A Day On A Mule


In 1969 I was lucky enough to be sent to Cyprus that sunny isle in the East Mediterranean, and fabled home of Aphrodite, goddess of love. I was a young army officer in the Royal Regiment of Wales and our battalion was to train there for some weeks, brushing up our military skills in that hot, arid environment. It was hard work but there was fun to be had as well. At weekends we had time to ourselves and I was able to hire a large old motorbike to tour the island. I was about 21 years old and had recently passed my test, so the open roads of Cyprus were a great place to gain more experience. This oily, noisy machine had clearly been involved in an accident at some stage as the wheels were out of alignment, but that did not matter much as it still went like a rocket.

In my school days I had taken up rock climbing and so I suggested that I might take a group of soldiers on a two-week climbing course at the end of our training exercise. I knew that in Northern Cyprus, and just above the town of Kyrenia, there was a mountain called Pentadaktylos, or Kyrenia mountain. The Greek name means five fingers – and there is a legend that the Byzantine hero Digenis Akritas’s hand gripped the mountain to get out of the sea when he came to free Cyprus from its Saracen invaders, and this is his handprint.

He also threw a large rock across Cyprus to destroy the Saracen ships. That rock landed in Paphos at the site of the birthplace of Aphrodite, thus known to this day as Petra Tou Romiou or “Rock of the Greek”. There was one problem with climbing in Cyprus, which was simply that the granite became so warmed by the strong sun that by midday it was too hot to touch. So we would begin climbing soon after dawn and come back down to our shaded campsite around midday.

During the days of our military exercise, we had been visited by a senior officer who had flown out from the UK to see how the Regiment was getting on with its training. He was a genial man and knowing I was staying behind he gave me the name and address of his niece who was on holiday in Kyrenia at the time, with a suggestion that I should look her up and give her his best wishes. I did not need much encouragement to do so and as soon as the main part of the Regiment flew home I went up by Land Rover to check out Kyrenia, visit the area where we were to camp, and of course to look up the English girl, Jenny, who was also in her early twenties.

Jenny and her older sister were staying for the summer in their parent’s apartment in an old narrow street behind the harbour in Kyrenia. It had been tastefully modernised but retained traditional features and the charm of a small Greek house. The girls were very welcoming, and I was soon pouring the drinks and escorting them around the bars and nightclubs. This was before the Turkish invasion of 1974 and Kyrenia was a hedonist’s playground with the nightlife centred on the harbourside Kyrenia Club which was run by a British couple.

By now our climbing camp had been established, tents erected, and kitchen built. I had a handful of experienced climbers as instructors and thirty soldiers were split into small groups to climb. I remember the limestone rock as being firm with good handholds and offering a variety of routes of different grades of difficulty. We were having a great time.

After lunch with the soldiers, washed down with the inevitable cold beer, I would drive the short distance to Kyrenia where the girls would just be getting up. In the afternoon we would take a small boat from the harbour and go to one of the many small coves nearby where the crystal-clear waters were ideal for swimming and snorkelling. Later, as the sun set, we would drink brandy sours or local wine on the side of the ancient harbour below the immense fort which was built in the 16th century by the Venetians to protect the town. Drinks would be followed by supper, usually delicious locally caught fish, and from the supper table, we would move to a nearby disco where we could dance the night away. Then as we tired, and very late, I would somehow drive back up the mountain to get a few hours sleep until dawn when the climbing began. This was a classic example of burning the candle at both ends.

At the weekends we suspended climbing and took the soldiers to the beach for swimming and recreation, which to a soldier means drinking beer. So, I was free too and on one particular weekend, I organised a visit to a Crusader Castle called Buffavento which was about ten miles into the mountains above Kyrenia. I had been introduced to a local Greek who hired mules and, on this occasion, I engaged him to come with us, a party of four as the girls were bringing another male friend.

The deal was that Stavros would not only be our muleteer, but he would also bring a picnic lunch for us. So, on a Saturday morning, we met him in the shade of Bellapais abbey with his mules tethered to some stout bougainvillaea. None of us had really ridden by mule before but this was no time for riding lessons, so we mounted our charges and set off at a steady pace. The mules followed Stavros and we trailed behind. Whether we had stirrups I do not remember but the big leather saddles were comfortable and there was a suitable large knob to hang onto. If any mule was going too slowly Stavros would whittle a short stick to a point and give it to the rider which the rider was meant to dig into the neck of the unfortunate animal. Being young and British this seemed very unsporting and I do not think any of us used their “encourager”.

It took a couple of hours moving through scrub and olive trees to reach a pleasant green plateau below the most impressive castle walls and here we dismounted and shook our scratched and aching limbs.

The origins of Buffavento castle are lost in the mists of time but one theory is that it was built in 965 AD after the expulsion of the Arabs. It was certainly occupied and enlarged during the 11th century and it is known that Richard the Lionheart captured it in 1191. It was one of a string of castles which included St Hilarion to the west and Kantara to the east. It has been suggested that the role of Buffavento was to pass messages between the other two. Buffavento is a word of Italian origin meaning “defier of the winds”.

Leaving Stavros to water the mules and prepare lunch we set off to explore. There are 600 steps to reach the castle which remains in remarkably good condition, given its age. It is difficult to make out what all the rooms were for but there are several cisterns to collect rainwater, without which no castle can defend itself for long. The rooms were generally small in scale as the whole castle is nestled among crags with little space to accommodate larger chambers.

Intrigued as we were exploring the ruins a bellow from Stavros suggested that lunch was ready, so we dropped down to the mules rather more quickly than we had ascended. At once we could smell the smoke of a charcoal barbecue above which were half a dozen kebabs of lamb, the fat nicely singed. Nearby was a large bowl of green salad and some local flatbreads. What we had not noticed was a large round cask of red wine protected from sun, and collisions with rocks, by a stout raffia jacket. The lamb which we stuffed into the bread was warm and scrumptious and the red local wine, possibly the Mavro grape, was simply delicious. After finishing the kebabs, and too much of the wine, we lay down together in the grassy shade to aid our digestion and promptly fell asleep. It was probably the neigh of a mule that brought me back to life and I noticed that our muleteer had cleared away the remnants of our lunch and so we were ready for the long slow descent to Bellapais.

Bellapais Abbey was first built by the Augustinian order and the first occupants known to have settled there were the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, who had fled after its fall to Saladin in 1187. The Canons had been the custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre In Jerusalem.

We thanked Stavros for a marvellous adventure, and an unexpectedly good lunch, and paid him for his services before boarding our jeep and driving the few miles back to Kyrenia. Whether we went dancing that night I do not recall, nor whether I had to be up at dawn for more climbing; but I do remember that the combination of rock climbing, culture and good company made for a most memorable few weeks in the salad days of my youth.

Alun Davies