The bike trip that became a cycling-kayaking weekend

Olly had talked about cycling back to England for a long time this summer. He was always going to go back that way, up the Balkans, through central Europe. When I left the turtle project I realized maybe I could join him for part of the way to Italy, I didn’t have anything else to keep me busy for the rest of September/October other than Giugiu and Sofia, but Katja would be still here.

So we found ourselves talking about a route, and stops and dates as if it was a very natural thing. We also started going on some cycling excursions together, to get me fitter. Olly didn’t really need any training, but I hadn’t been on a bike since the early spring pretty much. I had also decided that in September I would start cycling Giulia to school a few times, and that is very good training, it’s a steep way up with the extra 15kg.

Over the last few weeks of the summer we cycled to the reservoirs in Tzannata, to Avithos lake in Agios Iannis, to the beaches North of Poros (on a very extreme bad and steep road), to the tombs in Mazarakata (over 50km return for me). I also cycled a few times on my own, once with Florian to Koroni from the Eastern side, once to the road going up Mt. Ainos past Digaleto, stopping at the junction where it meets the road coming from Argostoli-Sami, then turned back. My leg was doing well, it was my ‘good’ knee that betrayed me. After the first few rides (and walking the path from Pastra and on Mt. Aenos) I started getting sharp pains on my left knee. I kept training because the pain would go away the day after, until one day it hurt just to move the knee, let alone walking or cycling. I gave it some rest and it was fine, but I knew I couldn’t go on a 3-week cycling trip where we planned to cycle about 3 hours/day. I still thought a miracle, as in a sudden recovery, could happen.

Well loaded

I got all my stuff ready to leave with Olly, and we set off for Sami on the scheduled date, which had changed a few times. Last plan, after Olly also left the project, was to take the ferry from Sami to Vassiliki, Lefkada on September 22nd. And that’s what we did.

Bikes well loaded, we started our ascent to Pastra first. My knee started hurting straight away and my spirit wasn’t too merry. But as we went ahead I felt less pain and more exhilaration for being so light on the road, with my own legs. Down the valley and then up again towards the lemon pie stop halfway up the pass. We took it easy, and we went up very nicely. A few hundred meters before our planned stop, Olly got a flat tire. We stopped to fix the puncture, but it was the valve, broken off the tube. So we just replaced the tube and caught our breath, then decided to not stop and just go for it. Slope steep enough, 10% in some points, but morale was so high that I found it very easy. We got to the pass in Digaleto and it felt almost effortless. Olly suggested we could roll down all the way to Sami, I was ‘no no’, he tried for a while till we hit the plateau after the big descent. A young volunteer-looking girl on and old mountain bike appeared on the road, asking how long it would be to the top. To the top of Mt. Ainos? Or just the pass? Either case, it was past noon on a hot day and she hadn’t started going up yet. After we left her, Olly wondered if she could make it, I shook my head vehemently. Cruised down to Sami and there we were. Lunch at the bakery, little wine to celebrate, off to buy the tickets for Lefkada before I could change my mind. The ferry was due at 4pm and it was due to be on time. When I took it the previous month it was 3 hours late.

Lunch break in Sami

We had a couple of hours, took a picture by the seafront where we had our lunch then decided to have a break in Karavomilos. Siesta in the shade and back to Sami. The ferry was right on time, empty and perfect for staying outside. My head felt a bit funny, the effort, the sun, the wine, the adventure?

On the ferry we resolved to go for a swim and maybe find a way to get to the cape in Lefkada the day after. First we had to find accommodation though. When we landed in Vassiliki the sun was already low, we had little time. Managed to find a cheap room just over the port, it was easy to bargain a little to take down the price. Managed also to understand that my knee was pretty bad now, it gets bad when it’s cold, after it’s had some time to rest, I thought. This will be the end of my cycling trip. Then we rode our steeds to the Western part of the beach, but the sun had already gone behind the hill. Took a refreshing dip anyway among the windsurfing and watersports places. Then asked around for a kayak for rent, no luck because it was too late and they were all closed, we’d have to come back in the morning after 10am. We were positive because there were quite a few kayaks around.

We got back to the village for dinner, checked all the restaurants on foot as well then picked one at the opposite end of the village to where we were staying. Had a decent dinner, maybe ate too much, then checked the distance to the cape with my thumbs on a map from a shop. It was doable. Had an ouzo and off to bed.

