The toughest hike in Europe is also one of the best


In the morning light, the view of Cala Biriola from the campsite can’t be put into words. — Photos: FLORIAN SANKTJOHANSER/dpa

My heels are hanging over the edge of the cliff, while I’m clasping a rope for dear life. Below me is the wide blue sea. That’s 40m down. I can see boats chugging along, holiday makers splashing about and they all seem pretty far away, to be honest.

I take a deep breath and concentrate as I hop backwards over the edge of the cliff, gliding down the rope, controlling my descent.

Don’t make a mess of this, I tell myself sternly.

It’s the last and furthest rappel and a fitting finale for this tour in the wild beauty of Sardinia, Italy. The group I am with spent five days travelling the Golfo di Orosei, through what felt like a wilderness, along a cliff hundreds of metres high. A natural World Heritage Site located in eastern Sardinia, it is known as Selvaggio Blu.

It is now one of Europe’s most attractive trekking routes – and I can tell you it may be the hardest. Starting with finding the route, which is frankly sort of difficult.

“The Selvaggio Blu is not a fixed path,” says mountain guide Ivan Pegorari. There are many variations, but all follow the same general philosophy, namely walking as close as possible to the sea.

Time for a break in a sea-view cave.Time for a break in a sea-view cave.

You can book the trail with lots of mountain tour operators, including a guide and a daily supply boat. It would be extremely reckless to just set out on your own on this trip, if only because water sources are so scant in the cliffs and limestone mountains of the Supramonte.

Things get moderately wild by the time you reach the starting point though. It’s a parking lot below the village of Baunei, jam packed with cars and vans. Most people come here to climb the Pedra Longa, a rock pyramid jutting above the sea.

We leave our harnesses and helmets in our backpacks at the start and hike through the scrub growth known locally as the maquis, along a sandy path. You see holm oaks clawing their way into the karst, a distinctive limestone landscape. There are red berries dangling from mastic bushes. Metallic blue lizards dart and scurry into patches of wild rosemary.

The higher we climb, the denser the forest becomes. We balance our way over boulders, duck below branches, and often I forget my backpack and get briefly stuck. We are warned to catch up and take care. “Last summer, two hikers disappeared,” says Pegorari. “They still have not been found. If you get lost here, you’re done for.”

Pasta, wine and song

Our lengthy descent winds down to a narrow fjord. As the supply boat comes in, everyone packs up, hauling the supplies, tents, bags of sleeping bags and fresh laundry ashore. Plus Pegorari’s thick mattress. “I’ll be here four weeks in one stretch this summer,” he says with a smile, shrugging his shoulders.

The route on the Selvaggio Blu has several passages where you abseil down. — Photos: FLORIAN SANKTJOHANSER/dpaThe route on the Selvaggio Blu has several passages where you abseil down. — Photos: FLORIAN SANKTJOHANSER/dpa

Hikers have slept on the beach in the past, though even then that was against the rules, but at the time there were so few people that nobody took much notice. Then suddenly Selvaggio Blu became famous in 2011, thanks to reporting by broadcasters and an Italian alpine club magazine. The numbers soared.

“There were days when you had 150 people camping here,” Pegorari says. “It was chaos.”

Together with other guides, he proposed a set of rules to the authorities and six years ago, the national park authority set up campsites, each for a maximum of 40 hikers per night. Though maybe it’s stretching it a bit to call it a campsite.

It would be better to describe these as areas in the forest where staff have cleared the undergrowth and rolled away the stones.

The further I get away from the sea, the stronger it smells of goat.

But we are all feeling tremendously cheerful and upbeat, at the very latest when the guides shovel pasta onto our plates. We are also eager to have some of the wine that comes poured out of a plastic bottle. And for dessert, Pegorari unpacks his guitar.

The group members who are from northern Italy break out into song, while the Germans smile shyly and pour themselves some Mirto, the Sardinian liqueur. Some even retreat to their tents. It is only the first night after all.

Hanging around

Much more adventure lies ahead, we see the morning after next. We are forced to turn back at one point as the path has been ripped away by a rockslide. “The path changes every year,” says Pegorari. “It rains a lot here in the winter.” Unlike official hiking trails, the Selvaggio Blu is not maintained.

We would be struggling by this point at the latest, were it not for the aid of our mountain guide. And the key section of the day still lies ahead: Our first rock face descent, or rappel.

Step by step, I edge my way backwards towards the abyss. One hand holds the rope that is hanging from a gnarled juniper trunk. The other pushes the Prusik sling over the rope, which would tighten if I fell. So even if I let go of the rope, nothing bad can happen.

Nonetheless I have to urge myself to take that step backwards and hope over the edge, before slowly sliding down into the depths. I don’t look particularly elegant as I go.

But the next day I get plenty of opportunities to improve my technique and style, thanks to the seven rappels, ending with the highest. I am now a lot faster at belaying and I am not getting all tangled and flustered. And my sinking feeling gives way to joyful anticipation. We buzz downward and it is almost a routine.From one cave to the next

There is never a dull moment, thanks to our guides who lead us into a cave. There are thousands of caves in the limestone mountains of Supramonte. We descend downwards into the darkness on a simple rope, the light from our nervous headlamps flickering over the stalactites.

We crawl on through waist-high crevices, cave by cave - until we see light again and the bright blue sea.

We are rewarded with what is perhaps the most beautiful of all bays awaits: Cala Biriola. The young Italians leap joyously into the sea from a rock arch. Come nightfall, everybody joins in the singing once the guitar comes out. – Florian Sanktjohanser/dpa

Travel notes

To get to Sardinia from Kuala Lumpur, you would need to fly to Rome or Milan in Italy. From either city, take a domestic flight to the Alghero Airport or Cagliari Elmas Airport, both of which are in Sardinia.

The best months to do this hike are May and June, when the maquis underbrush is in bloom, and September and October, when the sea is still warm enough for swimming. In between, in high summer, it is too hot for hiking, while in winter it rains a lot.

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