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Caving in Crete by Emma Porter

Crete has a very agreeable Mediterranean climate with a flourishing agricultural economy, several thriving towns and a wealth of history.  It is the largest of the Greek islands with the majority of Crete being limestone and hosting about 3000 caves. There are three distinct mountain ranges, in the west is the Lefka Ori (or the White Mountains) in the central region is the highest peak in Crete, Psiloritis (or Mount Ida) at 2456m situated in the Idhi Ori and to the east, Dikti Ori (or Lassithi Mountains).

Crete can be a fairly cheap holiday, particularly if you choose a package holiday rather than just a flight. Mike Clayton and myself went out there for a week in mid October 2000 with big plans to explore the mountainous limestone terrain.  We flew from Manchester to Heraklion and had pre-booked a hire car (which are notoriously expensive, insurance excludes the underside and tyres) and to our horror, we were faced yet again with those two dreaded words 'petrol strike' - suddenly, all our plans had gone to pot!

We had carefully chosen our base (within the package holiday restrictions) on the north coast of the island between the White Mountains and the Psiloritis massif so that we had easy access to both mountain ranges.  Driving to our base of Rethimnon, which sprawls for miles, we were constantly watching the petrol gauge. We had just half a tank of petrol, every petrol station we passed had redundant pumps and we had only just left a petrol crisis at home!

Sunday was our first full day and in order to conserve the little petrol we had, we made a fairly late start and opted to take a taxi from the centre of Rethimnon, heading to some nearby caves.  We suffered first hand experience of the Cretan driving (it has one of the highest accident rates in Europe) as our taxi driver dashed through winding country lanes so that we could reach out destination, Kournas Cave.  We got out the taxi, sorted our belongings out and as the driver disappeared into the distance we realised that our first caving destination was five kilometres from Kournas Lake, the tourist spot we had just arrived at!

Not to be defeated, we headed up the hillside in the midday sun and after a fair uphill trek, the map indicated that the cave should be on our right.  We continued heading up, unable to see it and arrived at a bar which had a large sign outside which read 'The famous deep cave of Kournas'.  We immediately went inside and attempted to find out where the cave was, but the woman in there spoke no English and proudly produced cave photographs for us to see.  In the end, we thought we would try and find it ourselves and set off using the map we had. About ten minutes later, we heard the same woman shouting at us and waving her arms.  Not understanding a word, we started heading back and two tourists who had been drinking in the bar met us.  Speaking in broken English, they explained that we had to pay the equivalent of £1 to enter and that the lady's husband would take us into the cave.  Her husband appeared and on seeing our helmets, nodded and said 'speleo'.  We were led down a rickety wooden ladder, descended an easy climb during which I received a lot of unwanted attention.  Every foothold I took down, the heavily perspiring Cretan man had his hands all over my legs - a problem women travellers are warned about. Fortunately, he left us once down the climb to explore what was only a large chamber with a few old stal.  We had a quick look around and conscious of the time, we headed on out with what was to be an epic walk.

We walked from village to village, enjoying the sun and the scenery but not covering any substantial distance on the map.  Four o'clock came and went, then 5, then 6 and still we were walking.  As we passed a sign with Rethimnon 20km, there was only one thing for it, to hitch.  But of course, we saw very few vehicles and the ones we saw were either full of people or sheep and did not stop.  We were becoming very demoralised and were wondering what we could do for the night when a car stopped and a big, friendly German got out, who spoke English and offered us a lift and yes, he was going to our town!  He left us on the very outskirts of our destination and we hobbled our way back along the 4km of coastline to our accommodation.

The next day, there was no rest for our feet.  We left our accommodation at 6am as we had pre-booked a coach trip costing about £20 to take us to the most popular destination in Crete, the Samaria Gorge.  The gorge begins in the Omalos plateau which nestles in the Lefka Ori ( White Mountains) and it is in this area that the French have discovered deep caves, one being over 1000m in depth.

It was extremely cold when we arrived at Omalos, we had breakfast and the coach took us to the start of the 18km gorge which is the longest in Europe.  The walk starts zig zagging down, plunging 1000m in the first 2km.  The abandoned village of Samaria lies about halfway along the walk, a ghost town now as its inhabitants were relocated when the Samaria Gorge National Park was established in 1962.  The path levels, the walls of the gorge close in, passing a huge area strewn in cairns, occasionally crossing the stream until the Iron Gates are reached where two rock walls rise sheer for a thousand feet. Once through this the gates widen, the valley broadens and you arrive in the village of Ayia Roumeli for a cold beer and to cool your feet in the sea.  Every hour or so, a ferry arrives at the village to take the tourists to their waiting coaches at Hori Sfakion.

