In the White Mountains

Yannis says, “The locals here are crazy. They have vendettas like the Italians. These farmers –

He takes his hand from the steering wheel and waves it at a ruin.

– had a bomb go off under their house. Crazy.”

He slows down as we pass. Concrete ripped and twisted, walls at wrong angles, metal torn, window frames caved in. And my mind runs in reverse down the tangle of dusty Cretan back roads to the roadside shrine shop on the edge of Chania. Piles of plastic Jesuses, and tiny terracotta chapels, sweating under the holy fire of the Mediterranean summer. These shrines, when bought, are returned to their native habitat, beside the verges of these winding roads. They are like punctuation, hyphens joining chapel to chapel, a network of white-walled, red-tiled roofs in the middle of the countryside. I don’t know if these shrines and chapels were placed here due to a fear of life, or a fear of death, or just a fear of the local driving. Or, as Yannis airily mentions, the darker side to life that can lurk in paradises.

But I stick to what I know. We are far south enough for the Land Rover stereo to blast us with Libyan radio stations. The road rises beyond the Omalos plateau, leaving the flat bowl ringed by shark’s teeth peaks. Yannis knows the route beyond the tarmac. He threads the Land Rover between boulders at the beginning of a rubble track, hairpin turning its way up into the heart of the Lefka Ori: the White Mountains. The lower slopes are grey and green: limestone and mountain herbs, thyme and ironwort, scattered olive and oleander bushes. 

And I stick to what I feel, which is that altitude works like time. It changes things. It makes you feel weird until you acclimatise to minutes that stretch into days; the hairpins that gradually raise you from 1,000 to 1,200, 1,400 metres up, ears popping with the pressure, the light-headedness that comes like a taste of alcohol. Like time, altitude is slow and then you’re almost there: with three griffon vultures circling over the nearest ridge line, one sailing low over the vehicle, a dark presence that seems larger than should be possible, a bird the same width as the Land Rover. It moves without effort. It has a surprising buoyancy for something so large, like a kite on a string circling in the breeze. It casts a black shadow over the grey road. A reminder of the way of all flesh – and what happens after. 

As we get higher time gets slower, until, like my mind on the plateau it begins to run backwards. It dials down the heat and takes you back to a fortnight or further back, when the flower bloomings were just beginning. At sea level the only sound in the bushes is the incessant chirruping of Italian* sparrows and the cicadas. The heat there has stifled everything. Up here – back in time – there is still life to be found. 

We get out of the car at the top. 1,600 metres high. Higher than the vultures still languidly soaring, describing the thermals, the invisible lift of the warm air off the mountain ridges that form the sides of the beginning of the Samarian gorge. There is sea visible to the north and south of us and patches of snow still clinging to the creases of the higher peaks. I expected nothing here but the ubiquitous ringing of goat bells and the stark sunlight and the circling of birds of prey. Instead, above the vultures, there are butterflies. A constant stream, all heading north-west over the mountain ridge. Painted ladies, on their migration that defies logic and reason, a flight subject only to the pull of their biology, that will lead them fluttering over sea and mountain from North Africa to North Europe. We spend half an hour on the mountain ridge with the butterflies that are higher than vultures. Hundreds pass. Thousands will.

*Ornithological note: Italian sparrow, Passer italiae, is the species which the sparrows of Crete most resemble, despite apparently not being taxonomically Italian sparrows. Neither house or Spanish sparrow is found on the island.

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