Why Greek Islands Have Always Been Death Traps

With the school summer holidays fast approaching and the long-awaited status of ‘annual leave’ looming ever closer in the calendar, the excitement of a Greek island holiday reaches its zenith: the azure blue sea; the whitewashed facades of the marina buildings promising ice-cold drinks; the beaches and coves sounded like a siren to us all, used to be rain and cloud.

With their remote locations, hard-to-reach coves and breathtaking headlands, the Greek islands have it all – without the hassle of long distances to spoil the bliss.

But since the death of much-loved presenter Michael Mosley, who was found near the beach at Agia Marina on the island of Symi on June 9, five days after initially attempting a simple, solo walk from the beach, the newspapers have been full of tragic stories of more holidaymakers – mostly Europeans – who have died while attempting to walk in the islands’ extraordinary heat.

Six more have died or gone missing on the Greek islands this month. All cases are attributed to risk-taking in the warm weather that ‘makes history’.

This week, a 67-year-old German man became the latest victim after he set out alone to hike a canyon on the island of Crete, where temperatures reached 44.5 degrees Celsius. A few hours into the hike, he called his wife to report that he was not feeling well; he was later found dead near a ravine.

Before that, the body of a Dutch man, 74, was found dead in a ravine on the eastern island of Samos on June 15 after he was reportedly seen struggling to walk in the heat. A day later, a missing American man was also found dead on the island of Mathraki, near Corfu – the third to lose his life in a week.

Drone view of a Greek beach

Mathraki beach where an American man in his 50s lost his life in the intense heat – Adonis Skordilis/Reuters

Meanwhile, searches are underway for three tourists: two French women, aged 73 and 64, who are missing on Sikinos, and a retired Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy, Eric Calibet, 59, with dual French-American citizenship, who was last seen walking alone on Amorgos.

An Israeli couple from the Vytina region on the Peloponnese peninsula has also not yet returned.

“This has always been a problem, especially among tourists arriving for the first time on the islands,” said Konstantina Dimoglidou, spokesperson for the Greek police. “What happened was that due to the heatwave, all the cases happened almost simultaneously within a few days, while most other years they would have been spread out over the summer. Rescuers searching for Michael Mosley told me that at one point the thermometer at the site where he was found read 46 degrees Celsius.”

In recent weeks, Greece has experienced two consecutive heat waves, with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius. Schools closed and the Ministry of Culture was forced to close the Acropolis and other archaeological sites to visitors. Red Cross volunteers distributed thousands of free bottles of water and Athens City Hall set up cooling stations. But trails on the islands, which are wild and uncontrolled by nature, remained completely unregulated.

Authorities typically warn older locals to stay indoors and stay hydrated, yet tourists are not warned about the dangers of hiking.

For locals living on the islands, the recent deaths are tragic, but also, they say, unfortunately avoidable. Mosley’s death has put a spotlight on walking on the islands, but lost and often ill-equipped tourists have always been a problem there, and their lives are always in danger from the disaster on the Greek islands. Usually tourists are found in time or refocus before their energetic intentions become tragic – but sometimes they are never found.

The weather in all these cases of tourist hikers getting lost is always hot – often tourists are seen on trails without hats, which baffles locals – but this year, say experts and locals, it is the combination of unusual heat and hiking that is especially proved fatal.

A local resident of the island of Antiparos, who did not want to be named, said: “Normally it’s fine to walk on the islands in June, but this year we’ve had an unusually long heatwave. I believe when Michael Mosley went missing, for example, rescuers were looking for him at a 40-degree angle. It’s just unusually hot.”

The woman, from England, now lives in Athens, but regularly travels to Antiparos. She adds that very few tourists realize that many of the islands, especially in southern Greece, have their own microclimate.

There is often little shade and no trees. Sometimes the long-awaited breeze on a Greek island can lead to dangerous decision-making: it masks the heat and makes tourists think that activities such as hiking are safer than they really are.

Hiking on the islands is often tempting because the views are so exceptional and because often the smallest, most rugged paths can lead to the best bays or views. But the local woman warns that those small paths are often confusing and it can be difficult for a hiker to get back on the right route once lost, as was the case with Mosley: “I think the rescue teams are doing their best do, but these hikers often get lost in very remote areas, or on donkey trails where there are only monasteries and abandoned farms.

“There is also often no phone signal and the conditions are incredibly difficult to find someone. I have walked in June before, early in the morning and with a group, but you really shouldn’t walk alone when it’s so hot.”

