Travel: How Greek was my valley: Every year, the sheep and cows are driven from summer pasture in the Pindhos mountains down to the plain for the winter. Tim Salmon often helps out as a cowhand

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The Independent Travel
Tsiogas did tell me to keep along the ridge. I have, but I know this isn't right. This is the fourth time I have done this journey, helping my friends bring their flocks down from the summer pastures in the Pindhos mountains in the north-west corner of Greece to the plains of Thessaly for the winter, and every time I get lost in these woods.

I climb to the crest of the ridge, where there is a patch of plough with a cement survey pillar in the middle. Using my crook for support, I clamber on to it and the extra height gives me a view across the valley to the clearing where the Old Village used to be. It seems farther away than ever.

'Calm down,' I tell myself. 'You've still got three hours' daylight.' My 21 cows swing slowly across the plough towards me. They look as puzzled by my antics as Enver, the 18-year-old Albanian whom we kidnapped at gunpoint yesterday to be my helper.

'Thodhorakis nowhere?' he asks.

'Thodhorakis nowhere,' I snap. 'You're with me and I give the orders here.' Thodhorakis is one of our shepherds, who speaks Albanian, which makes him a more reliable authority than the peculiar Englishman whose presence can only - and inadequately at that - be explained as 'turist'.

Enver looks at me, uncomprehending and distrustful.

There is no alternative but to strike down into the woods. They are so dense you lose all sense of direction and there is scarcely room to squeeze between the trees. I try to drive the cows in a beeline straight downhill, but they won't have it. To my dismay, they insist on backtracking. Instead of fighting them as I did last year, I let them have their heads. 'They'll take you there,' Tsiogas had said.

I follow, with growing admiration, as they pick their way along the contours, first this way, then that, led by a voluptuous, matronly creature with kohl-lined eyes and a bell at her throat. Somewhere across the valley I hear the bells of our sheep. It is Thodhorakis's flock, immediately recognisable by the deep bass drumming of the leader's bell. I holler, for reassurance.

'Come over here,' he shouts.

'We're OK now.'

In an hour my cows lead me to the stream in the valley bottom and then, through almost impenetrable thickets, to the clearing at the Old Village, where we fall in with our second Albanian shepherd - Yiannis, as we call him.

It is not much farther to our camp for the night, and Tsiogas is there already with the jeep, which has replaced the traditional pack animals.

'Did you water them?' he asks, seeing me arrive with the cows.

'Yes.'

'Did they all drink? They'll wander off in the night otherwise.'

He is nervy and irritable. We've been on the road seven days now and there's been little grazing or water anywhere. These animals are his livelihood; the ewes are due to lamb in a fortnight and he fears for their well-being.

We started out in Samarina, close to the Albanian frontier. At 1,450 metres, it is the highest village in Greece, inhabited only in summertime, when the flocks arrive from the lowlands. They go up in trucks now, for they need milking twice a day at that time of year and the cheese has to be made; it is too much work on the hoof. It was different when my friends were young, in the Fifties and Sixties, when there were few roads and entire households migrated on foot.

But a few flocks still come down on foot in the autumn, like us. It takes 12 to 15 days, meandering across country at grazing speed. We move independently - two flocks of sheep, about a thousand in all, and my 21 cows. We herders try to keep within earshot of each other.

At night we camp in the traditional places. They do not appear on any maps, but we know where they are: by the wild pears, below a certain spring, where the ruined houses are. Tsiogas has made this journey every year of his life, like his fathers before him. I do it when I can. I have known Tsiogas and his brothers for nearly 15 years and I am almost an honorary member of the family.

'Get some firewood, Timi,' he says, taking young Enver off to construct a rough thorn barrier to keep the flocks from mingling in the night.

A moment later, Yiannis arrives in a state of agitation. I understand only one word: 'ouik' - wolf.

Tsiogas is up and furious at once. 'Where the hell is your brain? Is it possible to go through woods and not make a noise and keep your eyes open? Didn't I tell you there were wolves here?'

Yiannis looks chastened and slightly shocked. A wolf has attacked one of the ewes right before his eyes. Its throat is bloody and you can see the teeth marks, but it has survived.

'Are you sure it didn't get any others?'

'Yes, boss.'

'Keep the sheep here,' Tsiogas says to me, grabbing his gun. 'There are bound to be others.' As he turns to go, Fortoun, the white bitch, appears with a tidemark of blood round her muzzle. 'What did I tell you? She's found a carcass.'

