Meskla, it is very early in the morning, I get my stuff together and start walking, Zourva ahead of me. There I expect a good coffee, some water to finally fill up my bottles before heading into the wild, talking with some locals about the area, the unknown paths through the mountains, the secrets and dangers of the Lefka Ori, the White Mountain Desert, unique of its kind on the northern hemisphere, with Pachnes as the peak and my goal on 2454m over sea-level. The Madares, as this region is sometimes called in Greek is “without coverage, bald, bare of any vegetation for high mountain areas”.
So as I am walking in the morning sun up along the curved street the first thing I find is a full pack of cigarettes – just my luck. Minutes later I stop a van that crawls up the mountain to take me to the next city. On the upcoming 5 kilometers the driver, Vasil, does not speak anything but old Cretan Greek and still I understand that he thinks I’m a pretty crazy fool with my attempt to climb Pachnes from this side of the mountains. He tells me, that the taverns are all closed (how come, Crete, 7h in the morning??) but he offers me a coffee at some place he points at with his fingers, somewhere in the neighborhood. Going down a pretty fucked up road we end at a stable/cottage combination, very well made, small but beautiful details like writings and drawings out of small stones on the ground and a nice garden around the house. Immediately he pulls out his Raki bottle and we hit a shot, then he stirs up some coffee powder in cold water, hands me some cookies and tells me to sit and enjoy while he feeds his goats.
After that I explain to him in rough gestures where I want to go, what route I will take and that I have absolutely no plan of the region but a Map that shows no details and a GPS on my phone. He tells me – at least that’s what I think he said – that there are only few poisonous insects or animals in the mountains but there is no water at all, like really no water.
Giving my 2 aluminum bottles with water a critical thought I decide to ask Vasil for some water and am really happy to get another 1.5 liters that I stuff into my backpack – makes 4.5 liters in a whole. As he finished the feast with the goats we shoot another Raki and then he loads me onto the truck and drives me to the start of a trail that heads at least into the direction of Pachnes. With many “Bravo!”s he wishes me good luck and says good by and as the sound of his truck fades away I have a look around, thankful for that nice encounter. I find a sign with a map of the area, something about canyoning, European Union, and trail. I see a little water sign on the map and declare it my first goal for now. Luckily the path has red dots as way-points so I manage to climb in the shadows of the trees accompanied by strange little wild goats to a small plateau with signs of mankind and dried water on the ground.
Out of the shade of the trees it gets warm, the sun opens its potential and I start to take care of my water and my drinking habit. Every hour I make a break, 10 small sips of water that run slowly down my throat. I hope for water at the spot that was marked on the map. After 3 hours I arrive at a place filled with oddities. Huge trees grow there, three to four mans spread arms circumference with amazing trunk structures and a smoothing relaxing green in their leaves. I hear goats bleating and after some minutes I stand in front of a rock around 7 meters high with a crack in the middle at whats feet a small spring runs into concrete basins. Ice-cold, fresh water, great taste, washing my hands and face, filling all bottles and drinking as much as I can. I finish the last pomegranate I picked down in the valley and lie down on a big wooden board that rests on the ground. I smoke a cigarette. Then a second one and a third. This is the end. The end of all roads. The end of all live. This is where I decide to do it or not. Questions. Do I have enough water. Enough water for 1 day. Enough water for 2 days? Will I meet anyone in this big no-mans-land? Where will I go? What path to take?
I decide that the most energy-efficient way has to be through the old riverbed that carries loads and loads of not measurable water masses in springtime eating its way into the mountains ground forming gorges, canyons and chines. From the beginning on I see the advantages of the riverbed. I have cover from the sun. I have rocky underground, though I have to climb some several meter high steps I make good speed, I claim the water takes the best way, so following it I cant do anything wrong.
The huge masses of bones, dead, recently dead and long rotten goats that line my path give me the feeling of entering the devils garden itself. When the snow melts there starts an apocalypse of water, in enormous contrast to the silence I experience only broken by the buzzing and humming of bees, wasps and other flying creatures that enjoy the cool shade and the water leftovers from the winter – that I did not in my craziest dreams want to touch, thinking of the amount of dead animals inside. Every 200m I find a horned skull, some smaller ones and some real big ones, I always grab them with my walking sticks and place them on stones, looking in the direction down the valley, so If anyone will ever follow my path he or she will be received by dead animals… hehehe. But as soon as winter comes they will be washed away by the flash flood.
