Friday 29 May 2015

Two ladies go up a mountain

The mountain dominates the town; you arrive and it's right above you, you swim and the sharp rocky folds continue beneath you, and when you go across the channel, its grey/green shadow follows you like a tame wolf. And when the clouds are hiding it, the threatening mood is palpable. 

The gentle seascape of the Pelijšacki waters with its rocky beaches and domestic waterfronts would perhaps lose character without the grandeur above. Climbing Sveti Ilija (963m), I was told, is not something to be attempted lightly or alone. There were reports of venomous snakes, lethal scree slopes, probable exposure, and many other delights awaiting the deluded hiker. 

Never one to shy away from difficulty, I'd wondered how I was going to head up there without needing to warn the rescue teams. My intrepid Kollegin was the answer and we assiduously checked the weather to see which day would be best. Not too hot, not too cloudy... And finally we settled on Wednesday as an auspicious day to go up. 

I'm sure professional mountain climbers have a preparation routine where all equipment is carefully checked and itemised. Crampons, ropes, boots, Kendal mint cake... I took tampons, sandals and some bakery goods. In my defence I had a German lady who would be protection enough against all eventualities. 

We set off bright and early, and fair ran up the first part. A third of the way round we'd been climbing continuously and although the way was reasonably strenuous, the path was well marked. The wind was fresh and we made good time, all the while remarking on the velvet blue of the sea. The view was already spectacular and the town noise retreating. 

We stopped for a snack and a drink, and to add a layer of clothing because the wind was becoming uncomfortable. Eyes watering, we headed up the exposed gully until we thankfully turned onto a sheltered forest path. It was still relentlessly uphill and we nattered to pass the time. We knew that within the forest was a refuge hut and it marked where you'd turn off, heading up to where the mountain really peaked. 

By the time we reached the stone cottage our spirits were suffering a little. But it's amazing how uplifting a wooden signpost can be, not to mention evidence of other human beings. After not seeing a soul for nearly four hours we were happy to chat with fellow walkers. So we took a deep breath, some water, and followed the path up further. 

The trees disappeared to be replaced with the sharpest rockiest exposed climb yet. Until suddenly the world was dizzyingly spread beneath us; we could see the islands of Korčula, Hvar, Lastovo, as well as the mainland and the interior mountains which were snowcapped. Most breathtaking was the spine of the peninsula which disappeared off into the slight haze. We sat there stunned by the wonder of the panorama. Then I showed my appreciation by eating my cheese pie, watching the swifts catch their aerial snacks.

Many of the people on the summit were going back the way they'd come but we had set our hearts on the circular route. It was a little longer but the guidebook offered wild horses, meadows, and more flora than you could imagine. Why on earth would you miss that?

I started by saying how forbidding and grey the mountain appears, but the hidden sheltered interior is a veritable haven of wildlife. It's a natural herb garden, rockery, shrubbery, arboretum combined. The insect, bees and butterflies made the most of the late spring flowers, with wild sage blooms turning the hillside purple. Many low lying blue rounded plants looked like scatter cushions. Large daisies clustered around low conifers as if someone had put up early Christmas decorations. Empty of people, it is truly a garden of Eden.

Descending back to the refuge, and taking the track to the left, we quickly entered the pine forest. Already the windy exposed summit was a sensory memory, replaced by woodland fragrance, shade and bird song. And suddenly the whiny of a horse rang around the valley; we were in luck, a small herd had gathered at a watering hole. They were clearly used to people because as I took my camera out, they hurtled over to mug us for food. Heike had some bread and she fed them her last snack. They were friendly and extremely curious about the contents of backpacks. A wonderful encounter.

Going down was as relentless as going up. At first leg muscles were relieved about the change in motion but they became shaky and less certain. The slippery surface added to the fun! Most embarrassing were the running hikers that would periodically pass by. Running! Never mind, we were happy to take in the spectacular scenery, noting the differences between the way up and the way down.

Just as I was reaching my limit and the last drops of my two litres of water, the going became less steep, and finally evened out. We were on the road to Orebic and we saw our first olive terraces, work trucks and more people. The sea waved a warm welcome home, and invited us in to bathe our traumatised knees. As I paddled around in heavenly fresh water, I looked up at the seemingly stern mountain and realised that the stony exterior hides an incredibly special beating heart.    

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