Monday, 26 October 2015

How to Climb Mt. Olympus

How to Climb Mt. Olympus

This is a record of our first trip to climb Mt. Olympus, Greece’s iconic mountain. We’ll endevour to include as much detail as possible from our 9 months of research prior to the trip and details of the trip itself.  If at the end of this blog you have any unanswered questions, please feel free to contact us.

The Summit of Skala 2866m in the mist!!

We are Mike and Jane, both qualified International Mountain Leaders working for an Organisation called Mountain Walking Holidays.  We were approached in November 2014 and asked if we could lead a trip to climb Mt. Olympus.  We do not routinely take people on routes that we haven’t already done so we set about researching the mountain and studying the map. This blog is about our first "recee" trip

The map to get
The map we got hold of and used for this trip was Mt Olympus,
1:25 000 published by Anavasi.  We bought it online from Stanfords in London. It’s a plastic rip proof map though by the end of the trip some of the printing was peeling off the base.  However due to the poor visibility we encountered it got a lot of use.

Mt Olympus has three peaks: Skala 2866m, Skolio 2905m and Mitikas  2918m. Both Skala and Skolio are accessable to walkers, Mitikas involves some easy but very exposed rock scrambling.

The usual starting point for a trip to climb Mt. Olympus is the small town of Litochoro.  From here depending oun your route it is normal to drive or take a taxi to one of the high starting points. We found a delightful guesthouse, The Palio Litohoro whose owner used to guide on Mt. Olympus. We stayed in Litochoro for the first and last night of the trip. The guesthouse looked after our travel bags whilst we were on the mountain.  The guesthouse also arranged a taxi to take us up to our starting point; around 30 Euro's each way.

Palio Litachoro Guesthouse, highly reccomended

Eating out in Litochorro is easy, there are plenty of restaurants listed on Trip Advisor. We found Meze Meze on the first night, it was so good that we ate there again on our last night. 

The Enipeas Gorge
Most people start their ascent from the road head at Prionia and ascend to “Hut A” for a night before making their ascent of Skala and possibly Mitikas before returning to Hut A for a second night. The descent to Prionia (where you can phone for a taxi) or a further 5 hour walk back to Litochoro via the spectacular Enipeas Gorge.

We had decided against an “in and out” trip favouring a journey through the mountain.  Our plan was to traverse the mountain and if possible take in all 3 summits.

Starting at a high point of Gortsia 1100m we planned to walk to “Hut C” on the Plateau of The Muses at around 2600m. (There are two huts, Hut B and Hut C fairly close together on the Plateau). We chose Hut C because it is smaller and we thought it might have more character.  In hindsight this was a mistake and we’d probably go for Hut B next time!

The walk up to the Plateau of the Muses had only a few short steep sections and was not difficult.  The final pull onto the Plateau had a short section of chain (10m) though this is avoidable by a short detour which is taken by the mule trains that supply the huts. We started walking just after 9am and were at  “Hut C” for 4.15pm.  This included a half hour stop at a really nice hut owned by the local Mountain Rescue Team at Petrostrouga 2120m where we had some tea at around noon.

Mules keep the huts supplied

If you were arriving into the area for late morning or early afternoon, I would consider walking up to the hut a Petrostruga as an alternative to a hotel or guest house in Litochoro.

Arriving at Skourta 2476m

Above Petrostruga the path continues gently up through more ancient forrest. After about an hour the trees end and a short steep pull brings you to a small summit of Skourta 2476m.  From here you follow an impressive ridge line to the Plateau of The Muses 2600m.

The ridge above Skourta with the Muses Plateau visible

Hut C supposedly sleeps 18 people.  The night we stayed it was unpleasantly over crowded though in all fairness the Guardian provided great food.  The facilities include proper squat toilets. Blankets and pillows are provided but you need to take a sheet sleeping bag.  Slippers are also available so you don’t need to carry extra shoes with you.

"Hut C"

As we arrived at Hut C, the mist rolled in and the stunning views that we had enjoyed all day disappeared.

Our plan for the “summit day” was leaving at around 9am to walk the short distance to Mitikas, leave our rucksacks at the bottom of the ascent gully and scramble up to the summit and back.  Then re-united with our kit, follow paths around to Skala and Skolio before descending to Hut A.

We awoke to find ourselves still shrouded in mist and with persistent rain! The Guardian of Hut C told us that it was too dangerous to climb Mitikas in the wet. (polished limestone is notoriously slippery when wet). So we revised the plan to walk around to Skala and make a decision about Skolio. Leaving the hut at 10am we reached Skala, still in the cloud at noon.  We’d had none of what are described as superb views but a great feeling to reach the middle summit of this iconic mountain.

Lunch stop on the descent from Skala

On leaving Hut C, we used our map and compass navigation skills to check our progress across the Plateau and to make sure we picked up the correct path. Although most days through the summer this is an easy mountain to navigate, make sure you have the skills, just in case.  Otherwise hire a guide!!

Back on Skala we were damp and had no views.  Although Skolio is only an easy 1Km walk away, we took the decision to descend down to Hut A 2060m.

Hut A is big!  It’s well equipped, well run and Maria the Guardian is friendly and efficient. But don’t expect a hot shower!  A log fire was burning hot in the dining room and we had a glorious evening with plenty of great food and wine.

Fine Dining in Hut A

Our trip was at the beginning of September.  Chatting to the local guides on the mountain, they confirmed that our choice of route was good but that we should have come in August.  August is apparently the month to climb Mt. Olympus!