Another local, who lives in Parga, a coastal town on the Ionian Sea in mainland Greece, adds: “It’s of course hotter than ever. But I think this is cumulative. We’ve had so many forest fires in recent years, they have destroyed all greenery and made the islands more susceptible to bone-dry conditions and flooding.

“It is very dangerous to hike here in the summer. None of these missing people are Greek. The locals know the dangers, but we don’t really understand why others don’t see it.

“Of course, it should also be noted that the number of tourists who came to Greece last year was well over 30 million. So even though the deaths are tragic, they are a small number.”

The meteorologist Panos Giannopoulos told the TV channel ERT: “This heat wave will go down in history. In the 20th century, we never had one before June 19.”

This month’s searches are in stark contrast to the attempt five years ago to find John Tossell, a 78-year-old from Bridgend who went missing while walking on holiday in Zakynthos.

John Tossell drinks a bottle of Mythos while on holiday in GreeceJohn Tossell drinks a bottle of Mythos while on holiday in Greece

John Tossell disappeared in 2019 on the island of Zakynthos

In a case so chillingly similar to that of Michael Mosley, the last confirmed sighting of him was captured on CCTV, in his case passing a hotel and driving out of the city towards Vassilikos. Greek authorities called off the search after five days, forcing his daughter Katy to launch her own fundraising campaign.

Mr Tossell’s son, Gary, has since said he was disappointed with the rescue team’s efforts at the time: “They just went for a walk. It was a walk in the park for them. There was no intensity to their efforts. They said a team was supposed to come from Athens with dogs and specialists, but for some reason it was canceled at the last minute. They called it quits altogether. They said he should have left the island, but he did 10 euros and a bottle of water.”

Katy Tossell herself raised £7,000, which she used to bring the Western Beacons Mountain Rescue team to Zakynthos to continue the search, but they too called off the search after seven days and the family have still found no answers.

In contrast, Michael Mosley’s case received international media attention. He was a high-profile British television personality. Could this be why the search was so different from the one for John Tossell? Or perhaps the Greek authorities had learned a lesson from too many near-fatalities?

“When I read the story, it’s like a cut-and-paste from my father,” Tossell’s son Gary told Sky News after Michael Mosley’s disappearance. “He went for a walk and disappeared into thin air. It’s the same story, but a different person.” John Tossell’s family suspects foul play. Although he was ten years older than Mosley and could have died of natural causes, they continue to wonder why his body was never found.

In Mosley’s case, the search involved patrol boats, divers, helicopters, firefighters, police, drones and a sniffer dog, and yet it took another five days for the 67-year-old’s body to be discovered. The 74-year-old Dutchman also had extensive equipment: a rescue team, four drones, a sniffer dog brought from Athens and a helicopter from the EU border agency Frontex. The difficulty comes from the terrain.

Dimitris Katatzis, who led that team, described a common hazard that mirrored Mosley’s mistake: “hikers going off the track.” But is it enough for Greece to send out extensive search parties often, when the worst has already happened? Mosley died within hours of setting off, on the very first day he went missing.

‘These paths need to be maintained’

“I would like to see more CCTV cameras and lighting of these paths,” said Symi Mayor Eleftherios Papakalodoukas. “If there is a lesson to be learned from the tragedy [of Mosley’s death], it’s that these trails need to be better taken care of so people don’t get lost.” It wouldn’t be that difficult or expensive, for example, to install a series of arrows to ensure hikers stayed in the right direction.

A local councilor on the island of Chios has also called for a better framework to support such tourism. Local hiking clubs that specialize in regular excursions to remote areas have a unique insight into the nature of the trails. If the clubs were better supported, through funding and technology, their input could be used for the greater good of the island, both educating and protecting gung-ho tourists, preventing high-profile tragedies, and at the same time to boost the island’s economy by encouraging visitors.

And there is advice for hikers too: be aware of the temperatures and carry a phone. It was revealed that the 74-year-old Dutch hiker’s phone was switched off, and yet Kalaitzis, a member of the local Hellenic Rescue Team, described the trail he is believed to have taken in the southwestern part of the country, Samos, as “hard.” Kalaitzis said that, according to the man’s wife, he had only a bottle of water with him when he set out on his hike. Mosley had an umbrella for shade, but he did not have a phone. Of the two women missing in Sikinos, the island’s mayor, Vassilis Marakis, told Greek television that one had switched off her phone and the other did not have it.

All these recent cases point to a positive message for brave tourists over 50: you are never too old to follow travel advice. After all, the tragic Greek fatalities have shown that mom and dad don’t always know best.

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