Confessions of a (novice) tour leader
It was 2002. My friend Holly had encouraged me to become a tour leader with Gulliver’s Natural History Holidays. My first trip was as a replacement driver – the main leader had broken his ankle while playing football in the garden with his son. He could still lead, but someone else would have to drive . . . . .
Holly was the other official leader on this trip to Crete, so she and I travelled together. We got on the local train from Pembroke to Swansea where we should pick up the express to Gatwick (London airport). The little train was so full that it struggled on the uphills, and was late getting to Carmarthen. The powers that be decided it would be even later by the time it got to Swansea, so they got passengers off the train and onto buses to make sure we got to the express on time. Huh! Two busloads of passengers disappeared into the distance, leaving six of us waiting for transport. Eventually a mini-bus turned up, loaded all our stuff, and took us off to a station beyond Swansea where we watched our train pull out as we arrived. Apparently no-one had told the guard that there were still some passengers on their way from Carmarthen. We got on the next train, an hour later, and had to stand for the four-hour journey because all the seats were booked. Not a good start.
Holly, having lead a number of these trips before, had everything organised. She had booked a night at a nice bed and breakfast place ten minutes from the airport, and as soon as we were installed there, she hauled me off to a restaurant five minutes’ walk down the road. She went off to get the drinks, and came back with two rather large (double measures) of red wine, and before we had finished the meal, she got another two. Now, I don’t usually drink even one small glass of wine with a meal, so I was rather glad of the brisk walk in the cold air to get back to our lodgings!
Next morning we were at the airport early to round up our clients. Holly set up stall just inside the departure lounge, draping a bright green t-shirt with ‘Gulliver’s Natural History Holidays’ on it over a chair. One by one, our clients arrived. Holly said she found it useful to memorise people’s names before the trip, and then you only had to match faces when you met people, so we had been testing each other on the journey. Now we actually met George and Anne, who had been on a trip with Holly previously, as had Rachel. Tall Tony would be easily remembered, and he travelled with Sylvia, the tallest of the females. Pauline and Derek went on various trips together, but never shared a room. With the exception of Rachel, and possibly Sylvia, I would guess that everyone was over 50. And so we got on the plane for the proper start to the trip.
Just before leaving, I had bought a woman’s magazine as something to read on the plane (the kind of thing I would normally read only in a doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room) I had to laugh when I got to the horoscope page – it said “You’re still feeling your way into a new role and you’re wondering now whether you’ve taken on too much.” So here I was, about to drive a vehicle of a size I hadn’t driven for ten years, a strange vehicle, with the steering wheel etc on the wrong side, and I was going to be driving on the wrong side of the road, in a place I’d never been to before, and worst of all, I was going to have an audience – passengers! Really, it was a relief that my first trip for Gulliver’s was just as a driver, without all the responsibility of full leadership too.
At the airport in Crete we met up with the other four people who had flown in from Manchester airport – Ian, the leader the with broken ankle who wasn’t allowed to drive, Sylvia and Jenny were the two that I could never remember who was who, and Cynthia, also from Pembrokeshire, and who had been on one of Holly’s trip before.
Ian was worried that the company who provided the mini-buses hadn’t shown up. After some consultation with Holly, and phone calls to the company, they realised that this time the mini-buses were being provided by a different company – only Ian didn’t know. So a few more phone-calls and Holly and I collected two mini-buses from a very crowded parking lot. Having got everybody organised, we drove about 25 miles and stopped for fuel. Holly had a problem. There was a red light flashing on her dashboard, and no-one had a clue what it meant. A breakdown truck appeared half an hour later, and they didn’t know what the problem was either. We headed back to the airport, where the company swapped Holly’s mini-bus for a taxi and a people carrier, and then we set off across the island again.
