I’m leant against the car, gasping, giggling, sucker-punched by the cold. Around me, the landscape is motionless and brittle. The tops of trees have exploded as the wind tried to bend them. Overhead, dirty clouds boil past like timelapse photography. The rock-strewn ground is so hard you expect it to ring. Take the trees and ice-rimed telephone lines away, and you’re left with the surface of Mars.
I’m on the same latitude as Algeria and Morocco, and the temperature is 15 below freezing.
We’ve been driving up the Troodos mountains for a good hour now, and the car’s thermometer has enthralled us, falling away from the balmy warmth you’d expect from a typical November day in Cyprus, down, degree by degree until I can feel the difference against a hand held near a side-window, not quite touching it. The cold puffs and hisses against my skin as the land falls away below us.
I remember none of this. What’s wrong with me?
Mile by mile, the scenery became more stunted and bewildered-looking. But – Cyprus! Sun-tan lotion that’s never a high enough Factor, azure seas, dripping ice-creams, kebabs on the beach at midnight. Kalamari, chewy and lemony. Where’s this?
We drive through a scrappy outcrop of buildings, a boarded-up cafe, the skeleton of a ski lift. There’s wind enough to blow litter, but the trees don’t move. We pass a car – the driver has rubbed a hole in the condensation-fogged windscreen so he can see out. Things glitter unexpectedly.
And now we’re out, and I’m leaning against the car. Every breath stings.
At 1952 metres above sea level, the summit of Mount Olympus is the highest and most exposed point in Cyprus. It doesn’t dominate the surrounded landscape, being nestled amidst terrain of similar height…but on its upper slopes, the blanketing of dark pine frays and diminishes, the trees visible shrinking before the wind. At its top perches a golf ball, as if waiting for Zeus to pick a club. (It’s a British radar installation).
And the view never stops changing.
We scramble up a rubble-strewn slope, following a line of steel pillars supporting a ski-lift. Passing a tree, I bang my gloved fist against it, then a minute later against a metal column. They feel just the same. By standing directly under the taller trees we can feel the gentle patter of falling ice flecks, barely heard – and sometimes the trees creak, a ludicrous sound like a door in a bad horror movie.
It’s bitterly cold – the air not much below freezing but with a windchill that drags the temperature down to painful levels, numbing fingers within seconds when gloves are dragged off, searing lungs and making our lips tingle. I don’t remember it being this cold when I was growing up.
As a Royal Air Force child living in Nicosia in the ’70s, I was regularly brought up here by my parents. We’d wander up onto these slopes (I don’t remember this part), my dad would take photos and then we’d descend to nearby Platres for a slap-up meal ending with ice-cream (my memory regains its strength here).
Twenty years later, my friends and I are here, driving down into Platres in search of calories to replace the ones we’ve been breathing out for the last half-hour…and I recognise the restaurant. The chairs are packed away and the tables are pooled with rainwater, but it’s unmistakeably in operation when the weather’s right. There’s a past here I can try to reclaim, a personal archaeology I can dig up. And that’s why I’ll have to go back.
(When it’s a bit warmer).