Akamas National Park, mountain running

25 November 2016

We were awake early this morning after what felt like a restless night, at least for me. We ate far too much in the restaurant, preparing for the day ahead, and that, combined with worries about how Commando would cope with an 11k run up a mountain with a gain of more than two thousand feet in elevation, didn’t make for a restful night. For once, Commando ate hardly anything at breakfast, a first for us on holiday, and he was waiting for me to finish my granola and gloriously nutty bread with homemade jam. 

Back in our room, we had an hour or more to kill, checking his race kit, drinking water and generally getting more and more nervous. Commando ended up deciding against the trail shoes he’d been in a panic about last night, thinking he’d left them at home. He found them in the end, tucked away in his case but this morning Mike didn’t think he’d need them as the trail was dry and dusty. Then it was time to go downstairs and get in the coach to Akamas.

The journey felt precarious, high mountain roads with sheer drops to the side in a massive coach that seemed as if it would tumble at any moment. For a fair bit of the journey I had my eyes shut or firmly fixed on the window opposite the drop. The coach driver did an admirable job though, especially as we came through the narrow streets of a little village, and we made it without even a scratch.

The views were breathtaking, looking from the bottom of the mountain out over the sea. Below us was a small beach and, almost on the horizon, a little flat topped island, perhaps the one Sue and I saw yesterday. We stood around chatting to other runners, everyone studiously avoiding looking behind at the trail running impossibly steeply up the mountain. This was where they would soon be running and a half look was enough to get my stomach churning with worry, especially as the early morning sun already felt as if it was burning my arms despite a liberal application of sun lotion.

To take my mind off it I chatted to another runner’s wife, this one a runner herself but not quite mad enough to attempt the mountain. Her husband had climbed this mountain before, more than once, and lived to tell the tale. The fact he was a decade or two older than Commando felt comforting. A small group of extra slow runners, including Eddie who would be mostly walking, started off before the main group. We watched them bravely struggling up the almost vertical incline, little puffs of dust rising up around them. Then the other runners began to gather for the pre race briefing so, with one last pre race photo of Commando, I found a good spot to stand to watch the start. This involved a great deal of clambering over rocks and low prickly shrubs.

With very little fanfare, the runners set off and I immediately lost Commando in the seething mass of heads, legs and arms. Clouds of dust, thrown into the air by the pounding feet, had me worried I’d miss him altogether but I soon spotted him, focused and began to shoot. He spotted me too and gave me the thumbs up as he passed. Hopefully at least one shot of the dozens I took would be good.

The trail began steep and then got even steeper as it turned, a thin oblique scar between the spiny mounds and rocks on the side of the mountain. On the bend Commando disappeared behind the scrub. My eyes followed the path he was taking waiting for him to appear again. It seemed to take forever. When he reappeared I began to shoot again. All the runners appeared to be moving in slow motion, making the movement of runners but progressing at walking pace, like running up the down escalator. There was never going to be anything quick about this race, even for the fastest.

When Commando finally disappeared around the top bend I clambered down. It was time to get back on the coach to be ferried to the finish line the easy way. Truthfully, it didn’t feel all that easy. The views outside the coach window were stunning but the precipitous drop and the road, snaking up the mountain made for an uneasy journey. At times we were climbing at little more than walking pace, the coach’s engine screaming in protest. My fingers were firmly crossed that its brakes were good.

There were sharp bends it seemed impossible for such a large vehicle to negotiate but, somehow, it did. As we reached the village the corners got tighter, little houses crowded in on the narrow, winding road and there were parked cars to make it even tougher. It was a huge relief when we arrived at the village of Pano Arodes and my feet were on solid ground once again.

The finish arch stood beside the pretty eighteenth century stone church of St Kelandion. Beside it was a stone sarcophagus with a crumbling, broken lid. Later I discovered there is another behind the church with an equally crumbling lid, although I didn’t actually see it. They belong to St Misiticos and St Agapiticos and village legend has it hat a fragment crumbled from either and mixed into a drink has magical powers. Choose St Agapiticos to win the love of the person who drinks or St Misiticos to end a love affair. This explained the crumbling broken lid.

Next to the church was a small cafe with a shady, walled area to sit in. Apart from the organisers who were busy laying out the bag drop bags, most of the other spectators, who were old hands at the Cyprus 4 Day Challenge, made straight for it. Even the village priest, with his long blue robe and walking stick, was sitting at a table sipping coffee. What did he make of all this mayhem descending on his village, I wondered? Tempting as it was to join them it had taken more than forty five minutes for the coach to get us up the mountain and, before Commando crossed the finish line, I wanted to use my time wisely and explore.