By now it was getting dark. We stopped at a taverna, where we were plied with vast amounts of souvlaki, omelette and salad, as well as the largest slices of cake imaginable (I wrapped mine in a napkin for later consumption). We eventually arrived at the hotel at Plakias at about eleven pm, having seen a barn owl and an eastern hedgehog en route. Ian was somewhat taken aback when we arrived at the hotel because the reception area had disappeared – the ground floor had been refurbished and the reception area moved. Early April in the Mediterranean is not necessarily a warm time of year, and no-one had put the heating on. Several people complained of the cold, and the lack of hot water, the next morning. However, Holly and Ian got things sorted out with the hotel, the mini-bus company returned the second mini-bus during the day, and things went fairly smoothly from then on.
Wednesday, the first full day, we spent on the beach by the hotel. We were not exactly lazing in the sun, but ambling slowly along the top of the beach looking for plants, butterflies, birds and whatever else we happened across. So slowly, that it took about an hour to do the first quarter mile! I indulged in plant photography, often finding myself left way behind as the group moved on to the next plant, and the next. There were drifts of blooms, mostly small such as the tiny pick catchfly Silene colorata (top photo), the tiny Echium arenarium, (sorry, but you might have to find a plant book for some of these species – these are just the ones I heard the names of before everyone moved on), and creeping mats of the densely-woolly Sea Medick Medicago marina.
The clouds were building as we reached the headland and began to explore the rocky part of the shore. At first the path passes through maquis – scrub that is waist to shoulder height and consisting largely of tree spurge and hairy thorny broom. As the path continues, garrigue habitat takes over, low scrub dominated by the small plants of Jerusalem Sage and Three-leaved Sage. All sorts of plants were found here, including orchids and the bizarre flowers of the Cretan Birthwort – like miniature saxophones with hairy throats.
Walking back to the hotel we had a brief view of a female Ruppell’s Warbler – brief enough for me to know it was something I hadn’t seen before, and to accept Ian’s identification.
In the afternoon we went up the Kotsifos (blackbird) Gorge behind the village. Crete has many endemic plants, and Ian introduced us to several of the chasmophytic (gorge-loving – no I hadn’t heard the word before either) species – Arum creticum, with its amazing orange-yellow spadix, the pink cress Ricotia cretica (sounds more like a cheese), Cretan Valerian, Procopiania cretica and the Shrubby Yellow Flax – I took a few pictures, but the cold wind and grey skies were not encouraging. The first drops of rain fell as we returned to the hotel, and there was quite a downpour overnight.
Thursday morning we awoke to dense, dark cloud. Ian, having led this trip several times before, worked out an itinerary that would allow us to be within easy distance of shelter if the weather deteriorated further. We headed east, stopping at the Kourtaliotiko Gorge in hope of seeing a lammergeier – the bone vulture. No lammergeiers, but marsh harriers on migration, blue rock thrushes and black-eared wheatear and others kept the birdwatchers happy. While down on the ground there was golden drop and bladder vetch amongst the many plants by the roadside.
As we drove east to the Minoan site of Phaestos, the sky cleared to reveal the dramatic snowy peaks of Mount Ida, which rise to 7500 ft; the mountainous nature of the island is a real surprise. Along the roadsides were large drifts of blue lupins, and of pink flowers which Ian said were Naked Man Orchids. I remarked that they looked like heaps of fluffy pink marsh mallows, and Ian asked if I was inferring something. The guffaws from the rest of my passengers told me that pink marsh mallows and naked men were not synonymous (as if I had ever thought they were!)
At Phaestos we explored the hillside by the car park, turning up a variety of good flowers . . the tiniest Yellow-worts possible, no more than two inches high, the smaller-leaved Jerusalem Sage with soft oval leaves and the bold flowers of Mallow-leaved Bindweed. Orchids were abundant, and everyone had a good chance to compare side by side the similar flowers of the Naked Man and Monkey Orchids. The lip of the Monkey has ‘arms and legs’ with deep pink rounded tips, unlike those of the Naked Man which are more ragged and pointed. And it’s pretty obvious where the Naked Man Orchid gets its name! There were also some large iridescent greeny-yellow beetles clinging onto the blooms in the wind.
We had lunch on the veranda above the archaeological site, under the watchful eyes of a dozen or more cats, before Ian gave a short tour around the Minoan palace (he is a history teacher). Although the ruins are very low, you can see how the various areas of the palace related to each other. The palace dates back some 3500 years and we could have spent ages here. I was intrigued by the huge storage urns that people could hide in, especially comparing them with a tiny ‘urn’ being built by a potter wasp on one of the ancient walls.
