Thursday, 13 August 2015

Karfi

It was the very last day of our stay in Crete and we climbed up a hillside to the Diktean Cave – suitably spectacular for the birthplace of Zeus.  After that, Nigel planned that we would climb another mountain and visit Karfi, the melancholy  site of the last refuge of the Minoans. 
A fitting ending for our holiday.  
The idea was to drive up a dirt track and park by a tiny chapel on a higher plateau before making the ascent.  Except that my leg was aching and I was sure I couldn't make the 200m ascent.  And the walk had disappeared from the Lonely Planet website - had people had bad experiences? Just how rough was the dirt road?
As we rested at the inn, Nigel and Pascoe went out on the pretext of going to the shops.  They returned much later, enthused.  They had explored the first stretch of dirt road.  Although aware that I was unlikely to make it, I allowed myself to be persuaded.  Not least because there was the prospect of seeing the massive griffon vulture, with its wingspan of 2.8 metres.
In the evening light, the shadows of the mountains fell mauve.  There was the comforting mellow sound of sheep bells, the low croaking of ravens. Every so often, the breeze blew us the savoury  fragrance of wild thyme or Dictean oregano. 
All of this would have been enough by itself, and indeed, it might have had to be for although Karfi has been called the Machu Pichu of Crete, there is little now to see.  It was sad that the once great Minoans had been driven this last mountain stronghold while the rest of Crete was under Mycenaean rule.
But what about the griffon vultures? As we climbed, we had already twice been distracted by exciting birds of prey which turned out to be buzzards.
But now, just skimming the horizon, I began to see something else. A really large bird. I was never quick enough with my binoculars before it dipped from view. As we gained the top of the pass the sightings became more frequent.  There seemed to be three of the birds.  Seeing some ravens flying around them and dwarfed by them, I realised that we were looking at something very large indeed.  Finally I let myself believe it. 
'Vultures,' I yelled.
Soon, we were at the topmost plateau, and the giant birds were using the thermals it produced in order to rise, so they would swoop in spectacularly low and we could see their heads move as they checked us out. 
“Nope -  not carcases yet,”
Then as they caught the air current, they would soar high away.  Paragliders appeared, drifting through the air and one curious vulture circled them.  
'Can you imagine?' said Perran 'That would be so scary.'
Meanwhile, Carenza, followed by her brothers, climbed the high limestone pinnacles which were beginning to flush apricot in the sunset, getting even closer to the huge scavengers.  Nigel & I began to explore the tumbled walls of the ancient settlement, overgrown with all manner of thorny and aromatic plants.  Even so, it was hard to take our eyes off the birds and it was remarkable how swiftly their vast wings carried them on the breeze with scarcely ever a flap. 
Finally, when the vultures were no longer visible and the youngsters had descended to the ruins, we decided it was time to head back down to the car. 
But we threw one last look over our shoulders and there they were, approaching along the flank of the mountain - a flock of seven vultures, and heading in the opposite direction, just for scale, eight ravens. 
It was our own personal fly-past.
And when we got back down to the inn and the internet, we looked up a word we had never before needed to know –

apparently, the collective noun for a group of vultures is a 'wake'.
Photo by Carenza