Let me share the story behind my own discovery of Avalkas Gorge, the coolest geological wonder on the island of Cyprus. As a resident of this Mediterranean island for more than forty years, I have my favorite spots that are off-the-beaten-path. Cyprus is known for its ancient archaeological sites, but it also has pristine wild landscapes for those who crave a Cyprus adventure.
I had just finished a long snorkeling session, during which I was able to explore some of the younger, semi-submerged sea caves. As I emerged from the sea, I had a sudden urge for cold beer, so I worked my way back up the coastline to the small restaurant at Ayios Yeorgios.
It was late in the afternoon, so as I sat down and started drinking, I noticed several locals, both fishermen and farmer-types, were gathering here talking and playing cards, drinking coffee or brandy. One of them, an older balding man named Savvas, struck up a conversation with me, asking me the usual stuff, like “Where you from?” “What are you doing here?” This man, Savvas, had an air of importance to him, and it seemed that when he spoke, everybody else at the table remained silent, almost in deference to him. I later found out that Savvas had just retired from the Customs Dept., and he was locally famous for being the first custom’s agent to work at the newly opened Paphos Airport.
As I said, all of that was some twenty years ago. Little did I know at the time, but the Avakas Gorge was to become a place of great power and importance to my life. Over the next several years, I walked, hopped, climbed, clambered, fell and banged my knees through nearly every nook and cranny of this fantastic canyon system. At first, I would just follow the goats, who knew by instinct the easiest and logical paths through the gorge and along the steep cliffs. After a while, I felt so comfortable in the place that I was able to earn my living by organizing trekking excursions for adventurous tourists from the nearby hotel resort of Paphos.
Avakas Gorge: A Cyprus Natural Wonder
Today, the Avakas Gorge is considered one of Cyprus’ most spectacular natural wonders. One of the deepest and narrowest limestone canyons on the island, it runs for a distance of approximately 8kms East-West, forming the centerpiece of an area called the Peyia Forest.
Although the gorge lies less than 2 kms inland from the sea, it is so deeply incised within the chalky terrain that its precise location cannot be observed from the coast. Nestled inside the hills, it exists as a hidden valley. Indeed, unless you happen to stumble across it by accident, you can only find the place by taking a nondescript dirt track leading from the seashore into the juniper forest.
If you know exactly which narrow goat path to follow, you will find yourself walking down a small river floodplain where huge boulders of gypsum sit, their salinities crystals glistening in the sun. The gorge itself begins several hundred meters further on, where giant cliffs protrude high above the river banks, casting deep shadows on the landscape below.
The cliffs, composed of two distinct rock units, pose a sort of a geological riddle. The lower two-thirds are composed of young chalky marls (i.e. fine-grained limestone) of the Pliocene epoch, dated to ca. 4–5 million years ago. They are overlain by much older deposits of coralline limestone belonging to the Miocene epoch, which are 7–5 million years old. Normally, younger sediments are found on top of older rocks, so the reversed situation in the gorge is rather mysterious. It can perhaps be explained by suggesting some great mass movement or earthquake even re-deposited the older limestone on top of the younger chalky material.
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Highlights of Hiking the Avakas Gorge
Walking beneath the cliffs, one notices swifts, rock doves and kestrels flying overhead, encircling their nesting sites in the heights above. As you move past the cliffs and into the gorge, several changes take place: the temperature suddenly drops several degrees and a forest of deciduous trees and pink-flowering oleander erupts around you. This all has to do with the micro-climate effect within the gorge. Even in the heat of summer, it’s always cool inside the gorge. Parts of it, perennially enshrouded in shade, never see direct sunlight, and there is always a sweet-scented breeze caused by evaporating spring waters running down the stream-bed.
The most impressive part of the gorge is encountered soon after entering the stream-bed. Sheer walls of limestone rise some 30 meters in height and gradually come closer and closer together to form a natural “tunnel.” The tunnel runs for nearly 100 meters in length and is one of the most unique geomorphologic features in Cyprus.
Near the start of the tunnel, where the gap between the walls closes to only two meters or so, a huge lump of rock protrudes through the tunnel ceiling, hanging precariously overhead. This is actually a large boulder of coralline limestone which was dislodged from the Miocene deposit higher up and which came crashing down on top of the tunnel during some past earthquake event long ago. By chance, the boulder happened to enter the tunnel at its narrowest point, where it remains today suspended almost like an icon in mid-flight!
When viewed from certain angles, it looks as if the boulder might fall through the opening at any moment. Close analysis, however, shows that the giant monolith is firmly wedged between the tunnel walls, where it is likely to remain until the next great earthquake!
