Crete October 2016

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Paddlers: Geoff, Ken and Hugh

Crete

Crete is a long large thin island in the eastern Med some 160 miles north of Libya. It has a spine of mountains running east-west cut by very deep narrow gorges. The summits of the chain are in excess of 2000m (6500 ft) and are snow-covered in winter. east-med

In summer, when the winds are mainly from the north, it is very dry and hot with only teaspoons of rain from May to October . Like most of the Aegean the winds come up to F4 most afternoons (sometimes above) and sweep east along the south coast. However the biggest problem are the winds known locally as katabatics (although I am informed they are a mix of katabatics and foen winds).  When the wind speed in the north is greater than that of the south it rises up the mountains, where it condenses and is compressed in the gorges, accelerating the flow as it comes down the mountains towards the sea.  This can happen very quickly (30 minutes) and produce winds of F8 or more. As a consequence there is virtually no yachting and very little motor boat traffic. The very few kayakers are advised to stay close to shore (the cliffs) and prepare to get off the water very quickly. The support from the hirer includes Text messages to warn if any such winds are possible.

Crete has a long history dating from the earliest European civilisation (the Minoan) over 6000 years ago. The population  is 630,000 and the economy is based on agriculture and tourism with over 2m tourists visiting in any year. Unemployment is currently 30%. For the vast majority of tourists the clean sandy beaches are the main attraction with mandatory visits to the relics of 6000 years of “civilisation”.  Along the coast there are dozens of “taverna” which are particularly attractive in the heat of the afternoon. Greece has an Open Access policy which includes wild camping even on beaches between dusk and dawn.

Apart from ubiquitous goats,  we saw very little wildlife, which is probably due to the absence of rain during the summer. Midges, mosquitoes, flies and other insects were simply (and thankfully) absent. A swallow type of bird lived in the many caves and we saw large raptors (eagles or vultures) over the mountains. We saw no fish or other sea life apart from tiny whitebait skipping across the surface. This appears to be confirmed by the lack of fishing vessels.

 

The Route

Stelios, who runs the company Enjoy Crete (www.enjoy-crete.com) offers day and multi-day guided tours, which include an 8 day trip along the South coast. If you have proven experience and skills he will also rent kayaks to individual groups for self guided tours. We opted for the 8 day tour (self guided) with the hope of a relatively easy 6 days and the expectation of at least one day trapped by wind.crete-map

This started in a village known as Palaiochora and finished in the village of Kokkinos Pirgos, at the head of a wide broad valley that heads due east and is the centre of Cretan agriculture. Each easy stage was characterised by spectacular scenery, beautiful beaches and excellent taverns. It is impossible to get lost!

Days 1 and 2: Glasgow-Heraklion-Sougea

We caught an afternoon plane for the 4.25 hour flight direct from Glasgow to Heraklion. The time difference is 2 hours so we arrived just after 9pm and got to our hotel in central Heraklion by taxi before 10pm. Heraklion, like all the Cretan towns we saw, is a jumble of squat white blocks, wires and vehicles.

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From the hotel balcony

The pedestrianized areas in the centre have a range of restaurants and cafes which provided good food at cheap prices.

In the morning at 9.15am we took another taxi to a car park on the sea front where we met Stelios with car and trailer for the long 4 hour journey to the start point at Paliosgora. The wind was blowing F4 plus from the west a couple of km offshore. After purchasing fresh supplies for the next few days (bread, milk, cheese, fruit, gas and, above all else water) and loading the boats we said goodbye to Stelios and at 3.30pm started the journey.

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Departure

This first section was one of the best. The wind had died slightly but there was a big swell and we were pushed along quickly.
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Sougea Beach
Sougia Beach
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Night at Sougea

Our destination was a village called Sougia. Spread along the beach were a large number of tents (big and small), camper vans, caravans, hammocks and stretched tarpaulins. In addition most of the tourists, mainly from northern Europe particularly Germany, preferred not to wear clothes. Sougia appears to be a left-over from the hippie days of the seventies.

In the village there are good shops and taverns where we spent an enjoyable evening.

Day 3: Sougia-Agia Roumelli

The previous afternoon’s paddle had identified a few equipment problems. Hugh had problems with a buckled back rest which was fixed to the back of the seat and could not be moved, causing quite substantial bruising in the lower back. Ken’s spraydeck fitted the cockpit perfectly but was too small over the deck area which resulted in no body sleeve. This led to water simply running to the waist and pouring into the boat via the trousers. We spent the best part of an hour trying to remedy this by shifting the seat forward  which made it tolerable but far from perfect. Despite attempts to straighten the back rest it immediately folded down on use. Because of these ad hoc repairs we did not leave until after 10am, the latest of any day.

The onward journey was the perfect mix of tiny buildings, sandy beaches, tall cliffs and sun.

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Small Church and Goats

1-crete-0181-crete-022Our initial target was the entrance to the Samaria Gorge at Agia Roumelli. This  gorge is world famous and the centre of Crete’s major national park. Hundreds of people are bussed to the top, walk down the gorge and are then taken by boat back to Sougia where the coach meets them.

