Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Reluctant Mountaineer

I must say that the "sport" of mountaineering has never really held much appeal to me. I mean, the idea of hanging off of some huge boulder several hundred feet above ground with nothing but a thin nylon rope between me and certain death isn't my idea of a relaxing way to spend my leisure time. OK, yes, it makes for some stunning photographs in glossy magazines, but I still reckon that if God in his infinite wisdom had intended for us to do such things he'd have fitted our arms with rather more feathers than we presently possess.

That said, I had been staring up at the "Kastro" on Halki on and off for a couple of years before finally deciding that now was the time to get myself up there and take a shufty. This past Sunday we did what will probably prove to be the last Halki excursion of this season and, owing to the fact that the cold spell had finally killed off any of the remaining butterflies in Butterfly Valley, the excursion cut that part out and we found ourselves with more than five hours on the island of Halki instead of the usual three and a quarter. With the fact that the temperatures were only about 20+ in the sun and considerably lower in the shade (owing to a fairly "keen" wind) it seemed the perfect opportunity to walk the four kilometres from the harbour to the old abandoned "Horio" up on the mountainside below the kastro, and then on up to the fortification itself.

Armed with just my iPad Mini and a bottle of water, having left my rucksack at Levkosia's taverna for safe keeping, I strode up the lane away from the harbour-front, determined to see if what I'd been told by a German guest on one of my excursions of the 2012 season was true. This particular gentleman was probably somewhere in his sixties, travelling alone and wearing the kind of clothes and footwear that spoke volumes about what he liked to do. His shoes alone were enough to tell me that he was a walker. We hadn't been on the quayside for more than a minute or two when he'd enquired as to how long it would take to walk up to the kastro. Like, how would I know? I was only the escort after all. Anyway, he was graciousness itself when I owned up to having not the faintest idea, and promised me that he'd set off at a brisk walking pace in the 38ºC heat (this was August, after all) and would report back to me upon his safe return, should he in fact make one.

Make one he did. I was lazing at Levkosia's, the last few dregs of my Fix in the glass around which was wrapped my right hand, gazing out at the scene which never fails to entrance me, when this wiry gent in lederhosen (alright, so maybe I'm exaggerrating a bit there) returned in triumph. My plate revealing that I'd just enjoyed a sumptuous, leisurely lunch, he strode up and announced, "It vas easy. It only took one hour to reach the castle, and slightly less to make the return, since it was downhill coming back!"

This information had remained in my brain ever since and had on more than one occasion stood me in good stead when other guests had asked me if it was feasible to make it to the castle and back on foot during our stay. I could now reply with good authority that if one was fit and able and carried a bottle of water, one would make it to the top in about an hour. I kind of usually left out the bit that I hadn't actually done it myself. Well, the nearest I'd come until last Sunday was to go up to the Horio and along the opposite side of the valley in the minibus on the occasion when Zois from Babis taverna had taken myself, Grace and a clutch of slightly more indolent guests up there for a camera call.

So, anyway, here I was this past Sunday striding up through the village away from the harbour, intent on ending my period of mild hypocrisy. I was going to make it to the kastro, come what may. You know in advance that it's going to be a difficult climb since, as one approaches the island by sea from Kamiros Skala on Rhodes, you see the mountain on which the kastro stands rising like a pointy pinnacle sheer above the village, making the castle look quite small, even nothing more than perhaps a lookout tower. See above photo (courtesy of

Not long after leaving the inhabited harbour village behind, you descend the gentle slope down to Potamos beach, the easiest beach on the island from which to swim in the beautifully clear indigo waters with which the island is blessed.

As you pass the back of the beach, on the fairly newly concreted road, you come across this rather curious plaque on a small obelisk, right beside the road…

Apparently, it's to commemorate the fact that the descendents of the Halkiots who'd left the island in the mid 20th century and settled in Tarpon Springs, Florida, had financed the surfacing of the road leading up to the old village, the very place from which their ancestors had emigrated a few decades earlier. The Halkiot community in Tarpon Springs is apparently very close-knit and dedicated to preserving their Greek heritage and culture. Thanks Tarpon Springs people, it makes the walk which I am now undertaking a whole lot easier. It's difficult to walk too quickly at this stage because the views across the small bay of Potamos towards the windmills on the far ridge are so beguiling. I really love the light at this time of the year, because the sun's lower position in the sky produces these jewels on the surface of the water as it shimmers and twinkles in the bright daylight.

Now the road begins to rise as the gradient begins to steepen. When you wander the harbour area of Halki these days you'll spot various different-coloured wheely-bins. They are colour-coded because some are for plastic bottles, some for cans and others for paper. Yes, the island's "dimos" is trying to do its bit for the environment by recycling household waste. Of course, here in Greece one can be forgiven for thinking, "Yea, well, having the bins is one thing. Actually recycling the waste is quite another." Well, if you make this walk you can see the evidence that they really are following through with the process, because a few hundred metres further up the lane from Potamos beach you pass the council's recycling yard on your right and, sure enough, there is the evidence in the shape of a crushing machine, which is surrounded by bales of crushed cans, plastic bottles and compressed paper and card, not to mention a few curious goats. Bravo Halki Dimos I say. The yard may not be the most photogenic part of this island, but it represents a responsible attitude toward the environment that other islands would do well to follow. These bales are awaiting shipping to Athens for further processing by the way.

