‘It is amazing what a lot of insect life goes on under your nose when you have got it an inch from the earth. I suppose it goes on in any case, but if you are proceeding on your stomach, dragging your body along by your fingernails, entomology presents itself very forcibly as a thoroughly justified science.’
Beryl Markham, West with the Night
Close to Chora, the old village in Alonissis, is the entrance to the donkey trail that meanders across the island. Here we found a wide range of insects and flora to photograph. The grey skies of the previous day were replaced with bright blue and the sun shone. Any ideas we had about following the trail soon evaporated as it took us two hours to walk a few hundred yards. We stopped every few minutes burying our heads and cameras in the undergrowth and marvelling at the number of insects. A small pony also attracted our attention on the way to the top of the first hill.
Ann had spotted a lake on the map so in the afternoon we headed off towards it with the hope of finding dragonflies. The island suffered from huge storms during the winter and many small roads were littered with fallen pine trees, a major feature on the island. On occasions it was hard to get through the debris of branches and also rather nerve racking for anyone sitting next to the driver, as the roads have no safety barriers and the edges just crumble down into deep valleys and the sea. Fortunately there was little traffic, just one car and a couple of mopeds freewheeling down the hills to save petrol. The roads were dusty and occasionally grit struck the body work of our little car. We all smiled and repeated “Thank goodness we are fully insured!”
Ann did her best to mastermind the route from the back seat, while Jane and I kept our eyes peeled for stray bikes and sheep! The roads seemed to be getting narrower and more difficult to navigate. Finally, at Kalamakia, we ended up on a dirt track, barred from continuing by a huge locked gate. We were at a dead end, on a cliff top with an eight feet turning circle at best, a crumbling track and a sheer drop down into a steep valley and the sea. With Ann’s instructions I managed to do a ten point turn. As we drove on, unperturbed by our near death experience, Ann suddenly realised the lake was likely to be inaccessible anyway, as it was probably the hydro electric plant providing the island with its electricity. We carried on regardless in the same general direction until suddenly, we saw water. As we got closer we realised it wasn’t a lake at all, it was the sea. We had reached land’s end at Gerakas. We were the only visitors. There was an old burger van, with an even older gentleman waiting for customers. His gummy grin was certainly not a great advert for his food, but he was able to confirm that the lake on the map was inaccessible. We took a few pictures of a red boat in the small harbour and decided to make our way back to the small port for icecream.
Setting off to Jane’s favourite beach, Lefto Ghialos the next day, we were hoping to find butterflies. The beach cafe was closed and there was no one on the beach at all. We climbed a steep bank in search of insects or anything interesting before making our way to some shrub land where we hoped the butterflies would be. The owner of the cafe appeared and warned us about snakes. He produced a dead viper they had killed earlier in the day and told us they had seen an adder. Not keen to be bitten I picked up a long stick with which to prod the undergrowth and Jane began stamping around in the hope they would slither off! Ann meanwhile was totally unpeturbed. Unfortunately the butterflies had been warned we were coming and decided they had better things to do!
Lunch is rarely a sedate affair for photographers from Cambridge Camera Club! As we sat in a cafe back in the small port of Patitiri, we were buzzed by what looked like a gigantic blue bee. Ann and I were keen to see where it had landed so we left the table and began peering into the plants that adorned the front of the cafe. I spotted it gnawing its way through a wooden planter. Ann identified it as the violet carpenter bee. An apt name I thought as we sat on the pavement, lunch abandoned, watching it chew and burrow into the wood. Other tourists gathered around us and the waiter got his phone to take a picture, ignoring the fact it was destroying the expensive planter.
As we headed off in the afternoon to Lakes Beach, we were nearly involved in a car crash. A man pulled right out in front of me. I peered at him angrily through the window. He waved his arms and shouted “Do not be afraid!” The anger subsided as we became amused by his strange response. Eventually we realised it was the Greek translation of the very British saying “Don’t worry!” He seemed to have a familiar face and later we realised he was the owner of the car hire company. Had he hit us, he would have damaged his own car! No wonder the lady was so keen to sell us the full insurance.
