Inspired by the words of Kazantzakis, the music of Theodorakis and the spirit of Zorba, I set off last September for the eastern Aegean and the islands of the Dodacanese group for an 8-day commercial sea kayak trip.
I had booked the trip with Crossing Latitudes who promoted it on their website as being “for folks with previous paddling experience who’d like to further improve their paddling skills and maybe challenge themselves among rock gardens and in surf”.
Taking the trip was a party of 6: Lena Conlon, co-owner of Crossing Latitudes; Rotem Ron, our guide and a BCU 5-star instructor (and the first person to circumnavigate Iceland solo in a kayak!) and 4 customers including myself. I had been given the impression when booking that our guide would be the legendary Hadas Feldman — something I dined out on with my kayaking mates in the weeks leading up to my departure for the island of Kos (which is only a stone’s throw from the western shoreline of Turkey). This wasn’t to be but my initial disappointment that Hadas wasn’t guiding us didn’t last long as Rotem proved to be a more than adequate substitute.
My expectation that I could be one of the weaker members of the group was quickly dashed. The meet-and-greet session on the first day at our hotel in Kos revealed that my fellow paddlers were far less experienced than me. The big challenge facing Lena and Rotem would be to satisfy the kayaking objectives of each of the punters — something I think they were able to do reasonably well.
Our boats were Nigel Dennis Kayaks — all fibreglass and showing signs of being well used. They are owned by an Israeli company, Terra Santa Expeditions, (Rotem’s employer) and are permanently stored in Kos. Our pod was made up of 4 singles and a double — from memory most with skegs and all without rudders. Everybody had a stint in the double during the trip, however, I was mostly in an Explorer HV — a nicely behaved boat, comfortable and fast enough. We each carried our own clothes and other personal items plus some of the communal cargo such as food, utensils, water, etc. Our accommodation was generally in guest houses and small holiday units. Meals were all supplied as part of the tour package with breakfasts and lunches mostly self-catered and evening meals taken in local tavernas. We all ate well.
We set out on our adventure proper on Day 2, catching an inter-island ferry out of Kos and heading north to the island of Leros passing Pserimos and Kalymnos (famous for the exploits of its sponge divers) enroute. On Leros (heavily bombed by the RAF during WW2) we based ourselves in the pretty seaside village of Pandeli. Here we stayed for 3 days, one more day than intended due to very strong winds. We did a little bit of paddling each day and included some sessions developing basic skills. The rest of the time we relaxed, visited the nearby townships and climbed a hill behind Pandeli on which a formidable fortress built in the middle ages (and once occupied by the Knights of St John) still stood in excellent condition. Departing Pandeli on Day 5, we headed towards the southern end of Leros to another seaside village, Xirokambos, for an overnight stay before paddling further south, across a channel and down the western side of Kalymnos, staying overnight on nearby car-less Telendos. Day 7 had us arriving in the busy port of Pothea, the main town of Kalymnos. On the final day Rotem and I paddled back to Kos, a distance of approximately 33km, while the rest of the group took the ferry, arriving not long after us.
Although from different parts of the world, the group members got on extremely well (the mix of nationalities was 3 Americans, and one each Swede, Israeli and Australian). Apart from Lena and Rotem, we were all either retired or getting close to it. Lean and fit, a little irascible at times, Earl, a 77-year-old New Yorker, was the senior member and an inspiration as he tried valiantly to crack an Eskimo roll for the first time.
Although the trip didn’t provide the challenge I’d hoped for (maybe a 150kms paddled over the 8 days, no surf encounters and only the gentlest of rock gardens), the paddling was leisurely and very pleasant. The spectacular blue, so hard to describe, and clarity of the Aegean was amazing. Paddling very close alongside the rugged, steep cliffs of Kalymnos with the sea gently lapping against them was special. The abundance of islands in close proximity all with craggy coastlines and barren hills rising high behind always made for a dramatic vista. And occasionally we would round a point to find the perfect beach — sometimes sandy, sometimes cobblestoned — for a picnic lunch. The villages dotted along our route with clusters of squat whitewashed buildings (including some old windmills converted into dwellings) added to the visual attraction.
However, the cultural experience was the highlight for me and travelling by kayak was a great way to absorb it. The islands are saturated with so much history — a sort of history we don’t experience here — with well-preserved relics, some dating back before Christ was born, abounding. Away from the tourist haven of Kos, the people on the islands were always friendly and pleasant. Their lives seemingly simpler, more carefree and less cluttered than the lives of their city brethren (and ours, too). Images of a more leisurely life are easy to recall: a calamari fisherman at waters edge sorting his catch while his grandson plays happily with a toy tractor nearby; menfolk sitting at streetside tables drinking coffee and earnestly discussing politics (our visit to Pandeli coincided with the Greek national elections) playing cards or checkers; two elderly women taking in their regular early evening dip in the Aegean, chatting and laughing together. I have lots more to remind me of a very appealing lifestyle.
The group experienced some great hospitality as we journeyed along. Most memorable was when our hostess at the Villa Maria in Xirokambos enhanced our breakfast with delectable green figs and grapes freshly picked from her nearby garden of which she was justly proud. And more about food: our journey was not a great gastronomic experience but we did eat tomatoes that tasted the way tomatoes should, not like the cardboard variety served up in our supermarkets. Greek salads were standard fare for dinner — always served with a generous slab of local fetta (the taste of which we don’t seem to be able to capture in Oz). And I grew particularly fond of the local Mythos beer only opting for ouzo on the last night.
An interesting aspect was the location of some of the chapels we paddled past. Isolated and built in what seemed to be the most inaccessible parts, sometimes precariously propped on the side of a steep slope, they would have proved a real test of faith to those who chose to worship in them.
Also of interest was the number of Greeks we met who had once lived in Australia. My landlady at the Yiorgos Hotel in Kos had run a convenience store during the 1970s in Mosman at the same time that I was living there. George, our host at On the Rocks restaurant in Telendos had typical Greek looks but an accent that was undeniably Australian which he’d gained from his many years living in Sydney’s Paddington. And the restaurateur in Pothia who proudly recounted his career as a dogman on numerous Sydney building projects including the Sydney Opera House (producing photos as proof). There were others and although all had fond recollections of their time in Australia the lure of their island had been too strong for them to resist.
This Crossing Latitudes trip would be well within the capabilities of a NSWSKC Grade 2 paddler. Particularly so given the duty of care exercised by the operator. For more details visit www.crossinglatitudes.com.
For something more challenging in the same region visit the Terra Santa Kayak Expedition site at http://www.seakayak.co.il