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Monday, 30 October 2017

WHEN PRAISE IS DUE


On Sunday we changed our planned itinerary (having found it impossible to  park anywhere near Positano) and made our way slightly higher up to Monte Pertuso. We left the car and took the CAI trail 331 which meanders very pleasantly, high above the road, leading to Valle Pozzo and beyond to the Tese and Capodacqua. 
Wrapped round a pole towards the start of the trail was a very small and insignificant bilingual notice from the local authorities advising you against hiking due to the instability of the path following  the summer's fires. Take note.. it wasn't an outright ban, rather a friendly piece of advice. So we ignored it and set off , be it not particularly convinced  that we would get very far. 
As we progressed, we came across the bright orange dots and arrows of a recent  trail race. This gave us cheer, since if trail runners had passed, then there was hope for us too.
In fact, although the fire damage along the initial stretches leading to Valle Pozzo  was more than evident, the path was clear and well maintained. We easily climbed over one fallen tree trunk and circumvented another (the detour clearly marked by orange arrows). 
Having heard bad things about Valle Pozzo even before the fires, we ignored its turning and carried on along the 331b linking to Le Tese. We already knew that Le Tese were unscathed, so took this route, making good time up to Santa Maria del Castello where we stopped for a short break.
Not wanting to return the way we came, we asked a local whether the CAI 300 Forestale path was viable, since we knew that it had  been particularly badly affected by the fires. We were told that people had been seen walking along it, so we decided to make our way to the Caserma del Forestale and then walk back down to Monte Pertuso via the CAI 329, thus creating a perfect loop. It was a good decision since the path, provided you watch your feet on the loose stones, is more than possible and not much worse than it was before.
However it is not a pretty sight. The devastation to the landscape is total. Whilst the lower vegetation is gradually re-emerging here and there, the overall impression is that of a scarred and barren wilderness, littered with the charred skeletons of a thousand fallen trees. It is quite shocking to see. Gone are the pines, gone are most of the cypresses. It is a landscape dominated by grey and black with occasional splashes of colour from the rusty brown of burnt leaves.
Yes, the views have opened up, but there is no longer anything between you and the sheer stony slopes. Anyone  suffering from vertigo is going to be in difficulty.  And I would definitely not recommend walking these trails after heavy rain or in high winds.  There are an awful  lot of tree trunks perched perilously  on the slopes ready to come tumbling down.  It is only too easy to see what could happen now that there is nothing left to hold back the loose stones. We already had a foretaste of this with the first rain in September when the road to Nocelle was blocked with mud and detritus that had come tumbling down the hillside.
What is however impressive is the general state of the paths which have been virtually cleared and are no more difficult than before. I really was not expecting that. 
I am generally pretty quick at criticizing. However I am equally willing to give praise, when praise is due. And here it definitely was. Hats off to whoever is responsible!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

CRETE SAMARIA GORGE - AN EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW?


I have just returned from a week's holiday in Crete and whilst there we walked the famous Samaria Gorge, at 13 kms considered the longest gorge in Europe.

