Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part III)
I set an alarm and awoke before the birds. The trail around the remote peninsula was about 30 kilometers so I wanted to ensure an early start. The beach was still and the three dogs were nowhere in sight when I crawled out of my tent into the crepuscular light. I packed up in the dawn silence and set off along the beach with the sea to my left as the world came into relief, the winding coastline and its mountainous interior extending a formidable distance before me in bays and ranges that receded without end in a layered haze.
The lack of trees and a tiered rocky coastline impart to the Akamas a sense of desolation but at closer look the scrubby landscape reveals its life. I had forgotten to bring a plant and wildlife identification book on the trip and so I cannot say if what I saw were cyclamens or daisies, chamomile or asters. But whatever flowers they were, there were plenty of them, defying the stony earth in victorious uproars of turquoise and violet, magnolia and crimson. I have heard that if you happen to be in the Akamas during a certain period after a hard rain, you can witness entire barren fields bloom into color within hours.
The high bushes soon came to life in a chorus of birdsong and, though the sun was still behind the foothills to my east, the morning chill had left. The turtle-nesting ground of the protected Lara Reserve is substantial, encompassing two bays and a neck of land, and a sign was posted at its northern beach outlining the rules and prohibitions. Despite the increasing recognition in Cyprus of the need to protect wildlife, it appeared there remained some vocal opponents who did not shy from expressing their reservations about turtle conservation: the steel sign had been pockmarked with shotgun blasts and in the middle was a gaping hole that looked like the work of an elephant gun.
The E4 path became a dirt road. This was a disappointment. Much of the pleasure of walking comes from escaping vehicles and from traveling where they cannot go. But here I was, in the far-flung Akamas, on a damn road again. Of course there was little traffic; in three hours I passed only one jeep and two goats. But the fact remained that I could have just as easily been in a driver’s seat with my windows down and belongings stowed in the back, seeing more or less the same sights but without the punishing load.
In frustration I soon veered off the E4 onto a side path suitable only for ATVs or farm equipment, but within a half hour the comforting band of blue to my left had grown uncomfortably distant. The Akamas does not take up much space on a map and is not the kind of place you would think you could get lost in, but its mountainous ruggedness can get the better of a cocksure hiker. I have known a number of capable trekkers who got disoriented in this peninsula. So I gingerly trailblazed my way back to the seaside road through several rocky fields, keeping a wary eye out for snakes, which were starting to awaken from their winter slumbers.
Though most Cyprus snakes are not dangerous, the blunt-nosed viper can deliver a lethal bite and I had not thought to bring antivenin with me. But in the end I only saw two snakes in the Akamas, a black large whip snake about five-feet long that coiled its way across the path ahead of me and a smaller brown one that I could not identify as it had been flattened and disfigured by a tire.
Shortly after I had rejoined with the E4 I came upon a Cyprus-style oasis: a rectangular stone structure in which potable water gushes continuously from a tap. These modern oases can often be found on mountain roads, usually accompanied by an icon, but I did not expect to find flowing water so far out in the Akamas. In an island where fears of water shortages always loom, these fountains are a strange but comforting sight—handy not only for quenching thirst but also for washing cars, assuming you keep a bucket and a large sponge in the trunk. I had no car to wash but I did give my head a good dunking and then topped off my water bottles after drinking as much as I could stomach.
As soon as I returned to my pack, which I had ditched on the other side of the road, four dirt bikes appeared and stopped at the fountain. The six of them (two were couples) dismounted, but instead of bending to the stream of water, they walked to the back of the fountain where they found some sort of clue. They were obviously members of the same group that Christos and I had met in the Paphos forest and it appeared they were still on their GPS treasure hunt. One of the women, who was kneading her backside from the bumpy ride, looked over in my direction. “This bike could use some new shocks,” I heard her say to her companion. “Or I could use a break from all this riding and instead walk like him.”
