Day 8 – Goodbye Loutro, Hello Gavdos

The last morning in Loutro started the same as all that came before it – sunrise, swim, sfakian pie. Once this little routine of indulgence was finished, it was time to leave, and this meant catching a short ferry to Hora Sfakia, before the longer ferry across to Gavdos. It was a treat to get one final view out over beautiful Loutro.

I’d heard much spoken about Gavdos from Greek friends that I’d met in London. I’d heard it described as a remote and wild island, sparsely populated, and with some beautiful beaches. A sort of lost hippy community, at the very southern edge of Europe.

The ferry was filled with all sorts of people, from a group of (spear) fishermen, a younger couple with dreadlocks, and a group of (slightly) older men going to an all night rave on a beach – plus others that were slightly harder to categorise. I had a feeling the next week here was going to be interesting.

We arrived at the port of Karave, and did our best to find a fisherman that would ferry us to Potamos, a remote beach on the far side of the island. You’d think that offering money for services was an easy prospect, but it seems that I was still thinking in regular ways, not island life ways. It turned out that no one was interested in making the additional money, so Plan B was started.

Plan B was to spend one night in Agios Ioaninis (Ai Giannis), a nearby beach, and then have a fisherman pick us up and drop us off at Potamos the next morning. Except, the fishermen all thought that the weather was going to turn sour overnight, and it wasn’t going to be possible. So, Plan C was started.

Plan C was to just go spend a few nights in Agios Ioannis, the nearby beach, using it as a base for further exploration, and if the weather didn’t follow their predictions (which seemed hard to believe, as it was absolutely perfect today), then reconsider a boat trip to move camp to Potamos. Make sense? Unfortunately, this back-and-forward trying to secure a boat to get us to Potamos meant that we’d missed the bus to Agios Ioannis, and we would now either have to walk (with all of our camping luggage), or wait for a taxi – again, at the mercy of whether or not someone was interested in trading their time for money.

Agios Ioannis

After a short wait in a small café by the port, drinking an exceptionally cold Coke, we managed to score a lift with a local fisherman/fish restaurateur. I initially thought it was a kind gesture, as though he were headed that way anyway – and then it turned out to be a €15 fare. But, if the alternative was walking in this heat, with our baggage, then it was money well spent.

It turned out that there was quite a lot more here in Gavdos than I’d anticipated. In the version of the island that I’d pictured in my mind, it was an island with a small shop at the port, and little else. In reality, there were small settlements, shops, restaurants, bars, and tourism – it was a moderate sized island, not some small desert spec floating in the sea between Greece and Africa. Even the parking lot for Agios Ioannis was surprisingly full, sending a sense of worry that the beach was going to be overly crowded. Our ‘generous’ taxi driver dropped us here at the end of the road, by the small Sofia Rooms taverna/pension.

There was still a short twenty minute hike from the end of the road, along the water, and up into the hills above the beach. It didn’t take long to get hot and breathless on the hike up the sand hills, carrying water and other supplies. I was looking out across the beautifully still and clear waters, still confused about the change in weather that has the whole island spooked.

We brought hammocks for camping, with a plan to set them up amongst the old juniper forest that lines the hills above the beach. There was no shortage of these trees, but slightly more challenging was finding an area that was open enough to set up a camp – yet still providing some shade for the daylight hours. A little searching brought us to a great spot mid-way up the hill, with an amazing outlook over the sea, some well positioned trees for hanging hammocks and some shaded open space to use during the day. I was a little worried that with all the cars in the car park at the trailhead that the beach was going to be overly crowded, but it seems that most of those people weren’t camping – plus, it’s a rather large area.

I didn’t know much (anything) about juniper trees before this trip, and I got a rather quick lesson in just how brutal they are. They’re covered in these stubby spikes that are incredibly hard and painful, and somehow have a knack for surprising you with sharp pain to some random part of your body. These trees looked like gnarled and ancient beings – and some of them really are. Even the branches that appeared dead, are actually still living parts of the tree, that it uses to capture moisture from the air, much like above ground roots. The more I learnt about them, the more amazing I found them – and it turned out that Gavdos was one of the remaining bastians of juniper forest out there.

