“Far over the misty mountains cold To dungeons deep and caverns old We must away, ere break of day To seek our pale enchanted gold. “
For those who think tales of silver lakes, mountains of mystic beauty and drakon fights belong only in the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien, here comes a story about a place proving otherwise.
Drakon lakes (drakolimnes) are blue alpine lakes of unique beauty, laying on hard-to-reach mountain peaks mostly on the Pindus range, on the mountains of Epirus and W. Macedonia. Remnants of the Ice Age according to scientists, those elliptical water gems were given a much richer explanation by tradition. The locals explained their creation as a result of constant dwelling between king dragons, defending their mountain peaks.
So this is where our story begins. The story of five brave hikers, willing to unlock the secrets of one dragon lake; Tymfi dragon lake to be precise. Our pale enchanted gold (or blue enchanted water, in our case) was located on a 2,050 m. elevation on Tymfi massif, between Aoos River and its tributary Voidomatis, in the reserve area of the North Pindus Range NW of Gamila crest (2,497 m.) which is Tymfi’s highest peak.
Step number one towards our destination was reaching Mikro (small) Papigo (960m); the last inhabited village one meets before the path to the mountains. We arrived there at sunset, enjoyed a lovely dinner at Dias, a restaurant known among hikers of the area, and slept under the stars (no need for a tent, thank you very much!) at the stone- built church’s yard.
The next morning we woke up very early, both thanks to our unmatchable eagerness to start the hike and to mother nature’s alarm clock, consisting of bird songs and the soft light of dawn. We had a fast yet fulfilling breakfast, filled up our water bottles and rushed towards the adventure. The well-marked trail means one needs not to worry about where to go- which is fortunate, regarding that focusing on our breaths allowed the team to find a pace that suited everybody and thus truly enjoy our time, as we kept going on, higher and higher.
If by reading so far, you find yourself interested in following the path yourself and are already wondering whether making it through the ascent needs months of training or much of a hiking experience, here is some information you might use to get your answer. From the first minutes of the hike one realizes that the trip towards the lake is going to take your breath away, both literally and metaphorically. The path starts under a lovely green shade during the first kilometers, but gets narrower and less shady as you ascend. On the other hand, wisely located along the way you will find kiosks with water springs for you to take some breaths and rehydrate.
It takes three to four hours to reach the first goal, the refuge of Astraka. The refuge is visible from a very low point of the trails, tricking you into believing it’s quite close- but don’t get too excited. As we found out- and as it often happens with hiking paths- it’s ALWAYS further than you think. Hiking with heavy bags makes the hike an even harder task, plus you get heartbroken when you see 70year-old runners sweeping through you on the way to the top…
But even that kind of heartbreak could not stop our gang of brave yet poetic explorers to notice that the views were gradually getting more and more charming, making the photographers among us suffer. For, moments after they would have gasped and pulled out their camera to capture the landscape, an even better view, hidden just behind the next turn of the path, would arise in front of our eyes. So, our piece of advice to you is to forget about your phone for a while, enjoy the hike and let your photographic talent prevail when at the top, where the best views are.
After about 3 and a half hours we were at last approaching the refuge, and congratulating ourselves for making it all the way up to 1950m. The refuge of Astraka is actually the last frontier before entering a totally different world, but, to be honest, when you reach the place at first, this is the last thing you will care about . Your eyes are much more keen on noticing the cozy benches where hikers rest, while enjoying a fresh omelette or local sausage to refill before hitting the pathway again. As for your back, it will be keen to get rid of whatever it is that you have been carrying for so long- which, in our case, included both photographic equipment and tents, sleeping bags and food since we were aiming to camp by the lake for the night.
What cheered us up though, was neither the food nor the opportunity to take a quick nap on one of the wooden benches. It was the unparalleled enthusiasm, and joy, and motivation that can only be found where many smiles gather. It was the pleasure of abruptly, yet sincerely meeting with that colorful crowd of mountain lovers, all aiming for the same goal. Some of them were leaving the refuge, some were entering out of breath, but one could see all of them carrying a different amazing story in their backpack. Not everybody’s steps aimed towards the same destination, yet we all shared the same ambition to reach our limits, to seek the subtle yet majestic beauty of nature and to listen to that ancient song of the breeze rolling down mountains and hills.
After relaxing at the refuge for quite some time, it was time to move on, if we were to reach the lake when there was still light. For the first part of the road, you will need to exercise your skills of balance and wisely make it through a descent. This actually was a pleasant change, for we were overdosed with all that ascent- plus, there was more climbing to come in our way during the last part of the road. In between those two parts, though, we came upon a brilliant scenery that made us forget everything and truly feel we were walking either through a Van Gogh painting or through some pages of J.R.R. Tolkien describing Shire, homeland of the hobbits. This was a turning point for us. Walking around this vast, stunning landscape of verdant hills, witnessing the graceful dance of high grass waving like a green sea in the golden hour, made us feel like the Fellowship of the Ring.
After 1.5 hours of exhausting hike we finally, finally reached our goal at 2050m. The lake made a rather sudden appearance- at the moment least expected, there it was, at its full glory, in front of us. A view equal to a tale of land and water, a tale only nature can narrate, which of course made it feel like we weren’t tired at all. On the contrary- we suddenly were as lively as if we had just woke up. We started walking with awe around the lake, stopping here and there to really take it all in. Also, we had the privilege to meet the rare habitats of the lake. The waters of the dragon lakes are home to the Alpine Newt (Triturus alpestris), a very interesting urodele amphibian, and a strong swimmer which also walks out of water. It is approximately 10-12 cm long with an impressive orange-red colour in the lower part of its body, and a dragon-like appearance!
The sun was about to set, so we rushed into finding a nice place for our tents and preparing a delicious dinner. For obvious reasons, we could not get enough of the odd combination of salted sardines, granola bars, canned dolmadakia, nuts and orange juice that was created by our efforts to carry “convenient” food with us.
As the night fell the temperature kept dropping, and humidity almost became a sixth presence amongst us. it was getting colder and colder, but the stars; aw the stars! The skies above us were more than amazing, more than breathtaking- an out-of-this-world view words would fail to describe. Seeing the milky way reflect on the calm lake, creating the illusion of starry waters, was an unforgettable moment for us. Those quiet times, those unique places are the only answer you wish you could give to all those of your friends and family that keep wondering: “Why do hikers love the mountains so much? Why does any person choose to keep walking for hours and hours, only to sleep on the freezing cold grass and then get back home? Why doesn’t he prefer going to a hotel and not even need to lift his pinky finger? Unfortunately, the answer to that cannot be communicated using words, but I am sure 11 times out of 10 I would prefer the cold grass to a 5 star hotel.
As soon as the first light of dawn came, we rushed to meet it at the top of a small hill- the edge above the grand chaos of sharp cliffs that comes after the dragon lake plateau. The short climb was totally worth it, and the last present of Tymfi proved to be one of the most beautiful sunrises of our lives. We packed our staff, and started the hike back. Our legs were feeling a bit sore but we were more than happy to walk through these beautiful paths once more.
The descent wasn’t easy because of the steep incline but the time it took was waaay less than when we were ascending. Even though getting down a mountain sounds easier, you have to be careful at all times because one wrong step can result in an injury that will make the hike less enjoyable for everybody and, possibly, will end with quite a sad aftermath for the injured one. A rule we would strongly advise you to follow as much as possible is to prepare as well as possible on these kinds of trips- because if something goes wrong for one person, everybody pays the price; whether that will be a slightly slower hike, or even abandoning the whole excursion and returning home.