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.

View Larger Map

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.

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