Ayia Roumelli
Ayia Roumelli

At the village as we walked up towards the steepest and narrowest section the wind started to become noticeable and by the time we returned at around 4pm was reaching F5 with stronger gusts. It was clearly impossible to move on so we retired to the tavern. At just after 6pm the wind dropped but it was now too late to move so we practiced erecting lightweight tents on a sandy beach in a F4. The food and drink in the adjacent taverna  was excellent.

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Day 4 Agia Roumeli-Hora Skafion

We made an early (8.30) start to another sparkling day.

Depart from Roumelli
Depart from Roumelli

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For the next couple of days the edge of the sea became interesting. There were rock gardens and caves as well as intricately twisted cliffs interspersed by sandy beaches and a couple of lovely resorts.

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The village of Lautro

A feature of the Med coastline/beaches is steepness and dumping surf. The usual attempt to ride the biggest wave to get as high up the beach as possible can result in the kayak nose diving the beach and broaching. In addition attempted landings were often in front of sunbathers enjoying the spectacle. Although we had no capsizes we rarely got in without a soaking of some sort.

By now another major problem had developed in Hugh’s boat. Despite only being a couple of years old, the boat was taking in water into the rear hatch through the skeg box . A whole day resulted in around 6 litres of water. As last year no direct solution could be found and the whole box had to be taped up. To avoid damaging the tape the boat had to be lifted in and out of the water and even then over time the tape started to peel. Of course the skeg could no longer be used.

After a prolonged lunch break we eventually camped on a small isolated beach just after the village of Hora Sfakion. Behind the beach were high, steep, unstable cliffs. Our worries were not helped by a couple of goats who strayed onto the cliff at the very top, showering us with loose stones. At this site we made our only camp fire. These are banned from most areas and there is very little wood on the beaches so it proved very welcome. The sea crashed on the beach with some ferocity all night.

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Day 5/6 Hora Skafion – Plakias-Agia Fortini

The area around the village of Frangokastello had been identified as potentially the most dangerous. Katabatic winds sweep down from the mountains and a large are adjacent to the shore was shallow and covered with jaggy rocks. The swell is ever-present. We had decided to cross this area early in the morning when winds are lightest and did so with minimum problems.

Francokastello
Francokastello

The castle was built in 1371 by the Venetians who ruled Crete from 1212 to 1669 after the fall of Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks then held Crete through a succession of revolts until 1898. Whilst Orthodox Christianity was always the majority religion, over this period there was a growth in Islam that eventually applied to as much as 45% of the population. The hostility between Greeks and Muslims (aka Turks)  eventually led to the expulsion of the Turks from Crete paralleled by the expulsion of the Greeks from Turkey. This hostility still exists even amongst the young and educated.

A gentle paddle with an extended lunch break eventually took us to Plakias, a thriving resort town where we restocked and then pushed on to the end of the beach.Ken has a swim!!

The morning of day 6 took us around the headland into Damnoni and the Hapimag Beach resort for coffee. If you are going for a beach holiday it is difficult to imagine a nicer place with a lovely beach, water sports and a beautiful (and empty) swimming pool.

The next stop was at a lovely beach called Preveli. This is one of the very few places with a river and, as a result hosts a palm forest in the deep gorge formed by the river.

The palm forest at Preveli
The palm forest at Preveli

A walk up the gorge, a few cans of beers and we were off again getting increasingly close to our final destination at the village of Agia Fortini.

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The small beach at Agia Fortini


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Day 7   Agia Fortini- Agia Pavlos- Agia Georgas-Agia Galini

From Agia Fortini we headed on to a lovely beach resort at Agia Pavlos (aka Meltemi) for a prolonged coffee break and then on to Agia Georgas for lunch.  The pub served good food and excellent beer  to the sound of good sixties/seventies pop.We had got into the habit of a relatively early start, an extended lunch break and a shortish paddle in the late afternoon and headed on to the next village at Agia Galini in very good spirits.

The quality of the landscape, both land and marine, surprised us. It was truly wonderful with some awesome caves.

Depart from Ayia Georgas
Depart from Agia Fortini

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A deep Cave
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Another Cave

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The evening camp at the end of day 7 was at the far end of the beach at Agia Galini, an important tourist resort. The evening meal was the last of those carried from Scotland.

Day 8

The paddle along the coast to Kokkinos Pirgos was only 4km and took less than an hour. We had expected strong easterlies in our face but these failed to materialise and instead we had almost a full day on the beach, swimming, eating and drinking. 1-crete-102At 3.30pm Stelios turned up half an hour early and we packed the car and trailer and were away soon after 4, arriving at the airport at around 6.30 for a 10.30 flight. As might be expected with hours in hand we shot through check-in and security. The plane was early on departure and early on arrival. Baggage handling and passport control caused no delay and we were back in Helensburgh just after 2am.

Concluding Thoughts

This was a wonderful trip with no problems in terms of times, distances and weather. There were equipment failures but we managed to overcome these, albeit with inconvenience. We spent a lot of time in bars and restaurants and these helped make the trip very enjoyable. An accommodation based trip is more than feasible, indeed it is an attractive alternative. The total cost  was £850 (for everything from taxis to ice creams); about £100 more than our trips to Turkey. We would thoroughly recommend Crete as a destination.