Wilder than Expected

They come out of nowhere, at around shoulder height, from the verge on my left just as I pass. Snarling and barking, launching themselves after me. They must have heard me coming, and take me completely by surprise. One moment I’m considering how the patch of ground by the side of the track up ahead on the right looks like a great camp spot: quiet, flat, sheltered, with an existing circle of stones for a fire; and the next, I’m recoiling in shock, glancing back over my left shoulder, pedalling furiously, adrenaline pumping, yelling back at the dogs as they chase my back wheel. This time, as I’m travelling with enough speed and they only give chase as I pass, I have soon outrun them. But the surprise at how they appeared so close, and so suddenly, leaves the adrenalin flowing for the next ten minutes.

Greek mythology is full of ancient stories of individuals leaving their everyday world to undertake challenging quests – difficult journeys or tasks that must be completed to achieve a goal or earn a reward – during which they face obstacles in the form of deadly singing Sirens, the man-eating Minotaur and serpent-haired Gorgons who could turn them to stone, to name but a few. These heroes must generally use the best elements of what it means to be human in order to achieve their aims, demonstrating great strength, courage, wisdom, cleverness, or devotion. But they also exhibit human weaknesses and make mistakes, which often leads to their untimely downfall.

The challenges facing those undertaking a modern day journey through the mountains of Greece are a little less glamorous, mostly comprising groups of aggressive sheep dogs, thunderstorms, and difficulties finding food supplies in empty villages, although the never-ending series of valleys and ridges can’t have changed all that much since ancient times.  I’m fairly sure that I don’t possess many of the above-mentioned heroic qualities in the required quantities, but hopefully I’ll survive…

I take the 7 hour bus journey from Athens to Grevena, a small town sitting to the east of the Pindus mountains, which run from the Albanian border in the north of mainland Greece to the Gulf of Corinth in the south. The bike has been covered in bubble wrap and cellophane by the slightly bemused operators of the baggage wrapping machine at Athens airport, with some (not so) careful balancing (on their part) and a clenched jaw (on mine). The machine doesn’t seem to have a ‘very slow for large, heavy and delicate items’ speed setting, and spins the bike around somewhat recklessly.

We pass the hotel I’ve booked a mile or two outside town and soon I am pulling the bike from the belly of the bus on the side of the road in the town centre. The bubble wrap and cellophane is stripped off, and the rear derailleur, brake rotors, handlebars and pedals are reattached whilst sheltering from the light rain under a tree. It’s late August and warm despite the intermittent rain, and I’m covered in sweat by the time I’ve pedalled the couple of miles uphill to the hotel. This is the first time I’ve ridden any bike in almost four months, and a loaded bike in a year. I think the receptionist thinks I’ve put in a full days riding to get there. I spend the next day readying myself, buying some supplies, hanging out in the town and sampling local specialities including a whole meal of very tasty mushrooms.

After a 25 mile road ride the next day, the village of Smixi brings me my first experience of the Greek mountains. Formed jointly by the inhabitants of Pinakades and Biga villages who left to escape malaria, Smixi (which means ‘union’ in Greek) shares a number of key elements with most of the other villages through which I pass on my journey south: a central square sheltered by a large tree, a taverna or two, no real shop, and very steep streets on account of the village being perched on the side of a valley. The day brings me a reminder of some of the things I’d forgotten about bikepacking – the strange looks people give you as you pass, how quickly momentum disappears as you encounter a slight uphill gradient, and the flies. Oh, the flies! Buzzing around my face, seemingly trying to maintain a constant distance of about 1 cm from my eyes, nose and mouth. As I sway on the bike, they move in unison, slightly away, then closer again, as if we’re all in moving water.  Sharp intakes of breath must be avoided lest one gets sucked in by accident.

