A TRIP THROUGH THE SITIA MOUNTAINS WITH FRIENDS

Well here we are again, off on our travels. Following on from the excellent day out Steve Lenton and I had last year with Yvonne and Alan Payne, traversing the seven Plateaus of Lassithi, we decided to try another route.
This time we also invited Steve Daniels (a Naturalist from Ierapetra) and his wife Christine, to join us in the car with Yvonne and Alan. With Steve (D) not owning a suitable vehicle for ‘off road’ travelling it was a great opportunity for them to join us to explore the delights of a new mountainous area.

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We all met up at Pachy Ammos for a 9.30 am start, and set off for Kavousi. On reaching the village, we turned right onto a cemented track leading to a famous Ancient Olive Tree which has been classified as ‘monumental’ by the Association of Cretan Olive Municipalities. It is estimated to be 3250 years old, dating back to the Post-Palatial Minoan Period. Just imagine what this tree could tell us, if only it could talk!!!
We had then planned to start the main journey with a coffee at the Taverna next door to the tree, and have a chat about the route we were taking. Ha Ha, so much for the ‘ plans of mice and men’ – It was CLOSED.

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Oh well, never mind, we agreed just to start off and hopefully find a small taverna in one of the villages along the way. Steve and I led the way on the Quad, and the others followed in the car, with instructions to wave out the window if they wanted to stop for photographs, or exploration of a specific area along the way.
Slowly, slowly we made our way up into the mountains, with the quad jumping and bumping along, over rocks and boulders (and the occasional sudden drop into an unforeseen hole which nearly threw me off!!! – silly me, thought I was being clever – I’d been riding over rocky terrain for so many years, and was showing off – no holding on!!!!!!!) oh well, as they say pride comes before a fall (or at least in my case – almost a fall) That will teach me to at least hold on with one hand over the rougher parts.

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We were heading for the village of Chrysopigi, well into the mountains, and stopped many times along the way for photo shoots and short breaks! The scenery in places was beyond belief, mountains soaring in the distance, so many pathways and tracks leading off to secret places, and Steve Daniels wandering off to look for his bugs, birds and butterflies.

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Finally we arrived at Chrysopigi, a small village in the middle of nowhere, unfortunately with no taverna – still no coffee break, oh well onwards and upwards.
The next planned destination was Orino, (Approxiately 14 kilometers from Makrigialos). Most of this part of the journey was back on tarmac, so we made good time, pulling up at a favourite stopping place of Steve’s along the way, so that Steve (D) could browse among the flora and trees for anything of interest to him. Again, another opportunity for photos of the beautiful scenery and rugged mountains. On having a chat with Christine, and commenting on the fact that it was good that Steve had actually found enough of interest to photograph and make notes, she replied – ‘Yes, I already have two snails in my bag!!!’. Brilliant.

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Ah well, off we go again. Running downwards towards Orino, the wind blowing strongly, and sitting on the quad, the wind in my hair, leaning back looking up at the sky, my arms outstretched once again, travelling fast around the ‘s bends’ It felt just like I imagine a bird of prey feels when it catches an upstream of warm air. Absolutely free and wild. Totally fantastic experience.

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Oh well, time to come back down to earth! Orino lies at the beginning of a gorge, which is known for its red butterflies. Unfortunately in 1993 there was a forest fire which badly affected the nature and the amount of butterflies in the gorge, but it is still considered a beautiful nature reserve. We pulled up in the square to have a wander round, and yea, we finally find a Kafé Neon. The owners were good enough to bring chairs outside to a small covered area where we ordered coffee and beer, and to our surprise we received several plates of free mezes. So, great, we thought, we can eat, drink, discuss the journey, and generally relax for a while. It is actually quite stressful travelling over rough rocky terrain, and it was good for Alan, and Steve, to have a break, …… Oh, and look what Steve(D) has found, sitting on a flower pot, enjoying a rest – A Black Beetle, but one with a beautiful, unusual, white lacy pattern covering its head. (More photos….)

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So here we are, sitting outside a traditional Kafe Neon, in a lovely little village, in the middle of nowhere, watching the locals sitting opposite, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine …
Or So We Thought!!!! NO. NO. NO, ITS RAINING!!!!!!! I can’t believe it, the black clouds have crept up on us and spilt their contents like a cracked glass pouring beer down the drain…… softly at first, like drops of moisture on a hot sticky day, petering off to nothing, as we breathe a sigh of relief (only a shower!) but no, here comes the hard stuff. Oh well, chairs and people back inside. What a disappointment, oh well, we can still eat, drink and talk, and discuss how this will affect the journey onwards.

