Adventure flows in the blood of the hiker, cartographer and photographer Penelope Matsouka. As a child, she wanted to know what was on the other side of the hill and reach the top of the mountain. In 1995 she participated in a national expedition, climbing Korzhenevskaya Peak (7,105m) in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. In 2008 she was part of a Greek team that very nearly reached the summit of Ama Dablam (6,812m) in the Himalayas in Nepal, before being forced to retreat by gigantic avalanches.
Her great love, though, are the Greek mountains, and in recent years she has become obsessed with the islands, which are also, as she points out, “mountain peaks submerged in the sea.” Since 2009 she’s been photographing them from a helicopter, capturing entire landscapes with an unobstructed view from above.
As a child, Matsouka wanted to study medicine and join Doctors without Borders, not only on account of its humanitarian work but because see saw it as passport to adventure travel. She didn’t get the grades for medical school but for dentistry, an occupation she never entered because she had become obsessed with hiking in the meantime. She began hiking with two friends, at the same time documenting rare flora and fauna and handing over her findings to university researchers. It was at this point that she definitively ruled out a life working indoors.
At the age of 30, Matsouka settled with her two young children, Ivi and Angelos, in Toulouse, where she embarked on environmental studies and ecology. Returning to Greece, she worked with the WWF, participated in issues like planning studies. In 1997, together with her then husband, she created Anavasi (Ascent), the first, and for many years, the only publisher of hiking maps in Greece. She has walked every mountain and path detailed in the maps, marking and photographing them.
“As the years pass, I’m growing more and more passionate about Greece and its landscapes. And I’m not just referring to the geomorphology, but also to the manmade harmony in these landscapes, the stone paths and huts, the characteristic stone walls, the tiny church in the middle of nowhere. I feel it my duty to highlight them correctly.”
A hiker, climber, mother of two children whom she took along with her from when they were babies, writer, photographer, bookshop owner and successful publisher of hundreds of maps, environmental books and travel guides, how do she fit it all in her life?
“I had the courage to try my hand at new things, like the hiking maps in 1997. I do a job which stimulates, satisfies and inspires me. Give me adventure and I know no bounds. Anything new you experience in life broadens your horizons. If you only stick to what you know, you lose out.”
The year 2009 brought new adventures when she created a series of aerial photographs, along with pilot Nikos Vyrgiotis.
How does she feel when photographing from above? “It is amazing to see the vast terrain of a mountain, with large ravines and ridges, revealing itself all at once in front of you. Of course you miss out on the details and satisfaction you feel after strenuous hikes in the mountains. On the other hand, it’s much faster. To cross Olympus from end to end on foot, you need a week. With the helicopter, within half an hour you have seen it all. Over Olympus, you feel a little godlike yourself.”
Are there difficulties? “Many, especially in the mountains. The pilot must have a lot of experience to handle the flight comfortably and the photographer must be very fast to make sure they capture what they want, because there’s no chance to set up these photos.”
Her favorite destination? “As the years pass, I’m growing more and more passionate about Greece and its landscapes. And I’m not just referring to the geomorphology, but also to the manmade harmony in these landscapes, the stone paths and huts, the characteristic stone walls, the tiny church in the middle of nowhere. I feel it my duty to highlight them correctly.”
And what does she consider most valuable on her travels? “The human touch, what you will experience with people in your travels. The friendships that build up. This how such a large network of people was created, Greeks and foreigners, who constantly send me information to update my maps.”
“It is amazing to see the vast terrain of a mountain, with large ravines and ridges, revealing itself all at once in front of you”