FINANCIAL TIMES - The Wild Blue trek of coastal Sardinia
Hidden among the sea cliffs of the island’s Baunei region is Italy’s most dramatic trekking route.
“Wait here,” said Luca, tying a rope to me. “When I shout ‘ready’, you can start to climb.” With that, he edged around the sheer rock face like a mime artist feeling an imaginary wall, humming the theme tune from the Indiana Jones films.
“Climb,” I shouted after Luca. “I . . . I don’t know how to climb . . . ” But he was already gone.
“Here” was a tiny cave under a towering limestone cliff. The dinghy I’d just hopped off was already rounding the headland, its outboard scoring the cobalt water with a trail of white bubbles. On the wall of the cave was a butterfly caught in a web, flapping uselessly. “Mike,” came a faint voice from high above me. “Ready.”
I looked at the butterfly with affinity and envy. And then, hands trembling, I stepped out into the void.
The Selvaggio Blu (Wild Blue), about halfway up Sardinia’s east coast in the island’s Baunei region, is not your usual trekking route. Running for around 25 miles from the town of Santa Maria Navarrese to the beach at Cala Sisine, it clings to the edge of cliffs and follows the old tracks of Sard goatherds and charcoal burners, through one of the last true wildernesses of the Mediterranean. There are no roads, no habitations, just deep ravines, near impenetrable juniper and holm oak forests, and the kind of jaw-dropping views of the Gulf of Orosei few tourists get to see.
The route was conceived by Mario Verin, a renowned Tuscan climber, and his Sard friend Peppino Cicalò in 1987. Over the course of a year, they gradually reclaimed the goatherds’ tracks from the encroaching macchia mediterranea and marked the trail.
For years, the Selvaggio Blu was only accessible to hardcore and experienced climbers, who trekked the entire length, camping in caves, carrying all supplies, free-climbing up and abseiling down the vast limestone cliffs. These days, the less doughty can do the trek with the help of a yacht – they stay on board, then are dropped off by boat in the morning and picked up in the evening.
I had set off from Santa Maria Navarrese with Luca Gasparini, 49, a mountain guide usually based in the Dolomites, and Agustina Lagos Marmol, 44, owner of a Dolomites winter sports company. As we walked, Agustina, originally from Argentina, explained how she’d been looking for a spring/autumn adventure destination for her clients (Sardinia in high summer is a furnace) and when she discovered the Selvaggio Blu, knew she’d found it.
The first afternoon was a breeze. We walked for two hours, among olive groves and fig trees, the trail undulating gently, before arriving at the giant rock stack of Pedra Longa. As we waited for the yacht Marea, our 42ft floating home, to come and collect us, Agustina told me: “This is wild, like being in a desert. This type of trail doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It reminds me of my native Patagonia: no people, no nothing. People don’t realise how hard the Selvaggio Blu is.”
Based on that afternoon’s pleasant trek, I couldn’t help but think that Agustina’s definition of hard and mine were somewhat different, sad deluded fool that I was.
It was the next morning that I’d found myself at the base of the cliff wishing I was about to be eaten by a spider. The real Selvaggio Blu had begun. Upon hearing Luca’s call, I crept around the rock, toes and fingers clinging to the limestone. Following his gentle instructions, I traversed, the ocean now some 30m below me, until I found the old charcoal-burners’ “ladder”, a series of twisted iron stirrups fixed into the rock, many missing, that looked about as substantial as giant rusty paper clips. Twenty metres above me, I could still hear the music from Indiana Jones.
Eventually, I flopped on to a wide ledge, with all the dignity of a drowning man clambering into a life raft. “Welcome to the Selvaggio Blu,” said Luca.
We walked along a narrow ridge, high above the sea, the limestone underfoot formed into breadknife serrations and requiring the channelling of my inner goat. “Try not to look at the scenery during these sections,” said Luca. “You must always concentrate on your feet.” That was quite a challenge: ahead of me curved the Gulf of Orosei, the white cliffs plunging into the deepest blue imaginable, Peregrine falcons wheeling around us, only the sigh of the sea drifting up from far below breaking the deep silence, and all served up with the perfume of wild rosemary. DH Lawrence, who visited the island in 1921, wrote about discovering “a sense of space, which is so lacking in Italy . . . it is like liberty itself.”
