26 November 2016
After a slightly hair raising coach journey down the winding mountain road with its precipitous drops to certain death, we arrived at Toxeftra Beach. As the coach crept down the steep, bumpy slope onto the beach I looked through the window, open mouthed, at the fantastical rock formations we passed. This was the mouth of the Avakas gorge, created over thousands of years by the Avgas River flowing through the limestone eroding a narrow pathway with sides up to thirty metres high.
Once I’d located the finish arch and made use of the row of portaloos, I left the other spectators behind on the beach and went to explore. The Avakas Gorge Trail follows the course of the river for three kilometres and, with more time, I’d have loved to walk it, although the climb is, by all accounts, steep and difficult in places. As it was, I made for the magnificently sculptured rocks we’d passed in the coach.
At a distance, through the coach window, the craggy reef and grain limestone, mingled with loam, chalk and clay had made me gasp. Standing beside such a natural wonder, honeycombed with holes and crevices large enough to walk right through took my breath away. For a long time I stood and stared at giant slabs broken and tossed at odd angles, wave like crests that seemed like stone lizards basking in the sun and deep, cavelike overhangs with pinpoints of light where water had worn openings to the sky.
Slowly I walked along the dusty track marvelling at the power of nature to create such stunning sculptures. Then the path divided. One trail led upwards towards something that looked very much like a building with palm trees and hanging plants. This, I later discovered, was the Viklari restaurant, known as the last castle and beyond it was the official entrance to the gorge. With more time it would have been my preferred route but time was a luxury I didn’t have. The journey from Neo Chorio to the beach had been long and I didn’t want to miss Commando finishing the race.
The lower trail veered a little away from the rock face although large boulders, some taller than I, had tumbled down at some point and were scattered here and there as if a giant had been throwing them about, perhaps playing a game. This was the trail I took, thinking to get a look at the rock formations from a distance.
After some initial twisting and turning the path straightened out and I found myself walking between regimented rows of trees. From the bare branches, bleached by the hot sun, I couldn’t tell what sort of tree they were but I assumed they must produce fruit of some kind. The trunks seemed shrivelled and dried out, the bark peeling, making them appear dead. Despite the heat and dust, these are wintry trees that will, no doubt, burst into life again in spring. A little way off the trail two huge tyres had been abandoned. How they got there and why was a mystery.
Soon it became clear there would be no views of the rock face from here so I turned back. The monolithic slabs shot through with holes, crevices and caves were no less awe inspiring from the opposite direction. Alone in this place, I felt I could have stepped back to the days when dinosaurs roamed here. It took me some time to get back to the beach.
When I finally emerged from the shadow of the rocks the sea seemed impossibly blue after the dusty limestone and dried out trees. Just off the bumpy road an area of parched grass was dotted with cairns. The sight of the finish arch and a scattering of cars and people broke my time travelling spell and reminded me of the race I was here to watch. It was time to find a good place to stand and wait for Commando.
Beside the finish arch was a handy mound, a mixture of sand, shingle and rocks dividing the fine silvery sand from the rocky, dusty shore line. Behind it the sea lapped gently at the beach. On the horizon a familiar looking flat topped island made me think of my walk with Sue and the view at the beginning of the mountain run. Was this the same island? There were cairns on the sand and, with a little time to spare, I left my perch and went for a closer look at them.
This coastline is a breeding ground for Green and Loggerhead Turtles, both of which are endangered species. In the first third of the twentieth century the turtle population was decimated as tens of thousands were shipped to Egypt and Europe, mostly to be used for turtle soup. Tourist activity also played a part, disturbing the turtles during the nesting season, and many young turtles became caught in fishermens nets and drowned. Cyprus was one of the first countries to legally protect the turtles and, since 1989, Toxeftra beach and Lara, the next beach along the coast, have been part of the turtle conservation area.
During the nesting season the turtles come onto the beaches and lay their eggs in chambers dug in the sand. About seven weeks later the baby turtles hatch and head straight for the lightest part of the horizon and the sea. Many will not make it, becoming prey to predators or thrown off course by artificial lights on shore. Any still on the beach when the sun comes up will die from the heat. People are not allowed on these beaches at night during the nesting season and conservationists protect the nests against predators with aluminium cages or move those that cannot be protected to a hatchery on Lara Beach. Of course there were no turtles to see today as the nesting season is between May and August.
Standing on the soft sand I was imagining it filled with hundreds of newly hatched turtles struggling towards the sea when I heard cheers behind me. The first of the runners was coming and it was time for me to scramble back onto the rocky, sandy hillock beside the finish line. It proved to be a wonderful vantage point. From there I had an unimpeded view of the little dots of runners as they came down the steep slope onto the beach and slowly grew bigger and more recognisable as they got closer to the finish. It wasn’t long before I recognised Commando, although he was far in the distance on the steep slope. When he got onto the flat beach I began to take photos.
Despite the soft sand and any number of rocks large and small to negotiate, he looked strong and comfortable as he headed towards the finish arch. In between taking photos I cheered wildly but he didn’t hear me so, once he’d crossed the line, I had to scuttle down the bank through the crowds to get to him.
It had been a tough, hot race. Dust from a group of quad bike riders had caused a few problems between Lara and Toxeftra beach but he’d made it to the finish in one piece. Surprisingly, he found the downhill section the most difficult. Now, a little like a newly hatched turtle, he headed straight for the sea, stripping off his running shoes and socks as he went. The cool salt water was just the right thing for his aching legs.
Later, after a rest in our hotel, we strolled up the hill to the Coral Oasis for a spot of late lunch and a well earned beer, at least for Commando. It’s a fairly rustic place, traditionally Cypriot with good food and walls lined with football scarves. Amongst them we even spotted a Saints scarf.
After lunch we took the bus to Paphos to check out the venue for tomorrow’s race. By the time we’d had a leisurely coffee at the harbourside the sun was beginning to go down. If there’s a better way to end a long tiring day than strolling along the promenade watching the sky and sea turn to liquid gold, I’m not sure what it is.
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