Afterwards, we continued along the road to what had been the site of the summer palace (if I remember Ian’s commentary correctly) at Agia Triada, in a cooler location than the main building. We didn’t look at any ruins here, but at the swathes of Cretan Ebony, as well as Giant Orchid and the pink-flowered Cistus creticus.
On the way back we stopped in the pleasant town of Spili, where Daphne and others were keen to see the Venetian fountain with its 19 lion-head spouts. Fountain wasn’t quite the right word, but there were 19 lion heads. It was situated in a pleasantly shaded plateia, where fresh orange juice was the order of the day. I decided to try the local ‘Yoghart with walnt and honey’ (we had a good laugh at the spelling on some of the menus) which was a meal in itself. Derek managed to wheedle ‘Mother’s Chocolate Cake’ out of the waiter. It was swiftly becoming clear that the group needed food on a very regular basis!
It was not only culinary delights that Spili offered, as Rachel was entranced by the paintings in the church, and Jenny captivated by the antics of Swallows making their nest outside one of the shops. Holly and I did some window shopping.
Friday there was still a lot of cloud inland and to the west, so we wound our way down alongside the Megalopotomas (Big River?) to Moni Prevelli. Ian said the scrubby hillside of Mastic and Cypress between the monastery and the coast could be very good for migrant birds and, sure enough, there were birds around. However, for most of us the Wryneck was little more than a fleeting glimpse of something brown. Nightingales were very much in evidence, singing their plaintive notes and even posing in the open for a lucky few. Jenny, in particular, was thrilled with her first encounter with the species, especially in such a beautiful setting. Meanwhile Sardinian Warblers sang their scratchy songs, wood warblers flitted among the olives and swallows moved steadily up the slope and away inland . . .while Chukar (partridge) called from the hillside above. I just enjoyed the sounds while I concentrated on photographing more plants.
We made our way up the Kourtaliotiko Gorge (still no Lammergeier) at lunchtime and at the top veered off on a scenic detour to Mixorrouma, which allowed super views down to the entrance to the gorge, as we ascended. After a quick stop in Spili, it was onwards and upwards to the Orchid Hill, as it is known. To say that we found Orchis boryi, few flowered orchid, four-spotted orchid, bumble orchid, sawfly orchid, Ophrys iricolour and several other species is all very well, but it is the sheer numbers within a small area that takes the breath away. Add to the orchids such delights as Tulipa doerfleri and Narcissus tazetta and this is botanising at its best! It was just as well that the breeze made photography difficult, otherwise I wouldn’t have had any film left for the following days!
On Saturday (with the promise of better weather on Sunday) we took the long drive to the plain of Omolos. I felt sorry for Tony on the longer trips, as he had to fold his body into the mini-bus in an uncomfortable-looking posture, for three hours this time. But at least we managed a stop at the Agia Reservoir halfway there. One of the few areas of freshwater on Crete, this lake used to be superbly wild and overgrown, according to Ian. Now it has been pushed into the 21st century by the addition of a Taverna and car park . . . and a man throwing whole loaves of bread out onto the water for the birds. The taverna was closed when we arrived, so we had a cold half-hour watching ducks on the water as well as Little Crakes, Black-winged Stilts and Night Herons around the edge. Then the rain came, and boy did it rain!!!! The hundreds of barn swallows that had been busily feeding over the surface finally gave up and took shelter in the bushes. The taverna was open by the time the rain was over, and we all indulged in large cups of rich hot chocolate!
