Like a poorly planned assault on an enemy position, I set out to climb the Taygetos mountains, but I realised that my reconnaissance was lacking some vital elements…
This is my last post on the Peloponnese, and my route to Crete. Until now I have not written much about the moments when I have felt low, or at the limits of my endurance, when I begin to think about the journey ahead of me, and whether I can do it, or am I just kidding myself? But like anyone I have those times of self doubt, questioning why I have chosen the path I am on. But there is always something, or someone who helps me to answer this. I believe that the old cliché “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is in this case completely true, because this is as close as I have ever come to feeling that my life was in danger, and that I was really in a life and death situation. And that is something which I wouldn’t change – to have felt such raw emotion is exactly why I am travelling, so despite the obvious stupidity…I would probably do it again!
The Taygetos mountains are a range of peaks which divide Messenia and Lakonia, an ancient natural frontier and barrier between the Messenians and the Spartans. For the Messenians, they provided security and the knowledge that Spartan invasions were made that much more difficult. In Sparta the Taygetos were strong and indomitable, the natural embodiment of everything they sought to be through training and military prowess. Deformed or weak babies, which had no place in spartan society, were left out on the mountainside to perish, and to become a man the boys were sent out to fend for themselves, to hunt and to kill. They have a power and energy all of their own, and they are totally unforgiving.
I spent some days studying maps, reading travellers accounts, and finally felt I had a good idea of how I was going to cross the range. The route I chose was along the Rindomo gorge, which runs from Kalamata province, all the way up to the highest peak, Profitas Ilias, and then down the other side into Spartan territory. At least that’s what the map seemed to imply. In reality they turned out to be a series of footpaths which must have been designed by the god Pan, so that his mountain goat friends could easily have fun on the mountainside!
I set out on a beautiful sunny morning, following the main road until I found signs for Rintomo. Plunging into olive groves,a shepherd directed me to a footpath. Next to an abandoned and crumbling church I filled my water bottle and took a last drink, knowing that this could be the last fresh water available for some time. Opening a chicken-wire gate, a beautiful old stone path was revealed, winding downwards in spirals. As I followed it, I could well imagine the Ancient Spartan or Messenian warriors ascending to the villages and routes above. The mountains grew as I descended, arriving at a stone bridge which crossed the gorge. I looked at the rocky path with a smile, knowing that all I needed to do now was to follow it. Little did I know what was in store for me.
Boulders, rocks, stones and scree make up Rindomo gorge, some so huge that you have to literally climb and scramble over them. At first I was enjoying the exertion, but after an hour or so I became tired, the weight of my bag, and the constant jarring on the feet taking it’s toll. And something else as well…
The mountainside hemmed me in on both sides and for the first time I felt alone, completely alone, and a sadness enveloped me which I couldn’t shake. Nature is the force here, and i could almost imagine the gods looking down and laughing at this puny human. I had an image of Zeus and the rest of the gods playing skittles with the mega boulders which blocked my path, clearing the way with their superhuman force. The cliffs were claustrophobic and although the birds sang, I did not feel at peace. An agitation was upon me, which remained for the next 3 hours as I struggled along the gorge, my only solace the red dots and arrows which marked the way, designed for the adventurous souls who had chosen this path. I spent my time glancing up when I could, to try and catch a glimpse of life, or of the church I knew was on the way. But only the snow capped peak of Profitas Ilias stared down at me, pulling me onwards with an unseen force, judging my progress, and at the same time proving my folly.
Eventually I reached a path out of the gorge, climbing up happily towards the tiny town of Vorio, where I planned to sleep that night. It’s a typical village, brick and stone houses, topped with red tiles, a church in the main square, and next to it the only bar, where the local men sit and drink Greek coffee, and stare at a television which blasts out the news for their hard of hearing ears. Nobody spoke to me as I sat down, all just looking my way before turning back to stare blankly at the tv screen. After a little time an old man approached me. He had a suitably ancient name – Socrates – and was the owner of the bar. After a short discussion, during which the other men sat shaking their heads, looking in my direction with confused and dumbfounded expressions, I had a place to sleep for the night.
In the morning Socrates offered me a coffee and I was ready to take to the road once again. But then disaster struck: I realised I had lost my walking stick. This may not sound like the end of the world, but there is something about a good walking stick – it is something you can rely on, provides support and you can easily form an attachment to it. I had more or less carried this one through the whole of Greece, and it had been my saviour on more than one occasion. I knew that without a stick, my going would be that much more difficult. Luckily Socrates seemed to understand, and after an unsuccesful search of the village he simply plucked out another for me. It felt strange at first, but over the next few months it has proved its worth and become as much a part of me as the bag on my back. I set off on my way in high spirits once again, knowing there was a road I could take so I didn’t have to go back into the gorge. But somehow that’s exactly what I did! My feet kept on moving, the red arrows beckoning me onwards – a strange force was at play, and I felt as if I was being tested mentally and physically.
And so it was that for the next few hours the gorge enveloped me, again a sense of dread and helplessness which I couldn’t remove, mixed with an overwhelming sense of…if only I’d taken the road!
And then suddenly I was confronted by a wall of rocks 20 foot high, huge boulder blocking my way, and the red markings just stopped, evaporating into the scenery around me. I looked around hoping to see evidence of a path, but there was nothing. With no other option I climbed, stretching and pulling myself up, and was surprised to find it less difficult than I had imagined. And as I hauled myself over the top, I was presented with a change: the gorge, that had been so wild before, smoothed and opened out into a wide stoney expanse, a man made “road” clearly visible, and the oppressive feeling evaporated. Whether it was imaginary or real I will never know, but the impact of man had completely changed the atmosphere here. Or perhaps it was the realisation that I was not alone in this desolate place.
And then, as if it were a mirage, out of the rock appeared Panagia Kapsomatousa, a church which sits in the middle of the gorge, surrounded by a sea of grey and white rocks, and framed by the mountains. It is a safe haven when I felt at the edge of my strength.
I opened the gate and sat down on one of the benches, my mind zapped, and my legs ready to stop. As I investigated all the buildings i discovered a little first aid box on the wall, and joy oh joy, inside was a little gas burner, coffee and sugar! The water wasn’t running but a gushing spring just outside was all I needed to fill my bottle and wash my feet. As the coffee bubbled I realised I could also heat the lentils I had cooked, and soon after I was sat happily with a warm bowl of food, my feet enjoying the blissful feeling of freedom from walking boots, as the wind blew through the gorge, its icy blasts coming from every direction. It’s amazing what a little food and rest can do, and after a few hours I was ready to continue, strength renewed.
Thanking this wonderful church, I opened the gate and turned onto the truck-flattened track towards the village of Rindomo. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was once again enjoying the adventure…