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Fortunately the rain did not last too long, and following my quick walk around the village to take photos of the Church and Memorial, we set off for Thripti, our next port of call.
Unfortunately, the black clouds set off as well, following us, only running a little quicker than us, overtaking us, and punishing us for having such a lovely day out. It was ok for the others in the car, at least they had protection, not so comfy on the quad- large icy drops as big as hail stones drummed into us, like a vicious storm, leaving us with no option but to press on urgently to the Taverna at Thripti, and hope Allan managed to follow on ok.

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Ah Well, we all arrived ok, and I shot off to the Ladies, to wring out my t-shirt, and change into my fleece. (I always travel with fleece and waterproof in the mountains, because you never know how the weather will react, and it really is best to be prepared for anything!!!)
So, once again we sat down to drinks, and more free mezzes, and of course further discussions on where we go from here……

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Our next planned stop was over the back of the mountain, Afendis Kavousi, down to Aghios Yiannis, then hit the mountain trail above the village, and onwards to meet up once again with the main road running from Thripti to Kato Horio, but with the rain, this was a slightly dubious route, so we stopped a while longer to consider the odds. More drinks and mezzes! – although Steve (D) was more interested in catching a Warbler on film, than drinking and eating.
Well, during our time of feasting and drinking the sky lightened ahead of us, whilst behind us the black clouds seemed to sink lower and lower covering the mountains rapidly. Such a shame, because the village and the Taverna is overlooked by the sharp searing crags of Afendis Kavousi, and today none of its majestic prowess was visible, so sadly no photos.

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Well, deciding to look forward, not backwards we followed the ever-lightening sky towards Aghios Yiannis. After all, we had come this far, might as well follow the itinerary all the way, regardless. We were all so glad we did, it was a lovely view all the way over the back of Efendis Kavousi, looking out at the long stretch of mountains leading down to the Libyan Sea, with patches of blue sky and watery sunshine ahead of us, (much to our surprise, considering what we left behind us),
… and as we neared the village, Steve asked me, as supposed Navigator, if I could remember the turn off to the mountain trail, and I promptly yelled, “its next to the second church” HA HA, WRONG AGAIN. There is only ONE church, and ONE turning, leading up through the upper end of the village and out to the mountains, and that’s just before the sign post for Aghios Yannis, and we had just passed it, into the lower end of the village. Feeling like an absolute fool, I signalled backwards to Alan, to make the turn behind us, and set off once again duly chastised by Steve. (Don’t think I will be asked to navigate again … oh well we can’t get it right all the time!) actually, its more fun when you don’t get it right all the time!!!!!!!

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The journey upwards went well, in spite of the rain, the terrain was fine, so no slipping or sliding in wet mud, as was half expected, and so we came to our last stop and photo shoot of the trip. A large open area with a church, beautifully kept, surrounded by mountains, and flying above, a family of what looked like vultures, from a distance, but too far away to be sure.

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A lovely ending to a lovely trip, with a comment from Yvonne, that the trip would have been great even without the detour to Aghios Yiannis, but with it, we had the ‘icing on the cake’. So True.
All that was left was to meander down the mountain to meet up with the road to Kato Horio, and back to Pachy Ammos, for a fond farewell, to Yvonne and Alan, Christine and Steve,
Until the next time ………..

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THE SEVEN PLATEAUS OF LASSITHI

The idea for this trip started as a tiny germ buried deep in Steve Lenton’s brain.  Over the years Steve had taken me to all of the Plateaus individually at various times, and he got to wondering if it would be possible to organise a trip to traverse them all in one day, with the thought being that we could show the way to others, who might enjoy the same pleasurable exploration of the area that we do.

He followed through on this little germ by visiting each one, and timing them from plateau to plateau, and repeating the journeys many times to decide the best routes to cover them in the time that we had.    We did a trial run working out an itinerary including stopping times for food, taking photos, and general rest stops.   It was easy for us to travel virtually non stop as by now we were used to the journey, but of course we had to plan for others who were new to the journey.

The planned route we followed was starting at Katharo, driving through Males, Xristos, then the long haul upward onto Lapathos.  This then led onto Omalos, down to Erganos, along to Limnakaro, down to Lassithi, across the Lassithi plateau and up to Nisimos, and finally ending back up on Katharo.

We invited several friends to join us, but on the day itself only Yvonne and Alan Payne turned up to join us in our madcap trip to fit all these beautiful plateaus in one long, hopefully enjoyable trip.

The day started off reasonably warm and bright in Aghios as Steve picked me up from home at 8.45, kitted out in jeans and t-shirt, but of course as a seasoned traveller in the mountains I took a fleece and small waterproof jacket with me, together with my packed lunch, flask of coffee, several bottles of water, sun tan cream and a hat, and off we went…..

