Paddling in Mallorca
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The fishermen are putting a brave face on it but the relief is obvious, now that they’re back in the shelter of the harbour. The mother of all electrical storms has just passed through Palma on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. We learn later that the hurricane force winds, lightning strikes and torrential rain have caused chaos throughout the island. The trees we saw earlier being flattened in front of our eyes were but a handful of hundreds of others brought down across the island in what turned out to be the worst storm to hit Mallorca for twenty years.
As the fishermen continue to unload their catch of tuna and swordfish from their 40ft trawler they explain how their boat was spun five times in as many seconds. It’s no wonder that they look a bit shaken. Thank goodness we’d decided to take shelter in a sailing club, sharing cold beers with wealthy Germans on a yacht charter holiday.
I’m getting ahead of myself, my Mallorcan adventure started five days ago in much more idyllic conditions. The clichés are difficult to avoid: the sky is clear, the sea’s blue, it’s warm with only a gentle breeze disturbing the surface of the water as we paddle over to the smaller island of Sa Dragonera. The island gets its name from its dragon-like shape and, as it is today, with the top of the island shrouded in mist it could be a fire-breathing one at that! I’m paddling with Miguel and Janai from PiraguasGM the biggest sea kayak operator on Mallorca. Miguel explains how wind-generated currents affect the channel we’re crossing, giving the lie to the generally held impression that the whole of the Mediterranean Sea is a giant, still bath.
The western side of Dragonera is stunning. The high, pinkish-yellow cliffs are home to a huge colony of Peregrine Falcons which are screeching overhead. The water now is a deep sea-blue, deep being the operative word as despite the clarity of the water the bottom has disappeared. The sea is getting progressively rougher, being disturbed by surprisingly strong gusts dropping almost vertically off the cliffs, presumably a katabatic-like effect from that mist I spotted earlier. Now, at the southern tip of the island there are loads of reflected waves to cope with. This is what I love about paddling in the Mediterranean Sea: challenging enough conditions but with gorgeously warm temperatures and stunning scenery. Heaven.
We swing north and eventually pull in to Cala Llado, one of only two possible landing spots on the island. Our timing is bad. Two minutes later the tourist boat pulls in and a motley assortment of tourists of varying nationalities waddle up the hill to grab a view of where we’ve just paddled. I chat with Janai. She first came to Mallorca as a dancer intending to stay twelve months. Nine years later she’s still here, only now teaching and guiding kayaking with Miguel. I’ve been impressed with her posture in a kayak, a result I guess of that dance background. Sa Dragonera is home to an indigenous species of lizard, these are clearly used to tourists as they scuttle about, fighting over biscuit crumbs while we talk.
Rested, snacked and watered we paddle back towards the main island of Mallorca and I catch my first views of the high cliffs of the north-western flank of the island, the Tramontana. This is a more than committing section of coastline with few easy landings. Given the northerly wind after which it’s named (which has the habit of springing up amazingly quickly with the potential to change a previously calm day into a survival exercise) getting local advice from someone like Miguel is more than sensible. These are the thoughts going through my mind as we pass two inflatable “kayaks” coming the other way, perfectly demonstrating that it’s all too easy to underestimate the Med.
At 9.00am the next day it’s already hot as hell as we begin packing our boats in the port of Pollença. Our plan is to paddle from here and head south for a couple of days. Last night, over a traditional meal of Sopa Mallorquina I’d explained to Miguel that good food was as important to me as good paddling. It’s clear that he’s taken me at my word as we divvy out the enormous quantity of grub that he’s brought. Today we’ve been joined by another couple of paddlers, Mark another Brit who works with Miguel, and Pau, an old pal of mine who runs SK Kayak in Llança on the Costa Brava.
The water is unbelievable mirror-like as we eventually leave an hour later. Miguel explains how even in windy conditions it is still superbly well-sheltered here by the hills to the north, making it one of his favourite spots to run courses. Those hills are pretty impressive too. They’re not in the least bit “rolling”, far from it, they go straight up. That still water gives us a great view of the sea bed and we soon spot some enormous, giant mussels below us. Sadly, over-fishing means that now they are a protected species. We’re skirting the northern shore of the natural harbour. I’m taken by the contrast between the green stunted pines and the pink and orange hues of the surrounding rocks.
