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The Springs Of Acheron

Roumeli Greece:2013 The first time we visited the Springs of Acheron, we went by way of the alleged site of a very ancient oracle of the dead. This was, allegedly, where Odysseus came to consult, on his way home: and was startled to find his former Commander In Chief, whom he'd assumed to be lolling about on his laurels in well-built Mycaenae, rich in gold, among the shades. What! are you here?... But the Gates of Hades are currently closed for refurbishment. We knew that, but we'd decided to mosey along to the Necromanteion at Mesopotamos anyway, remembering the old days when ancient sites that were "closed" for any reason or none, could often be accessed by just walking around the fence until you found the place where it gave up. Not anymore.

Tell them I came, and no one answered, I said. That I kept my word..., and we returned to the hired car muttering, it's only an old Epirote League fort with a Christian church on top of it and deep cellars. Barely two thousand and change stupid years old. Odysseus? They're kidding. That's all just a big story...

So anyway, we fed no ghosts with blood but continued to the River of Pain, which one meets in a shadowy grove, just outside a small town called Sweet (Gliki), where, leaving the Kayaking and the Pony Rides for another day, we walked into the gorge of the grey green, grey blue stream, under the eaves of the climbing forest of planes and pines; and soon into the water of pain itself (it's what everybody else was doing). My god it was cold, and yet so wonderful. The rock is white and deeply carven, it must be a hell of a place in winter when the rains come, and friable. You wonder where the springs are going to be, because this river clearly is not a baby, and then you realise they are all around you. The Acheron, which has a weird hairpin course, and a sister river Acherontas running parallel some of the way, is spring-fed all along the gorge: the waters, colder than ice, pure and sweet and teeth-numbing to drink from your hands, thundering up from its bed, shooting through fissures in the carved stone; or out of black caves (that you can't get into, the flow of water is too strong). We all walked up together, Greeks, Italians, Danes, Germans, French, in bikinis, shorts, wet suits, water-sports gear, with glorious smiles on our faces, it was just such an amazing place.

But we'd brought a bag that wasn't waterproof, not realising we'd want to swim, and had to turn back at the first deep stretch. So then we walked up the hillside from the place where you step into the water, and followed the trail to a distant mountain citadel (Zogli) until we reached the former Roman Bridge, a long way upstream; now replaced by a slab of concrete. Here we went swimming in the pools, collected butterly sightings (Southern White Admiral and Cardinals, mainly) and realised there was a magical thing we could do, but it would have to be another expedition. We didn't get to Zogli. It was way too far, and there was a cracking thunderstorm, marvellous light show. Peter is afraid of being struck by lightning, which I find very mysterious, but it goes back to his childhood. I'd just finished telling him how weird it was to fear something so unlikely when we ran into the blackened, riven tree right beside our path... Ah, well.

The second time, we were dressed in water clothes & shoes, and carrying nothing else but the key of the car in my zipped pocket. We walked straight up to the Roman Bridge, and into the river, and "canyoned" down. A modest canyoning experience, but not to be underestimated, I took the first rapids head first: didn't try that again! I was lucky to get away with a few bruises, but we soon figured out what you had to do. Rapids: they're shallow, you clamber, like a crab. Don't climb boulders, it won't help. Deep stretches: you glide, and the fearless yellow wagtails perch and stare at you from the rocks of the gorge, and the icy springs shooting from cracks and cave buffet you, fairly gently. So many! Who would have thought death had undone so many, or that they'd be so starry-eyed happy about it? There was a big Italian family group, including old men, old women, and two little girls in water-wings; my, they were game!, laughing and chattering like joyful starlings, and the strong handing each other across the rapids, forming a chain and passing the rest from hand to hand. They wanted us to join them but we preferred to watch, and cheer them on at each obstacle, and then drift after them in peace. Everyone was asking us, the way you do, when you've just crossed over I suppose, what was it like further up (we speak Europe's second language like natives, which can be useful), and where are the springs? Why, I wondered, am I being taken for Danish? Ah! it's my Katcon teeshirt. Makes perfect sense! Not many of those we met will have made it to the bridge, against the flow. But some will (the Italians, for instance. Even those two little girls.They can't have walked up into the hills in their bikinis!)

I never wanted this wonderful ride to end, but it did, & so at last to the shallows where the really big icy stream rises and joins the river, where there was one fat lady clutching an unfortunate little dog, and we returned, reluctantly to the dry land of the living. Bone cold, loss of core temperature cold, we'd been in the water an hour and a half, and it was astonishing how cold we were. We sipped tiny thimbles of greek coffee in the shadowy grove, & I looked around me and thought how strange if this was the day's harvest of the dead, and how odd that they all seemed to have died in skimpy holiday attire, but maybe that's what dying does to you.

Hours later, and after gobbling a picnic lunch to restore some carbs, I still could not believe that the air temperature was around 30 degrees, although it obviously was. The heat could not reach me.

On our first visit, on our (dry) path down from the bridge, I slipped hard on some steep skala, and scraped a nasty big slice down my shin. I hate holiday injuries, but luckily I knew what to do. I carried on to the river and walked straight into it and stood there until my bones ached. & I was fine. Not a hint of a bruise, no need for a dressing.

In the afternoon, we went kayaking in a different part of the river, down the delta to the sea, which was also pretty nice, a completely different Acheron, dark, not glaucous eau de nil; full of snags and trailing willows and wildlife. The idea was that we would get up close to the wildlife, but that part didn't quite work out, as our guides in the other kayak spoke very little English and never stopped speaking greek. Except to yell BEAVER! once (rather surprising announcement!) at which the two musk rats who'd been calmly watching our approach from the bank very swiftly took themselves off... Never mind, I love kayaking, & it was very peaceful and nice. The Penduline Tits were ace too. Their nests are really cool. (Photo from wikipedia, read all about them here)

That's a very wonderful river, and if it really flows out of Hades, it speaks well of the place.