My wife Mel and I hiked the Samaria Gorge in south-western Crete at the end of summer in 2009. The Gorge is a tough but enjoyable 16km trek through ever-changing terrain from the mountaintops to the seashore at Agia Roumeli. It should be an essential part of any Greek itinerary.

To get there, it is about an hour by bus from Hania in the north-west of Crete, or at least two hours from Rethymno. The Gorge is a world-class national park and there is no camping available inside it. The only way in and out is by foot or by donkey. The hike must be completed in one day and you must be on the last boat out of Agia Roumeli at 5pm or you will have to start looking for somewhere to sleep. This town is accessible only by boat, a boat that will take you to another town, Sfakia, from which you will take another bus for a couple of hours back to where you are staying in Hania, so it makes for a massive day and I guarantee you will sleep well.

The bus from Hania takes you through lush and fertile farmland and over the imposing White Mountains, which peak at about 2500 metres. The bus ride coincided with the sunrise over the mountains, which is a pretty inspiring way to start the day.

The hike begins at an altitude of 1,200 metres, with the sun gently breaking through the cypress pine trees, bees buzzing, birds singing their hymns to the morning light and a breathtaking view down the Gorge. These niceties are soon forgotten as you spend the first hour or two of the hike carefully descending into the gorge via an enormous staircase strewn with craggy rocks. By the time you get to the bottom, you will be praying for a fresh pair of knees. The Gorge is definitely no walk in the park.

When you finally reach the end of the descent, you are greeted by a stream which immediately serves to lift the spirits. While the stream was placid and intermittent at the end of summer when we were there, it would be replaced by a heaving torrent in the winter, powered by the runoff from the rain in the mountains. The remorseless advance of the water against the rock over the centuries is evident from the ruts and curvatures rising high up the Gorge’s walls. It gives you a good indication as to why this Gorge is closed throughout the winter.

The walls are 150 metres apart at the beginning of the Gorge before closing to just three metres at what is known as the Iron Gates. On the way to the Iron Gates, you can visit the abandoned village of Samaria, see ancient ruins and construct an ornate rock pile to respectfully leave your mark in the Gorge (as many others have done before you).

What strikes you about the Gorge is the frequent changes in the landscape, ranging from dense pine forest, river beds, shimmering pools and to something approximating a Japanese rock garden. The landscape provides a welcome change from the concrete and sometimes claustrophobic nature of many of the Greek towns and cities we visited. It is a beautiful place and photo opportunities abound.

There are two ways to do the Gorge. For the strong, there is the long-way, which is the full 16km by foot to Agia Roumeli and takes about 5-6 hours. For the weak, there is the lazy-way, which is 12.5km by foot to the official end of the Gorge at a checkpoint and the remaining 3.5km by minibus with your feet up on the seat in front of you. Do not admit to a local of Hania that you took the lazy-way, because their judgement will be swift and harsh.

We chose to be staunch and went the long way. We had come all the way from Australia and it felt like a massive cop-out to take the lazy way, despite the fact that we were hurting at that point and salvation by minibus was at hand. When we arrived at Agia Roumeli, the feeling of accomplishment that swept over us was hard to beat. The reward at the end of the hike – a refreshing dip in the ocean – was all the more satisfying for having gone the long way. This is the best swim you will ever have, as the smooth black pebbles under-foot massage your aching feet and make the day’s exertions wash away into the Libyan Sea.

The Samaria Gorge is a place of rare beauty and it felt like a privilege to have spent the day there. We felt like we had achieved something significant and had the chance to divert ourselves from the usual hedonistic indulgences associated with a holiday in Greece, if only for a day. At the very least, the hike gave us the freedom to smash our own bodyweight in gyros and saganaki that night without fear of the consequences for our health.

Big Ev is an Australian traveller and metal-head.

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