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“In fifteens years running kayak tours on the Island I’ve never had to call the rescue services”. I remember thinking, “Miguel please don’t say that”. I’m not suspicious but I’ve always thought it best to avoid such obvious tempts of fate.
It was only 45 minutes ago that I landed at the airport in Palma de Mallorca and we’re already ensconced in a restaurant, the food’s been ordered and there’s a cold beer on its way. Miguel came to collect us from the airport and had immediately whisked us off saying “es la hora de comer” – “it’s time to eat”. The subject of being rescued had come up because an acquaintance had recently needed a helicopter after capsizing in less than idyllic conditions off the southwestern tip of Menorca – “inprudente” was Miguel’s verdict which given the circumstances is a miracle of understatement and certainly needs no translation.
Our mission on Mallorca is to paddle the major part of the southern coastline. Miguel runs the largest kayak company on the island and is providing us with kayaks and kit and logistics like a lift to the start and collection from our finish point.
Lunch arrives (a stunning seafood fideua, a paella like dish made with pasta) and the conversation turns more upbeat with discussions around the route, the huge number of caves and which beaches we’ll get away with sleeping on. César is keen on a discovering a particular cove that he’d read about but Miguel advises against camping there with talk of big Dobermans roaming freely.
Stomachs full we leave the restaurant and head for Miguel’s shop where we sort ourselves out with kayaks, paddles and the other clobber that Miguel has set aside for us. I’ve always been amazed at the very high quality of his hire kit and the carbon Werners that he’s just given me more than prove that point.
The next day I wake up with backache. I’m on a deserted beach east of St Pere where we got dropped off last night just as it was getting dark. It’s very early, both Paco and César are still fast asleep so I get up quietly and watch the dawn rise over the fishing cabanas, illuminating the high mountains to the north, off Formentor. The others are also clearly suffering from “first-night-sleeping-on-a beach” syndrome because at an uncharacteristically early hour for my Spanish mates we’re up packing the kayaks with our kit and all the food that we brought last night.
Paco seems to have more gear than anyone else and is struggling to fit it all in. He’s also complaining about the slow puncture in his sleeping mat and the resulting discomfort the night before. In the best spirit of international camaraderie César and I offer “helpful” suggestions. To be fair it’s not that much later that we’re all afloat and we’re off. I love the Med and its beautiful, warm blue water. As we cruise past the low, striated sandstone cliffs it seems that we’re the only people in the world. It’s eerily quiet and while maybe that’s not so unusual on the water neither is there anyone in sight on land. It’s not long until we come across our first cave, according to Miguel, the first of many to come. Our route is taking us initially towards the north and as we get closer to the high Punta the waves are picking up. This I’d expected. It was the main reason we’d decided to paddle the southern coastline. Previous experience paddling here had showed me just how vulnerable the exposed north coast is to high winds and in particular the sudden appearance of the infamous Tramontana. I’m mildly surprised therefore when, far from calming down as we swing towards the south, it’s actually getting rougher. Indeed there’s now a big swell running and all ideas of a mellow paddle have disappeared. After 14kms we give ourselves a brief stop but the series of headlands mean that we’ve no option but to continue on to the relative shelter of Cala Gat. What a culture shock! After seeing no-one all day the beach is full. Still, after 27kms the rest is welcome, as is the beer, ice-cold and served in a large Stein – guess which nationality make up the majority of their customers.
Later, we wander into the harbour and ask the advice of the local fishermen for somewhere to eat. Their backstreet recommendation proves much cheaper than the more obvious, glitzy alternatives and good too – Sepia, Pan i oli and frito marinero. I feel more than pleasantly full as we walk back to the beach where we’d stashed our kayaks.
The next morning is another early start. Not this time because of any backache. First it’s the beach-cleaner raking the sand smooth and the old women feeding the huge population of cats that give the Cala its name. They are followed remarkably shortly by a nigh-on constant stream of German tourist with towels. Yes, you’ve guessed it, bagging the best spots on the beach! Live the cliché.
There’s not much to keep us here so we pack up the kayaks and get ready to head off. We’ve eaten very little of the food so the boats are still pretty heavy. There’s a slipway down towards the obvious launch point and I head for that carrying the front of my kayak. I step carefully over the strip of green slime, assuming that Paco, carrying the stern, will be just as prudent. The jolt through my arm and the sound of the crash behind prove me wrong. I turn round to see Paco flat on his back with a pretty bad cut on the back of his head.
None of us are keen on the thought of wasting a day at the medics so César and I do a bodge job with some steri-strips having given Paco an appalling haircut in a vain attempt to get them to stick. He’s going to have the mother of all scars. I’m not sure that Mabel, his wife, is ever going to forgive me.
