Hohlakies Gorge

The people of Crete love to spend the first of May outdoors and their custom is to return home from their outings with large bouquets of wildflowers that they weave into wreaths to adorn car hoods and front doors for good luck. Hohlakies gorges seemed like the ideal excursion since it satisfies both our pleasure in studying the beauty of the geological formations in the canyons and our yen for the sea since the gorge ends in the spectacular, rounded bay of Karoumes, at the eastern - most end of the island.

With its unpronounceable, onomatopoeic name, which might relate to the verb hohlazo (χοχλάζω) = (which in Greek means to gurgle), the ravine is located near Hohlakies, a meager agglomeration of houses seven kilometers from Palekastro and Sitia. You cross the village without meeting a soul, but the freshly whitewashed walls and the flower pots next front doors indicate the presence of human beings, perhaps only a handful of elderly of people stubbornly rooted to their land. This village has its share of suffering; it was attacked by the Turks and repeatedly devastated in 1821 and 1866, as witnessed by the ruins of its earliest nucleus near the low, bleak plateau of Aginaras, which faces the cleft in the mountain. An unpaved road winds its way among the olive orchards until it reaches a mandatory parking lot near a white chapel, where a sign indicates the descent into the gorge with a map of the trail and its geographical location. It takes us about twenty minutes to reach the entrance of the gorge, which is protected by a feeble fence. Despite this precaution the canyon is a land of conquest for the voracious black goats who study us from above, lined up along the rocky southern wall on the only alternative trail when the stream is in full flood and hikers cannot walk along the dry riverbed.

A still-flowering example of dragon arum – dracunculus vulgaris, whose violet spathe is laced with dark brown spots, haughtily marks the trail. Then we begin a gymkhana among the loose stones of the dry riverbed as the omnipresent red and blue trail markings show us the proper direction to take. Throughout the entire excursion you keep to the southern side of the gorge, an elevated rock face of crystalline and marly shale, whose reddish color goes well with the foliage of the many types of shrubs growing in the soil. The growth of these plants has been influenced by the caprices of the contours of the rock face; there are crooked olive trees whose treetops are dangerously exposed, as well as wild bushes that have grown haphazardly. Only the lovely campanula pelviformis, with their bright blue, pedunculated inflorescence, seem at easy in the rocky hollow. The first part of the hike is often obstructed by boulders that are so near to each other that only the millenary flow of the river has separated them and opened narrow passages, shaping rudimental steps in the rocks. These imperfect but climbable stairs are a providential “dues exmachina” that in about an hour covers the entire one hundred meters of vertical drop. Hohlakies valley proves to be an “athletic” hike because it puts the agility of hikers’ ankles and the elasticity of their knees to the test. No dizzying heights, no fixed routes with swaying ropes, only muscle-testing ascents and descents. The first soft landing, in a small vallery of oleanders and chastetree shrubs, gives us an excuse to stop in the shade of an old olive tree with knotty folds in its trunk. A wreath of corroded and pitted stones marks the spot where the torrential rains gurgle forth in the wintertime, proving the etymology of the “farangi Hohlakion”. In the rock face in front of us a dark cavity to the left is perforated by two gleaming eyes – just a reflection of the sun or the silent presence of a predator? This enigma remains unsolved as you resume our hike which, once again, presents us with an obligatory passage among fairly low pinnacles and peaks. Next we cross a green jungle of oregano interspersed with insidious nettles and finally come upon chastetree bushes with their flexible and stubborn branches. Homer narrates that Ulysses tied his companions firmly underneath the belly of a ram with chastetree branches when they escaped from Polyphemus’ cavern.

The crags of the ravine diminish, the jagged peaks come to an end leaving only a few cone-shaped projections as the landscape evens out into an embroidered crest. You are certain we followed the trail markings properly but, we ask ourselves, where is the sea? An arid plateau is still hiding Karoumes Bay as our eagerness to see the marine horizon grows. Finally, the gorge veers to the left, a few more steps on the crushed stones and then a triumphant “thalassa – the sea” echoes down the valley. A strong sirocco wind is blowing, the heat imprisoned the riverbank which makes its way among the thorny rotundity of Albanian spurge and shrubby kidney vetch – anthyllis hermanniae, whose golden inflorescence is filled with a light, pleasant fragrance. The blue line of the sea widens before our eyes, heralded by an arid clearing dotted with pungent tufts of Marram grass – ammophila arenaria. The circular gulf of Karoumes is swept by strong gusts of wind, there will be no swimming in that agitated water today. You are deeply disappointed that we won’t be able to swim across to the flat grotto on the right-hand side of the bay. It took us an hour and a half to walk down the gorge; you decide to find shelter from the sun and wind and relax under the tamarisk tree on the opposite side, near the beautiful beach with its delicately multihued stones.

Refreshed, you don’t want to waste the momentum you have acquired and thus resume our hike, preceded by a robust man equipped with spray paint and alpenstock, who is intent on touching up the trail markers with red paint. On our return trip we discover other small wonders of nature we hadn’t noticed before, like a large wild olive tree twisted like a snake around a smooth, limestone outcropping; and a rock that has been carved into the shape of a gigantic seashell and creates such a lovely frame that the children accompanying us on our excursion ask to have their photograph taken inside it. Your feet fly over the successive levels as you hike back up the gorge, the exertion is minimal, you return to our departure point and open the obligatory gate.