A Grave Mistake – Alan Bennett

Akrotiri 1965 – 66

It’s twenty odd miles cross-country from Limassol to the highest point in Cyprus, Mount Olympus, 6,400 feet. Slim Hemmings had hiked it in a day, so I thought I could do it in two. I was due for repat in March ’66, so it was now or never.

I set off at dawn, spare pullovers, tinned food, Bluet stove, groundsheet, sleeping bag, etc. Things got off to a good start as I passed a line of stone houses, dogs barking, and an old woman in black hissed “Grivaass!” at me and threw a stone. It hit me on the knee, but she wasn’t in the same league as those East German shot-putters, so I hardly felt it. Then a man shouted at her and she went back indoors. (Grivas was the leader of EOKA, the terrorists/freedom fighters who ousted the British so that the Greek and Turkish factions could fight each other properly.)

I had planned to come down off the line of hills to sleep at Trimiklini, but the terrain had been rougher than expected, so I was still at 3000 feet with night coming on. A good-sized track took me into a skimpy little wood right on the top of the hill. In a clearing there was a six-feet-square hole, about waist-deep, which looked as if it had been dug as a foundation for a TV transmitter or something. Good place for me in case the wind got up. It was dark by the time I had cooked up some beef stew and climbed into my bag, fully clothed except for my boots. Hey – so this is what it’s like when you’re in your grave! Quite cosy actually – even wide enough for a bit of company!

Suddenly a disturbing thought! What if it really was a grave, dug for the victims of some Greco-Turkish squabble down in nearby Lania? What if they were bringing the bodies up right now?! I didn’t really think that this was likely, though the hole did look sort of amateurish. And I didn’t remember seeing any evidence of a machine. Then there were the spoil heaps. Waiting to be cleared away by the TV men? Or left there to cover the bodies?

I was mulling this over in the absolute silence of the night, when suddenly I heard the cough! They were coming! It seemed to be some distance away, but it was enough to get me out of my bag and booting up. I rolled my bag around the stove to muffle the clanging and decamped, fast. I dared not use my torch, but my eyes were attuned and there was starlight aplenty.

In about ten minutes I came to a pile of logs lying parallel to the track. Perfect! If I laid down behind them the murderers would never spot me. Then the cough came again, and that was when I remembered that humans weren’t the only animals that coughed. Goats, sheep, foxes – they were all at it. Especially those on sixty a day. I felt a lot calmer then, and slept well. Like a log in fact.

Next morning I had to lose and regain a thousand feet or so to reach Kato Amiandos where the trail to Troodos village starts. I had hiked this twice the previous month with the Team – a steep climb of nearly 2000 feet, then easing off for the last mile or so. This section was along a track cut into the steep hillside where the snow on the right hand side was drifted up against the bank, about six feet deep. It tapered off in gulleys and ridges as it swept down across the track, leaving a gap that varied between safe and dodgy before the big drop-off. Here the snow was mostly less than knee-deep, but there were a few places where I had to do a bit of ploughing to keep well clear of the drop. Festooned in pullovers and waterproofs, I had to stop now and again to prevent sweating – and to chomp on another Mars bar.

I slept at the Leave Centre in Troodos village that night – four blankets, open bag on top, and a big log fire in the grate. Logs are my friends.

In the morning, I walked the two miles up the cleared road to the top of Cyprus, then back to the village where I was lucky enough to be offered a lift to Limassol in an Army landrover. It was the mail run, against the rules to give lifts, so they told me to walk half a mile down the road so no-one would see them pick me up. Of course they drove right past me, laughing and waving, but I guessed they would be waiting for me around the next bend, and sure enough they were. Pongos aren’t so bad. (Afterword: I scanned the ‘Cyprus Times’ for reports of an altercation in the Lania area, but there was nothing. In 2016, from Lania, I looked for TV masts on my range of hills. I didn’t see any.)

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