“Yeah, but how would you like to lug that pack around?” he replied as they mounted the dirt bike. She did not respond, but implicit in her silence seemed a recognition that, yes, despite the aching gluteus, it was still better to be borne than to bear.
My feet were beginning to hurt. In my sneakers my toes would throb, while in my sandals the soles of my feet ached. I found I could switch off between sneakers and sandals just often enough to distribute the pain equally between them, thereby keeping the walk comfortable or at least tolerable. But it turned out that I had in the end favored my soles over my toes: the nails of my big toes would later turn black.
I finally arrived at the point where the E4 veers inland towards the other end of the peninsula. But there was also a narrower dirt road that continued coastward. I set my pack down and, retrieving the map, leaned back against the post of another shotgun-pockmarked metal sign, this one offering precautionary advice instead of regulations: Danger – Do Not Touch Any Military Debris. It May Explode and Kill You (British forces once used this area as an artillery firing range). This sign also had a hole blasted out of the middle of it. It appeared that the assaults on these signs were acts of mere vandalism after all, not premeditated acts of protest. But these lawless vandals were not without an irreverent sense of humor: I had passed numerous No Hunting signs with empty shells littered at their base.
I could see by my map that the E4 cut across the peninsula well before the lighthouse, which was near the land’s end. I had made good time so far and I wanted to go as far around the coast as possible so I decided to abandon the E4 and follow this coastal road, which was not even marked on the map. As long as I hugged the coast, so my thinking went, there was no way I could get lost.
I had hoped that the path would follow the shore but the land was growing increasingly mountainous and the trail took me uphill towards the chiming bells of several dozen goats grazing on the steep slopes above me. Winding paths can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. They can be an advantage because they offer an optimistic boost that can be renewed after each bend (Yes, I’ve almost arrived, it’s just there around this bend!). Then you round the bend and glumly see only another one. But as you near that bend your spirits rise again with fresh assurance (Yes, I’ve almost arrived, it’s just there, around this bend!). For this same reason winding paths can be a disadvantage: the illusion tempts you to continue farther than you meant to go if you only intended to make a brief side-jaunt.
There was no end to this winding. Behind me the coastline unfolded in the same endlessness that I saw at daybreak when I set out, though I was now at a higher elevation and could look out over a greater distance. I was sure the lighthouse was close; it was geographically impossible for this path to continue much further. And yet it did. The dirt road had narrowed into a scraggly goat-trail but there was no way I would turn back at that point. Then I rounded the corner and… there it was. But the picturesque lighthouse I had imagined resembled a fortress, looming down over me in stout rectangularity beyond a giant ravine-like valley. But at least I could see it. Now all I had to do was follow the trail up the ridge and hike along the half-moon crest to the—
It was then that I saw my goat-trail came to an ignoble end about 50 paces away. I refused to accept it; it had to be merely a visual illusion. I followed the trail but it indeed led into a patch of thistles. Without hesitation or thought I began to work my way up the mountainside to the ridge. But it was not long before I began thinking, in fact obsessing, about blunt-nosed vipers. I was in Viperville no doubt and, at least in this Viperville, there were no hospitals.
I saw myself stumbling through the scrubby hills, pulse thumping in my throat, my t-shirt tied below my knee to reduce the flow of poison to my heart until, recognizing the futility of my effort to reach help in time, I fall to the ground, retrieve my Leatherman with shaking hands and, under the delusion of campfire lore, begin to saw into my calf around the bite mark, sweating, screaming, my leg recoiling from my merciless hand, not realizing in my fear and passion how far I have sliced into my leg until it becomes pointless to even try sucking out the venom since the blood is flowing so freely, but I do try nonetheless, my face soon resembling that of a hyena feeding on a baby antelope, and that is how I die, there on the blood-soaked brush, under the gaze of goats, a slow loss of consciousness as my life oozes out of me, although I am at least spared the awful recognition in these final moments that the snake that bit me was not the blunt-nosed viper but the non-venomous coin snake.