The bar at Prionia
It continued to rain all night and there really was a small river running past the Hut in the morning.  However the rain stopped and though we were still in the mist, we set off at 9.15am towards the road head at Prionia 1100m which we reached at noon.

The road head at Prionia is really a car park with public toilets and a nice bar / restaurant. The weather was still not inviting enough for the full 5 hour hike along the Enipeas Gorge so we decided to walk down to the old monestary at Agios Dionisios. The people at the bar were really helpful, after a round of coffee they contacted our taxi and arranged for us to be picked up.  Fantastic.

Agios Dionisios
The old ruined monestary at Agios Dionisios is a pleasant hours walk down the gorge and well worth a visit.  It is now being actively re-built from a ruined state, blown up by the Nazi’s during world war 2.

So with the Taxi collecting us at 1.30pm, we were back at the bar at the bottom of the Enipeas Gorge for lunch.

We shall be running this trip commercially in August 2016.  It is unlikely that the weather will be as bad as that described above.  Come and join us!

Mt Olympus, the view we didn't see. Photo Don Corleonegeorge taken from Hut A's Facebook page 

Adventures in Swaziland!

"Welcome back Jane" was the greeting when the All Out Africa drivers met our group at Johannesburg airport. This was to be my third trip to the Kingdom of Swaziland, one of Africa's smallest countries, so I knew what the drive would have in store. We drove out of the city on a modern motorway, and were soon heading east over the plains; not the most stunning drive, but our stop at a service area made up for it, as it is also a farm and gave us our first sight of African animals such as water buffalo and ostrich.

Leaving the motorway, the scenery becomes more interesting; Swaziland is surrounded by upland, or highveld as it is known in Africa. The western border with South Africa is particularly interesting, and would be the focus of our wilderness trek the following week. Border formalities done with, and our driver was noticeably happy - "welcome to Swaziland" he beamed - really proud to show off his country!

A short drive and we arrived at our first nights camp, but not before making a short stop for provisions. We were in the Malkerns valley, the heartland of Swazi tourism, so the supermarket was modern and well stocked; familiar brands with a local flavour! This was a camping trip, and our base was run by All Our Africa who have both a tour business and support a range of charitable projects. The campsite was in a lovely setting, with good facilities, and we were soon relaxing watching the sun go down on our first night in Africa.

The next morning we were to have an introductory talk from our hosts, then move on. I asked our driver if we could shop at a nearby market, rather than just buying supermarket food; this proved to be a great experience, negotiating prices for small sacks of fruit and vegetables and admiring the array of handmade tin chicken feeders!

Our drive continued towards the east, where we would be spending a few days at Shewula mountain camp. Shewula is community tourism project amongst the 500m Lubombo mountains, where you can walk, share in the life of the community and its health or childcare projects. We were to work at a primary school, but while there met a number of Dutch visitors who really enjoyed the walking tour and hospitality from the ladies of the community. The appeal to me of Shewula was being able to walk amongst a rural community, watching life go on, have conversations and generally see a bit of the real Africa - no tourist bright lights here, in fact limited electricity, a variable mobile phone signal and no internet, but in the words of a recent visitor "beautiful place with amazing surroundings. Stars clearly seen at night from a lovely little round hut that you would be sleeping in. The staff are more like family, very friendly and loving and the food that they cook is beyond heavenly! Not for 'Hilton hotel only lovers' this is the perfect getaway for someone who doesn't mind being away from all the hustle and bustle of fast paced life."

Onwards, as our time was limited we left Shewula for Hlane Game Reserve. Described as a "Royal Park" little did we know that the Swazi king was also due to visit! We arrived at Hlane just in time for lunch, and a brief look around before joining the sunset game drive - sunset is around 5:30 in winter. The drive takes place in covered jeeps, and I commented to our driver that the old vehicles from my previous visit had been replaced - yes, he replied, just this week! The game drive was great, with probably the highlight being a tall elegant giraffe and its baby, walking into the setting sun. That evening we were treated to a brilliant display of traditional dancing, with optional audience participation! Up early the next morning for a second game drive, during which we got really close to a group of lions, and some elephant, as well as wildebeest, impala and warthogs. As we returned to the camp, it became obvious that something was happening; I asked the staff, and was told that the King was arriving that afternoon. Prior to being open to the public, the 30,000 acre site was a royal hunting ground, and King Muswati still visits each year. Sure enough after a much increased military and police presence, the royal cavalcade arrived - something for us all to write a blog about!

Our final destination was back west to Malolojta Nature Reserve - over 4,000 acres of mountain wilderness, and a conservation area. Here we were to enjoy the African bush in it's raw state, but first a bit of adventure in the form of a jeep drive and 'canopy tour' zigzagging across a ravine on zip wires! I was nominated to go first and take the photos, as we zipped through the stunning scenery! Then rucksacks donned we headed along waymarked trails to the river and our first night of wild camping. After 3 visits to Malolotja, my favourite place is still the potholes - giant pools scoured out of the Rock and fed by a lovely waterfall. Here we relaxed, the intrepid members of the group had a cold swim, and that evening watched baboons climbing the rocks above, then reminisced about the trip which was drawing to a close.

Swaziland is a small country, but a great and varied destination for the visitor. We are hosting our own Swaziland Adventure in 2016, a walking holiday with a range of walks, including the 2 day wild camping and canopy tour in Malolotja; see our Mountain Walking Holidays website for the details.