It was lovely, all the way through Kritsa, but just beyond came the first black clouds of the day, and unfortunately with them came the coldest wind I had encountered for some time, and by the time we reached Katharo I was frozen (of course we had no time to stop for me to add my warm extras, on the way up ….. Steve just kept going! …..) Never mind, coffee time, and now I added my fleece for extra comfort.  Yvonne and Alan were already there, and we had a drink and a short chat with Yannis while we pleaded with him to join us, but to no avail,

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Finally our trip had started, and I am writing this account from the back of Steve’s quad bike, as we waved a fond farewell to Yannis,  with a promise to ‘be back soon’.

Leaving Yannis we made our way down across the Plateau towards Males, then across to Xristos, to start the long slow climb up to Lapathos.  The road turns onto a rocky track, and the going is fairly hard, (lots of curses from me as the quad jumps and bumps its merry way upwards) but never mind, I love it really!!!!    So we wend our way on and on, ever upwards while Alan and Yvonne followed more stately in their car.

Finally, yes,  the top is in sight, we can see the Radio masts, surely we will be there in a few more minutes…   ha ha, not so, (ever done a trip where the top of a hill or mountain seems to be so close, and when you think you have arrived …. well guess what!  it just goes on and on upwards).  Ah now thats more like it, we have crested the final top!!!!!  and the view as we start downwards is of a small plain,  the earth reddish in colour, interspersed with small rocks, grassy foliage, and tall stately trees disappearing off into the distance.  We have arrived on Lapathos……

Unfortunately, by then, the weather had not improved, and was clouded over and chilly – not ideal for hanging around or exploring.   However we managed a few photos, a short walk, and decided that was enough.

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So – onwards and upwards – The next Plateau we were aiming for was The Omalos Plain, maybe 45 minutes away as the crow flies, not too much longer on the pathway we were travailing!! But again heavy rocks and twisting turns led us on to my favourite plateau. (See my article on this for more details about what I feel is the quietest, most serene place on Crete)

Today though,  it was too chilly to spend much time there, so we pulled into an area where the Church, and goat/sheep hut is, and took photos of this beautiful place. Yvonne and Alan shared my appreciation of the plateau, and said that they would be back again one day to further explore.

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So off we went once more,   ha ha, wait till they see what is over the ridge!!!!! the way dooooooownwards – a narrow track, dozens of sharp hairpin bends, with a loooooong drop on the right hand side.    On discussing the trip afterwards, Yvonne was heard to say, that she was totally overawed by the scene in front of and below her (wish I could have got a photo of her awestruck expression) but I did get a photo of them behind us.  Alan managed to take it all in his stride and enjoyed the winding path downwards!! But the actual view facing us was amazing, with a mountain to the right of us literally dropping away for what seemed like miles, yellow in colour, which when the sun shone looked to be pure gold!!!  Stops for photos were made at strategic places on the way down, and we wended our way across the valley to the road leading to the Lassithi Plateau.

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The next Plateau we passed was the Erganon, a small plateau taken up with the growing of grape vines, so not much to stop for except an odd photo or two, just to record that we had seen it, and of course we were back on tarmac.   To the rear of the plateau we glimpsed the start of a gorge which apparently is quite walkable, for seasoned hikers, and as we travelled onwards to the right in the distance could be seen the highest Dikti mountains, including a glimpse of Afendis Xristos.

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Just before reaching Lassithi, we turned off to the Limnakara Plateau, affectionately known by me as the Walnut Plateau, due to the many walnut trees there.    (These get stripped of their nuts when ripe by locals for tavernas and for selling, with a speed that seems almost impossible)   I was up there one time, when the trees were full, came back a few days later to gather a few for a friend, and not  a single walnut in sight!!!, and the plateau is covered with the trees.  Oh great, more rocks and boulders and grassy mounds !!!!!

Oh well, no walnuts around today, but we stopped for a while by the local church, and ate our lunch, while looking around.  There is a pathway of rocks leading up through the mountains which leads to Afendis Xristos, where once a year, the locals  walk the trail to the Church of Xristos, just below the peak, arriving late at night, for a stopover, for a special ceremony early the next morning.

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Ah well, much as I would love to do the hike one day, its probably outside my capability now, as its a long hard climb, and unfortunately, I am not as young as I was when I could traverse mountains and rocks with no difficulty.

So, again onwards, with the Lassithi Plateau below us, we drove down, and around the outskirts of the Plateau until we reached the seventh and final one. ( Mind you, considering the rocky terrain we had traversed today, this was a piece of cake!!   all tarmac – what a let down – I love the jumping and bumping over rocks on the quad) (its just like being on a fairground ride – ha ha) This is the  Nisimos Plateau, again with its own church, and fantastic views over Lassithi, and I understand there is a path leading to an old Minoan village, and also  a hiking  path up to the Karfi peak which regally towers above the plateau.

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Oh well,  thats 7 plateaus covered in one fabulous trip out, and all that is left now, at the end of our journey, is to drive back up to Katharo, (the back way over the mountain from Lassithi), and enjoy a well earned beer with Jannis.