The morning after, Sunday, we got out at 9.30 and Vassiliki was still sleeping. Got some breakfast and lunch then we went to find a kayak to rent. One place rented sit-on-tops by the hour. We bargained and he took the price down, but he had no dry bags and we definitely needed one or two. The other place rented proper sea kayaks, it was more expensive but our stuff, importantly my leg, would stay dry. So after long consultation we decided to go for the incredibly long and attractive closed-in red tandem kayak. First we had breakfast though, while watching a pretty clueless looking American couple load their kayak for a 5-day trip to… let me get the map so I can tell you where we’re going, ah yes it’s called Meganissi. They were already there when we arrived, we had the time to have a good look around, sit down, have breakfast, talk about what to do, try different dry bags, life jackets, get the kayaks, get our stuff inside, get in the sea, paddle away, and they were still there!

Balance was easy on the tandem, direction another matter completely. I sat at the back, left the rudder up, and off we went in the most comical zig zag direction we could. After half an hour we still hadn’t figured out how to go straight, so we decided to land on the first beach and put the rudder down. We swapped places so Olly could steer from the back.

From there it went smoother. It took a while to get to the cape, it is definitely further than the 5-6km that the guy who rented us the kayaks said. It was beautiful. We saw some beaches on the way, the little island just before the cape, the lighthouse on top. We paddled around to go see the famous cliffs from down below, and as soon as we crossed the cape line we hit real waves. The view on the cliffs was amazing, I couldn’t enjoy it too much because I was a little concerned with the kayak’s balance now. The cliffs looked high especially from close to the wall. We saw a little cave and a whirlwind of rubbish dancing just outside, that looked like birds from a distance. We turned back to go land on the sheltered side, by the little island. A young couple was swimming in the small bay. It took us a while to figure out what to do with the kayak. After seeing how badly it hit the rocks being tied with the rope to a metal hook on the rocks, we thought it would be better to just lift it up on the rocks, and it turned out to be a better idea.

We swam to the rock-island, and it was just amazing. No exaggeration here. The water was very clear, and we could see thousands of fish around the rock. Breams of all types, smaller blue fish, lots of parrot fish, a grouper, bright red starfish. It is still the best place for swimming I have ever seen in the Mediterranean sea, together with Ustica maybe. I got cold quickly so after circumswimming the rock I headed back hastily. Well worth it.

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We thought we could have lunch by the lighthouse, walked up the path and in 15 minutes we were eating bread and olives and cheese, salty food on the salty sea water we’d drunk on the way. Didn’t hang around much, it was a bit late and we were tired at this point. Walked back down to the kayak and proceeded to get on.

The way back was harder, we took a straight line from the start this time, but the wind had picked up and it was coming from the side. We were torn between taking the most direct line cutting from headland to headland, which meant staying more exposed, and keep sheltered by following the coastline very tightly, to avoid the growing side wind, which was actually coming at a slight angle from the front-left, or bow-port if you prefer. After getting splashed in the face for over an hour we steered decidedly close to shore. As we were doing so a fishing boat came by very close, the fisherman wildly gesticulating to come away. We couldn’t see the reason for his obviously serious concern, and thinking it was the right choice we persisted until the breeze was gentle enough that we were actually drying out a bit. At this point the sun was setting on the bay, but we resolved to perform one last act before returning the kayak. When we rented it in the morning Olly had asked if it was possible to get in the sea then back onboard. The only reply was ‘have you been on a kayak before? It’s like a surfboard’, and that was that. We paddled almost all the way to the beach before taking up the challenge. The sea was a table, we could observe the people standup paddling going faster than the people windsurfing. We had a good laugh at the whole scene as we jumped in the water. And we got back on fine, although it’s not quite like a surfboard. The rental guy was just waiting for us, it was past 6pm. He pulled ashore the kayak and left everything else there, paddles, lifejackets, drybags, spraydecks which we hadn’t even used.

Second evening in Vassiliki was good, still amazed by the number of young people around after spending all the summers in Katelios. Ouzo before and after dinner, game of tresette. Went to bed late but slept better than the first night.

On Monday morning I got up early, my ferry back to Kefalonia was at 9am. Bought some breakfast in what felt like the very early hours of the morning, no people around other than the baker. Just the time for a quick goodbye to Olly then I got onboard to have my breakfast, as the ferry left the port and he was eating his pastry on our balcony, a few meters away. It was a Dorian Gray-like image, seeing the young image of myself sitting still right in front of me, getting more and more distant as my real self drifted away towards inexorable ageing. Back to reality, we talked about kayaking the Ionian next summer, a few week long adventure, which I intend to do.

Back in Assos, Kefalonia

In Fiskardo just after 10am I hurried off the boat to get on my bike and go meet Fiona in Assos. The road was harder than I thought and my knee wasn’t happy at all. I cycled uphill for a good 10-12km before the road finally hit a plateau and I could cruise for a short time, as the steep descent to Assos came up very soon after. I went down with all the weight from my bags rocking at every hairpin bend. I was happy to see Fiona, and wondered how Olly would do on his long trip that I wish I could have joined.