I’ve come to Smixi to find the Bike Odyssey mountain bike route, which is used for an 8 day race each year. It’s not a route designed specifically for bikepacking as such, in that the racers are supported, have their gear transported from one overnight location to the next and have food and drinks provided in villages acting as pit stops along the way. But, it provides a GPS route along the length of the Pindus mountains from the north of the Greek mainland (although not quite the Albanian border) to the south at the Gulf of Corinth. The route follows mostly non-technical dirt roads across a series of never ending valleys and passes, and starts here in Smixi. The owner of the hotel I stay in is excited by my bike, but warns me gravely that it’s dangerous to ride alone here: there are bears, wolves, dogs, and well, it’s just dangerous to ride alone in the mountains.

I take it all with a pinch of salt and the following day take a short ride around the first stage of this route – a lap of the mountains around the village – during which I learn a valuable lesson about not relying on the GPS track when the red arrows that have been painted on the ground indicate a different direction. Although I do the right thing on the first couple of occasions, for some reason I then ignore arrows pointing back to the village, follow a trail that disappears into the bottom of the valley and spend an hour bushwacking to get out the other side. I do hate bushwacking. Lesson learnt.

The next day I head south, slightly nervously. I don’t really have any idea what to expect, having done very little research other than downloading the GPS track and reading Nicholas’ account of riding it a couple of years ago (on his own site, and as a route page on Bikepacking.com). I know that there is a lot of climbing, and when I look at the details, it turns out that there is actually more climbing per kilometer than on the Colorado Trail, or the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Greece is the third most mountainous country in Europe, after Norway and Albania. Hmmm. Perhaps some training would have helped. However, first impressions are good. Winding dirt tracks, all rideable, climbing up into the hills through a mixture of forest and open land, and seemingly regular villages with a taverna in the main square serving lunchtime food typically consisting of a greek salad, lamb chops and chips. What could possibly go wrong?

“You’ll be incredibly unlikely to see a bear in Greece”, I had read or been told, somewhere. On the Colorado Trail we encountered one black bear in a tree on the side of the trail on the first day, and then nothing for the rest of the trip, despite nervous anticipation (our mantra had been “There are no bears in Colorado, the are no bears in Colorado!“) and occasional warnings of sightings close by. In Europe, I hadn’t considered it remotely likely that I’d come across a bear, so I am a little shocked when, on day one at around 5pm, I round a bend and skid to a stop as no less than three bears come into sight about 50 meters down the track. Two are small with the third a little larger, so I assume that they are a young mother and two cubs. They have a kind of greyish tinge to their coats, and seem to be happily sat eating in the middle of the track. We look at each other in surprise for a second, and then they move in response to my sudden appearance, the mother turning to face me. I’ve been given a small canister of pepper spray (a.k.a. out of date CS gas – which I’ve disguised with black tape as I’m not entirely sure about the legality of carrying it) primarily because of hearing so many warnings about aggressive sheep dogs, and instinctively reach for this, removing the tape over the cap, as I call out to the bears. They scatter, one to the left of the track and two to the right, into the forest. I hear the sound of them scrambling into the trees, as I watch the cub on the left climb up the base of a trunk right next to the track. Good, they are more scared of me than I am of them.

But although they are kind of out of sight and despite thinking that they’ve probably each climbed a tree in fear, I don’t want to get in between a mother and her cub on opposite sides of the track, so I stay where I am and keep calling out to them. “Hey bear…. Heyyyyy beeearrrrrrr“, in the strongest, deepest sounding voice that I can muster. After a few more seconds, the one on the left of the track drops down out of its tree, scampers across the road and I hear and see more rustling from the right hand side of the track as it tries to claw its way back up a tree close to the others. Taking this as my cue, I push off, pick up some speed and fly past them, still calling out as I pass by, hearing them trying to scramble further up each tree trunk. I don’t stop, or look back…

Of course, I am too surprised, and it happens all too quickly, to even try to get a photo.

