Female & Solo Hiking on Crete. Days 1&2: Kissamos - Sirikari Gorge - Kefali
The first two days of my Cretan adventure were filled with history, sunshine, Nature, olive groves, goats, some bushwhacking… and a lot of road walking. But let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
Finding the trail
When I was planning my hiking trip to Crete, my main plan was to follow the E-4 trail. It’s one of the long European trails that span for hundreds of miles across Europe.
Some parts of it are very well signed, some – not so much. I’ve read whatever I could on the Cretan section of the E-4 and knew it would not be easy. First of all, there was no map for the trail.
Second, it looked like hiking is not exactly the main interest for the locals and the tourist board so the trails could be badly signed or missing completely. From a few memoirs I found, the one thing that kept repeating was getting lost or missing the trail markers.
Another thing I knew could be a problem, was road walking. As the E-4 was linking existing trails, sometimes the only link available was with a road. Very often some road walking is inevitable but when it goes on for miles upon miles – it becomes a nightmare.
I'm glad I had the very good idea to buy rubber tips for my trekking poles - perfect for walking over hard surfaces.
Let's the adventure begin!
I started my trail in Kissamos. This is the northernmost start of the trail. At the hotel I stayed I got a tourist map of the Kissamos area with some hiking trails marked. I was happy to see that the E-4 trail was clearly marked on it. This very basic map proved very helpful but also a source of some mishaps along the way.
The original E-4 was to take me to Polirinia then through Sfinari to Kefali. I modified it along the way to skip the road walking… to some interesting results.
The walk from Kissamos to Polirinia was almost all the time uphill on a narrow road. The weather was wonderful – sunny and warm. It was the first day of hiking, so I had to adjust the heavy backpack (with all the food for three weeks) and get used to the walking.
I passed tiny villages, olive groves, and small chapels. I was really anxious when people were passing me in cars or on motorcycles – not only because they were not expecting to see any walkers so potentially could hit me, but mostly because that kind of situations cause a lot of anxiety to me.
I felt exposed, a magnet for human attention – the opposite of what I like. It's good there weren't all that many people on my way and the views were a good pay for all the first-day anxiety. With every step climbed up, the view to the sea opened even more.
The ancient town of Polirinia
When I finally reached Polirinia there was a choice to climb up higher to the archaeological site or move on. I decided to go up and see it, as Polrinia was one of the most important ancient towns on the island of Crete.
To be honest, the climb up was really hard (it was the first day, remember) and not much to see up there. I stopped at the ruins of ancient houses and decided to skip the further climb up to the fortress. But even though the archaeological site was a bit of a letdown, the views were marvelous. It was the perfect spot for a lunch break.
On the way back I walked through the small and deserted town of Polyrhinia, through its narrow streets. An older man stopped me and tried to speak to me but I as I don’t know any Greek, it was pointless. I am not sure what he wanted, it was more than just inquiring about my wellbeing… I could only keep saying that I was sorry and move on.
When I saw that the trail was to take me more on roads, I decided to cut to Sirikari through a gorge I noticed on the tourist map. Combined with my ViewRanger app (a lifesaver!) I could find the entry to the gorge with no problems.
Getting off the E4 trail: The Sirikari Gorge
It proved to be a good decision. The hike through the Sirikari gorge was finally what I was looking for – Nature, trail upon the softer ground (although with a lot of stones and rocks), trail markers and solitude. It was beautiful and I am still glad I took the turn.
On my way I met another hiker – back then I didn’t think it was anything special but now I know it was not a common thing! The fellow hiker was a woman from Aberdeen on a solo trip. She said she slept mostly in her car or wild camping and advised me about a good spot for the night a bit down the trail.
Wild camping in the Sirikari Gorge
Finding a proper camp spot in a gorge is not easy, considering the steep slopes and rough terrain.
The biggest downside of hiking in January is the horribly short daylight time. Already around 4 pm, I had to be on a lookout for a good spot for the night – the sunset was 5:30 pm and it was completely dark some 30 min later.
That's a really short day – especially considering how slow I usually am in the morning. I hate to get up before dawn and rush through.
The Aberdeen lady advice was solid – I set up my tent in a picnic area by a stream. That’s another unlikely thing – with time I found out that most gorges don’t have running rivers even if they are marked on a map (also on ViewRanger) – there are dry riverbeds. This is a serious issue when thinking about water supply and wild camping.
Although the day was nice and warm (for a January day), the moment the sun set – it got really cold right away. It was my first night in a new sleeping bag, so I was a bit concerned.
I have two sleeping bags now – one, very warm down bag but heavy and a new one – 2-season, light with no hood, as a result of my quest to lighten up the load. I was supposed to take the warm one at first but I simply could not fit it all in the smaller backpack I got (45 L) and decided to go lighter. From the hindsight – a good decision. Once or twice I had to wear extra socks or two pairs of pants, and most of the times I slept in my down jacket but I never slept cold.
It was raining in the night and combined with the big drop in temperatures I had a serious condensation issue. All the tent's wall was wet – inside and out. Which meant that when raindrops fell, they caused condensation drops to fall, too. It was raining inside my tent. Not a very pleasant thing. It was not a big problem – just some drops, but annoying when it hit your face.
I tried to keep to the middle of the tent so I wouldn't touch the walls – for example with my feet. That’s where bigger tent comes as an advantage – I could sleep in the middle and have enough room to hold all my gear inside.