Ithaca gave us the marvellous journey.

It was briefly discussed over the winter, without giving too much importance to the idea. Busy with other worries for most of the spring and summer.
But as soon as Markus arrived in Kefalonia this year, the idea was put forward again, as though it were new. None of us had really done any kayaking for a long time. It wasn’t training that we needed anyway, it was just a crazy plan. And we did have a crazy plan.

We would kayak to Ithaca over 2 or 3 days, with stops in Skala and Poros on the way. And that’s more or less what we did. We had to time it around Markus’s volunteer shifts, but it worked.

Day 1 (Katelios – Mounda):
It was an afternoon in late July. The weather was unusually funny for the season. Funny as in stormy. We took to the sea a bit unaware of the weather around, we were sailing in very familiar waters after all. Not long after leaving from Katelios, maybe halfway to cape Mounda, the wind picked up and the sky darkened quite suddenly. I started seeing lightning at a distance, in front of us and to our left, so East and North. I pointed it out to Markus, who didn’t really believe me at first. But when the flashing in the sky got more frequent, we thought it wise to get out of the water quickly. So just past Marina Bay on Mounda we turned towards the beach. In doing so I realized Nikos was swimming a few hundred meters ahead of us in the direction of the cape. I paddled fast to get alongside him, and shouted to get out, the storm is coming can you see it? He nodded placidly and turned only a few degrees to make for the shore in an ever-so-slightly more direct way. Eventually we all landed right before the cape, and as the electric storm didn’t seem to get any closer Markus and I just jumped in the water. Why did you stop us then?, we thought to ourselves. We knew the next day would have to be longer because of this early stop.

Day 2 (Mounda – Poros):
We knew the second leg of the trip would be long. On the first day we had to stop because of the storm, so this day we would have to go all the way up the coast to Poros after going around cape Mounda. We set off early enough, and paddled steadily and quietly. I know this stretch of coast already, so nothing new to see. We went past Skala, the road, the hotels and bars. We had some breakfast in front of the main beach with all the sunbeds. Then we saw the bigger hotels and complexes on the hills, Apostolata village. After that the coastline becomes more interesting, then we get to the rocky mushrooms beach. At that point we’re pretty tired, feeling the effort in our arms. We still have to get around the last headland and cut through with Poros port on our left, to get to the very end of Poros (Ragia) beach. This last part feels the longest, we can see our destination for the day and it seems to take forever. We finally land on Poros beach, little elation, just fatigue. A tasty pasteli (sesame bar) comes to the rescue. We park the kayaks behind a bush at the back of the beach, check the time and realize we’d have to run to make the bus. We don’t even have time to buy some pastry at the bakery. But when we get to the square, there is no bus at 11 or 11.30, claims the kiosk man. I don’t want to believe it, so I call the bus station. Naturally he’s right. Ok, time for spanakopita then. And call Fiona for a lift, too tired to think about hitch hiking. We get back for lunch with the Ithaca shores expecting us on another day.

