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Monday, 30 May 2011

The Hills Are Alive

"And you have to watch out for scorpions too"

"Scorpions?" I ask, querously, adding it to the mental list I already have of heatstroke, sunstroke, snakes, bandits, rogue drivers,attack bees, cliff edges, rabid foxes, bike chasing dogs, botulistic rats and feral cats as potential hazards on my planned ride.

"Especially the little ones. They get into your socks"

"Socks?" I exclaim, realising there is yet another thing I have forgotten. I rush back to my little apartment, adding another pair of socks to my back-pack, already bulging with emergency water, phone, towel,maps, Rough Guide to Greece, medications, extra food, two hats, spare teeshirt, cycle cape and camera. I am a bit put out by emergency procedures necessary for this ride, especially since Greece is in the EU. One would think there would be some sort of regulations against all these hazards.

I'm in Nidri, a small port turned tourist town, nestling in a little bay 18km south of Lefkada on the Western side of Greece. Nidri occupies a scoop in the hills, and I've been attending a niece's wedding. Its been eating, drinking and very pleasant (with none of the condescending implications that the word pleasant has sometimes attached and all of the attractive meanings of that word meant) but the mountains that rise 3000ft behind Nidri have been calling. So I rent a bike from a shop in town, borrow a map and announce a plan to the parties assembled to attempt a solo expedition into the interior. Advice comes thick and fast. Malcolm reckons I'll make about 8 kms, then probably die of heatstroke. Matt thinks its a good plan, but would be much more enjoyable petrol powered. The Great Meg tells me to take a phone in for inevitable use - my track record of self-injury, particularly on bikes, is undeniable- in contacting the emergency services. The last, most comprehensive advice about snakes, cats and scorpions, is given by Theo, Lydia's husband, who appears to hold an almost Irish bemusement in respect of people who want to undertake solo or group exercise in the hills that are readily accessible by car. However, all the advice is well given and bearing in mind that I have made two promises to RHB in coming on this holiday alone - firstly dont return home in a cast, sling or having to take medication that I didnt need before I left the UK, and secondly dont buy (another) time share, as cancelling them is costly - I appreciate it.

I set off up the hill, and a number of things are immediately apparent. The first of these is that riding this particular bike is torture: there are no pads on the handle bars, it weighs more than me, half the gears dont work, and its balance is all wrong. Secondly, I havent rode with a pack for ages, particularly not one weighing about 35lbs and as I hit corners on an interminable series of switchbacks, it shifts weight unpredictably, which causes a wild panicked correction. Combined with the steepness of the ascent, this means that the better part of valour is simply to get off and walk for some sections.

Eventually the road runs out,the rough track starts, and views begin to reveal themselves. Views that my photographic skills only do partial justice to. I keep going higher and higher, and the track gets more and more technical, but its brilliant fun. As I get higher, people disappear and I see no-one, apart from a man who is sleeping by the side of the track, presumably a shepherd, his face more deeply tanned than anyone I have ever seen. I ask him if he wants some water, but he points to a bottle of beer next to him, offers it to me, grinning widely. I decline, we shake hands and I ride on.

Further up, I stop to consult the map, and realize I have no idea where I am but can see Nidri spread below me. Suddenly, there's a movement at the side of the road, followed by an extrememly pungent smell, and a fox with a large black tail jumps out of the bush and runs down the track, miaowing like a kitten. I trundle down the road to where it disappeared back in the bush and while I am peering into the bush, notice one of the branches underfoot moving. The bike is dropped in an instant as I realise its a snake and I jump backwards across the road in panic. A deep breath, then I sneak towards the bike, grab it quickly, violently pull it out of the bush and jump on, cycling blindly and desperately trying to find the pedals. Now all I want to do is get down, but as I ride, I see more of the things, five, six, seven, ten, a hundred, lying all over the track, many of them disguised as old olive branches. I reach an open area that looks like it was once the foundations for one of the many abandoned villas up here. Gathering my thoughts takes a minute, because they have scattered throughout the brain and have been hiding where they think snakes cant get them, and only reluctantly come back when I promise them beer if we make it out of here alive. Together, me and the thoughts realize that the best course of action is not to continue to be lost, but to initially head back the way we came and when we get to the first split in the path, choose the one which looks the slopiest downwards.

I take a drink of water, regret not bringing any duct tape to tape up the top of my socks and set off. The first five minutes are a panic of attack snakes and jumping scorpions, but when I actually see another one, lying in the road, this all changes. It is unmoving, and as I get near, obviously dead, possibly run over, and possibly by me. I get off, and examine it, feeling incredibly guilty. It is beautiful. Very, very beautiful. It dawns on me, that in reality, the wildlife here is probably in more danger from me, than vice versa. Its good that no-one comes up here very often. My thoughts interrupt this reflection, reminding me that I promised them beer, and so I jump back on the bike, and descend. Trying not to hit any snakes, scare any scorpions or freak out any bees, the descent takes about fifteen minutes. It's breathtaking in parts, and when I hit the tarmac again and the speed really begins to climb, the fear returns. Without pads on the handle bars, sweat keeps making my hands slip, and the brakes are badly set, making the bike pull to the left, especially at speed. I overtake a couple of mopeds as the curves get less intense towards town, but suddenly the back pack shifts, pitching up over the right shoulder. Time, I think, to slow down, so I slam the anchors on, reduce speed to a crawl and head into town. My thoughts return and demand to be taken to a bar. The beer tastes great.

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