets and souvenirs, a visitors centre and the entrance booth and of course the National Park wardens station who are in radio contact with each other and even a helipad Ė all provided with the aid of generous EU grants for setting up this National Park. On route there is also a doctor stationed in the abandoned village of Samaria. There are well-maintained springs on the way so that you do not have to carry much water. There are toilets in several places and plenty of rubbish bins.

   

THE DESCENT

  

Youíll follow a series of terraced steps where itís easy to fall if youíre not careful, on a pathway with wooden handrails that sharply winds downhill to the base of the gorge. It plunges 1,000 metres in the first 2 km. This part of the walk puts a lot of strain on the knees. 'Neroutsiko', is the first spring in the shade of large plane trees. Near the bottom is the chapel of Ayios Nikolaos surrounded by cypresses trees said to be over 2,000 years old and the tallest in Crete. The church is built on the ruins of an ancient temple of Apollo. 

  
It is thought that the ancient city of Kaino was situated somewhere in this area. Here you also find benches and fresh water.  You have now been walking for about 4 km. From here you'll start of cross the river bed about 3 times and pass 2 springs before arriving at the abandoned village of Samaria crossing a wooden bridge. The village is huddled beneath a spectacular protrusion of cliffs. 

  
This charming village, resisted the Turks for centuries and kept the Nazis busy during World War ll, was abandoned in 1962  when the National Park was created and the gorge was classed as a National Park. The inhabitants were members of the Viglis family, who claimed direct descent from one of the twelve aristocratic clans from Byzantium. For thousands of years the inhabitants were mainly loggers, there are still remains of a few sawmills in the gorge. Life must have been extremely hard as in the winter months no access was available through the gorge as the winter storms swept down. The only way out was via a difficult mountain path down to the sea.

 
One of the buildings is converted to a wardens' office and Dr's station (free) another building is used as a toilet. Here youíll find shaded picnic tables and the 14th-century church of ' Ossia Maria'. The village and the gorge take their names from the village's ancient church, 'Saint Mary'. Plan to spend around half an hour here. 


'Donít forget to leave proof that youíve done the walk by signing the register,
 which is kept in a house to the left of the bridge  - not many people know about it.'

  

Now the gorge walk starts crossing the river on makeshift wooden bridges at 11 km marker you arrive at the shaded clearing of 'Christos', where you will find the last spring. During our walk in the gorge you'll come across  mules standing. These from part of the 'rescue service'. If someone gets hurt or becomes ill during the walk, they will be transport on the animal down, to the exit of gorge. 

   

Another stunning sight is Les Portes  'Portes' which means 'doors' or 'gates'. These towering walls of rock, which stand 300m high, are less than 3m apart, and mark the narrowest part of the gorge. 'Sidheresportes' 'Iron Gates' At this point a wooden walkway is raised above the stream whose swirling waters fill the whole of the narrow passage.  None of the former inhabitants of the gorge know why the place suddenly got this name. Perhaps at one point someone once thought they could stop the raging waters and did try iron gates to dam off the flow?

  

Once through the gates the gorge widens considerably and after another 2 km you reach the guard post where you must surrender your ticket. 

 
You are then out of the National Park and are in the destroyed old village of Ayia Roumeli. A flood in the 1950's devastated the area but today many of the ruined houses are slowly being rebuilt.

 
The path now becomes very easy, flat and no stones but also no shade for another 20mins or so walk. If you get there in the summer at noon you will often encounter very hot conditions. But soon you see the sea ahead of you and get to the new village of Ayia Roumeli with its tavernas where you deserve a long cold drink until the boat arrives to take you back. The old Turkish fort looks over the area on the hill above Ayia Roumeli. It is an easy walk up for those who have not just walked the gorge but arrived by boat and will give you wonderful views of the coast. It is possible to walk further up to even more ruins of a second fort but it can be hard.

 
   

A WORD OF WARNING

 

This next item is not in any way trying to put you off walking the gorge but just to emphasis how important it is that you do observe all the rules and precautions and that you do not take anything for granted. Thank goodness stories such as this it do not happen very often.

   

In 2007 a group of 31 Polish tourists went hiking through the gorge on a Saturday in July. Two of the group went missing - a brother and sister. The two, however, failed to meet up with the remaining group members at the end of the day. For some reason known only to himself the group leader failed to report them missing until Monday 2 days later!
 

Authorities launched a large search operation involving ground forces, sniffer dogs and an airplane. The authorities were misled by being told the two were seen in the Samaria Gorge itself and because of this 4 days were wasted searching the wrong area.

On 26 July the brother 37, who suffered from epilepsy was found, just still alive, by a Greek volunteer walker, who had decided himself to climb above and away from the Samaria Gorge to the more westerly and dangerous Tripiti gorge.  The volunteer offered him first aid and water. The body of his 40-year-old sister was discovered nearby.

The two had made no contact via mobile phones to seek help during their 6 day ordeal - presumably because there was no signal coverage available as the Greek volunteer himself had to climb higher in order to use his mobile phone to get news back to the café at the head of the Gorge. The brother died a few hours later before rescue teams could reach him. Resulting in the search party finding the two bodies early on 27th July after a long night climb. 

  

Itís a tragic story but hopefully lessons were learnt about support and emergency procedures, staff training, registration and group sizes? 

Basic mountain technique procedures - of counting the group in and out of the gorge were simply not used at this time or the rules were not adhered to?

The Parkís own control system appeared not to have been in place for checking off all successful descents at the southern exit point of the Gorge for some reason. So it is imperative that you tell someone you are going on the walk and where and how you decided to get there and how you mean to return and when! Or please enjoy the experience with a organised group tour.

 
  
 

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