A few hours later I find my first camp spot of the trip, sitting just at the head of a valley, hidden slightly below a road, with sufficient distance from any trees that might be housing startled bears. As darkness falls, a shepherd brings a flock of goats, accompanied by three dogs across the ridge that I crossed earlier, heading in my direction. He diverts them into a pen for the night, but for a while his three dogs sit on the other side of the valley looking at me, barking and howling. In the morning, as I’m packing up, he brings the herd and dogs in my direction. The dogs are so well trained, like a small squad of soldiers or motorcycle outriders escorting a VIP. One leads the herd, with the other two fanned out behind. It becomes obvious that they are heading straight through my camp spot, and I just manage to move my bike and semi-packed gear up to the road, and out of their way, as they arrive. The lead dog isn’t aggressive, just very efficient. He pauses as he approaches, as if sizing me up and determining my intentions. The herd pauses behind him. As I move out of their way, the lead dog continues through the spot where I slept, and the herd follows, the shepherd raising his hand in acknowledgement as he passes just below me. The herd follows the dogs as they climb a track to join the road, where one dog fans out to the right to face me, one to the left, and the third positions himself at the junction of the track and road, effectively forming a perimeter around the junction and the herd. The dogs wait until the herd crosses the road, and then one by one leave their position to take the lead again. It’s a smooth and well practised manoeuvre, and something that I see again over the next few weeks.

Descending a forest track an hour or so later, I hear an unusual noise as my rear wheel bumps harshly over an obstacle in the trail… A rock or hole or the edge of a small drainage ditch, I’m not sure. It’s a few hundred metres further before I start to notice the rear of the bike squirming underneath me and, stopping to check, realise the rear tyre is half deflated. I search for a thorn, a gash, somewhere the tyre may have become unseated from the rim, but find nothing. No telltale sign of sealant bubbling through a hole, trying to stick things back together. Even as I’m doing this, the tyre continues to slowly deflate completely. Only after the bike is partly unloaded and turned upside down and another search conducted, do I realise that I completely forgot to add more sealant to the rear tyre whilst in Athens, before setting off. The front wheel is relatively newly built, but the rear probably hasn’t had sealant added since I bought the bike back in March, some 6 or 7 months ago. Realistically, the sealant added then has probably dried up.

I empty one of my spare bottles of sealant into the tyre, add some air and spin the wheel. Immediately I can hear and see sealant bubbling out of a short gash in the sidewall. A little disappointing, seeing as I managed to cross France and Spain on a set of Maxxis Ardents without any obvious puncture at all. I hope this isn’t a sign of the Chronicle being a weaker tyre.

Half an hour is then spent alternating between spinning the wheel to spread the sealant around inside the tyre, and letting it sit with the hole at the lowest point, willing the fluid to work its magic and patch things up. But it just won’t quite work, and even after this time there is still a tiny bit of sealant bubbling through the gash. Eventually I resort to smearing superglue on the outside of the tyre, pushing it into the hole in an attempt to give the sealant a helping hand without having to resort to using a plug. It does the trick. I inflate the tyre harder than normal, reload the bike and ride carefully for the next 20 minutes before rechecking. Everything seems good, although I’m down to one spare bottle of sealant after just a couple of days. I won’t make that mistake again.

I’m still slightly nervous about encountering bears on the trail, which isn’t helped by a series of tracks that I come across dried into a patch of what was smooth, wet mud on the side of a forest road. I don’t think that they are bear tracks, but perhaps they could be from a wolf. Maybe they are just the tracks of a dog, but either way, this place is starting to feel wild. I have two more encounters with dogs on this second day, each of which are more aggressive than the first. As I climb a track past a deserted shepherd’s hut, two dogs appear from nowhere and follow me closely behind, snarling and barking. In the process of dismounting to pick up a couple of stones with which to deter them in their pursuit, I let the bike slip away from me and, trying to recover it, wince in pain as two prongs of the large chain ring slide down my shin, gouging away the skin and then settling in a nice puncture wound at the top of my ankle. I have a slight sense of humour failure. Damn these dogs.