So it’s more than a bit later that we eventually set off. There are more clouds about today and they are moving fast. Once past the bay the scenery turns to high, orange-coloured cliffs dotted with stunted pine trees clinging to the steep sides. The contrast with the turquoise water is stunning. It’s now more than a bit lumpy and tiring too as we counter the effects of the wind off our rear quarter. It’s with a sigh of relief that we arrive at Costa Pinos which marks the start of a large, sheltered bay.
Paco explains that this is where many of the Spanish super-rich have their Mallorcan retreats. If you like that kind of thing the houses are fantastic, with verdant green, manicured lawns extending right down to the water’s edge. I’m not sure if it’s a sign of envy but I can’t help feeling that the view towards is somewhat better than the view from Costa Pinos, dominated as it is by a number of high-rise developments catering for the hoi-polloi!
We stop off for a late lunch and afterwards Paco and César crash out under the shade of a large pine for a siesta. Being a true Brit I resist and entertain myself by washing out some already stinky kit. That siesta and the late lunch mean that it’s about 5.00pm before we start off again. At the other end of the bay the short cliffs form a peninsular which is a particularly gorgeous golden colour in the low, evening light. What a contrast though it is as we round the other side. “Parece Alicante” “It seems like Alicante” remarks César. This is not a compliment! A gigantic and gigantically ugly hotel dominates the next bay. This is not Mallorca’s finest moment.
We press on and eventually land on a quiet, nudist beach a couple of miles further on. After a swim we have a snack of bread and jamon and then suss out the best spot to bivy for the night.
It’s around 2.00am that I wake up with a start. Paco’s trying to shake me awake. My befuddled brain is trying to work out what he’s saying, something about César. It’s the word “ambulancía” that eventually registers. César is in severe pain and Paco has just called for an ambulance.
I get up and it’s obvious that César is in a bad way. He’s lying in his sleeping bag, drenched in sweat, groaning. I look around in the gloom. There’s no way an ambulance is going to get anywhere near us. Even on our big-scale, very detailed map the beach is too small to warrant a name. How are they even going to find us? Paco is busy on his mobile trying to describe our location. Before leaving the UK I’d bought a new head torch with a massively powerful beam. It proves its worth and acts like a hugely effective beacon. Eventually we see a couple of torch beams coming towards us from the cliffs on the opposite side of the beach. The local police have been drafted in to the search and they lead the ambulance crew to us.
The paramedics are bent over César. A kidney stone is the assessment. Standing over him the discussion turns to how we’re going to get him to the waiting ambulance a mile or so to the north of us. Alright the cliffs aren’t particularly high but the “path” involves a descent and ascent that even with the six of us is going to be massively difficult carrying a stretcher. One of the ambulance crew mentions “helicoptero”. Suddenly, like the rising of Lazarus, César is trying to stand and with the support of Paco and one of the police he staggers down to the beach. Fortunately he’s also able to make it three-quarters of the way up the cliffs on the other side before he collapses again, so it’s only over relatively flat ground that we have to carry him the remaining distance.
In a whirl of activity, César is loaded into the ambulance, it’s decided that Paco will go with him and one of the police cars then escorts the ambulance and they zoom off with the blue lights flashing.
Imagine the scene; it’s now past 3.00am in the morning, we’ve been camping illegally on a beach, we called for an ambulance in the middle of the night, the police were involved in searching for us, I’m standing with the one remaining copper, we’re both drenched in sweat from our efforts with the stretcher. What question would you most expect to get asked in such circumstances? I can tell you, lots of obvious one’s are springing to mind and I’m mentally rehearsing woolly excuses in Spanish. The question that the policeman asks? “This sea-kayaking, it seems like fun. Where can I have a go?”
It’s with a mixture therefore of amusement, relief, concern, tiredness and uncertainty that I wind my way back to our camp, crawl into my sleeping bag and fall back to sleep once more.
The next morning Paco is back, fast asleep and making good use of César’s Thermarest to cushion his own still-punctured sleeping mat – every cloud has a silver lining! I leave him to sleep and ponder on our likely options. None of the scenarios that I explore include seeing César walking back along the cliffs on the other side of the beach towards us. At first I think that I must be mistaken, that it cannot be but I’m wrong. Apparently in hospital he was given some kind of miracle-drug which dissolved the kidney-stone. So, somewhat remarkably, our team of three are now all back in our kayaks setting off once again.