Day 3 (Poros – Ithaca):
The moment of truth came on the third day. Took a lift to Poros in the early morning with Fiona, set out to start paddling at 7am. The day was clear. Only a little delay on schedule. A picture for the heroes and off we went, leaving the known shores behind. We had planned to stay along the coast for a while, until the last sandy beach in Kefalonia, then head NE towards Ithaca’s tiny coves. We stuck to the plan and paddled happily. A beautiful part of the coast unrolled before our eyes. When the water was very calm we saw big tuna-like fish leaping out of the water. At one singular moment the wind picked up, around 10 o’clock, when we were still along the Kefalonian coast, and we paddled against the current for a while. Then we saw the last beach on the big island and landed for a break. We consumed an egg each. Energy boost and a quick swim in the clear water. The sea was stupefyingly still when we turned to starboard and left the coast. Ithaca looked quite close, and we had a surprisingly easy paddle across. There was time for some jumping in the water and pictures in the open sea. Then the shore appeared really close, and we arrived on a really small shadeless beach, almost exactly on schedule. Time to cool down again with a dip in the water that felt almost cold, due to the contrast with the scorching 1 o’clock sun. Markus quickly discovered that in the remotest NE corner of the beach a few rocks managed to give some shade, and that’s where we had our nutritious lunch. Curled under the rocky wall. The heat was intense. After lunch Markus found a half-shaded very rough spot on the opposite shade of the shore under some sunbaked bush. I was too excited and spent some time climbing up one side of the cliff into the vegetation to take some pictures. Then I rushed up the back of the beach, a very interesting dry riverbed paved full with big rolling rocks. The surface was very unstable, the slope quite steep, but I sweated some way up for a great view and some more pictures. I also wondered how far and hard it would be to the first path/road, which on the map seemed at least a few kms away.
It was time to move on towards the port, having learned from our past epic trip to Zakynthos that ferry timetables can’t be trusted. As we were getting ready to go, the coast guard arrived on a speedboat and spent half an hour checking the other rubber boat in the tiny bay, whose occupants never got ashore. I spent all the time wondering what I would reply to their question, which in my mind was sure to come: ‘where are you coming from?’. I had more or less settled on ‘a land far far away’, but we must have looked too weird, two weirdos for them. So after that figurative cold shower we resumed our preparations to get to the port along the Ithacan coast.
This time the crazy plan consisted of us snorkelling while towing the kayaks at the same time. We had brought two ropes especially for the purpose. I threw my gigantic dry bag inside the kayak, tied the rope through the hook at the bow and around the paddle, checked my absolute beginner’s knot, then passed the other end of the rope around my waist and set off first with my snorkel on. It was surprisingly light, except the rope on my skin was uncomfortable and wouldn’t stay. Quick fix, I passed the rope under my armpits and around the back of my neck and it worked! There was no slipping of the rope and I was swimming effortlessly. Markus was due to wait a bit longer so he could take some pictures of me in the act of swimming with the kayak, and he dutifully did. I stayed close to the rocky side of the tiny bay, watching the seabed diving too deep to be seen in a few strokes. I turned behind to make sure Markus was coming then I kept going into the blue. Just before the exit of the bay the rocky coastline was barely visible underwater, as though the wall ran away from me at a negative angle. But just at the corner, as we swam around and out of the bay turning N, underwater rocks became more visible and less deep for a moment, and we could see swarms of fish everywhere. One of the most exciting sights of the whole trip. Fear of the abyss and of missing the ferry quickly took over however, and we got back on our boats to get to top speed. Cruised along the coast for a while, then stopped again at a tiny beach for a quick swim. Played around with the kayaks, pushing them on the flat sea while snorkelling around small caves and low rocky coastline. Then it was late. We saw a rough, windy sea patch comign from North, heading right at us. It was a unique feeling, to see it at a distance, coming slowly for us as we were simultaneously going for it, going for our inevitable fate. It approached carefully, out of respect for us and our long coming I should think. It was announced by a sudden change in the air, first the cold front, then the wind accelerated and lastly the boats rocked on the waves. When it finally hit us our boats filled up with water and we were paddling under sea level. The harbour was just there and we could see cars and people queued, waiting for the ferry. I realized we were slow and the ferry was due to come soon. I hurried, paddling hastily while turning my head back, expecting to see the ferry shadow take over us any minute. It was the end and it was the hardest part. We manouvered around the short pier into the back where a couple of small boats were moored. Landed on some pebbles, lifted the kayaks and our stuff onto the tarmac, among tightly parked cars. We proceeded to the sunbaked bar for the deserved libations and toasts. The ferry was late, the beer was flowing. Impatient tourists and their metal boxes formed the blurry background. The kayaks were heavy to lift and move into the giant ship’s belly. We were in Sami in no time, or better in one more beer time. The garage boss shouted at us to fulfill his role, kayaks were at one end and the exit this time was at the other end, not the mouth but the bottom of the ship. We hinted an unconvinced rush, he kept shouting, all cars and passengers were already gone, it was one kayak at a time, the belly was enormous and crossing it while carrying the kayak another feat. I shouted back. He wasn’t moved. We were out, back to our starting island, time for the last picture. We then looked for a place to leave the kayaks, against the wall on the most shallow shore between the marinas, but it looked sort of sheltered. The paddles came with us. To the supermarket! More beer to help with the hitch hiking. Outside the supermarket we sipped our Mythos, nobody stopped. We emptied the bottles and brandishing the paddle like a spear, in turns, we put on our best rugged smiles. After a few dozen cars a mixed colour couple stopped, a very nice guy drove us well past their accommodation to the first village after the turn to Poros, while the lady looked mostly nervous. The paddles were dripping all over the gear stick. Outside a mini market in the small village we thought everything was possible. Again paddles at the forefront, we saw many cars go by until a young couple stopped. The paddles did it, he picked us up because we were fellow kayakers. A young short fella with very broad shoulders, he told us his story of recently kayaking around the UK, 42km a day in 6-7 hours on average. Be-littled. We didn’t say much, mostly listened. We got all the way to Katelios, where we found Fiona at the hotel and took a lift home.