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Wanderthirst: how my accidental seven hour hike became a lasting memory

I stumbled upon one of the world’s most renowned hiking trails, and it was well worth the effort to escape everyday life.

02 Sep 2022

illustration by Serina Kitazono, photograph by Roda Musa

Our trip to Crete was a last minute plan, which has been a running theme within my circle of friends through university and beyond. Now in our late twenties, the holiday was less about impulsive excitement and more about allowing ourselves enjoyment, which can be fleeting or easily overlooked in our busy adult lives. 

I told one of my friends that I had some time between freelance contracts and didn’t know what I would do with myself. It turned out she too had been wanting to travel as a quick escape.I agreed: wandering another land would do us both some good. The aim was to indulge; to disconnect from real life, so we found the most serene Airbnb in the middle of the mountains of Chania, Greece. 

It was a good two-hour drive from the airport, deep into the countryside. The drive itself reminded me of a favourite film of mine, The Taste of Cherry (1997), about one man’s quest to find whether his life had any meaning. Instead of the infinite brown-golden hue of the mountains in Iran, it was a flowing green expanse that lapped all around us. Any chance I get, I imagine I’m the main character in a minimalist slice-of-life film, about to stumble on something that will transform me, body and soul.  

We were two romantics who wanted to spend a week surrounded by nature, eating by the beach and wandering narrow streets in a hazy bliss. Our first day there was pretty much that, as we took a taxi to the city centre and explored the old town. The waiter we asked to take some candid pictures of us took my phone to walk around the restaurant and do his own private tour instead – we played back the video later, laughing at their big smile. I’m sure he would have gone live on my Instagram if my phone wasn’t already on airplane mode. 

“We were two romantics who wanted to spend a week surrounded by nature, eating by the beach and wandering narrow streets in a hazy bliss”

Our Airbnb was surrounded by gorges, and we decided to visit the most popular one – the Samaria Gorge, which was created by a small river running between the white mountains and abandoned by its inhabitants in 1962. Little did we know that it was on the list of 100 things to do before you die (as one resident told us), and was so difficult to climb that even locals avoided it. We found out later from staff at the Airbnb that it was extremely dangerous and they often had to close the hiking trail if it was even a little rainy or windy. Hazards include flash floods and some parts of the hike are very demanding, with steep and rocky paths. 

I showed up in jeans, a small handbag and some sunglasses. We headed off at 6am to catch the local bus to the hiking trail and were buoyed by the beautiful sunrise pictures we took. We were surrounded by cloudy white mountains, the forest was dense with cypress and pine trees, and we saw donkeys ambling around water fountains, ready to carry any hikers in trouble to safety on the instruction of park rangers. 

I was having the time of my life. We were so in our own world that we didn’t particularly register how much we stood out from the other hikers, who were suited up and prepared with an abundance of gear. I snacked on some biscuits I belatedly bought at the gift shop before we set off, thinking that would be enough to sustain me for the couple of hours’ walk I was expecting. Little did I realise then that we wouldn’t finish until seven hours later, by which time we might as well have been coughing blood. 

“We were so in our own world that we didn’t particularly register how much we stood out from the other hikers”

As we made our way along the path, entertaining ourselves by quoting TikTok memes, our situation was slowly starting to dawn on us. But we had come too far to turn back. And although we were completely unprepared, we found a comradeship chatting with other hikers, who took one look at us and instantly recognised us as a ditsy pair who left home with nothing but vibes. They encouraged us, told jokes and updated us on how long there was until the coveted finishing line would be in sight.

After talking to a couple who had travelled all the way from Canada to visit this gorge in particular, I was struck by how we had blindly stumbled on this majestic landscape while others had come from faraway places with the sole intention to experience it. And wasn’t that a wonderful thing? Time and space brought us together despite our different intentions. 

As the mountainside became awash in the blue of the gorge and the white rocks turned a metallic brown in the sunshine, we found peace as we took a water break. The sort of peace that comes from being far away from everyday life.  

We finally emerged on the other side walking through the ‘iron gates’, which weren’t iron at all, but two tall cliffs on either side of a creek sculpted by the gorge. We had made it just in time to catch the sunset on a taxi boat back to our Airbnb. Although we spent the rest of the holiday hobbling around while our leg muscles recovered from the intense workout, I would do it all again. In fact, we might have found a new love for hiking and plan to spend a future weekend in the Yorkshire Dales.  

Useful information: 

  • The walk starts at Xyloskalo at an altitude of 4035ft and is mostly downhill, and ends in the  seaside town of Agia Roumeli.  
  • After the hike, the last ferry leaves around 5pm. If you don’t make it in time, you’ll have to  pay extra to take a taxi boat home, as that’s the only way back. 
  • Some parts of the hike near the beginning can be steep, so it’s important to have the right  footwear (and good knees!)
  • You can really take your time with it – there’s no way of getting lost due to a steady stream of  people and experienced hikers. 

Highlights: 

  • We stayed at the Monastery Estate, which was really beautiful and comfortable with helpful  staff. It also has a sauna, private swimming pools and a restaurant. 
  • Cats! There were so many cats wandering the beaches.
  • Chania old town with the winding streets and its restaurants with no roofs. And obviously the natural wonders of the gorges and mountains.

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