Saturday, 7 November 2009

Day 13 - The long walk out

For once we were on time for breakfast - a bowl of gigantes (giant beans in a thin tomato sauce). With hunks of the heavy bread, an apple and some grapes, we were set for the day.

Papa Christopholos met us outside the refectory. The Abbot wanted to see us again, and had a present for us. We were led up the stone steps again and into the Abbot's office. Christopholos translated for us, as we thanked the Abbot for his hospitality. There were a few groans when the presents were handed out - we each had a large book of the history of the monastery, and a heavy wooden icon. Tyson was given another set for Sandy - they weighed a ton, and we would have to carry them the rest of the way! Still, it was a lovely gesture, and I am sure that we would be welcome again.

After saying cheerio to the Abbot, Christopholos led us behind the refectory and gave us a large loaf to take with us. He seemed rather concerned about our attempt to get to Aghia Pavlos in a single leap, "you must have food", he kept saying - and he was quite right! We then followed him on a merry dance around the buildings trying to find Sandy's hiding place.

Megalis Lavra is an enormous place, like a medieval castle with a multitude of buildings lining the high walls. We had read the details of Sandy's escape to Christopolous, so first step was to locate the infirmary. The current infirmary is behind the refectory, on the first floor. In fact there are two - one for sick monks, and the other for elderly monks, which is a little further down. This would place Sandy almost opposite the main red church, about the midpoint of the monastery on the southern side. Unfortunately there has been significant renovation work here, and Christopholos didn't recognise the description of the winding stone steps, or the gothic stone arches. Given Sandy's description of looking down on the main gate, Christopolos thought it might be useful to explore the old defensive tower. This is on the mountain side of the monastery, and looks down on the small square by the main gate.

We followed the balcony along from the infirmary, up a flight of stone steps and into the tower through an iron studded door. There weren't many hiding places in the tower - only two rooms at the top - one filled with dusty books, boxes and candle stands, the other being a tiny chapel. It didn't seem a likely place to run, but we took some photographs of the rooftops to help jog Sandy's memory. Of course, the hiding place may have been lost in the renovations, but I am convinced that it is there to be found.

Time had caught up with us, unfortunately, and we had to begin our great trek. Christopolous walked with us through the main gate and up past the outer buildings and waterwheel. I think he was sad to see us go, and stayed waving for quite some time. He said that he had always wanted to make the walk around the tip of Athos, but his health was so bad he didn't think he would ever manage it.

The first bit of our walk was a bit laborious - following the same path to Promodos. Here we branched off onto the older path, climbing a jumbled watercourse until we reached the path that snaked up a gulley to reach the main path that crosses the tip of the peninsular. At the top of the ridge we reached the decision point as there are two paths that cross the area - the higher path climbs high above the landslip, but is supposed to be the quicker route. The lower path descends to the skete of Kavsokalivia - a commune of artists that sits about 200m above sea level.

We decided to split the team, the hill-climbing goats (Tyson, Mike, Alun and me) went down, the speed freaks went up. It was a long descent to the first skete of Aghia Nilos, and from there contouring around the slope to Kavsokalivia. The fronts of our legs were burning as we dropped down across the great landslide - huge house-sized boulders making the going very slow. The view was incredible, and quite dangerous - we each suffered a tumble while not paying attention to the track. We were still high above the sea, and had to descend for a good hour before reaching Kavsokaliva.

We stopped in the shade of a high retaining wall, just down from the church. Sandy had mentioned the artists commune, and so the two slipways at Kavsokalivia had to be checked for suitable boatsheds. Alun stayed with the packs as we raced down the zig-zags to the sea. It took an age to descend - polished boulders, gravel and acorns making the going treacherous underfoot. We eventually spilled out at the edge of a bay - the final concrete steps stopping in mid-air. No slipway or boathouse to be seen. Disappointing, but at least we had ruled it out. We took a quick breather before starting the long climb back up the track to the first junction, near the church. It was hot work!

The second slipway was just as bad - a little further away from the skete along a path that headed west. Even Tyson was slowing up in the heat as we crossed the top of the cliff above the other slipway and followed the zig-zags down through thick woods. Eventually we came to a flat area filled with old olive trees, a hundred feet or so above the sea. The last section had large concrete steps, which we leaped down so fast that we scared the life out of the lead mule on the mule-train coming up. We had to climb up to a little ledge to give them room to get past!

The path made its final turn and we were on a large concrete area which served as the slipway and landing stage. The boathouse had been modified, but it was clear that it had once been a 2-storey building with stone steps up the side, and large double-doors facing down the slipway. We paused awhile, catching our breath and taking in the azure sea. Tyson paced back and forward along the shoreline - he later admitted that he was exceedingly tempted to leap in to cool off!

The climb back up to the skete was hard, and we were both dripping with sweat by the time we arrived back at the church. We were behind schedule, which meant no time for lunch. We had to start the long climb out, and the peaks swirling in cloud high above looked daunting.

The first challenge was to find the path out. The skete was a myriad of paths that ended in gates or houses, and we tramped back and forth with growing frustration. Eventually we found it - hidden behind a chicken coop and climbing up into the trees. Upwards we toiled, in places the ancient stones worn smooth with the passage of pilgrims. Here and there the track became a jumbled mix of rocks and earth that required immense concentration. Tyson and Mike set a cracking pace, and Alun and I struggled to keep them in sight. The climb was never ending - the false summits almost breaking our spirits, but eventually the track flattened off and we found ourselves in the skete of Kerasia.

We had climbed quite a height from sea level - almost 800 metres in all, the path sending us twisting and turning around the sharp pinnacles and scree slopes. Kerasia was a smaller skete, and we didn't see much activity. We had originally planned to meet the other members at Kerasia, but they had long grown bored and continued to to the next skete - St Anna. We pushed on too, but it was clear that we were at least two hours behind. In the back of my mind I could see the monastery gates shutting at sundown - the race was on.

As we crested the saddle before the descent to St Anna, we came across a man sat shirtless in a clearing. He had just climbed from St Anna and we exchanged information about the way ahead. The remains of lunch lay all around us in the clearing - rusty cans, wrappers, bottles and cans. Despite the mess, it seemed a good time to grab some food. We had been walking for nearly seven hours and only Alun had managed to grab some lunch. I broke out the emergency rations - pilchards, pasta and bread, and we sat in a circle eating as quickly as we could.

The view down to St Anna was incredible. The path crossed a high blade of rock, and we stood for a few moments next to the wooden crucifix that tops the peak. We could see the skete far below, and a separate skete further along the hillside. There around the headland was a sliver of sand and the ruined tower that signposted the way to the monastery of St Pauls.

We raced down the hillside, staring at our feet as we placed every step on the jumbled rock and scree. Nearer the skete the rocky path gave way to giant Tyson-sized concrete steps - which made the going even harder for the rest of us. The moment we got into St Anna we called the fast group, who gave us devastating news. Even though the monastery seemed so close from the hillside above the skete, it would take at least another hour and a half!

The final section passed in a blur. As the light was falling we kept the group tight, moving fast through Nea Skete and on the narrow track to the monastery. We eventually dropped down to the track leading up to the monastery - cutting through the gatehouse and up to the monastery. It was almost pitch black, but through some miracle the gates were open. We were safe!

We had covered 23km over difficult terrain in just under 10 hours, with only one 5 minute break. A bit of an epic, but great fun!

Nearing the end of things - more soon!

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