Peaks, gorges, blisters and vultures

Western Crete offers a variety of demanding trekking, so why does everyone always head for the Samaria Gorge? Jane O'Callaghan offers some alternative hikes

IT'S A marketing phenomenon. Somehow holidaymakers in Crete, whose notion of a walk is a stroll to the beach, are persuaded to board a bus at dawn to trek down the Samaria gorge. Packaging the "Samaria experience" has become a vast business.

It is a still a great set-piece hike, and at 11 miles is the longest gorge in Europe. But gorges, even the mighty Samaria, are by their nature narrow. With 2,000 to 3,000 walkers converging daily in a two-hour time slot at the top, it can be more like negotiating rush hour than its souvenir T-shirt boast of "surviving the mountain challenge".

Ecologists are worried by the impact of a million feet a year. Paths are being eroded and wild flowers crushed while the rare Cretan ibex and golden eagles feel impelled to leave the protection of the national park for the high mountains, where they are still shot on sight by shepherds.

But the irony is that Samaria is only one of a dozen great gorges which cut through the White Mountains of western Crete. Here there is plenty of scope for independent hikers to enjoy the sensation of walking through some of the most dramatic scenery in Europe in perfect peace.

For millennia these dry riverbeds, created by winter rains and snow melt, have been used by locals as the easiest route from the highlands to the sea. Many still feature kalderimi, cobbled paths which switchback up the cliffs when huge boulders block the route. There's no danger of getting lost and abundant shade means they can be tackled even in the blistering heat.

You may well get some company in the Imbros gorge. Better bus links than most and a manageable five-mile downhill walk have made this delightful ravine a growing favourite. There are plenty of picnic spots and even a taverna halfway down.

If you want a more testing hike, walk up the Asfendou ravine, cut east along the dirt road and descend to the coast road near the fortress of Frangokastello through the Kallikrates gorge. This lovely ravine is popular with German groups in the spring because of its abundance of rare wild flowers.

Tackling the Aradhena gorge involves an early-morning taxi ride to the starting point. Picking your way down a stone-flagged path that runs down the side of the cliff, you enter the canyon which, like Samaria, is built on a grand scale. After half an hour, walking turns to scrambling as you negotiate the way through boulders as big as houses. The next stage used to involve abseiling down a 30-foot drop but a metal ladder now provides more secure access to the most spectacular part of the gorge, where vultures ride the thermals above 1,000-foot cliffs, scanning for goats or hikers who have lost their footing. After four hours you emerge on Marble Beach, a cove where naked Germans bask on the flat rocks.

The Aghia Irinia gorge is now touted as the "new Samaria" in a bid to channel some of the hordes away from its more famous neighbour. This year handrails, piped water, toilets, signposts and a cafe have appeared - everything except hikers in fact.

The ravine itself is shaded by Cretan maple, pine and plane trees; wild flowers and herbs cling to the precipitous walls. Dittany, the Cretan herb famous since classical times, is gathered here. It makes a delicious tea which is reputedly a cure for everything; if an ibex is wounded by an arrow, the story goes, it eats dittany until it recovers.

Fascinating as the gorges are, the premier league hike in Crete is the high-level traverse of the White Mountains, from the head of the Samaria gorge to Anopoli. It has the reputation for being the most dangerous walk in Greece, with regular fatalities. We heard plenty to put us off in Chania; a German and his son got lost and were rescued hours from death; the bones of an English walker who'd stepped a few yards off the trail to take a group photo are still at the bottom of a sink hole.

Problems arise when under-equipped walkers wander off the trail and lose their bearings; as food and water supplies run out, exposure to mountain storms, dehydration and sunstroke can take their toll. Arriving in sombre mood at Kallergi, the mountain refuge perched high on a crag, we were relieved to hear that there was spring water at Katsivelli, around the halfway mark.

Kallergi had seemed like the top of the world, but most of the morning was spent climbing into a landscape which became more desolate with every weary hour. The high peaks to which the path led never seemed to get any closer. We were thankful for small joys: wild flowers which had found a niche among the rocks were a

comfort; a family of eagles hunting along a ridge were our new companions. We became paranoid about losing the trail and lost time searching for the next waymark. The traverse has been designated a European walking trail and has smart metal signs at well-spaced intervals. Unfortunately shepherds found them irresistible targets and had shot the metal flag off most of the poles.

By late afternoon we had entered the domain of Pachnes, the highest peak in the range at 2,500m. The eagles and flowers had gone and the world turned to stone in this sky-high desert. We trudged across black scree through grotesque rock formations. Above us bare limestone and quartz slopes shimmered with an eerie pink glow.

We struggled to find a context. Like the back road to Mordor, like walking on the moon, like the sort of place you die. It was hard to believe that less than seven miles away as the eagle flies, people in Loutro were having a shower, doing all the holiday things. The long midsummer twilight was blissfully cool as we made a scratch camp among the rocks but the temperature quickly dropped to just above freezing. The stars have never seemed so intense.

By mid-afternoon the next day we were celebrating our good fortune with a swim and a beer. Later, from the ferry, we caught a glimpse of Pachnes looming above the towering front range. There was no "been there, done that" sense of triumphalism. Instead it seemed a sinister apparition, an envoy from the realms of the dead. I disguised a sudden shudder with a nervous laugh and took off my boots.

FACT FILE

walking in crete

Getting there

Simply Crete (tel: 0181-994 4462) offers packages to Crete from pounds 340 per person, beginning 30 March, including return charter flights, transfers and a self-catering two-bedroom apartment. Before 30 March, the same package, with scheduled return flights via Athens, costs about pounds 600 per person.

There are weekly charters from Gatwick and Manchester to Chania from May to October. Return flights cost around pounds 220. Before May, a scheduled flight with Olympic Airways (tel: 0171-409 3400), via Athens, costs from pounds 204 including tax if you book by 27 January.

Where to stay

Hotel rooms with en-suite bath are widely available and a twin room costs around pounds 12 per night. You can pre-book through Chania's Rental Accommodations Union (tel: 00 30 821 43601).

Chora Sfakion, on the south coast of the island, is a good base for many of the gorges. Try Hotel Stavris (tel: 00 30 825 91220).

Landscapes of Western Crete (Sunflower Press) is a reasonably accurate walking guide. For information on White Mountain treks, contact the Chania Mountaineering Club (tel: 00 30 821 44647).

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