Jumping from stone to stone the riverbed feels very comfortable, sometimes climbing over 3-4 meter plain stone walls that will form trembling waterfalls in 6 months I get higher and need less breaks then before. My map shows a street or path somewhere at the upper third of the river and I suppose there is something worth making a road there, maybe water or a shepherd. No matter what it is I will head there. As the gorge opens I get less protection from the sun and I use this places to rest. Interestingly the sun is so hot that in the shadow I nearly freeze, but I take it as a nice thing. Up at the road I see cars and people in military clothes, also some goat running wild and concrete water basins that look empty but have black plastic pipes and old rusty valves around so I suppose its a reservoir for water for the orange valley. In the stone hut at the end of the road I hear voices of a man and I figure he is on the phone so I wait a little until I enter the hut.
Inside I find Sefis (that is THE shepherds name in Greece, whenever there is a shepherd he is called Sefis). I am welcomed more friendly than in a 3 star restaurant, with coffee, iced water and of course, Raki! having 3 shots and no breakfast I feel good. Without speaking any language together we manage to tell us our stories. He tells me, that Monday to Tuesday there will be thunderstorms in the mountain desert so I have 2 more days to get through it. There is a way to the top, he tells me, until Pachnes and the hunters I have seen some 20 minutes ago might be on that path so I could follow them. Sounds great. Again – thanks to god an anybody else that is up there somewhere – I had another chance to fill my water, I am curious what other surprises are waiting for me on my path.
Following the footsteps I found every 50 meters I realized that this path was a combination of loose goat traps that – coincidentally – headed for the top of the mountains. Since I had not planned to use a path I soon quit searching for the footsteps and just headed semi-straight on the most energy-efficient route along the former river to the direction my GPS told me, right into the high plains at around 1700 meters of height that looked on my map like a nice, smooth grassland. It was not.
Since my map had a pretty unusable resolution for my purpose I was not looking onto a nice plain that will bring me to my shelter in no-time but rather at an impossible to transit up and down of sinkholes, collapsed caves, sharp rocks and sharp and piercing cacti (see Google Earth image below for an impression). Sun was telling me “Its going to be late afternoon, babe!” and I felt first doubts of my capacities. Still I developed the pretty plan to not cross this devilish field but rather encircle it on the right and so I cheerfully head forwards. In far distance I believe to see some of the hunters at a small wooden shelter.
Heading on I realize that my plan to avoid an endless ups and downs failed since even at the side of the plain I have to climb step for step up and down, as if the mountain was testing my brain, my spirit. I decide to take the direct way, to somehow move always on the highest point along the craters and holes avoiding 30 meter deep collapses and after some hour it gets painful and energy draining. Every hole I cross opens another one, even deeper, bigger and scarier that I can either outrun on the edge – takes long – or climb through – takes energy. Time passes fast, sun sets behind the peaks that surround me and the first bearded vulture this area is known for circles not far away looking for some dead meat – hopefully. On the other side, those birds are know to bring you luck and sovereignty if their shadow falls upon you and I like that idea so I inspect the bird for a little while. The bleating of the sheep and the ringing of their bells that comes from far distances somehow pulls me back to reality and reminds me, that there are, according to my GPS, around 3 more kilometers through this challenging desert.
I feel hunger. I also feel thirst. I acknowledge that I have already finished a third of my water. I hurry. The endless sight of rocky sinkholes and the stress they cause when I climb through them make me nervous. I start to misstep, sometimes I stumble with a resulting pain in my ankles. The situation is not good, given the darkness that will soon arrive It will be a pain in the ass to continue through this landscape (On this homepage you get a nice impression on what the area is like).
I estimate two to three hours until I arrive at Katsiveli. I pull myself together, search for a place where I can sit without a thousand holes in my butt and eat some of my prepared nuts. I drink water, without concern, I just drink until I am not thirsty anymore. Whatever happens, happens – that’s a good start. So if it wants to be dark out there, let it be dark, I got myself shining bright as a star – and my wonderful “hirnbirn” (headlamp). I can do this. If its dark, I will slow down, test every step two times, test every grip, every rock double and If I get to the hut at midnight, than I am at leas there, and not in this desert. But most probably still alone, maybe some of the hunters made it up there. I hope there is some water. Or at least some place to put my mat without eating cacti. Somewhere I had dropped my white shirt, that I had wet and wrapped around my head, but since the sun was not burning my brain anymore It does not mater, gone is gone.
Having all my worries banned into a dark corner of my brain I danced through the upcoming night, the cone of my lamp striving through the night showing me strange rocky structures, showing me if a sinkhole was small, meaning I could see the other end, or vastly huge, meaning I had a black wall in front of me. Lost in time i climbed through this swamp of rocks, hole to hole, chine to chine. The last ascent to Katsiveli, soon I am there. Some light at the top, maybe the moon? Continue! It was not the moon.
In the grey haze of the night a small house appears. Inside some light. Voices.
Everything falls into place.
Elevation total ~ 2500m, Distance total ~22.4km
Path is an average recreated on Google Earth, not a real time tracked path!