I travelled to Crete with the firm intention of hiking the famous Samaria Gorge but travelling so late in the season and a bout of heavy rain a few days before my arrival scuppered this ambition – the gorge was closed. Rain increases the risk of rock fall in the Samaria Gorge so they don’t allow people to hike it if there is any danger.
So, the next best thing – to get a taste of gorge walking in Crete – is to hike the Imbros Gorge. It is much shorter at only 8 kilometres, and more accessible. It takes about one-and-a-half hours to drive to the village of Imbros from Chania and at the end of the walk a local guy with a pickup truck will bring you back up to your car for 5 euros.
Imbros village has a couple of tavernas and sits in an attractive, fertile bowl in the mountains where flocks of sheep and goats graze. Near the beginning of the trail a guy in a small ticket booth collects the €2 entrance fee, in between playing games on his phone.
In some respects this is a fairly easy ramble. It is all downhill after all and a gentle slope at that. The rich smell of fresh sage fills the warm air. Parts of the old mule trail are still visible – at one time this was the only way to travel between Chania and Hora Sfakion. You can even see the odd mule grazing.
But underfoot the Imbros Gorge is broken rock of the dry creek bed so it is tough on your feet sometimes – good footwear is a must. I had to chuckle at the Wikipedia entry for the Imbros Gorge. It warned that the trail is quite strenuous and that “the people with over size waist, sandals without socks, and women with elegant shoes covering just their toes, suffer”.
It would not have been easy for the thousands of British Commonwealth soldiers who had to evacuate through the Imbros Gorge to the ships waiting at Sfakion to take them to safety in Egypt in late May of 1941.
You see the other drawcard for hiking the Imbros Gorge is its significance in the disastrous Second World War Battle of Crete, famous for high casualties, catastrophic military mistakes on both sides, and for the hurried retreat of the British and ANZAC (Australia & New Zealand Army Corps) troops across the Lefka Ori, down the ancient gorge trail.
They remember the New Zealand soldiers here. I talked to a man at my hotel in Agios Nikolaus and he knew all about the Maori Battalion. The lady at my hotel in Chania told me she had been born in New Zealand because her parents had emigrated there after the war. In the village of Galatas near Chania, they have named a street Neozilandon Polemiston, which means “Road of the New Zealand Warriors” to commemorate the fierce resistance here.
At its narrowest the Imbros Gorge is only 1.6 metres wide. Sometimes it widens out into spectacular canyons. It twists and turns through boulders and forest. Somewhere about half way is a little rest stop with a bright Greek flag and a number of bits of rusting wartime artefacts.
The other hikers on the day we walked were predominantly German families. The Battle of Crete also saw infamously high casualty rates for the German forces.
Around 16,000 soldiers were evacuated but 5,000 of the lower ranks were left to be captured. Novelist and travel writer Evelyn Waugh was one of those who escaped the German advance here.
He writes in his novel Officers and Gentlemen of the scene in Sfakion where soldiers waited, exhausted to go on board ship, only to be told that there wasn’t enough room: “The ghosts of an army teemed everywhere. Some were quite apathetic, too weary to eat; others were smashing their rifles on the stones, taking a fierce relish in this symbolic farewell to their arms.”
In the Maritime Museum in Chania there are photographs of the Imbros gorge, and the soldiers who carried their packs through this narrow passage in the mountains. Those who were abandoned were then forced to walk back up the Imbros Gorge on their way to spending the rest of the war in POW camps.
Wandering Kiwi Jr, Mr Wandering Kiwi and I were very glad to jump on the back of the pick up truck. Six-year-old legs had done well over the eight kilometre trail with lots of rest stops. Another luxury the troops would not have had.
By Natasha von Geldern
Sincere thanks to the Samaria Hotel in Chania for their warm hospitality towards the Wandering Kiwi family while we were exploring eastern Crete – super comfortable rooms with feather beds, excellent facilities and wonderful staff. As always my views and reviews remain my own.
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