Within 10 minutes they are back, with a half-disembowelled ewe slung across Yiannis's shoulders. 'And there may be others,' Tsiogas says. He is beside himself, but even as he rants he wastes no time. The ewe is quickly hung from a tree, skinned, gutted and dismembered.

'That's what wolves do,' he explains as I build and light the fire nearby. 'They kill, drink the blood, and kill again. It's a shame. She was a good ewe. She would have given birth in a couple of weeks.' Her dead lamb, black-eared and perfectly formed, lies on the grass beside the pile of guts.

Thodhorakis arrives and the storm of shouting rises again, as Tsiogas explains what had happened. He speaks in Vlach, his mother tongue, for he, like Thodhorakis, is a member of that mysterious minority of semi-migrant pastoralists who, from time immemorial, it seems, have pastured their flocks in the northern Pindhos mountains.

I try to put in a word for Yiannis, who at least seems contrite under this lashing of tongues.

'You don't understand,' they tell me. 'These Albanians do not know how to work. They have no initiative. They do not think. They are like rats escaped from a cage.'

In spite of these strictures, everyone is employing them. Their illegal status makes them docile and they work for a quarter of a Greek's wages. Every day we pass gangs of them making their clandestine way across country. Their teeth are rotten and their clothes ragged. Their eyes search your face trying to understand whether they can trust you or get round you. They lie and whine. You feel sorry for them; at the same time you want to kick them.

'It's not surprising,' Thodhorakis says. 'They've been beaten and cowed for 50 years.'

He knows what it is like. His family used to take their flocks down into Albania for the winter. When Enver Hoxha closed the frontiers in 1948 they were trapped. Their flocks were confiscated and for 43 years Thodhorakis was not allowed to leave his village, let alone return to Greece.

Eventually, passions abate and we sit amicably round the fire, our faces ruddy with its glow. Tsiogas distributes the evening rations. We have even managed to prepare a pot of pasta in spite of the arguing, and, with grapes for dessert, it is ambrosia after a week of unrelieved bread, cheese and olives.

It is quite dark now. The moon is up. Orion's Belt is overhead, in a sky brilliant with stars. The sheep are bedded down around us, quietly ruminating. The white ones glimmer in the moonlight, the black ones are like holes in the darkness. The dogs are fed and posted on the edges of the flock. Our boots are off. With stockinged feet stretched close to the fire, goat-hair capes about our shoulders against the evening breeze, we lie back for a smoke and a chat. It is the one quiet hour of the day.

'Do you know what your friend the policeman, said?' I know who Tsiogas means. It is the policeman in the village we went through this morning, who wouldn't believe me last year when I said I was English.

'He said, 'I know you've got Albanians like everyone else. But that other fellow you have every year. What's his game?' I told him you were from the European Union. 'Well,' he said, 'he's up to something, that's for sure.'

'Spying,' says Thodhorakis, and they laugh.

'Don't laugh,' I say. 'They arrested me for spying once.'

'They're just ignorant and suspicious,' says Tsiogas, with the nomad's contempt for the settled farmer.

Around 10 o'clock we turn in. Usually I sleep by the fire, the cowhand absolved from night duty. Tonight, because of the wolves, I lie out on the edge of the flock. A couple of dogs lie close by, their spiked iron collars clanking as they scratch. I can see them clearly in the moonlight.

No one gets much sleep, for there are frequent alarms, accompanied by fearsome shouts and the frantic baying of dogs as they pick up the scent of a wolf. Two or three times I hear the shriek of shot as Tsiogas looses off a couple of barrels for good measure.

Around four, all goes quiet and the shepherds try to catch up on lost sleep, rolled on the ground in their capes. By six the daylight is coming on us fast, and the flocks begin to stir. There is just time to feed the dogs, collect our rations for the day, exchange a few quick words about the route, and then we're off, each man in his own world. And thus it is every day.

The others operate by the rhythm of the seasons, by gestation and birth, by the coming of the rains. I have to comply with the schedules of the charter companies and this means I have to leave a day before we reach home.

The night before, we do a forced march by moonlight to bring me within range of a bus.

'I'm all on edge since you said you were going,' Tsiogas says.

They hate partings. So do I.

I leave them around midday at the foot of the last climb. It is shrouded in cloud.

'You're only going because you're afraid of the weather.'

'I'll think of you tonight lying in the snow while I'm out on the town.'

We laugh, but we are all a little misty-eyed. I can reach Tsiogas on the phone now, but Thodhorakis is going back to Albania and I don't know if I shall see him again.

(Photographs omitted)

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