We arrived at the deserted beach unscathed. There was a strange windmill hanging on to the cliff and deserted shacks. Ann went off to look for a rare bird while Jane and I photographed poppies using a variety of different filters on our cameras.
It was a fairly arduous climb the next day to the small church Aghii Anargyri and a spectacular view of the azure water below. Pine trees had fallen across the steep path so we took it slowly. We photographed ants and lizards and the odd wild flower that stood out amongst the stones. The old bell that hung precariously on the small wall overlooking the sea, provided us with another photo opportunity. On the way down Ann found and photographed a bee orchid but Jane and I were already too far ahead to climb back.
In the afternoon we returned to our favourite beach and restaurant at Steni Vala. Here we had found wonderful shrub land with hundreds of insects. We all sat in a state of total ‘mindfulness’ watching murders and mating! The assassin bug and robber fly featured heavily in the murders and I managed to photograph some butterflies in the curl of a leaf, as they clung together wing to wing. The highlight of that afternoon for me, was the unexpected arrival of a bee fly and a hummingbird moth, neither of which I had ever seen before let alone photographed. Both are notoriously difficult to capture sharply, but we all had a go with varying results. At the very end of the day a heron took off across the sea. It had been a very rich day of photography.
We visited the old village of Chora on more than one occasion. It was here in 1965 that an earthquake struck, destroying a church and other buildings. The new town and port of Patitiri was built after the earthquake and many people moved from the old town. We became rather obsessed with a huge bush on the pathway leading to the village. We spent hours on two occasions staring into the depths of the bush trying to photograph jumping spiders, spiders eating prey and a variety of crickets. The village inhabitants seemed amused by our enthusiasm for their small wildlife. It was here too, on our last visit, that Ann heard the unmistakable song of the Bee Eater birds. Try as we might we couldn’t get a picture. The village is picturesque with coloured balconies and uneven steps. We were pleasantly surprised to see dancers in their national costumes. I caught them walking through the village and took the opportunity of asking one young man whether I could take his picture. He obliged with a smile. Although very quaint and beautiful the village would not be suitable for anyone who cannot climb up steep uneven steps. As we drove away from the old village taking a different route we discovered more shrub land. Here there were orchids to photograph and as we passed an orchard full of poppies we vowed to return the following day.
Unfortunately the next day brought rain. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to photograph more poppies we borrowed umbrellas from the hotel and set off again. Lying under a pink umbrella ‘lost in the poppies’ I wasn’t aware of footsteps behind me. As I turned to get a more comfortable position there she was, a very old lady with a wonderfully toothless grin. She began to talk to me in Greek at about a hundred miles an hour. I wasn’t sure at that moment in time, whether she was about to snatch my camera, call for back up to rob us, or try to remove us from the field, she certainly looked capable of doing all three! Realising I could not respond to her chatter she grinned broadly and seemed to find in Ann a kindred spirit. She stroked Ann’s face and grinned at Jane and me. She wanted her picture taken with us so Jane obliged and I grabbed a very quick portrait shot of her before she disappeared into the scenery.
By lunchtime the light rain had turned into a torrential downpour, so we had lunch in Patitiri and then lingered in the dry, trying to capture the sodden street life and photograph two gentlemen busy sewing a canopy in readiness for the start of the season. Getting bored with the empty streets we returned to the hotel to seek out snails to photograph.
Of course on the last day in Greece the sun shone and the skies were blue. Unfortunately for some travellers the sea was extremely rough and the catamaran bounced across the waves. Sick bags were handed to those poor people who couldn’t cope.
Back in Skiathos we left our suitcases with our friendly waitor while we ‘killed time’ waiting for the taxi to the airport. All was well until we went to collect our suitcases. It was then we realised Jane had left her case on the catamaran. She had taken someone else’s case instead. The case contained her tripod, her tripod head, chargers, and a the new flash. Fortunately it was all returned the following week completely intact!
Alonissis is a stunning island. Time and developers haven’t spoiled it. Although it is clear many Greeks are struggling to survive financially, their indomitable spirits, smiling faces and helpful demeanours will ensure that tourists will want to visit their beautiful island for a very long time to come.