On the Tuesday, we opted for a lazy day deciding to look for petrol and Gerani Spilia, finding neither.  The cave of Gerani is sign posted in the village of the same name supposedly near the bridge on the main road. Like many of the caves here, it has been a place for archaeological finds with local cavers exploring caves searching for bones or Minoan artefacts.

As there was still no petrol to be found by Wednesday and the White Mountains were just too far away to chance, we were up at 5.30am, heading for the closest mountain range, Idhi Ori which contains the highest peak in Crete. We had come prepared for staying out in the mountains with a tent and sleeping bags (but unfortunately a brand new petrol stove!) and our destination was Psiloritis taking in one or two caves on the way if we could.  We started from the village of Kamares which like a lot of Cretan villages is very traditional, with all the women we saw dressed in black and the most popular mode of transport being the donkey.

We followed what started off as a well signposted route (the signs looking like they were bus stops) and red paint marking the path.  The scenery was fantastic as we ascended up the limestone.  The side of the mountain range we were using, was reported in a SUSS expedition report to be 'almost devoid of caves except for the known showcave Kamares'.  We too saw no other caves.  As we reached the plateau and the shepherds' cottages of Alm Kotila our map did not seem to coincide with what we saw.  Guidebooks warn of the inaccuracy of maps and as Geoff Newton states in his article this is due to the fact that 'Good scale maps are considered to have a security value by the Greeks who are still nervous that the Turks or Libyans will invade'. This was no help to us.

We spent about two hours wandering on the plateau between the rough dry stone walled mitatos or shepherds' huts trying to establish the way on.  We had seen no one all day and almost on the brink of turning around and heading back down, we met an old shepherd.  With none of us understanding the other's language, we eventually determined which way the mountain was by gesturing and drawing in the dusty ground.

We reached the summit at about 7.30pm just as night was drawing in.  On the summit is a small chapel called Timios Stavros (which is the local name for the peak).  We did not stay long, it was quite cold and we needed to lose as much height as possible. We headed down in the moonlight for as long as we could before switching to electric light.  We backtracked our route on the GPS, passing the points we had inputted in.  We passed one of our potential bivy sites but chose to aim for the second which was lower down still.  We put our little mountain tent up in the shadow of a huge rock and what seemed to be a goat or sheep hangout.  All night, we could hear gnawings, and I convinced myself, that we would wake up with no tent left!

After a restless night, we rose again at 5.30am, rationing our water out as we had passed only one watering spot.  As we descended the peaceful mountainside, we passed the shepherd and his three dogs once more.  On the way down, we diverted to Kameres Cave which the SUSS report described as 'a huge boulder ramp followed by two chambers with all ways on blocked'.  Of apparent archaeological significance due to a huge cache of elaborate pottery being discovered, from a speleological point of view, it was not worth the hour or so lost in the mist and the diversion.

We arrived back in the village of Kameres, with aching feet and that wonderful exhausted feeling.  On our journey back, I left Mike in the car whilst I aimed to explore a large gash in the landscape not far off the road.  However, my journey was cut short as I met a drunk Cretan man and his donkey. He had introduced himself to Mike and came up to me and grabbed me by the face and kissed me on my cheeks three times.  As he attempted to do this again, I jumped in the car and shouted to Mike to 'go' as I very angrily fought him off my legs trying to shut the car door.  This was the only aspect of Crete I did not like - the so called 'liberated' image the local men have of Western women.

During our drive back on the Thursday evening, we managed to obtain that scarce commodity, petrol.  As it was our last day, there was only one thing for it but to see how many showcaves we could cram in during the day. The first one we headed for was Melidoni Cave, near Perama.  We followed the track up to some impressive gates and walked up to the buildings.  We paid a small entrance fee, were given a leaflet and left to our devices.  The entrance is past a small white church and in a depression.  This cave is home of the mythical bronze guard of Crete, Talo but is more remembered for one of the most horrific atrocities in the struggle for Cretan independence.  In 1824, 370 local inhabitants mainly women and children, took refuge in the cave from the advancing army.  The army demanded that they come out and when they did not, an attempt was made to suffocate them by blocking the cave entrance.  As this did not work, they piled combustible materials in the entrance and set them alight, asphyxiating all. Inside the cave is a tomb to commemorate the dead.