The adrenaline from the final encounter, where three dogs leap out of the verge at shoulder height just as I pass, is still flowing as the quaint town of Metsovo comes into sight across a valley. I get the usual curious looks as I pedal down through the streets to the centre of town and find a cafe. It’s hard to believe that I’m only a few days into this trip. After almost a year of no bikepacking, it feels like it’s been a little bit of a drop into the deep end. I spend a day in the Metsovo, staying at the Olympic Hotel, recommended for being comfortable, cheap, with a good breakfast and an interesting and helpful owner who greets me with water, tsipouro (a Greek brandy made from the solid remains of grapes after they have been pressed) and a sweet preserved fig. Continuing southwards, the next few days fall into a similar pattern of plodding slowly up a long climb to a pass above the treeline, whilst occasionally being chased by dogs, lightning and rain. A few hours after leaving Metsovo, I come across a large herd of sheep being moved by a shepherd and a number of dogs. I pause and wait for him to indicate that it’s ok for me to pass, as he calls out to each dog in turn in a calming voice, presumably telling them that I’m not a threat. They let me ride right past without getting aggressive, although I’m convinced that they look reluctant at being instructed to hold back.

Eventually the rain catches up with me and I get a soaking, and so when I come across an area of flat land by a stream next to a switchback on a forest road, I decide to camp early and dry off. In the 16 or so hours for which this spot is my home, not one vehicle or person passes along this forest track. The following morning I continue descending, and then climb to the village of Kallirroi, looking for an early lunch. The village is deserted and as I push up the steep streets I am doubtful of finding anywhere to eat, but, true to form, I come across a square sheltered by a large tree, in which sits a taverna, outside of which sit three men who look at me curiously as I lean my bike against a fence. Unexpectedly, next to the fence, forming part of the perimeter of the square, is a large fish tank containing several trout! Despite this, there seems to be just one choice for lunch – some tasty fried pork chunks served with chips and a greek salad. As is becoming the norm, there is no shop in the village in which to buy supplies. I was warned of this and so am carrying around three days’ worth of food, and so far the strategy of buying lunch where I can find it, and then using the food I’m carrying for breakfast, an evening meal, and snacks, is working.

Later that day I am slowly working my way up a long pass above the village of Konakia. It’s damp, and the heavy rain of the last few days means that all the surface watercourses are full of sediment. There are plenty of places to camp but I’m short of drinking water and the sandy colour of the streams doesn’t look at all appealing. So I continue on and as I reach the top of the valley just before dusk, the familiar sound of barking reaches me, as I come within sight of a local man with a pickup truck, and his dogs become aware of my presence. There is a fenced church sitting at the top of the pass with views down to the village of Paleochori, 600m below in the next valley. After the man has partially reigned in his dogs (they never really give up trying to intimidate me), we chat in broken English for a while and he indicates that I could camp in the churchyard. This has four benefits: flat ground; an awesome view facing the rising sun the following morning; running water; and a fence to keep out the dogs, as well as any curious goats/cows/wolves/bears/humans!

Just before he gets into his truck to leave as the sun sets, the man throws down slabs of meat for the dogs, and I realise that they’re staying up here with me (and, primarily I imagine, his cows up on the hillside). Although they’ve shown no interest in entering the churchyard, I shut the gate and attempt to fasten it shut with a piece of wire. The man has a colleague who lingers around outside the churchyard, occasionally coming in (leaving the gate open, to my annoyance as the dogs are still loitering outside) and making a drinking gesture whilst uttering a single word, “Whiskey“. I’d like to think that he was offering me some of his, but it doesn’t materialise and I come to the conclusion that he is hoping that I have some to offer him. I don’t have any, and after a while he wanders off, only to return some minutes later to repeat the exercise. “Whiskey?”. Eventually another truck arrives, a herd of goats is retrieved from behind a hill, and they all head off down the road, leaving me in peace with the views over the valley.