We decided to do it by ourselves and not take an organised tour or hire a guide, confident that having done our homework and being pretty experienced hikers, we were not taking any major risks.
Logistically it was tricky, since apart from the fact that the start point was a 2 hour drive from our hotel, the trail (precisely because it is a gorge) starts in one place and ends up in another. This is further complicated by the fact that there is no road at its end, so you then have to take a ferry (1 hour) to another village further along the coast and then of course you have to get back to your car at the top. We booked a taxi for this part which proved a wise move since, provided you closed your eyes and ignored the fact that the driver was going incredibly fast round a terribly bendy and precipitous road, occasionally talking on his mobile phone,  we got back to our car in 45 minutes. The public bus would have taken much longer and left us with a final 2 km walk back to the in the dark.  
Well, back to the Gorge. Tickets costing 5 euros are purchased at a ticket office about 200 metres from the entrance. There are also  clean public toilets (free)  and a small shop selling water, sandwiches, fruit, maps, guides etc. When you get to the actual entrance to the gorge, the tickets are checked and one half is kept by them, the other you keep with you to hand in at the end of the trail (where there is another booth). This way they know exactly how many people are in the gorge at one time, and most importantly can check that everyone is out of it by the time it closes. 
The gorge not only has specific opening and closing times but also a cut off time for entering the gorge if you want to walk it all. After a certain hour you are only allowed to walk  a short stretch there and back. When it is raining or there is a serious threat of rain, the gorge is off limits (it is completely closed over the winter) due to the risk of flash flooding and rock falls.
We went fairly late in the morning (setting off at 11.30) since we had been warned that coach loads of large tourist groups take the place by assault from 8 a.m. until mid morning. Since the trail  is often narrow, this makes it difficult to pass slower walkers (just like the Path of the Gods..) and in any case ruins the whole experience. As we walked, we did meet other hikers, but it was never crowded, never noisy. I find it very difficult to imagine it heaving with the masses!          
We set off, making our way steeply down the first part of the trail.  We had read that the first couple of kilometres were to be taken slowly thanks to the loose stones making it pretty treacherous underfoot. They were not exaggerating, but the sturdy wooden rails certainly helped (as did my pole). The vast majority of the track was very stony and uneven and you always had to watch your feet. I would definitely not consider it an easy walk.
I will now summarize what impressed me (apart from the amazing landscape):
- there are "stopping places" evenly spread out along the way. Here you will find water (natural spring water), which means that you do not need to carry litres and litres of water with you,  toilets (pretty nasty and very basic, but better than nothing), wooden benches and sometimes tables. There is a designated smoking zone at a couple of these for those who really can't do without. There are also litter bins which are emptied. In fact we met the mules coming up the gorge with the litter collection. There is absolutely no litter along the trail. The stopping places do not intrude on the landscape at all, since everything is perfectly rustic and merges in with the surroundings.
- there is a fire-prevention system along the entire length of the trail. Not only are there warning signs, but there are also clearly indicated "escape routes", leading to assembly and evacuation points. There are also fire hoses, extinguishers and rubber water tubes (the latter to the side of the path, like irrigation tubes).
- the areas most at risk of rock fall are caged over. Along other exposed stretches there are signs telling you to walk quickly and not to shout.
- there are wardens, not many, not intrusive, but present, with their forestry uniforms and walky talky radios. As we were nearing the end (by then it was nearly 4 p.m.), we met one of them walking up the gorge checking on the progress of the later walkers. We were told that we were fit and would make it! That was a relief  seeing that there is only one late afternoon ferry which leaves at 17.30...
- there are km markers (although we missed a few of these) and also what I would call "progress" maps, so that you can track your progress.
The trail was extremely rocky and there were some pretty tricky parts.  It is not for the casual Sunday walker unless you limit yourself to a short walk there and back, and even then you definitely need proper footwear (we didn't see one person in flip flops). Although it is mainly downhill, there are several steeper uphill stretches and you have to cross the river to and fro. Sometimes there are stepping stones, sometimes  little bridges or planks. Being a dry October, there was very little water in the river, so this was not a problem, but I would imagine that it could be quite slippery and trickier in the spring. 
However all in all, you felt completely safe. 
So what is my point? 
Whenever there is an accident on the Path of the Gods, the local press, and not only, goes to town and declares it unsafe. A lot of talk then follows about its maintenance (or rather the lack of it), the desirability or not of more and better fencing, the fact that it is overcrowded and full of unsuitable walkers  often guided by equally unsuitable guides (true) and so on and so forth..
However to be quite honest what is completely lacking is any kind of control. 
Maybe it is time to install ticket booths at the 2 main access points  at either end of the path (Bomerano and Nocelle) and introduce a small entrance fee. This way, not only would there be some much needed income coming in for the path's maintenance, but there would also be a better idea of who is on the path at any one time. Obviously, since it is not a gorge and has other access points (for example from Praiano), this would not be fool-proof, but  it would certainly help.
And what about having  a trained warden or two stationed along the path, whose jobs would be to monitor and provide assistance in an emergency? 
I am quite sure that the Path could pay its way...


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