A winter ride on the Mediterranean

The temperature is following a strange course this winter. Right before the freezing cold and the few snowflakes this week, there was a warm spell, with a bright sun and no wind, that happened just over last weekend. So my father and I decided to jump into the car to the old family house by the sea, in a wonderful town on the Mediterranean sea, and get the kayaks out.

For the past eight or ten years, my father had been saying that for his fiftieth birthday, he would buy himself a couple of sea kayaks so he could go touring around the islands. As these things go, he usually wondered whether he would actually do it. And he did. Six months ago, after spending the better part of the year renovating that house that had been sitting around mostly unused, he bought two kayaks, one bright yellow, the other red and orange, as the last addition the house now needed to be alive again. Just as the perfect moment turned up–no wind and no cold and no tourists–we tied the kayaks on top of the car and brought them at the end of the isthmus, for a trip around the peninsula.

There are four islands that face the town of Hyères where that old house is, one of them linked to the mainland by an isthmus of salty marshes, where flamingoes come fishing for shrimp and the beaches and dunes are overshadowed by the parasols of wide pine-trees. For some reason, the weather there is warmer than on the rest of the coast, and quite wet. As a result, the islands are lush beyond compare. The native pines, oaks and myrrhs still grow, along with the arbutus trees with their bell-like flowers and tart red berries, and the palm trees and aloes that were brought a century ago, just after a few rich people decided to drain the marshes and transform the coast from a malaria hell to a sunny paradise. But the islands themselves stayed wild, mostly, and beautifully so. The cliffs and broken boulders glimmer with mica, and the waters are very clear. You can see ten metres deep below you.

I wrote something once over here about the islands, but it doesn’t really do them justice. Here’s what they look like, on a sunny day:

Of course, walking along the coasts is a unique experience, and you’re not afraid you’ll drop your camera in the water, which is quite a bonus. But there is nothing like circling them in a small boat, and kayaks are probably the best. You sit on the water, you can feel it reel below you, touch it, pause to watch the reefs sink deep under, steer it between close rocks in five inches of water, where no other boat could go, and where you couldn’t swim without grazing your skin. There is nothing quite like climbing into a kayak in warm weather, when the sea is clear, and feel like you’re lost to gravity, all of a sudden. There is nothing to make the ride bumpy or tedious, nothing to make you lose you’re balance if you’re careful.

Last time we went kayaking, we did something quite foolish. We set out without food or water, thinking we would only be gone for an hour. The wind made our advance slow, but as we thought that it was blowing in our faces, we carried on until we reached the end of the isthmus, and then a few hundred metres along the coast of the peninsula. As we decided to go back, we thought it would be faster to cut across the open sea instead of following the coasts, and that it wouldn’t be long as we’d have the wind behind us. 

Except that the wind wasn’t blowing in our backs, but from the shore of the isthmus. Which means that is was not only slowing us, it was pushing us farther and farther into the open sea. Suddenly we looked around to realise that the closest shore was half a kilometre away–which is not that far, but the water was very cold, there were waves rocking us back and forth and you can never guarantee how stable a kayak will be, and we were just starting to feel that we should have brought some food with us after all. That was when we realised that we couldn’t even decide to paddle straight towards the beach: the wind was pushing us away, so that we had to take a long, slanted road, until we were close enough to feel safe. By that time, we were so ravenous that we had to steer the kayaks to the beach for my father to run to a snack-bar whose owner he knew well enough, and ask him if he could please make us a couple of sandwiches with two cokes and we’d pay later.

This time, we had learnt. We took a stash of biscuits and chocolate, and went much farther around the peninsula, until we could see the narrowest pass to the next island. Everything was warm and blue, and almost deserted, safe for gulls and cormorants spreading their wings on the rocks. We paddled around reefs, brushing the seaweed and scaring birds away, and there was harly a sound except for the breeze, the waves, and the occasional sounds of "Whoo-hoo" and "Wheeee!" coming from my father, who was quite understandably pleased with his self-birthday gift.

When we stopped on a beach to eat, an elderly couple passed us by and looked with envy at our boats.

"You must feel like kings", they said.

And they were exactly right.


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