Thursday, 22 October 2009

Once Around The Island

Sea Kayaking Round Milos and Kimolos

Another bright blue day was dawning on the Greek island of Milos. Things were ticking along as they have always done. There were familiar faces drinking the same drinks at the same bar tables. Just a little bit more leathery than six months before. Archontoula's beaming smile at the delightful taverna in the Plaka was just as it always was, and Katharina was opening up the fishing tackle shop across the road, just like before.

Six months had passed since we’d left this wonderful place, and it was as if life on the island had been frozen in time, giving the illusion that nothing had changed, or ever will.

The old Sulphur Mine

This timeless magic rests everywhere on Milos. But this time, everything inside felt different. Stu and I were meant to be joining one of Rod Feldtmann's sea kayak expeditions to circumnavigate the 120 km coastline. But just hours before the flight, Stu had to finally admit that his back was too painful to last the journey there, let alone the kayak trip. It was a dark tunnel that lead me onto the plane on my own, but it was pointless for both of us to back out. And in any case, I needed the experience, to be happy in big waves. Then, Olympic Airways went bust a day or two before, abruptly severing the airborne lifeline to the island.

Udo, Hellen and Sandra

As the collection of Dutch, German and British kayakers thumped down their hefty packs outside Perros’ bar in Triovassalos, we compared stories of trains, planes and automobiles as Olympic Airlines sputtered to a financial halt. No matter, we were here now, and were about to enter a new world, a reality almost untouchable by the hasty demands of the modern world. A place of few things: just the five elements and only the instant of time occupied by the here and now.

The Taste of Salt

It was fascinating to be fully immersed in this salty existence. Washing everything from dishes to clothes to ourselves in the sea. We all slotted into a deliriously simple beach life camped on the shore. How easy it was to wash dishes with salt water and some sand. And occasionally, an octopus would come over and lend a tentacle...(or eight).

It struck me that although we were tired, we were all happy. It was physically demanding, but a kayak full of gear was all we needed. Maybe the good things in life are not things. And everywhere, in everything, the taste of salt.

Blazing Paddles

For the first half of the trip, winds were light and the sea state pretty calm. As we rounded the south west corner of the island, though, the influence of the highest mountain started to come into play. Great downdraughts came steaming down the mountainside and onto the sea at near-gale force. Kayaking from bay to bay and out onto these Force 6 and 7 winds screeching around the headlands was a lot of fun. Like being pelted with a water gun at point blank range. Rod carefully edged us onward, one bay at a time.

Rod having a play in a Force 6-7 offshore wind

Then the sea began to roll. A two metre swell reared up, and I was about to get the experience I needed. We all were.

Christian enjoying the big waves at Cape Vani

From our little rainbow coloured kayaks, these were immense salty blue hills, settling out to about Force 5. But a funny thing happened. We all just got on with it. Terry started singing sea shanties in his flawless bass-baritone. Some of us joined in. Rod shouted us clear and concise instructions. We carried them out as best we could. To our surprise, and delight, we all found we could 'do' big waves. And even enjoyed it.

Sheltering from the storm at Sikia

A few days of being very alive in big waves and we had completed the circumnavigation. It had been tough, but fantastically good. We'd lived at sea for a whole week, and having completed this thing so much bigger than ourselves, we were happy.

Taking off in the Olympic Air plane, the land and sea tilted at a low angle and the diamond bright church at the top of the Plaka was glinting through blue sea. The scattering of white hillside houses hid Archontoula and her perfect taverna and the open door of Perros’ bar. Low down to the sea in the brightly coloured toy box boat houses of Klima, the salty cats were plumping up nests of sea grass before settling down for a sleep. The sea was sucking in and out of the rocks, and in the immense, sheltered bays, the wind shaving corners off the ashy cliffs. The light was breaking through the clefts of rock and into the endlessly writhing sea below. All of this life, this nature, shrinking to a fleck of land in an ocean of time.

Christian, me, Udo, Hellen, Roger, Jude, Marjolein, Sandra and Terry (photo by Rod Feldtmann).

Expeditions are always quite intense experiences, and it’s been hard to settle back into what we like to call ‘normal’ life afterwards. But sometimes it’s hard to know what is real and what is unreal. For a short time, that mythical unreality, that life in a salty blue bubble was as truthful an existence as we could experience. Those mornings of Force 5 and 6, the rolling of the Aegean swell, that was living nowhere but in the moment. That was surely about as real as it gets.

Photo by Rod Feldtmann