With the bells of the town graveyard still ringing behind us we drop down into the Litohoro gorge. The early morning sun is already hot enough to fry eggs on the pavement but having brought neither eggs nor pavement we carry on walking and sweating. The heat in the gorge thickens and we climb steadily in its narrow confines going from close to sea level at Litohoro to where the old shepherd’s track we are walking on climbs up to a narrow stone gate on the cliff face where there are great views of the gorge ahead and the coast and town behind us. Having gained this height we lose a good lump of it again dropping back to the river. The temperature now must be close to forty and for hours we follow a switchback path along the river. I am lathered in sweat and though I’m drinking a lot of water it doesn’t seem to be enough and I can feel the beginnings of cramp in my calfs – I knew I shouldn’t have brought them.
In two places the path leads out across the cliff face high above the river. Over the winter the path has fallen away and twice we have to shuffle along twelve inches of crumbling dust with a lot of nothing underneath us. Dimitri is very quiet at both these points while Dan mutters phrases in Yiddish that have words like ‘shnorrer’ – ‘shlemiel’ and ‘meshuganah’ in.
At 11.30 we stop for a food and water stop at a side gully where a winter avalanche has cleared a break in the forest. There is a stream and waterfall with tufa formations on the rock similar to those in Gordale Scar and we sit for an hour rehydrating and eating our nuts and fruit. Dan decides that being the first junior rabbi on Mount Olympus isn’t such a bad idea. Dimitri has a quick snooze and I eat a bag of dried apricots, remembering too late that it was eating a bag of dried apricots in the Pakistan Himalaya that earned me the title of ‘the sahib with the exploding trousers’ amongst the Balti porters.
After the gully the path is much more difficult with boulders and fallen trees blocking our way forward. Most people climbing Olympus ignore the Litohoro Gorge and go straight to the road head at Paranoia. Spending the day in an airless gorge scrambling over landslides in a temperature of forty degrees centigrade was my idea – which is why I am a meshuganah shnorrer.
Danny is going strong now over the difficult terrain, I’m much slower and Dimitri is finding the going a lot harder. He’s climbed Snowdon and Kinder recently but all his other climbing has been up and down the stairs in his Manchester taverna, and this is the first time he’s carried a heavy pack. I’ve had some kind of a virus infection just prior to leaving for Greece which I’ve managed to defeat with echinacea tincture but I’m not on best form so I too am finding it hard going.
I’ve drunk a lot of water but have lost more through sweating in the unforgiving heat and about an hour after the gully I cramp up badly at one point lying flat out on a rock both calf muscles locked solid, the pain so bad I describe it on my journal as ‘like giving birth with your legs’. After bearing down and doing my breathing exercises I manage to carry on. For the next two hours I hobble on slowing everybody up.
We have not seen a soul all day then suddenly twelve German walkers appear upstream powering down towards us their trekking poles flashing in the sun, all but two of them are women, mahogany brown and fit as butchers dogs. The two men trail behind them and I ask them how far it is too Paranoia. They are not in the mood for talking but hurry on down shouting ‘Not far – maybe one hour’ over their shoulder. The guide book reckons the gorge should only take four and a half hours. It’s three o’ clock now which means we three shlemiels have been shlepping for seven hours (six if you deduct the water stop) and are still an hour off Paranoia.
We plod on. Dan mutters something about Moses and forty years in the wilderness. Dimitri is too knackered to mutter. I mutter anyway just to keep Dan company.
A little way on we come to a chapel built into an overhang under the cliff where a stream resurges flowing through the chapel before falling down to the river. Inside the chapel an oil lamp burns before a handful of icons.
We move on up the gorge and within a kilometre of the chapel we see a ruined monastery amongst the fir trees on the opposite side of the gorge. Dimitri looks in the guide book.
‘The German’s destroyed it because the partisans were using it as a base.’
‘No wonder they were in a hurry to get down.’ Dan says.
‘It was nearly sixty years ago.’ Dimitri tells him
‘They didn’t look that old.’
Dimitri and I look at each other and wonder whether he’s kidding us but decide to leave it. The path is much easier now and a slow and steady pace brings us to the little taverna at the road head at Paranoia exactly eight and a half hours after setting off. We are all completely trashed so any thought of going on the extra two and a half hours to the refuge on the mountain goes out of the window.
We sit and drink, rehydrating in the shade and Dimitri manages to cadge a lift back to Litohoro with a swarthy brigand who drives a small truck up here every day bringing supplies for the mountain huts. Beyond here it goes on mules. I watch the driver throwing ouzo and beer down his throat as though he has heard a rumour that that there is to be a world shortage of the commodities and I wonder whether we shouldn’t walk back. Greek mountain roads are bad enough with a sober driver – this guy is off his tree. I silently curse the pope for demoting St Christopher from saint to ordinary mister and watch in silent terror as our driver throws another glass of ouzo and pint of beer down his gullet. He wipes his mouth and burps before falling off the bench onto the dusty floor. We look at each other glumly. Here we are in Paranoia in a beer hut – no beds – a drunk driver – a long journey back down the mountain to start all over again tomorrow.
‘Oi gevalt’ Dan says which I think is Yiddish for something very bad.