We cleared a few areas for makeshift kitchen/living areas, sweeping away the sharp rocks, lining some areas with smooth flat rocks (to sit on). It felt weird to be ‘house-making’ on a sandy hilltop campsite, but at the same time, great fun.

It was my first time camping with hammocks, so I was genuinely intrigued what it was going to be like. I’d quickly tested it before this trip, but not spent an entire evening in one. I’d heard many good things, but I was worried that my back was going to bend like a banana, and I was going to be left like a cripple for the remainder of the trip.

It might have been a wild campsite, but amenities did exist. Sort of. It was only a short twenty-minute walk to a flushing toilet, and a cold outdoor shower. It also conveniently happened to be near the taverna from earlier, which meant a delicious hot meal for dinner – and raki (or two) as a digestif, of course.

Day 9 – Sunrise, Swimming and Sunsets

It took a while to adjust to sleeping in the hammock. I’d adjusted, and re-adjusted several times over the evening, removing air mattress, sleeping bag, and pillows in a quest to find what worked best. At first, it was exceptionally comfortable, and the sense of weightlessness was fantastic. However, I was definitely starting to feel uncomfortable at not being able to rollover and adjust my sleeping position throughout the night. I certainly tried, but sleeping sideways just didn’t work – and I didn’t even try sleeping on my front.

Anyway, I woke up still being able to walk/bend, so it wasn’t critical. I was also woken up by the sky starting to lighten above me. The hammock didn’t have a roof, just a mesh liner to stop bugs getting in – and my eye-mask leaks light so much that sometimes I wonder why I bother, as I feel like a single photon of light hitting my eyelids is enough to wake me.

But! This did mean that I was awake to watch the sunrise, which unfortunately happened to be just blocked by the trees on the next ridge across. There was something amazing about standing here, in the ‘wild’, watching the day start without the sign of another human. It’s not that there weren’t other people around, there definitely were, but they all appeared to be in bed sleeping, missing out on this morning ritual.

The morning was spent doing a combination of resting, swimming and building decorations for the ‘house’. One of the ‘problems’ of not having electricity, and Internet connectivity, was an abundance of free time. This was converted into Arts-n-Crafts time. By walking around the now vacant campsites, I was able to collects quite a lot of string. Seeing as though it was Friday the 13th, it only seemed fitting to use that as the ‘theme’ for the decoration.

As the day went on, the wind and the swell did seem to increase. The waters by the sandy beach of Agios Ioannis were calm as a pool yesterday, but it was starting to be possible to body surf on some of the larger waves that were rolling in. I was starting to believe that maybe the older fishermen knew a thing or two about weather patterns/predictions after all.

I am lucky enough to work for a company that allows me to take time off to do volunteering work. I’m also fortunate that the criteria for volunteering is quite flexible. This allowed me to use that dedicated paid time off to help maintain this island a little. The plan had been threefold – help gather any rubbish that has washed ashore, help clear/mark the official trails, and to help map out some of the trails that were not currently mapped. I used this afternoon to start this process, with a hike to a nearby beach, collecting small pieces of plastic that had washed up, adding additional rocks to the cairn trail markers, and clearing sticks/debris off the trails. Also, with the help of Strava, I was able to map some of the routes that exist – but aren’t on the island’s official map.

Today, the hike was only a short one, heading west along the coast, past the next ‘settlement’ at Lavrakas, Stavrolimni, and eventually to Pyrgos in time for sunset. I joke about Lavrakas and Stavrolimni being settlements, because some of the ‘residents’ there have built up some amazing structures from sticks, rocks, and other simple materials. They start to get a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ feel to them, which feels somewhat scary/concerning to me, so I didn’t get too close.

The wind and the waves continued to grow as the day went on. Thankfully Pyrgos Beach was slightly sheltered, and the waves that were coming in weren’t a  problem for swimming in. But first, I had to climb my way down to the beach.

