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The BEC Get Everywhere - Crete

"Where are we going on honeymoon?" said Jane.   " Crete" said Phil and Lil.  "There’s over 4,000 caves on Crete!" says I.

For cheapness and to avoid crowds and heat we went in May.   The girls took suntan lotion and historical novels.  Phil and I took Rennies and "The Caves of Crete" - a xeroxed abstract.

Our happy holiday villa was located miles from the limestone in the small coastal village of Matala, some 60km south of Heraklion.  Our first walk down to the beach boozers and boobs led past at least fifty cave entrances in three rows in the sandstone headland.  These man made single chambers are thought to have been excavated by early Christians and have latterly been used as a hippy colony. Some have carved niches, bed-spaces and shelves, others are decorated with psychedelic paintings and all stink like the legendary Ystradfellte public bog.  Some small natural cavities exist in the cliffs above these caves, notable only for their grandstand (!) views of the topless talent on the beach below.

After three days of ouzo, sun and Minoan palaces the wives were deserted and a 50km drive took Phil and I to Sarchos, near Heraklion.  Our description of the local cave bore no location so we found the "local". Following beer and political discussion (spitting on the floor) with the village boozers we managed to understand enough to find our way to Sarchos Cave. The 6 x 8m entrance lead to 1/2km of undulating phereatic passage ending in a clear, green sump pool.  "Damn, we forgot Bob Cork".  10m of new passage (oxbow) was found and a previously visited upper level full of bats investigated before returning to the entrance to be confronted by a large buzzard and a population of very active bees necessitating a quick retreat.  There is doubtless much more passage to be found in this cave and all around the eastern end of the Psiloritis mountain range where Sarchos is located.

Two days later, the full team assembled on the amazing Lasithi Plateau at the east end of Crete.  The plateau is actually a 6 x 12km swallet with two tourist caves (and many others) located around the mountainous sides.  Kronio or Trapezas Cave is a miserable little grot hole supposedly of archaeological interest.  Inside is a two inch long scorpion and outside an old rat bag who cons gullible English tourists (but doesn’t make much profit from them).  The other "show" cave is on the far side of the windmill covered plateau and is famous as the birthplace of the god Zeus. Called the Dictaean Cave it is now also famous as the place where two English tourists posing as famous international speleologists got a bollocking from the manager.  By lending him a newly published Greek caving book (in English) and letting him take the girls to the cafe he was eventually persuaded to give the two the run of the cave.

A steep rock "staircase" led up the mountainside to a 4 x 20m entrance - a typical collapse feature leading to a vast inclined chamber well decorated with huge, ancient and soot covered stalagmites.  A tourist trail of stone steps leads around this chamber and while one of the guides escorted his party, Phil and I guided a passing Royal Navy officer around before scrambling off to explore the further reaches - essentially an extension of the entrance chamber but with better and cleaner formations.  Before our departure the god Zeus was left, with a small black and white sticker as a votive offering.  An impressive cave despite its modest length.  Longer, sporting systems are believed to exist further up in the mountains behind this cave.

Near Rethymnon, on the central north coast of Crete, we found the show cave of Gerani to be locked and deserted.  This may be due to damage from reconstruction of the main coast road which runs directly over the cave.

Another disappointment - though not in the way of scenery was the lack of speleological sites in the 18km length of the Samaria Gorge, south of Chania.  Carved through solid limestone and with cliffs up to 600m high, it makes an incredible walk from the mountains near Omalos to the boat departure site on the coast.  Local geological conditions seem unfavourable for large systems in the gorge itself, though Tzani Cave, near Omalos, is reputed to be a lengthy swallet system.

The Kamares Cave, situated high on the mountains above the village of the same name, was visited after a crippling uphill walk on the evening of the 10th May. It was only found by asking directions from a Sheppard and family inhabiting a cave lower down the hill. The huge, gaping entrance of Kamares Cave opens into a cavern 60m wide, 80m high and 70m long which was used as a place of worship on Minoan times and gave its name to the famous “Kamares Ware” style of pottery, much of which has been found in the cave during Greek and British archaeological digs.

Knackered by the climb up and prepared for a night on the hill, Phil and I decided to move into the cave. A floor of assorted goat, swift, chough and batsh from the cave's assorted populace made a nice soft mattress and hot whiskies brewed over a chough's nest fire in the entrance provided a suitable nightcap as we sat and watched darkness descend over the plains and coast of southern Crete - the whole of which was visible from our eyrie.  As we and the noisy choughs got our heads down for the night the bat population began to leave for their nightly hunt.  Their occasional squeaks and the odd drip of water punctuated the otherwise soundless night.  Our awakening was heralded by the choughs again, who were hurtling in and put of the entrance with apparent unconcern for collisions.  Following a brew of hot chocolate (and whisky) we explored all corners of the cavern including various forays into the massive boulder ruckle flooring the chamber.

Our proposed climb from here to the peak of Psiloritis ( Mt. Ida) was called off on reaching the summit of the "Saddle of Digenis" above the cave when we realised how far we still had to go across very difficult and unpleasant ground.  Plan "B" was executed and we descended to the village and the bar of one Mickaelis - ex World War 2 pilot, whistle player, dirty old man and pinhead extraordinaire.  Here we met the girls and got completely plastered, my last memory being of Lil Romford dancing with an 80 year old drunken Greek Orthodox priest in the middle of the road.

Our last cave visited was also advertised as a show cave and from a point 23km east of Heraklion signs pointing to the site were followed for miles up progressively worsening mountain tracks.  Eventually a small white chapel on the edge of a large collapsed doline was reached - this was Skotino Cave.  The enormous and well decorated passage descending from the entrance was followed for a hundred metres until lack of boots and adequate light forced a retreat -all show cave facilities being absent!  The end of the cave is believed to be not much further and for anyone visiting Crete it would be worth a look to confirm this. Again, this cave was a major Minoan archaeological site.

Thus ended a superb and festerous holiday on this very friendly island.  For the casual visitor there are plenty of short, easy and interesting caves but anyone considering a serious expedition should do plenty of research beforehand to avoid barren areas and duplication of effort.  I have more detailed information on all of the show caves and some others if anyone is interested.

Tony Jarratt.