The Omolos is a strange place. It’s not quite a plateau, more a depression in the hills, like a giant thumb-print at 3000 feet. Apparently the geologists can’t agree on how it was formed. My impression would be that it was once a lake bed, with the outlet being the spectacular Samaria Gorge. The Gorge was closed to the public for safety reasons (it will open later in the spring) but if you walk down it, the only way out is a boat from the bottom. We sat at the top to eat lunch, with some vague hope of eagles appearing out of the clouds, or a glimpse of the rare Cretan ibex – a kind of wild goat. No luck either way, and we moved on before we got too cold. Ian and Holly led the group along a footpath looking at flowers, while I drove one mini-bus down to a meeting point, and walked back to the top of the gorge to collect the other one (only a mile or so, but I was cold enough to want a very brisk walk). A small brown bird calling from a nearby tree took my attention, and I stopped long enough to ascertain that it was an alpine accentor. Ian was disgusted when I told him about it – he has looked for this bird in this area on every visit without success, and now I had ‘gripped him off’ in birder parlance.
We enjoyed the plants – wild tulips as well as Chinodoxa cretica, Crocus sieberi and Gagea amblyopetala were all new, exciting species, specialities of the area (if only I could remember which was which) and ignored the cold. I think Pauline, Daphne and Jenny would happily have spent longer exploring here, but it was a long journey home for dinner.
No matter, because it was then that the Lammergeiers chose to perform over the hillside. What spectacular birds they are! Otherwise known as the bearded vulture, they have a wingspan of over 9 feet and a huge, diamond-shaped tail. They are increasingly rare in Europe, but they have a stable population of some 15 pairs on Crete, a testament to the islands vast and largely uninhabited interior. We could scarcely have hope for better views, especially when one passed along the near side of the hill, carrying a large bone in its talons. It is the only species of vultures to carry food in this way, carrying it high up to drop on a hard surface to crack it open to get at the marrow and break the bone into chunks small enough to swallow. Perhaps it was just as well I wasn’t equipped for bird photography – I’d probably have stayed all day. We did just about get back in time for dinner!
At last, on the Sunday, we awoke to clear blue skies, and set off to the Imbros Gorge secure in the knowledge that it would be dry and safe to walk. Holly, driving ahead of me, was flagged down by a Cretan elder – probably a shepherd from the cloud of flies surrounding his head. Ian said he wasn’t sure the guy knew where he was going, and certainly no-one else did. About all they could ascertain was that he found Cynthias’ hat most attractive. They dropped him in the next village, together with his swarm of flies, and headed on to the top of the Gorge.
There is a long and winding road from the coast to the top of the gorge – a good twenty minutes driving. The problem of how we were going to get the buses back to the bottom to collect everyone at the end of the day was solved when I saw a sign advertising a taxi service. We dropped everybody off at the top, Holly and I drove back down, got a taxi back to the top, and soon caught up with the group as they ambled from flower to flower. The scenery is gorgeous and the plants get better as you descend. Holly oaks, normally only around head height, were here growing to over 30 ft. in the shelter of the gorge, together with some wonderful old Cypresses. One of the commonest plants was the white Saxifraga chryosplenifolia, growing out of the rock alongside Spring Arabis, Anthemis chia and the Rustyback Fern. There were tantalising glimpses of other later-flowering goodies, like Eryngium ternatum, Spiny Mullein and Ptliostemon chamaepeuce. There were cyclamens at the rock bases, Rock Tulips high up on the cliffs, and, finally, some splendid, large specimens of the endemic bellflower – Petromarula pinnata. All the while, it was worth looking up too – I watched a super adult Bonelli’s Eagle circling lazily for about five minutes. I tried to call the rest of the group, but they had moved out of earshot. Fortunately the bird reappeared ten minutes later, so everyone had a good view of it.
It took some six hours to reach the bottom, and our tired legs and sprits welcomed the Kiosk as the bottom, with its deliciously fresh orange juice. George wanted a badge saying ‘I’ve walked the Imbros Gorge’ while Ian wondered how many others had ‘walked’ it on crutches. It is very tiring, but also so worth the effort. And we were really glad to have the buses there ready to go home.
The early Monday morning birdwatchers found a strange, almost reptilian-looking Stone Curlew anxiously scanning for danger before settling down among the pebbles on the beach. Clearly tired, it would have just arrived from Africa, as would the assortment of yellow wagtails that trod delicately among the sheep behind the beach. A nice way to start the day – and the first time the early morning effort has been worthwhile.