I carefully but quickly made my way back to the goat trail. Resting against my pack and in view of the lighthouse, I finished off the salami and Anari cheese and ate my fill of bread, tossing the remaining slab of loaf down the mountain, as if to assert to myself and to the Akamas that, though these mountains may have gotten the best of me, there was no way in hell I was spending the night out here. Food was for overnight hikers, not day-trippers.
It was not even 2 pm but if I were forced to retrace my steps to the E4 then I had a substantial trek ahead of me. I had spent a good part of the day cursing the accessibility of the E4 and trying to escape it through side paths; now I wanted nothing more than to return to its familiar predictability.
The Akamas gods seem to have misinterpreted my act of hubris (discarding the bread) as an offering because I did not have to retrace my steps far before I met with a side path. It led me up over the mountains and down to the northeastern shore of the peninsula where I joined with the E4.
I kept my rest stops brief; if I paused too long my feet would relax, allowing them an opportunity to register pain, and upon resuming it would take a minute of hobbling before they were tolerably numb again. By 5:30 I had arrived, ragged but triumphant, at my destination, the Baths of Aphrodite parking lot. There I successfully accosted a British couple for a ride to Kato Arodes, which was on route to their Paphos hotel.
The fortune I had ascribed to my bread sacrifice did not end there. That night after dinner I prevailed 5-1 over Christos in our backgammon match. He tried to keep a stoic face about it, but it was clear by the flush in his cheeks that he was fuming under the loss, especially as I flaunted my victory with deep sighs of contentment and patronizing utterances of moral support.
“I wouldn’t mind some hash browns with the eggs tomorrow,” I said, leaning back and interlocking my arms behind my head. The terms of competition were the same as that of our Wednesday game: the loser had to prepare breakfast.
Christos was staring into the fireplace with mute frustration. “Let’s play one more match,” he finally said. “Loser does all the house cleaning before we leave tomorrow.”
“You know what this means?” I said. “If I win, then you will not only cook breakfast, serve it to me on the patio and then wash the dishes, but also scrub, sweep, mop, and close up the house.”
“If you’ve got the guts,” he said, his mood lifting as he saw I was going to take him up on the challenge.
I again dispatched him 5-1. This time there was no need for any eyebrow tossing or soft-spoken advice on backgammon strategy to goad him on. I had satisfactorily avenged myself for my 5-2 loss on Wednesday and for his subsequent gloating.
But as insufferable as he had been in victory, so was he gracious in defeat. The next morning while I read on the balcony, not only did he serve me up the hash browns I requested but, like a veteran butler, even brought me a blanket with which to drape over my aristocratic shins, tenderly exposed as they were to the harsh elements of a sunny Mediterranean spring morning.
But my patrician morning soon came to an end and just before midday, after Christos had finished mopping (yes, cousin, my taunting knows no bounds), I was once more a rucksacked plebeian. Our goal for this final day of our trip was straightforward: hitchhike to the Honda, which we had left in the church parking lot at Kaminaria and then drive back to Nicosia.
By 2:30 we had only made it to the Stroumpi gas station, not even 20 minutes from where we had started, and that only thanks to the goodwill of a British carpenter from Devon who drove five minutes out of his way to drop us off where we might have better luck catching rides.
We then changed strategy. In Cyprus self-serve pumping at gas stations does not exist, at least not during working hours. So Christos and I approached the four attendants seated outside the convenience store and asked if they could, while pumping gas, see if drivers would not mind giving us a ride.
They were happy to oblige and we bought some drinks from their store and sat with them. Twenty minutes passed. “So you’re going to Kaminaria,” said the old man sitting next to me. His mustache and tufts of ear-hair were a striking white. “I know those villages well.” He smiled, showing a gap where his front tooth had been. “We used to sell pigs up there. Each house would buy one and then raise it till Christmas.”