Below the “hanging rock” and throughout the tunnel generally, long, horizontal lines or groove-like striations decorate the smooth limestone walls. These are “sculpture marks” left from the original abrasion and down-cutting during various stages of the gorge formation.
What to Expect from Hiking Conditions
Walking conditions within the tunnel can be difficult. There is always running water along the bottom of the gorge, and that means mud deposits too, so one must proceed with caution, hopping over slippery rocks and boulders. If you’re good at balancing acts and using stepping stones, you might successfully navigate the tunnel without getting wet. But during autumn the water is normally less than a foot deep, so it’s no big deal if you do happen to slip in.
All the running water in the gorge comes from fresh water springs, perhaps the largest of which can be found towards the center of the tunnel, where a mossy rock outcropping juts out from the sheer rock wall. Green ferns cover the rock, and vegetation hangs down all around. A wild fig tree sprouts out from the top of the rock, whilst here and there, clean, cool mountain water gushes out of fractures in the limestone. During the winter months, when the aquifers (i.e. water-bearing rocks) are at maximum water-holding capacity from the rains, this spring discharges quite a strong shower. But during the summer and autumn months the flow subsides to a mere trickle. In a unique display of natural sculpture, numerous stalactites descend from the rock, giving the place a cave-like appearance.
In addition to the tunnel, the gorge has other dazzling spectacles. There are numerous small waterfalls, horizontally growing cypress trees, and immense slopes of scree (“talus aprons”). At one point, the rock cliffs suddenly rise to heights exceeding 200 meters. They encircle the bottom of the gorge to form what looks like a natural amphitheater. In this region, huge boulders (some the size of two-story houses) are not uncommon, and amongst the cliffs one can find many pieces of rock that have been weather-beaten into strange shapes, some of them resembling man-made spires or even minaret towers. The area has been subject to numerous tectonic events, and rock falls occur relatively frequently.
The upper cliffs of the “amphitheater” are reached by hiking up narrow goat-paths, which traverse the canyon walls by following natural contours in the limestone topography. Here, the various crags and precipices are home to numerous kinds of bird life, and the autumn visitor will be treated to some superb opportunities for bird-watching.
Superb Views for Bird Watching
On an average day in the gorge, one will encounter hundreds of jackdaws, dozens of wood pigeons and rock doves, as well as several ravens and kestrels. Particularly during spring and autumn, a host of other species, including migratory birds, also visits the gorge. Peregrines, buzzards, kites, a variety of non-resident eagles and the afore-mentioned Griffon vultures are also known in the gorge, though they are less frequently encountered.
If you know exactly where to stand and which time of day to be there, you will be able to see a unique sight: great clouds of birds composed of hundreds and hundreds of jackdaws descend on the amphitheater from the neighboring highland areas. Although the jackdaw by itself it’s a rather common bird and of little intrinsic interest for serious bird-watchers, to see hoards of jackdaws behaving as a group in a wild environment, to observe them wheeling about and performing acrobatic feats in the air currents or “mobbing” a kestrel among the high cliffs, is an incredible spectacle. Perhaps one of the most memorable things you will see on the island.
A Timeless Landscape
After exploring places like this gorge by foot, one develops a strong sense of empathy for Cyprus and its natural landscape. Whenever I immerse myself into the elements at such places, I often reflect to myself: Here I am experiencing a part of Cyprus that has not changed much since prehistoric times.
On the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, where archaeologists have been searching for the earliest colonization evidence since the late 19th century, the foundation date for the first human settlers is being pushed back in time all the time. We still don’t know definitively when the first people arrived, and in all honesty, we probably never will. But whoever they were, and wherever they came from, we do know that they adapted to their new island home successfully, and did so without destroying the landscape that provided them with raw materials to survive and build a flourishing culture.
Oh how far things have come! Today, this island is a major holiday destination for most parts of Europe, Great Britain especially. The landscapes explored and utilized by the first Cypriots has changed for sure. But even now, more than twelve thousand years since humans made first landfall, there are still virgin areas of wilderness to be explored, and new surprises to be found on the Cypriot landscape.
I always chase the ghosts of Cyprus’ past, but never does one get closer to the pulse of the island, past and present, than when one finds a small patch of wilderness. Thank the gods, Cyprus can still offer the “sophisticated traveler” a small taste of the way it used to be.
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A true “hunter-gatherer” of the off-the-beaten-track exploration experience, archaeologist and guide David Pearlman has logged countless hours in close contact with the history, culture, and landscapes of Cyprus. Find out more about David on his website.