As the gradient steepens my sweat glands begin to respond accordingly. It may not be the hottest day of the year, but striding up the lane briskly still induces that hot feeling. I take a deep swig from my bottle of water and turn to look back at how far I've come…

Already the view across to Rhodes is starting to look impressive and I've barely climbed to any appreciable altitude as yet. I turn around and press on. As I draw closer to the abandoned village above the road begins a series of tight hairpins, approximately fifty metres from turn to turn. In order to maximise my progress as I climb, I take the "racing line" from corner to corner. After all, there's no traffic up here today. Wait, I spoke too soon. After a couple of these hairpins I hear the sound of a vehicle engine, combined with the thumping of music from an in-car hi-fi. I can hardly believe this. I'm half-way up a mountain on a tiny Greek island and I believe I'm hearing some young "πάλι κάρι" [pally ka'rry - young (usually unmarried) kid, as in "cool dude hanging out"] with his windows open and his mindless "house music" or some-such pounding away while he taps his fingers on his steering wheel.

I am wrong, thank goodness. Looking back I see hurtling up the lane towards me a Japanese pickup, with the driver's window wound all the way down and as the vehicle draws nearer I can make out the music much easier. It's a bouzouki I hear, not some rapper shouting the odds. Unable to see the driver for the sun reflecting on the front windscreen, I shield my eyes as he zooms past me and am a little surprised to hear him blow his horn and the elbow that had been sticking out from the driver's window is transformed into a waving hand. Is this simply a matter of Halkian friendliness, or do I know this man? The answer comes sooner than I'd have expected as, just a hundred metres or so further up the lane, the pickup screeches to a halt and my good friend Mihalis, who runs Levkosia's taverna with his mother, the redoubtable Levkosia herself, jumps out, throws me another wave and shouts "Ya'sou Gianni!! Ola kala!?" I hardly have time to answer before he's off down the boulder strewn hillside beside the road and lost among the olive trees.

There I had been, for a split second, about to ask myself why my friend hadn't offered me a lift (which I'd have declined anyway), when it becomes apparent that he wasn't going far enough beyond my location before stopping. Quite what he is doing is to become a little clearer later on.

I press on past his empty pickup, engine still running and bouzouki music still pounding out from the open window at a decibel level of which any young "dude" would have been proud. Twice more before I reach the old village my friend passes me and a similar scene is played out, each time with Mihalis striding off into the countryside beside the road. But, after he's passed the turning for the village and proceeded up the other side of the valley, I realize what he's doing and why he's going about it in earnest. He's gathering his flock of sheep, which until now have been scattered all across the hillsides on both sides of the valley. As he steps and jumps from boulder to boulder, stick in hand, he calls to his charges. Listen…

No you can't see him, but it's his voice you can hear.

This moment, listening to my friend doing something that men have done since time immemorial on these slope and countless others like them all across this land, I am stilled, my steps halt and I reflect. How amazing to be somewhere where I can hear the shepherd's voice and, better still, begin to see as his sheep respond and, assembling from all points around the amphi-theatre of hills in which I stand, trundle across the terrain in twos and threes until a discernible line of woolly bovines can be seen making their way obediently up the steep, craggy hillside to their unseen pen somewhere over the ridge, all the while to the background of their shepherd's calls. Why, I could be standing here at any point in time from the past three thousand years, if you take away the sight of a bunch of plastic barrels in that pen over there of course.

Turning to face uphill once again I spot something else that gives me a tingle. There, to my right and just across the lane from the entrance to the old village is its abandoned chapel and graveyard. Graves that have lain there for centuries still stand in silence as the October wind whistle between them under the intense sun and I find myself wondering about the folk lying beneath. How they in their time had loved, eaten, farmed, herded, laughed, toiled and died and all many decades before I was born.

"Come on Johhny boy," I tell myself, "onward and upward." I gaze up across the impossibly steep slope on which the village stands at the Crusader Fortress looming high above. I've got to find my way up there somehow. I glance at my watch. I'd left the harbour-front at 11.05 and it is now 11.40. Do I think I'll make it to the top in twenty minutes? If my German friend from the previous year is to be believed then it has to be possible. Doesn't look it mind you. I strike up through the village, my heart pounding under my ribs as I negotiate the steep pathways between houses now devoid of roofs. Where a roof once sheltered humble, hardworking people from both the merciless sun and the biting wind of winter there now flourish mature olive and fig trees.

I notice, however that there is electricity up here and I know why. Not only do the islanders from below come to the village annually for an August festival, but there are also a few who have begun to renovate these old properties for their aging family members to spend time up here in the cooler temperatures afforded by the altitude on long hot oppressive summer days. The views become ever more spectacular and a buzzard circles in the deep blue over my head as I climb ever upward. Now conscious of two other couples not far above me, all bent on the same goal as me.