After being amazed at the views of the golden bay of sand, the sunlight glowing off the rolling waves, and the rugged coastline that surrounded us, I noticed what looked like a skeleton in the sand. I kept walking, and it now really looked like a human skeleton lying in the sand. At first, I was amazed that something like that could lay undisturbed for so long, before a reaction of fear started to gnaw away at the back of my brain. I kept walking towards it, somewhat blindsighted with a combination of fear/curiosity. It wasn’t until I was right beside the skeleton di I realise that it was actually a sculpture, carefully made up of pieces of wood and stone. The level of detail that the artist had gone to was admirable, and it was such a treat to have found something like this undisturbed and on display. I was also feeling slightly less impressed with my arts-and-crafts skills earlier, which then reminded me again that it was Friday the 13th. Perfect.

It was another gorgeous sunset, with the sky ablaze in peachy hues. Not really thinking, and just enjoying the moment, I stayed well past the sun had dipped below the horizon, and the sky started to fade. I then realised that we still had to walk back to the campsite without head torches to light the way.

Thankfully, also fitting in with the Friday the 13th vibe, there was a gorgeous full moon rising, just as the sky was starting to fade. It was an amazing encore to the sunset, possibly upstaging it for pure ‘awe’ factor. This gorgeous glowing rock was shining bright enough to walk around without need for other light – once you gave your eyes time to adjust. Some of the trail was a little dangerous, due to recent storms washing parts of the trail away, so not wanting to take undue risks, the phones came out.

We went back to ‘civilisation’, to use a real toilet, to shower, to have a (delicious) hot meal (and raki), and to stock up on more supplies.

Day 10 – Hiking To The Very South Of Europe

The campsite was originally chosen for the big open area, shaded by overhead trees. At the time, the weather was perfect, and sun was the chief concern. However, the wind has continued to increase in intensity overnight, and stronger gusts were setting my hammock to rock back and forth quite frequently. It would have been fine if it was a constant rocking, but the wind was very gusty, suddenly jolting my hammock.

Today, the hiking was going to be a little more ambitious. And, while the island is small enough that you can walk from one side to the other, it’s large enough that it’s going to take you a few hours. So, instead of doing that, we rented some truly terrible rental bikes that we’d seen lying around. It took a little asking around to find out who actually owned them, and then a little more to get their contact details, but we’d (I say ‘we’, but it was all done in Greek, and I played no part in this) managed to secure permission to rent the bikes for the day. However, the bikes had been sitting out in the elements for quite some time, and had clearly seen better days. The owner, Nick the Canadian, came by to get the bikes ready for us. In a comedy of errors, his pump wasn’t working – and the tyres were well and truly too flat to ride on. But, through some divine act, the pump came back to life, and the tyres were re-inflated. This may have solved the most pressing issue, but further remained – like being able to adjust the seat height, or brakes that truly stopped. Minor details.

We cycled southwards, towards Fokia, fighting both the wind and the bikes. Still, I consoled myself that it beat walking, or paying some ridiculous taxi fare (assuming we could get someone to take our money). I complain, but at the time, I was having a great time, because any time on a bike is a good time. More or less.

Once at Fokia, the bikes were rested up against a fence, and we started on the well-maintained trail towards the southern point of the island, Tripiti. Parts of the trail were said to have been created during the Roman period, with steps cut into the well-polished rock still visible now.

It was a hot day, with the sun being as relentless as ever. Thankfully, the wind that was such a challenge while cycling earlier was a blessing now. The hike cut across inland in a fairly straight line towards the southern tip, but we decided to break away from that a little, and detour to one of the smaller coves, Lakoudi. As we were walking, sweating, and generally feeling the heat, we came across two different older women looking for man, Pietro. They didn’t seem to have sun protection, nor much water, but still they were walking back and forth trying to find him. The trail down to Lakoudi was steep, and quite loose, and with the gusting winds, quite treacherous. The older Italian women ended up coming down this trail behind us, which was quite terrifying to watch. But, they were as surefooted as old goats. Pietro wasn’t down here, which was a little disappointing and concerning, and we were starting to wonder if something bad had happened to him.

