"There's a train due down the mountain in about 20 minutes," Tom said. "We need to be careful not to get caught in a squeeze."
We were in the Greek Peloponnese, flanked by Mount Chelmos on one side and the eastern extension of Mount Panachaiko on the other. Squashed between the two is the Vouraikos Gorge, with its great sculpted walls of limestone and conglomerates. And squashed again within the gorge is 'Odontotos', the 'toothed' railway.
Long, long before the rack and pin railway was built, Hercules – a guy with a bit of a reputation for brute strength – had arranged a seashore rendezvous with the woman he loved, Voura. Not prepared to let the few mountains in his way make the going arduous, or downright impossible, he used his legendary strength to force a passageway through to the ocean and his girl – and the Vouraikos Gorge was born.
Of course in reality, it's the power of nature, not Hercules, that has created this wild, dramatic and incredibly beautiful valley. From the seaside town of Diakofto, we took the first train of the day up to the tiny village of Zachlorou. Getting off, we crossed the line to the taverna, freshly hosed down with water; the waiter brushing up the remaining leaves scattering the terrace. We enjoyed a Greek-style 'Nes' coffee overlooking the gorge, watching butterflies dance a pas-de-deux above the riverbed, savouring the early morning quiet and coolness beneath the plane trees before walking into the heat of the Greek day... and a game of Russian Roulette on the railway track.
A year earlier in Sri Lanka, I'd watched the locals use the railway lines as a convenient footpath. It seemed a foolhardy activity, if not downright dangerous, yet at the same time, there was something romantically appealing about walking a train track. When I read about the 'Odontotos railway' and the 13 (or 22) kilometre trek back down to the sea along the sleepers – I knew this was one walk I had to do.
Now walking down the mountainside, it was almost time for the train to reach us on its return journey to Diakofto. As we stepped along the sleepers, we realised there was mostly plenty of space at the side of the track, but at other times there was nothing but a drop – or a tunnel wall. I didn't want to be squished by a train – or to be pushed, like a ragdoll, into the gorge below.
I heard a faint sound, a high frequency hum. Was it the wind? It was difficult to tell, but I was certain I could feel the metal of the track vibrate beneath my feet. Then there was no doubt about it: we could hear the rumble of a train. We leapt to the side and sure enough the train rounded the bend, the driver blowing his horn enthusiastically - just to be clear we weren't going to step onto the track again.
As the day wore on, it was reassuring to see that the train timetable more or less matched the arrival of the train as it trundled up and down the mountain – in accordance with our rough calculations of how far down the track we were. None the less, it felt as if we were engaged in a risky game, particularly in the narrow tunnels or in the gouged out rock face.
The goatherd, on the track below us, was equally aware of the imminent arrival of the train. We heard him before we saw him, whistling to his goats, the telltale sound of bells echoing around the gorge. As we rounded the corner, we found him sitting on the side of the railway line, his flock now safely out of way on the steep banks of the River Vouraikos.
Before I saw him, I'd pictured the goatherd as an old man with a chamois leather face, perhaps with a stained cotton shirt of frayed cuffs and collar, and a rough woollen waistcoat. I imagined a flat cap and pleated trousers gathered with string. His eyes would be watery and he'd be chewing on a blade of grass while holding a crook in a weathered hand.
But instead, when I turned the corner, I saw a boy dressed in combat trousers and a baseball cap talking into his mobile – the kind of lad you'd see lounging around an air-conditioned shopping mall, not this wild and inhospitable landscape.
"Kalimera," I shouted out.
The young goatherd gave me the customary curt Greek greeting, a sort of downward, upward nod, before continuing to chat into his phone.
We left the boy behind and soon reached the narrowest point of the gorge – a sliver of daylight streaming through the rocks at Portes. Here the train is forced through a tunnel. A sign indicated no entry for walkers. The alternative offered to us was a rusting metal bridge with handholds too far away to grasp. With my younger son Patrick, a similar age to the goatherd, I set off across the bridge.
Between the metal planks, not much wider than our feet, the gorge fell away sharply to the river that was tumbling down towards the Gulf of Corinth. Tom, and our elder son Jamie, looked on in disbelief – both vertigo sufferers.
Three quarters of the way over, I saw the section of metal I was stepping on had eroded to half its original width. On either side of the eroded plank, there were sheer drops. We made it across and looked around. Tom and Jamie were nowhere to be seen.
We spotted them emerging from the forbidden tunnel. They'd preferred the narrow blasted route through rock, with no room either side for human bodies – if perchance a train would come through...
We continued down the valley, elated to see the town of Diakofto and the sea spread out at our feet. We'd played the game of Russian Roulette – and won – bones and bodies still intact.
The Odontotos-Diakofto-Kalavryta Railway fact file
- The Odontotos rack and pin railway is said to be one of the most spectacular railway lines in the world.
- Odontotos means the 'tooth' train.
- The 22 kilometre train journey starts at the coastal town of Diakofto and terminates in the mountain village of Kalavryta.
- The journey in its entirety takes approximately an hour (one way).
- There are over three miles of cogged sections.
- You can walk the entire section from Kalavryta (22km) or alight at Zachlorou and walk the lower, and most dramatic part (13km) – or simply buy a return ticket for the train.
- There are six tunnels and 49 bridges along the entire length of the railway line.
- Vouraikos Gorge is in a National Park that includes limestone caves with stalactites and stalagmites. It's also a European nature conservation site (Natura 2000), chosen for its unique flora and fauna, geological, scientific and educational value.
- During the Second World War all 1,200 men of Kalavryta, including boys over the age of 13, were executed by the Germans for their alleged part in the Resistance. The Germans rounded up the remaining women and children and set the town on fire. More fortunate than the men, most of the women and children escaped.
- At the cliffside monastry of Agia Lavra, a flag of freedom marks yet another Lakavryta resistance over a century earlier – when the people of Kalavryta revolted against the Turks.
- Just a few miles away from Kalavryta is a ski centre, offering some of the best snowboarding and skiing in Greece.
First published on Wanderlust e-magazine as part of the Freewheeling blog