A small, recently renovated church looks so photogenic that I just have to snap it…

Pretty soon I catch up with the first pair, a young French couple who are struggling to make sense of the many potential paths which may lead one to the summit and the castle's entrance. More than once we, now walking together, think we've struck the correct path, owing to the fact that it's newly paved, only to find that it ends in a sheer drop.

Finally, the other couple yet further above us call down to us. Well, the man does anyway. He's older than any of us three, probably in his mid-sixties, also French, and very fit-looking. Which is just as well because anyone not in good shape would never make this climb. Already I feel as though I'm hanging off the edge of a mountain and beginning inwardly to question whether this was such a good idea. Above us there appears to be just a jumble of rocks and boulders, none of which looks particularly easy to clamber over and there is no clearly discernible route from this angle at all. The older man, whose head only is visible over a boulder several metres above, encourages us by telling us that if we just go a little to the right, then take a left, we'll see the route to the top…

Suddenly, within about fifty metres of the top, we see this inscription

Can you see a pathway here? It's there, believe me!
 Finally, with the cool wind whipping through my regulation TUI polo shirt, I follow my two new friends under a wooden scaffolding, up a few more metres of slippery, stony ground and we arrive at the castle's entrance. How on earth anyone managed to build a fortification up here heaven only knows.

Once we step through the narrow entrance into what would have once been a kind of lobby, we step through yet another small door, no doubt built that way to inhibit the progress of would-be invaders and we're into, or rather, onto the castle proper. I say "onto" because to the South there are virtually no remaining walls, thus affording the footsore explorer magnificent views of the South Western coastline of the island of Rhodes a few miles away. Once you're inside the structure of the castle it becomes apparent that it's not as small as it looked from way down below. It's very elongated and thus covers much more ground, or rather crag, than one would imagine when viewing it from the waters of the harbour whilst making an approach to the island.

So, folks, this is what you get for your trouble…

The chapel is being renovated as it once held an icon which is now kept in the church on the waterfront in the harbour several kilometres below. How on earth they're getting the work done I can't begin to imagine. Not after the climb we five have just made.

Well, I've snapped a way a while and checked my watch to find that I did indeed scramble up on to this pinnacle almost one hour to the minute after setting out from the harbour below. I should never have doubted my intrepid German guest from last year. If only I could talk to him now and tell him how accurate had been his report. So it's time to attempt the descent. I omitted to mention that, during the ascent from the village to the castle itself there were sections where one had to negotiate steep walkways of timber planks, laid laterally and with laths nailed on to their top surface to stop the walker from slipping and sustaining certain serious injury. I stared out of the entrance and snapped this before beginning my descent…

Yes, that IS the only way down…
 After having nearly slipped down those wooden walkways at least twice and imagined calling an air ambulance to pluck me from the mountainside, I finally make it back to the old village and thence to the road. I am half-way back down the lane to the beach at Potamos and out of nowhere Mihalis bounds out of the undergrowth on to the lane beside me, a huge smile cracking his well tanned face.

We talk for a moment or two and I tell him that my rucksack's in his taverna and ask if he'll also be there today. He replies that yes, he'll be there directly, after he's trekked back across the hillside to the pickup where he left it and nipped home for a shower. He tells me that there had been a run on lamb from the menu and thus he'd not only had to round them up but choose a couple to be prepared for the table, whereupon I tell him he's a true "voskos" (old Greek for shepherd). He laughs his agreement and says "ta leme amesos" before trotting off once again, after explaining that he can't give me a lift because the pickup's now somewhere across country and he has to run to reach it in his old yet still sturdy cross-country boots. My footwear whilst good for walking, isn't good enough to spare me a broken ankle were I to try to keep up with him.

Almost two hours exactly after I'd set out, I stride back, sweaty yet satisfied, into Levkosia's taverna in anticipation of a well-earned lunch of kalamari and chips, washed down with a large beer. As I approach the doorway of the taverna, Mihalis emerges, all smiles, and welcomes me without the hint of a sign suggesting he's registered my wonder at how quickly he'd made it back to the pickup, dashed home and showered and then arrived here to bid me welcome, whilst exuding the impression that he'd been there all along.

Note: Don't forget, that by clicking on any of the photos you get a larger view. Right-clicking on the larger view gives you the option to "view image". once in that mode you should get the magnifying glass with a little plus sign in it, which means you can click for a larger view again, thus giving you a very high definition version which may even need moving around your screen in order to see it all. This definitely works in Firefox, dunno about other browsers though - JM.)


  1. Very impressive John, and after such a late night too! I love it that a place like Halki has just the one real road and it's called Tarpon Springs Boulevard, though whether officially, I'm not sure.
    Sadly, I missed my usual, aerial view of Halki, yesterday, being in an aisle seat.

  2. Think we may have a go at getting up to the Kastro next year when we come, just got to be done and those photos have just fuelled my enthusiasm for going up there, the views are awesome, thanks for sharing :)