The perfect breakfast in the wild
As I said already – I am really slow in the morning and I enjoyed what I love the most in my overnight hiking: a lovely breakfast made of coffee, oatmeal, and a kindle. I don’t like to just stuff myself fast and go – I like to sit down, eat my meal, read the book and look at lovely green views in front of me. That’s why I always start late!
I also had to dry the tent. I used a kitchen foam sponge, the kind that is hard when dry. It’s great to soak up all the moisture, much better than any towels or such. I had to gather the moisture from the inside and outside and after that, it dried fast.
Changing plans and roads
My plan for the next day was to walk to Sirikari, stop there for a cup of coffee (a cafe was marked on the map) and then walk to Kefali through Marouliana and catch the trail there again. But the hiking gods looked and laughed at me again.
On this basic tourist map, it looked like I could do it. In practice? This day was one of the hardest and I finished it by a headlamp. Oh, and it included jumping over goat fences. Fun!
The path out from the gorge was really beautiful but then there was some weird mix up with the local roads. It was hard to discern which ones are “bigger” or “smaller” based on a map or app and comparing that what you see. Sometimes, what was marked as tiny narrow path are a pretty regular road and the opposite.
In the end, I would have to walk too far to get the coffee in Sirikari, so I moved on to Morouliana where there was to be a trail to take me to Kefali. On the map, I mean, because in reality, it was the worst trail marking ever.
I swear, there is a path somewhere here!
I used the ViewRanger to guide me and wasted a lot of time walking around the area where a trail was supposed to be. Finally, I found markers – red blots, on a very badly maintained path. It was over-grown, with dead branches or even whole trees down, climbing over boulders and rocks in a dry riverbed (or rather dry waterfall). Most of the time I had to guess where the path could be because the marking was rare and really badly done.
The “path” led along a narrow gorge and then out of it up to a rocky top. It was very steep, there was no path to speak of, and the rocks were unstable and moving. I felt like a trailblazer but also just wanted to call a cab and be out of there.
The reward was, as usual, paid in views. When I finally made it to the rocky top I could feed my eyes with stunning views. Not for long, though – the sun was going down and the weather turned sour. It was cold with vicious winds.
So... how do I get down from here?
For a short while I walked on a dirt road, which took me even higher. Then the road just ended and opened into a wide open area as you can see above. No way to figure out where a path could be...
From the top, I had to find a way to descend to Aerinos. I knew where the village was but the trail disappeared completely. I enjoyed views of the sunset but had to make my way toward the village under the quickly darkening skies. The clouds were heavy and low, adding to the general gloom.
The frustration was growing – I could see the village but not a way to reach it – I had to meander among rocks, thorny bushes, around boulders or sudden drops. Multiple times had to back away from uncrossable part and find another way and then turn again to get back in the correct direction.
I knew there was no way I could find a wild camping spot anywhere around – there was no flat-ish ground whatsoever. As I stood there, watching the last rays of sun dying, I went through my booking app to see what was available in the area. The closest accommodation I had was in Kampos – almost 20 km away! My phone battery was dying, I booked it and hoped for the best. I am so glad for modern hiking - I would not be able to do this hike without the support of my phone.
I saw on the ViewRanger where a dirt road was and I knew I had to reach it. It was getting seriously dark when I found myself faced with a long goat fence (and a bunch of scared goats running away from me). This was a new thing to me - I would soon learn that the goat fences were everywhere on Crete, although on well-maintained trails there are gates to pass through. Here there was nothing. I walked along the fence for a while with frustration building up. I saw the dirt road and had no way to reach it!
Finally, I reached another branch of the fence, perpendicular to the one I walked by. Now I was stuck! There was no other way – I had to cross it. I took my backpack off and threw it over the fence. Climbing it was not an easy thing as it was not very stable – I was sure I would fall the moment I put more weight on it! Somehow I managed to cross it and jump without injuring myself.
On the other side, I still had the fence barring my way to the road. I couldn't repeat the same thing and jump over it, as the road was not on the same level with it - the ground was some 2 m high above it.
At one spot it was all bent and I pushed it all the way to the ground and crossed it to stand on a narrow wall over the road. It was not a very high wall – maybe 1,5 m but I would not risk jumping off with a backpack. I was walking on it, holding the swaying fence before I could finally walk off it some meters down the path.
I was on the road! I called the accommodation and asked if they could pick me up from Aerinos. He said he couldn’t right away but told me to walk to Kefali and wait.
Aerinos was a tiny settlement off the main road so it made sense. I was tired and my feet hurt but there was not much of a difficulty in walking on a road. So I moved on. For some time I walked in the semi-darkness, scaring poor goats on my way. When I reached the bigger road I put a headlamp on and made it to Kefali where there were some pubs or taverns open. I waited for the owner to come feeling anxious if I understood him correctly.
You can’t even imagine what a relief it was when he came and took me to his tavern and rooms. The way to Kampos was a long winding narrow mountain road. It was also along the E4 trail which, in theory, I was supposed to do the next day. Seeing it convinced me not to walk along it. 20 km on paved roads with no sidewalks? Who makes such trails?
The hot shower I took that night was probably the best I’ve had in a long time. The next morning I could admire the lovely view I had from the room.
I spent the evening figuring out what to do next – and changing the original E4 again.