Sarakino Gorge

“Sarakinos” was a term the Byzantines used to describe the Arabs in reference to their brown skin. The name of this gorge, “Sarakino-Saracen”, takes you back in time to the end of the first millennium, from 824 to 921, when Andalusian Arabs from the city of Cordova settled in Crete and made it a base for their pirate raids no the neighboring islands. Since this ravine is so close to the southern coastline you like to imagine that it was used as a secret hiding place for their booty. This motivation, a search for hidden treasure, edds three young excursionists – eight, ten and eleven years old – to your group of hikers.

Because of the great quantity of water that rushes through the gorge, Sarakino can only be explored in the summertime, when the stream calms down, insinuates itself silently into the subsoil and manifests its vitality only through the spontaneous vegetation along its riverbed: think, aromatic leaves of myrtle, flowering oleander, small oases of cane thickets, plane trees, fig trees, chastetree shrubs. Our best moment for discovering the gorge is a day in mid - July. You drive toward the southeastern part of the island, past Ierapetra, in the direction of Mirtos, a pleasant seaside town which strives to make visitors forget the overbuilt outskirts of Ierapetra and the unremitting disfigurement of the surrounding countryside by the omnivorous presence of hothouses. From Mirtos, you continue toward the southern outcroppings of the Dikti mountain range, passing by arid sandstone coves. After a few kilometers you reach Mithi and very evident arrows indicate a road which takes you to your departure point. In the parking area there are various cement structures of the local waterworks and a tavern, “Sarakino”, which is now shuttered and abandoned.

In the beginning, you teeter along the low walls of the water mains, cross a rudimental, shaky bridge, and continue along a path that edges a rift between two gigantic walls of gray limestone. This spectacular, concave foyer gives excursionists the feeling of being inside the rocky home of Titans, where an incredible variety of bizarre landscapes have created by unfettered Nature. Gigantic boulders balancing one on top of another, grottos excavated into undulated rock by wild metamorphism, secret passages created inside the rocks, a growing number of marvels, leading up to the gorge’s triumphant entrance with its immense, rocky arch.

You are a livery group of hikers and you worry whether you will be able to ensure the safety of the children in your group, if you can rein in their enthusiasm in the most difficult sections without diminishing their spirit of adventure. Even though the scarcity of water in the summer has eliminated the problem of having to wade across difficult parts of the stream, strong arms and light feet will be needed in order to cross some of the boulders.

You proceed cautiously, taking care to stay near the rock walls to avoid any stones that might be knocked loose by a group of goats that have fount their way into the gorge above you in search of grass. Our point of reference is the streambed, whose irregular flow sometimes widens, sometimes narrows. There are no trail markings and you are basically wandering among the huge, scattered boulders, cumbersome presences that will frequently halt your progress as you search for the best solutions for continuing on. You cross your first obstacle with the help of a rickety wooden ladder which is missing its top rungs. The situation is becoming increasingly worrisome; it is as though angry giants had tossed enormous marbles every which way. One of these huge round rocks has even gotten stuck between the walls of the gorge and balances menacingly in mid - air. You pass underneath natural stone arches, you squeeze between narrow passages where the water has polished the limestone to perfection, you pass over small rocky hillocks the help of your hands, a careful positioning of your feet in the cracks, and the precious assistance of the strongest member of your group. As agile as cats, the youngest excursionists scramble their way lightly up over the obstacles with the derring - do of those who don’t know the meaning of danger. For them, the highpoint of the hike is an adventurous passage inside a large cave with a short, narrow tunnel that requires a few contortions before emerging into a small clearing. Since the children are the first to go through the tunnel, they help the “grownups” through, with amused comments about the heft of each one of you and the awkwardness with which you pass this test. After hiking for almost an hour, the gorge becomes friendlier and you pick up the trail once again. The path becomes increasingly more damp until you come upon trickles of water. Among the ferns and moss you have a surprising encounter with a large sweet water crab that is half hidden beneath the flat stratum of a rocky recess. It is Potamon Fluviatile, a crustacean that belongs to an ancient family of crabs. These creatures live in sweet and brackish water, inside burrows they dig that can be up to one meter deep; they eat worms, seeds and acorns. Our crab’s wide - spaced, round, bluish eyes poke up from its square shell, that is a lovely shade of yellow with violet and dark crimson highlights. It stares at you diffidently. One of you, courageous and expert, firmly picks it up, holding its formidable claws shut. The children are amazed and excited by this discovery, the crab is motionless it seems dazed so you splash a bit of water on it. Once you have released it, it waves its long, hooked claws and slowly backs its way into its hiding place. One hundred meters higher up, a pool of water, the first you have come upon, reassures you as to the crab’s survival. You are at the and of the gorge, the vast opening of the exit is just as imposing and solemn as the entrance and leads you into thick underbrush traversed by a rivulet that is still weak and irregular. You have been hiking for over an hour in front of you fields, olive orchards and vineyards reappear. A brief picnic and you decide to return the way you came. The trail leads downhill now and you imitate your young hiking companions and let ourselves slide down the long, stony ledges that are as smooth as marble. A few meters the end of your hike you come upon a couple of Germans wearing protective helmets, climbing ropes draped around their necks. They ask you about the accessibility of the trail and tell you that three years earlier they had been forced to swim across certain portions of the gorge because the water was neck-high! You later learn from local excursionists that the gorge always has a few points that must be swum across and that this year it was dry only because the water had been deviated higher up. You don’t know if this only temporarily or permanently.