Our next destination was Sfendoni Cave which was only in its third season of opening and a lot of work had gone into making a raised platform to walk around the cave and to be able to see as much as possible.  Like many other caves, it is of archaeological significance with many skeletons discovered, in particular one of a young boy.  We spoke to the guide afterwards, asking him about other nearby caves, chatting about our different attitudes to caving and he found it extremely amusing when I referred to caving as a 'sport'.

In the afternoon, we headed to Hania and to the Katholiko Monastery aiming for the Katholikou and Gouverneto Caves.  The Rough Guide states that 'The few visitors here and the stark surroundings, help to give a real sense of isolation that the remaining monks must face for most of the year'.  With this description in mind, we were extremely surprised to see hordes of people bumbling around dressed in their Sunday best suits and black dresses. We left the monastery as we followed the path down leading to the craggy shores, hoping to escape the crowds.  Our hopes did not last long as also heading in our direction were the crowds, from babies to the elderly.  We headed for the cave in which St John the Hermit was said to have lived and died and so did the crowds.  We wandered bewilderedly into the cave which was lit with candles and heavily scented with incense, passing a white altar.

Mystified, we headed further down near the ruins of the Katholiko Monastery, following a parade of people.  We followed them into another cave, each had a candle and were struggling up and down climbs between stals in their black dresses or suits, their posh shoes, the very old and the very young.  It took us about 40 minutes to reach the end of the cave due to the sheer number of people in there.  At the end of the cave, prayers were being chanted and each person who had just arrived would kneel down and kiss a picture of the Virgin Mary.  We did not stay long, not wanting to impose.  Once outside, we tried to find out what was going on, but no one spoke English.  We can only guess that it was the saint's day Anna Petrocheilou refers to in her book.

That incredibly bizarre caving trip signified the end of our holiday which did not go quite according to plan but was extremely enjoyable.  One piece of advice, don't go there during a petrol strike!

A big thanks must go to Don Mellor and Ric Halliwell for finding us so much information.


Books: FISHER, John and Garvey, Geoff 1995 Crete - the Rough Guide

PETROCHEILOU Anna The Greek Caves 1984

WILSON, Lorraine Crete - The White Mountains 2000 Cicerone

Journals: FAULKNER, Trevor March 1988 Kera Spiliotsa, Vryses W Crete The Grampian Speleological Group Bulletin Second Series Vo15 No 4

FELL, John Western Crete - Omalos to Askifou High Magazine October 1999

GRAHAM Nigel Crete 1991 - or how not to go caving in karst country Craven Pothole Club Record No 25 January 1992

GRUNDY Steve, Sheffield University Speleological Society Expedition to Crete BCRA Bulletin Caves and Caving No 15 (February) 1982

HITCHEN, David May Sheffield University Speleological Society Central Crete Expedition BCRA Bulletin Caves and Caving No 28 1985

JARRATT Tony The BEC Get Everywhere - Crete The Journal of the Bristol Exploration Club Belfry Bulletin Vol 39 No 6 (No 432) December 1985

JEFFREYS Alan L Caving in Crete The Grampian Speleological Group Bulletin Vo15 No3 (March 1973)

NEWTON Geoff Speleological Reconnaissance in Eastern Crete Part One Wessex Cave Club Journal Vol 21 (No 232) February 1992

NEWTON Geoff Speleological Reconnaissance in Eastern Crete Part Two Wessex Cave Club Vol 21 (No 233) April1992

OLDHAM JEA Melidoni Cave The British Caver Vol 59 July 1972

WEBSTER Martin Omalos Cave Journal of the Bristol Exploration Club Belfry Bulletin Vol XXVI No 2 (No 292) February 1972

WHALLEY, JC 1979 Wanderings in Crete Journal of the Craven Pothole Club Vol 6 No1

WORTHINGTON Steve SUSS Expedition to Crete 1981 SUSS Journal Vo13 No 2

Expedition Speleologique en Crete Spilia 94 Groupe Speleologique Scientifique et Sportif

Speleologique en Crete Spilia 92 Groupe Speleo Scientifique et Sportif

Visite dans l' antre du Minotaure ... Speleo No 28 October -December 1997

Maps: Freytag and Berndt Crete Hiking Map 1 :50 000

Harms IC Verlag Crete Touring Map (Western and Eastern) 1: 100 000

A copy of this article has appeared in the Craven Record.

Emma Porter 2001

Emma Porter at the Entrance to Katho/icos Cave

Massive stalactite formation in Kournas Cave