We went to Spili again, after breakfast, but to another point just beyond the orchid hill. There were more orchids here – dense-flowered orchid, Anatolian orchid, pink butterfly orchid, as well as Erodium gruinum with its large blue flowers, and a small collection of snake’s-head fritillaries. There were Griffon Vultures drifting past, woodlark singing and lizards beginning to emerge from the undergrowth – but only when I didn’t have the camera ready! At least the sun was out this time, and made it much more pleasant that the cold grey wind of a couple of days ago.
We returned to Plakias for lunch. Holly and I tried a local fish dish, very nice it was, cooked with vegetables in a foil wrapping. Daphne and Rachel opted for an easy afternoon with a few last-minute purchases in the town, while the rest of us took a pleasant walk through the olive groves, behind the hotel, to the bottom of the Kotsifou gorge. One of the amazing sights in Crete was the little patches of rough ground between buildings that were filled to overflowing with wild flowers. Even away from town, anywhere that was not cultivated was crammed with colour. I was down to my last three rolls of film, and having a job to make it last the rest of the day.
We had struggled a bit all week for sightings of lizards and butterflies. The cool breeze and lack of sun were to blame. On sunny days a Balkan Green Lizard basked in a bush outside the hotel shop, and we caught a glimpse or two of the colourful eastern festoon and Cleopatra butterflies. Things improved somewhat on this last day, though most of the butterflies were species we would see in Britain later in the summer. But the star of the day was an ocellated skink, which Pauline found hiding under a boulder. We waited and waited, and eventually it showed itself before disappearing into the vegetation again.
Our final tally for the week was 373 species of plant, 92 of birds, four of mammals – the most common being the beech martens killed along the main road, four reptiles, 17 butterflies (I’m not convinced of this) and an assortment of other brightly coloured insects like the large Egyptian grasshopper, carpenter bee and gold beetle.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I had a bat detector with me! I returned to the olive groves that evening with four brave souls to face the cold evening breeze, hoping that something would be flying. We came across a couple of bats feeding busily around a streetlight (why was there a streetlight in the middle of an olive grove?) and watched them for a while.
Tuesday’s early morning birdwatchers admired a squacco heron on the beach and a woodchat shrike beside the road. Then it was time to pile our luggage into the mini-buses and head back to the airport. Our return journey was straightforward, and we stopped at a rather pleasant Taverna with wonderful views over the centre of the island. We had to wait a while for our snacks to arrive – it takes a while to cook those over-size portions! Anyway, it set us up for the plane journey home.
Holly and I stayed near the airport again, she being determined to get me into bad habits with these large glasses of wine! Next morning we were at the station in plenty of time for the train home, only to find it was cancelled due to works on the line. That meant we had to travel through London – not my idea of fun, and Holly said it terrified her. The London Underground was very busy at that time of morning. Having gone down into the depths of the station I was looking for a map to tell us what platform and train we needed, but found Holly had seen a porter and immediately went to ask him where we should go. Holly was happy with his directions, which seemed to me to have consisted of a couple of grunts, but it was enough to get us where we needed to be. I still felt totally unprepared, not having seen a map yet. We were both relieved to finally get on the train – and have seats – for the journey back to Pembroke, where our husbands were waiting for us.
I did a few more trips for Gulliver’s over the next five years, but the business ceased trading when the owners retired, and I didn’t get around to looking for another similar job.
However, Crete remains a popular destination for nature holiday companies, so organised trips are easy to find.
It seems that most books about the botany of Crete are either out-of-print or just not easily available. There is an English version of this book, but not currently available.
There were more books available on the island itself – some in tourist information centres, others in bookshops, if you are prepared to spend the time looking for them.
Or try googling books – wildflowers of Crete – and see what is available second-hand. I have one by George Sfikas that is worth looking out for, although it is not well-illustrated (take along a hand lens too).
There is also a Wildflowers of Crete website, and an associated FaceBook page
More travel tales
Planning for Bulgaria
How I went about planning a winter birdwatching trip to the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast
Adventures in French
Whatever the reason for your trip, it is worth learning at least a little of the language – especially if you are travelling independently.