Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Vikos Gorgeous

In the Pindus Mountains in northern Greece lies the Vikos Gorge, a geological record-breaker, which is claimed to be the deepest gorge in the world (being 900 m, or 2,950 ft deep and only 1.1 m or 3.6 feet between its rims). Visiting in June, we were driven along the twisty mountain roads from our hotel in Aristi, to the north, to Monodendri in the south by our charming host, whose English was limited, but whose generosity and kindliness was not.

We had been advised to start early, at 6 am, but were delayed by breakfast and a wrong turn on our way down into the gorge, and did not begin until nearer 7.30 am. We had started by walking most of the way to the monastery of Agia Paraskevi, built on the edge of the Vikos Gorge, before being called back by our host, who had tottered after us in wooden wedges, which were distinctly unsuitable for the ridged pathway. We had just reached the gateway to the monastery, and decided that there was no safe way down into the gorge from there, when we saw her following us along the path, calling us to return, and made our way back to the village, and from there down a different street.

Finally on the right course, walking down the winding path to the bottom of the gorge, we relished the cool breeze that occasionally wafted through the tree-dappled sunlight. It had been a hot couple of days; the heat so intense that, stopping for lunch in the town of Ioannia the day before, I had heard the pine cones crack in the sun, the reports sounding like gunshots.

Reaching the bottom of the gorge, we walked along the dry riverbed, occasionally exploring its water-scoured rocks, as the sun rose beyond the towering  mountainous sides beside us. At one point, I stopped, arrested by a strange animal noise off to the left - a repeated half bark, half howl - which even now I cannot confidently identify. The gorge is home to bears, wolves and boar, among other animals, and as we walked quickly away from the sound, as much as I tried to be reassuring about it being behind us and no threat, I could not help keeping an eye on the path for decent-sized throwable stones, in case of an emergency.

Further on, and comfortably removed from whatever has made the noise, I was delighted to find a pool in the rocks beside the dry river, in which I saw first tadpoles, and then several frogs of increasing sizes. Flow in the river is seasonal, and underground watercourses mean that one may hear water running, but only occasionally see it on the surface. This little pool was a perfect pond for this group of amphibians, the water level of which was presumably refreshed from time to time by rainfall.

The walk from Monodendri to Vikos, to the north of the gorge, is supposed to take between four and a half and six hours, but by the time we neared the final stretch, and the climb back out of the gorge, it was past midday and the the blazing sun had well and truly risen, which slowed our progress considerably. The shaded wooded pathway gradually petered out, and the way ahead of us became dry and exposed to the heat, with only the occasional patches of shade, between which we dashed as quickly as tired legs and the extreme temperature would allow.

Despite having hiked and climbed in equatorial Africa, this felt like the hottest walking I had ever done. Although I was happy that I was protected against the sun, I began for the first time to worry about heat stroke. As the sweat ran off me, I could not avoid the thought that this had become a dangerous situation, with which my body was not coping very well. Noël Coward's line "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun" repeated in my thumping head, and I could feel my heart pounding fiercely and too fast.

By pouring half the contents of our drinking water over ourselves, we managed to keep on just the right side of exhaustion and we forced ourselves on, desperate to get out of the heat. As we eventually climbed out, over the lip of the gorge at Vikos, I gave thanks to whoever had built a stone shade with a water tap, which stood across the road. I put my head under the cooling water, and felt both relieved and revived as my pulse and breathing returned to a more normal rate. 'Next time,' I said, gratefully letting the water run down my sweat-drenched shirt, 'We start at six.'

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