We plunged into a dense juniper forest, the stuff of Grimms tales, grotesquely twisted and contorted trunks and branches, occasionally spotting a rock wedged into the V of two branches, the traditional goatherds’ way of marking the trail. I slipped on the loose ground and reached out to grab a vine. “That’s smilax aspera,” said Agustina, examining my hand, bleeding from the thorns. “We call it straccia braghe [ripped trousers].” This was like God’s own assault course.
Eventually, I flopped on to a wide ledge, with all the dignity of a drowning man clambering into a life raft
For hours under a sweltering October sun we walked, through deep gorges, passing the many remote caves used by the goatherds to sleep in and keep their flocks safe at night – and occasionally by Sardinia’s notorious bandits, to ensure their kidnap victims would never be found. In all of them, containers sat under stalactites, collecting the precious drops of water filtering down through the limestone.
The path ended abruptly at the edge of a cliff. As he tied a rope to me, Luca started humming Indy again. “Now we rappel,” he said, smiling. I wanted to cry, having not rappelled since school some 35 years previously (when we called it abseiling). Fifty metres below, the Marea bobbed at anchor. Following Luca’s patient instructions, I leaned back and was lowered gently down the drop. About halfway down, the vertical cliff turned into an overhang and I was left spinning in space. Sea. Rock. Sea. Rock. “Now you can enjoy the view!” shouted Luca.
I landed in the mouth of the Grotta del Fico, accessible only by boat or by someone on the end of a rope living out their James Bond fantasies. Inside were cathedral-like chambers, running for miles, dripping with stalactites and flowing with underground rivers. “They brought a goatherd here in 2003 who’d spent his working life searching for water just above,” said Agustina. “When he saw this had been under his feet the whole time, he cried.”
Our gear was ferried to the Marea by dinghy while we swam back. Once aboard, il capitano, Alessandro Griva, 52, grabbed his spear gun and disappeared over the side, returning a few minutes later with a large cernia, or grouper. That night, riding the gentle swells of the Mediterranean, we ate culurgiòne, traditional Sard dough parcels filled with ricotta, served with crispy pane carasau, the local poppadom-like flatbread, beloved by the goatherds for its long-lasting quality out on the trail. Afterwards came the fish, cooked in garlic and salt, accompanied by plenty of cannonau, Sardinia’s famous, robust red wine.
We were joined on our final day by Mario Muggiano, in his fifties, a former goatherd who now works as a trekking guide. Mario took us to some of the caves – still smelling strongly of goat – where he once worked, and told us how he would spend his evenings making cheese. Today, only a few goatherds remain. Did he miss the life? “Not really,” he said. “It was a very hard life. Besides, I am still always here with trekking groups. Sometimes I see an old goatherd on the trail and he says, ‘Mario, you’ve changed animals!’”
We walked. It was incredible watching Mario in this landscape, dancing up the rocks, sure-footed on the scree. We crossed ravines on bridges made of juniper wood, climbed cliffs using fixed-chain via ferrate and edged along narrow paths cut by the charcoal burners into the bluffs, sheer drops below. I would never be able to match Mario’s inner goat but was amazed how quickly my confidence had increased.
Luca hummed the Indy tune one last time, pointing to a cliff edge. Far, far below was Cala Sisine, the beach that marks the end of the Selvaggio Blu. We rappelled down and, shortly afterwards, emerged from the juniper, dirty and sweaty. The Italians on the beach, soaking up the autumn sunshine and still making Speedos look stylish despite all the odds, regarded us as you might forest monsters.
They had been whisked to the secluded beach by boat from a nearby town in 10 minutes. It had taken us three days. As we sat there drinking a bottle of chilled white Sard wine produced from Luca’s pack, I looked back at the sweep of the majestic cliffs from whence we’d come, impossible to imagine that anything but goats could traverse them, and knew how I’d rather have got there.
I walked into the Mediterranean and let the Selvaggio Blu wash off me.
Mike Carter was a guest of Dolomite Mountains (dolomitemountains.com). It offers Selvaggio Blu trips tailored to guests’ fitness and climbing experience. A five-night trip costs from €4,450, including guiding, food, transfers, three nights on the yacht and two in a hotel. Mike Carter flew from London Stansted to Cagliari, staying as a guest the night before at the Radisson Blu hotel (radissonblu.co.uk; doubles from £109)
Photographs: Mike Carter, Luca Gasparini