My first stop was the church. The plain stone exterior hid a riot of colour. Every inch of the walls and ceiling were painted with religious scenes, blue, green, gold, red. The richness was almost overwhelming. There was an ornate metal box with long, thin bees wax candles beside the small window. Putting a few coins in the box, I lit one and thought of Commando Senior, April and Commando, somewhere out in the hot dusty mountain.

Outside again, I looked longingly at the cafe. The lure of the unexplored village was greater though so I headed away from the square, already crowded with spectators and race organisers, into the narrow streets.

Charming stone buildings with brightly coloured wooden doors told me I’d made the right decision. Pano Arodes is not a tourist village, filled with new white painted villas and souvenir shops, it dates from medieval times when it was simply called Arodes or Rhodes,  being the property of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem who were based on the island of Rhodes at that time.  By the time of the first British census in 1881, the village had been divided into two, Pano Arodes, the upper, mostly Christian part and Kato Arodes, the lower, Moslem village.

Before I’d gone very far I came across the first signs that all was not well in this pretty village.  Between well cared for houses were crumbling walls and abandoned buildings. Charming as these may have been, giving intriguing glimpses through broken shutters and doors into what must once have been people’s homes, they were a sign of Cyprus’ troubled past.

In the 1930’s disenchantment with British rule led to Greek Cypriots lobbying to become part of Greece. Over the next three decades these demands caused an ever increasing rift between Greek and Turkish Cypriots who had, until then, been living in relative harmony. Meanwhile, the Turkish Cypriots called for the little island to be divided with Turks taking the north and Greeks the south. Even when Cyprus gained independence in 1960, the internal troubles continued and many Turkish Cypriots were forced into exile.

The Turkish Invasion in 1974 finally saw the island divided in two and, in Pano Arodes, Turkish Cypriots fled to Kato Arodes and, later, crossed the mountains into Turkish controlled Northern Cyprus. At the same time a few displaced Greek Cypriots from the north settled in Pano Arodes but most of the Turkish Cypriot houses remained abandoned and crumbled into ruins. Kato Arodes basically became a ghost town, although a few houses have now been converted into holiday homes.

As I walked through the deserted streets, peering into the remains of people’s homes, I came upon signs that not all the damage was man made. Piles of rubble here and there told the story of a far more natural disaster. In February 1995 an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.9 shook the little village, destroying fifty homes, damaged almost six hundred others, killing two people and injuring five. The low number of human casualties was mainly due to the increasingly dwindling population. In the last thirty years many young residents have moved to towns and there are now barely one hundred inhabitants.

Before long I’d reached the edge of the village and the last empty houses gave way to a view of a winding mountain road. Since I’d left the village square I hadn’t seen a single person and, apart from a handful of houses, most buildings I’d seen were abandoned. Itseemed to me that life in Pano Arodes, with its lovely stone buildings and stunning mountain views, must be very lonely. Perhaps, with more time, I’d have found more signs of life but, about then, I heard distant cheers and knew the first finishers must be arriving. It was time to turn back towards the square.

As I retraced my steps I came across a pomegranate lying on the street beside an empty house. How it got there was a mystery but it had split in two, the jewel bright seeds spilled on the ground. My mind had been ruminating on the division of this beautiful island and that broken fruit seemed like a sad metaphor for Cyprus.

Somehow, I found myself on the finishing straight, not so much a straight at all but a gentle slope compared to the mountain. As two runners came past I stood to one side waiting for a gap before I continued. When I reached the corner Mike was standing looking down the hill.
“I think I’ll have a long wait before Commando appears,” I joked.
“I think you’ll be surprised,” he replied, “he’s a strong runner.”

Behind the finish arch was a terrace of low stone walls. I scooted up onto the bottom one and sat with a great view of the finish. Slowly more runners began to cross the line in dribs and drabs with long intervals in between. Cheers from the marshals on the corner alerted me to each one but none of them were Commando.

Soon I had to move to the terrace above as runners who had finished gathered to watch for friends and team mates. Some had large ice creams and I could see an ice cream van across the square, making the most of all the hot finishers and their friends. Much as I’d have liked one I daren’t move from my spot for fear of missing Commando. When that spot also became crowed I moved higher still, standing now instead of sitting. From here I could see between the houses as runners came up the last incline towards the corner. My eyes were fixed to that gap watching for the familiar blue shirt with the red, white and gold flash.

Finally it came and I got my camera ready to take finishing shots. With the crowds this was now harder than it sounds. They may not have been the best pictures but I didn’t care because he was back in one piece and looking fairly comfortable for someone who has run 11k up a mountain.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

6 thoughts on “Akamas National Park, mountain running”

    1. The paintings were in fantastic condition. I never thought about soot from the candles but, now you mention it, that’s probably why they were in the box. There were no medals for individual races but everyone who completes all four events gets a medal and certificate. They are well earned because it’s a tough four days.

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