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I know that both Yvonne and Alan enjoyed the trip as much as Steve and I did, and they are looking forward to returning to a few of the places we covered, to explore more fully, the wonderful sights they saw today.

For Steve there will be many more trips out around the mountains and plains of Eastern Crete, to photograph the rare wild flowers for his Web Site,    and as for me, I feel so thankful for the opportunity to join him, jumping and bumping over rocks and through rivers , on the  quad, as I dont have transport, and without his forebearance would never be able to discover the joys of wandering in my beloved mountains.

 

Omalos Plateau (2nd journey)

 

My  second trip was during June, and having overcome my sense of awe during the journey, I had more time to look around me as once again we bumped and jolted our way upwards.  Strange, how much I had missed the first time,  the burnt out areas of pine trees, due to fires (not recent I might add) , the plants and flowers  (not in abundance, due to the terrain, but there all the same)  and this time, a lack of small chirping birds.

As we made our way onto the plain I noticed that the central lake had diminished in size, drained into the earth in the heat of the sun, and the whole plateau seemed to be covered in an abundance of tiny white flowers – no, not daisies –  and of course, the inimitable screaming crows.

When we stopped, by the little church, and looked back, the number of sheep and goats were far more noticeable, and the hut behind us was filled with goats trying to escape the full blast of the sun.  Steve wandered off to look for flowers and plants to photograph, and I just poodled around looking for anything and everything that took my interest.

Steve called out to me, that he had found something I might be interested in so off I went with eager anticipation, when he held out his hand and dropped something into mine – ugh –  something moved  –  aah – I stepped back and dropped it!!!!!  Steve promptly chased after it yelling that he had spend ages trying to catch it for me.  And yes he caught it again, and guess what, it was only a tiny tree frog.  Stupid me,  but it could have been anything scrabbling in my hands.  I finally took pics  with Steve holding it, and we found a small rivulet to pop it in, and it hopped away, probably with relief that it had escaped the idiotic human who had screeched at it and dropped it

 

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The Plateau is surround by groups of large rocks, and my attention was caught by movement on top of one group about 50 metres away.  As we crept closer we realized that a Griffon Vulture was slowly moving around the rock, and being  joined by another.  A beautiful  sight, and so close, when lo and behold a youngster joined the family picture. What a treat,  when junior flew off above and over us, mum flew straight up to watch her offspring taking wing, and pop flew off in the opposite direction, no doubt to join his mates at the other end of the plain, for a break from family life.

 

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This time when we left the plains, instead of returning the way we came, we carried on over the top to descend  via a new pathway.    Oh gracious, what a view!!!  Directly downwards!!! The path twists and turns in hairpin bends never ending…….     Off to the right across the valley a sheer drop of yellow mountainous rock, glimmering like gold in the sunlight, ahead, mountains stretching out , and, oh look, an eagle appearing from the mountain top soaring and wafting majestically across the skies.  I have to be honest and admit that the sheer magnitude of that first view over the top brought tears to my eyes,  there are no words to describe how I felt seeing nature in all its stunning glory.

Of course, there is no danger coming down such a drop off the mountain, with all its twists and turns, if you’re used to mountain travelling, I have traversed it many times now, and the downward path leads through a small village across the valley, and then upwards again on the main road leading to the Lassithi Plateau, glimpsing quick tiny views of the towering Dikti mountains along the way ………

 

The Omalos Plateau

 

 

My first journey to the Omalos Plains was unforgettable.  Travelling on the rear end of a friend’s Quad, we made our way through Ierapetra , turning off to Kato Symi, where we stopped for a break at the Aphrodite Taverna surrounded by mountains and forest.

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Continuing towards Pano Symi (looking for Orchids) we paused at a small ice-melt waterfall which was running slowly across our path and disappearing down the rocks into the undergrowth. Unfortunately the rare orchids we wanted here were not  yet in bloom, so we turned back towards the Plains.

To say the journey upwards to Omalos was bumpy would be an understatement, more like a fairground ride!  But travelling through the pine forest, smelling that beautiful fresh aroma of new pine leaves, and glimpsing fabulous views of the mountains and sea beyond,  more than made up for a few bumps.

It was early March, but the sun was shining, the sky blue, with blue tits, great tits and a multitude of finches flitting all around us as we descended onto the Plain.  At first sight, although not very large, the Plain stretched out to the surrounding mountains, a lake of ice-melt in the centre covered with seagulls,  a tiny church and memorial off to one end, a building to shelter sheep and goats, and copious crows screaming from above.     Nothing else, no people, no habitation, just us and a few animals grazing –   Imagine, soaring mountains, solitude, peace, quiet, stillness of air, just as though time had stood still for eternity………..

 

 

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