After 10 more luckless minutes, Christos and I decided to return to hitching. We thanked them for their effort and crossed the road. But it was no better on the roadside. Car after car drove by, most drivers ignoring us, others shrugging their shoulders and raising their hands in a “what can I do?” gesture, sometimes even when there was no one else in the car, as if to say “sorry, but you may be psychopaths.” It was in fact becoming a faint possibility. We no longer patiently sat as the cars drove by: we entreated with our palms up, we muttered at them, gesticulated, cursed them. The worst were the young men speeding by in their sparkling cars, unmoved behind their dark sunglasses and thumping bass. We were soon shouting at them as they drove by. “Stop and pick us up if you’re such a tough guy!” “What’s wrong, butterboy, scared of us?”
Every passing car seemed an insult. It is much easier to be easygoing and upbeat when you are on the comfortable side of life. When you are hard up, you grow irritable and bitter more easily, for you see how the world is organized along class lines to your disadvantage. It is much easier to be aware of class divisions when you are poor. The divisions recede when viewed from up high where life—at least the material side of it—is more airy and cushioned. The cries of the rabble do not usually penetrate the palace walls. Christos and I were, at least for the moment, part of the underclass, and therefore had no place in the lives of those well off enough to disregard us from within their luxury vehicles.
But it was not just the Mercedes and BMW’s ignoring us; the old pickups and rusty clunkers were also forsaking us. So I directed my resentment towards all of them—whether rich or poor or any shade in between—they were all insensitive bastards or wussies. I also began to make vast generalizations. Sweeping overstatements always serve to improve my mood by offering the impression that, as payment for my travails, I have struck upon a piece of universal wisdom. My great insight at that moment was that the wealthier a society becomes, the more frightened its population, whether because it has more to lose or because it has become so accustomed to such a high degree of security that the slightest ripple in its guarded routine creates a wave of fear. And so in this case, Cypriots, and especially Greek Cypriots, whose standard of living had skyrocketed over the past two decades were less prone to pick up hitchhikers.
In retrospect my generalization—or at least the part about Cypriots not picking up hitchhikers—may not have been so off mark. It was two Pontians who finally stopped for us, dropping us off in Paphos at the entrance to the Limassol highway. We had given up on trying to get to Kaminaria, which was only accessible via remote mountain roads. It would be enough to reach Nicosia.
But even the capital was increasingly looking like an unreachable goal. We baked on the concrete for over an hour with thumbs extended. An Apoel – Omonoia football game was to take place at the Nicosia stadium in several hours and fans were already on their way, the team colors billowing in streamers from the windows. Had we thought of it earlier, we could have bought two green-and-white Omonoia flags and draped ourselves in them, something that would have surely won us a ride at once. It was finally a pair of young Russians in a gutted pickup who stopped for us and took as far as one of the Limassol roundabouts. They cracked beer after beer, passing them back and forth as they smiled and whistled at every attractive single female they overtook.
Christos had made a few phone calls during the ride and finagled a taxi van service line bound for Nicosia to pick us up at the roundabout. Our goal for the day had been to get to Kaminaria—or, considering the change of plans, Nicosia—without spending any money. But we had proved adaptable so far this trip and this seemed no time to buck the trend with inflexible ideals.
And so in fitting unromantic fashion we traveled back to Nicosia in a van with eight others for five pounds each, the best five pounds I spent all trip. We glided off, leaving behind us the bulge of the Troodos mountains, where the Honda would spend one last night in the Kaminaria church parking lot and where the red sun was now sinking with—in what seemed from my air conditioned perspective—a sighing serenity. And as I sat with my sunburned forehead pressed against the cool window, recalling all the faces and places of the past six days, all my roadside wrath and gnashing at Cypriot drivers melted away with the mellowing light, as all fury eventually does in Cyprus with a little time and comfort.
*To see a slideshow of all of my photos from this E4 walk click here
- Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part I)
- Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part II)
- Orthodoxy in Kenya (Part II)
- Mr. Bubbles and The Fevered Brain