This cove is meant to be a beautiful calm place to swim and relax, but today it was a violent wash of crashing waves, so there was to be no swimming. Instead, there was the hike back up out of the cove, back onto the inland trail southwards.

Shortly before turning off the trail for the final section to Tripiti, there were some ruins of old farm buildings. Once again, I was amazed that people were able to live in places like this. It seems so harsh and hostile. The ground seems so dry and barren.

We’d made it to Tripiti, and amazingly, the water was perfectly calm. I was hot, sweaty, and didn’t need an invitation to go in for a swim.

Also, to our utter surprise/amazement, Pietro was here – and the older Italian ladies had already found him and were all having lunch together. We joined for a little bit, enjoying the work that someone had gone to, building seats and tables out of driftwood and other debris.

We hadn’t officially made it to the southern tip yet, which was just a short hike further down the peninsular, on top of the natural arch. There had been some breeze down below on the beach, but once we’d made it to the crest, the wind was terrifying, almost causing me to get down on my hands and knees for the last section, lest I be blown off the edge (I exaggerate, it wasn’t quite that windy).

But, this was it, Europe’s most southerly point, which was marked with a giant chair – the significance of the chair wasn’t explained anywhere. The roar of the wind was deafening, and I was amazed that I didn’t lose anything (or fall over). There was also something exhilarating about it – maybe it was the potential for risk, maybe it was being witness to this unusual power, maybe it was just nice to cool down.

The hiking continued, back towards to the ruins of the farmhouses, and then up and up and up and up, all the while under the merciless sun, somehow also being sheltered from the wind. The trail eventually came along the top of some enormous cliffs, with beautiful clear water far, far below.

We were walking with a purpose, and that was to visit an amazing secluded taverna, Karapistolas – aka, the Black Pistol. Google Maps has it as Tripiti Café, so not sure to really call it – but, I prefer Karapistolas. It was going to be a short wait for the food, so while we waited, we finished all of the cold bottles of Coke that they had in their fridge.

They are famous for their goat dishes, which are goats from their own herds, so naturally that is what was ordered. Plus tomato and feta salad, which has almost become a staple for me recently. Feta with everything. Anyway, the goat was amazing, and worth the hike on its own.

At least from here, the hike was mostly downhill back to Fokia, again following some ancient trails that didn’t need much additional cleaning/maintenance along the way. It didn’t have the dramatic coastal views, but still, this part of the hike was wonderful. It was even fun to wander off the trail at points to see more of the area.

The bikes were right where they were left, which isn’t surprising, as they’d been sitting unlocked where we initial rented them for an indeterminate time. It was a short climb on a gravel road, followed by a longer, flatter climb up more washboard gravel to stop at another restaurant, Metochi. I know, we’d just feasted on goat, could we possibly need more food? Well, no, not really, but they’re famous for some of their cakes, so that was the original plan. But, they didn’t have the fresh cream to make their cake with, so, we settled for the cakes that they did have – including one that was laced with ouzu.

Remarkably, the sun was starting to set (and the moon was also beginning to rise) and we still hade a fair distance left to cover to get back to camp. Thankfully we’d packed a head torch today (but only one), as it ended up being a dark ride back on some very, very dark roads.

The winds seemed to increase in intensity the closer we got to camp, with it blowing sea spray and sand from far, far below us. It made the cycling extra challenging. But, we made it back unscathed.

I hadn’t really given much thought to the camp with all the wind, as it’s reasonably protected inside the juniper trees. However, the hammocks were filled with sand – saying that I could fill a pint glass with sand is the honest truth. It was late, and we were both exhausted from a very long day. The wind rocking the hammock was quite nice tonight, except, the stronger gusts also brought in a dusting of sand. I tried my best to ignore it, because I was so tired, but it was impossible. So, I reluctantly got back out of bed, and wrapped a towel over my hammock, creating a small wind block to stop most of the sand. And it worked, as I was soon fast asleep, adjusting to the ergonomics of sleeping in a hammock.