Not long after I wake the following morning, a fleet of trucks pulls up outside the church and a gaggle of people and dogs disembark. None of them seems particularly concerned by my presence, other than their difficulty in getting past my rudimentarily locked gate and into the churchyard to access the water tap. I learn that this is a training hunt – no weapons – before the hunting season opens the following week, and watch as most of the men organise themselves and their dogs, before slowly heading up into the hills.

After bouncing down the stony road to the village below, I grab a coffee at a taverna on a small square, sheltered again by a large tree. Before I leave, the owner hands me a bag of Sideritis (ironwort) stems, with which to make Greek mountain tea.  Sideritis grows above 3000 ft here and has been used in Greece since ancient times. It is commonly credited with aiding digestion, fighting common flu and colds by strengthening the immune system, helping with allergies, acting as an anti-inflammatory for body aches and pains, and helping with anxiety. Modern day scientific testing has apparently supported that the oils found in the ironwort prevent osteoporosis, digestion, and its antioxidant properties may aid in the prevention of cancer. The stems, leaves and flowers are all used to make the tea. You take one or two or stems, break them into thirds, and place them in a pot of cold water. Bring the water to the boil, turn off the heat and let the tea steep for about 7 minutes. Carefully pour the tea into a cup through a strainer, and serve with honey. I can’t yet vouch for the health benefits, but I enjoy making it each evening over the next couple of weeks.

I cruise down the valley on tarmac until it’s time to turn south and start climbing again, but not before coming across another herd of goats being escorted across the road by a well organised pack of dogs, who force me to keep my distance until the goats have passed. First on road and then by trail, I seem to spend a lot of the day climbing, sometimes pushing, until later in the afternoon. As I edge my way south along undulating tracks through a forest, I consider continuing straight down into the town of Pyli, but I have food and water for another night of camping and so find a peaceful spot in a clearing away from the track. The following morning it’s all downhill for 1000 vertical metres again, first by stone and dirt roads to the village of Petrochori, set in a stunning valley, and then by tarmac into Pyli, which sits at the gateway between the mountains and the plain to the east.

I’ve taken things relatively easy in the past week as far as distances go, but my legs haven’t done much of this in the last year and so I plan to spend the next day or two in Pyli, resting a little and washing clothes (and myself) after 3 nights camping wild. On a trip like this, where there is sun, sweat, rain, hills, mud and no real washing, things feel hot and sweaty by the end of the first day. On the second day, things feel sticky before even riding, and my clothes (and I, no doubt) are definitely developing a little smell of their own by the end of the day. By the third or fourth days, I can no longer smell anything untoward. I smell normal, or so I think. In fact, I’ve just gone a little feral. It’s only when I find myself back in civilisation, with clean people washed in the last few hours in sweet smelling soaps and sprayed in perfumes and deodorants, that I realise slowly that I smell (and look) a little different to most others. So, although three nights without any real washing isn’t a long time for most bikepackers, I’m always keen to take the opportunity for a shower!

Cleaning the bike the following day in the street attracts the attention of local kids on their bikes, who pore over the wide tyres and big name components. “This is a good bike”, they say, suitably impressed. This is a sentiment reiterated by the hotel owner in Smixi, a bike mechanic I meet a couple of weeks later, and pretty much anyone else with any interest in riding that I come across.  Whilst mountain biking is popular here, the state of the economy coupled with restrictions on overseas purchases made with Greek bank accounts means that bikes that may seem relatively cheap elsewhere, are often completely out of reach here.

The forecast is rain for the next couple of days, so I settle in and plan to catch up on some photo editing from recent trips. I really dislike riding and camping in the rain and mud for days at a time, and have been telling myself that I should feel more relaxed about sitting out the bad weather. One day turns into two, three and then four, although the heavy rain that was predicted gives way to sunshine at lunchtime on the second day, and I feel as if I should have got my arse in gear and hit the road again, even though it returns heavily the following day. I often feel guilt about resting and absorbing a place, with some artificial pressure to push on. But there is no rush, no deadline, and I do enjoy a bit of time with a coffee watching the world go by…

Posted in Chasing the Greek Sun (2016) and tagged , , , , , , .

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