As we paddle along César is regaling us with his version of the night before. It transpires that one of the ambulance crew is also a keen paddler and furnished him with a hand-drawn map cum guide to the best caves. What a shame then that it’s far too rough to explore them. The cliffs aren’t high but this is undeniably a committing coastline with few places to stop. Cala Figue is particularly stunning with a huge number of caves that unfortunately we have to skip as it’s still too rough to enter them. Given better, more usual conditions it would be worth allowing twice as long to explore this coastline, there really is so much to see. Cala Virgell is another gorgeous cove and sheltered enough to allow us to stop briefly. We’re all a bit knackered and hungry too but there’s no chiringuito or snack-bar on the beach so we carry on. Eventually we stop for another very late lunch and one more re-telling of last night’s exploits.
The sun is pretty low on the horizon as we launch off the beach, we’re planning to continue on a further 7km where according to the map there looks to be a sheltered cove, sufficiently isolated to allow us to bivy. It’s still lumpy and we’re not exactly making rapid progress, indeed it’s getting dark as we enter Cala Mitjana. WOW! Imagine something from a Bond film. The cala itself is a gorgeous, narrow inlet. It’s the floodlights in the rocks that start to give the game away. The “wow” comes from the villa: a luxury, villain’s lair that looks like something Blofeld would be using from which to plan SMERSH’s latest dastardly deeds. All three of us are speechless, so it’s not until we reach the tiny beach at the head of the inlet that we realise that each of us has independently reached the same conclusion – this is the beach that Miguel told us about. None of us fancy sharing the tiny patch of sand with snarling, snapping Dobermans so reluctantly we paddle back out into the gloom.
It is pitch black. As we land in Cala Serena we startle the solitary fisherman on the small beach. It may be dark but it’s also obvious from all the lights coming from the apartment blocks and villas that this is not the kind of quiet cove that we’d been looking for. Bivying on the beach could well be a problem but heyho we’re knackered, it’s too dark to continue and at least it means that we’ll get a beer.
As we wander towards what looks like the centre of “town” I’m reminded of one of those weird sets in a Tim Burton film, all bright primary colours. Neon signs advertise professional tattooing and body piercing! At the bar the waiter doesn’t speak Spanish – it really does seem that we’ve been transported somewhere totally different from the wild, beautiful coastline we were enjoying a few hours ago.
It’s around midnight when we return to the beach and it’s starting to spit with rain. The discussion turns to the subject of tents. On my last three trips to the Balearic Islands I’ve brought a tent and not used it, so almost as a justification for lugging it with me I decide that I might as well pitch it. The others follow suit and soon all three of us have the tents up and are crawling into bed.
Good decision. I wake up and it’s like someone’s got a fire-hose aimed at the outside of the tent. No exaggeration, the rain really is that heavy and what’s more unrelenting, it just keeps going. I doze fitfully thinking about the English refrain “rain at seven, fine by eleven” i.e. it’ll last 3-4 hours and then ease off. Wrong. At 6.00am it’s still lashing down, like the heaviest tropical storm. There’s no point in getting up. Before going to bed we’d discussed getting the tent’s down at dawn in order to avoid any aggro from the local police. I remember thinking that no sensible copper would be out in these monsoon-like conditions and turn over. Paco and César have clearly reached the same conclusion because it’s well past 9.00am when I hear the unzipping of a tent and shortly afterwards a gasp of surprise from one of my companeros. I poke my head out of the tent and I am similarly astonished. There’s a river running past, inches from where I’d been sleeping.
Despite the rain we get up and pack away the sorry, soggy, sandy tents and stand, dripping under the minimal protection afforded by a palm tree.
Those primary colours are somewhat muted this morning. Everything is sodden. It’s hard to believe that rain this heavy can keep going so incessantly. We manage to blag a coffee and a cake in a small supermarket. It’s then, wandering back to the beach that we get out first glimpse of the open sea. Outside the shelter of the cove, it’s massively rough and we can see a semi-submerged yacht under tow by the local version of the RLNI trying to haul it back from its near collision with the cliffs.
It’s obvious that we’ll be going no further. So we phone Miguel to arrange a premature exit. It’s only when we get back to our boats that we realise just how close a shave we’ve had. The beach has gone, with not a trace of sand anywhere. Where we’d been sleeping, there is now a torrent. Tons of raging water have decimated our camp. Later we learn that most of the Island has been similarly decimated. Paddle over!
It must be stated that such conditions on Mallorca are highly unusual. The press described it as “a-once-in-a-lifetime storm”. Having said that Miguel at Kayak-Mallorca recommends may or June as the best months to visit the Island. July and August are good too but bear in mind that there’ll be a major influx of tourists which are best avoided if you’re going for stealth. Contact Miguel at http://www.piraguasgm.com/kayakmallorca/ he’s a keen paddler and always happy to share his enthusiasm for the beautiful Island with other paddlers.