After a small cave and a display from a group of flying fish we swing to the south to start the 5km crossing over to the other side of the harbour. We dodge a couple of glass-bottomed catamarans packed full of tourists and some infinitely prettier, traditional, white, canoe-sterned fishing boats, all with the backdrop of Mallorca’s highest mountains, (over 1400 metres) including the appropriately named Puig Mayor, off to our right.
An ice-cold beer in the chiringuito that greets us on the beach is clearly an essential aid to re-hydration before we then turn to the east, heading for Cabo Pinar. Out of the shelter of the harbour now, the sea is rougher. Somehow those stunted pines still manage to cling onto the sides of the steep cliffs. With such great scenery there’s no rush and we bimble along the coast before heading for a large cave with a massive boulder protecting the entrance. We’re virtually at Coll Baix, where we’re planning to camp for the night, when I notice that something has happened to the water – the colour is the most intense turquoise I’ve ever seen. Mark and I are both paddling pale blue Pyranha Skyes and the water is exactly the same colour. It’s quite startling. Closer to the beach it’s like someone’s dropped an enormous quantity of flour into the water, giving it a pale, translucent, almost luminescent feel to it.
The next morning I’m up pretty early with the usual (for me) backache after a night sleeping on a beach. Trying to walk it off, I work my way along the foreshore. At one end the pebbles are tiny and green and look like puy lentils while at the other end (and this probably explains those amazing colours yesterday) they are like white limestone beads that are being tumbled in the surf.
Disappointingly dull skies accompany us down to Cabo de Menorca where Pau practices his rock hopping skills in the more than somewhat confused sea off the high cliffs while Miguel gets his fishing line out in the hope of catching lunch. We re-group off the small island of Illa d’Alcanada where I attempt to repay the favour of Miguel’s hospitality by organising a bit of coaching.
Later that night, in the comfort of another great restaurant, I ask Miguel which is his favourite part of Mallorca. He has no hesitation in naming Levante and it’s clear that he sometimes gets a bit frustrated with paddlers from mainland Spain or further afield wanting only to paddle the Tramontana. While this is undoubtedly impressive the coastline close to Levante is more accessible, more of the time and it’s possible to spend days exploring the hundreds of caves and coves that litter that section of coastline. The plan is to get a taste of this tomorrow.
Perversely when tomorrow comes, the east wind is such that exploring caves is a non-starter so it’s “off to the Tramontana we go” and we head through the tunnel to Sóller. A huge yacht accompanies us as we paddle out of the harbour, past the naval station and the Faro Viejo, which sounds infinitely more evocative that the literal translation – old lighthouse! It’s not too windy here but it is a grey old day. The sea is a royal blue while it’s clear that the brown cliffs have taken a pounding from enormous waves over the years.
A cave with a blow-hole high in the roof is spoilt somewhat by the questionably-legal hotel being built above it. As we head further north away from the harbour the newer developments fade away leaving only the ancient olive terraces as the sole sign of man’s influence on the landscape. And what a landscape! High up, the route along the stunning, jagged ridge that marks the Tramontana is popular with walkers and it’s easy to see why. There are still further attractions at our level though. A huge number of skinny cormorants allow us to get remarkably close before diving into the water and emerging again at the far end of the bay. Another cave, much deeper this time keeps Pau and I entertained while Miguel keeps watch for the wash from the still numerous tourist boats.
We continue round the small island of S’Illa and then wind our way back to Sóller. We’ve a great view now of the classic round towers that are typical of this coast. These watchtowers were originally constructed in sight of each other, each with a single entrance and staircase making them easy to defend. They used to be equipped with a load of logs; a fire would be lit giving a classic smoke signal to warn of invaders. Mallorca has a long history of invasions. Thinking about the number of tourists I’ve seen I joke with Miguel that the invasion continues today.
After yesterday’s dull weather my spirits rise when I awake the next morning to clear skies but Miguel is less enthusiastic pointing to the clarity of the sky, not as a sign of good weather, but rather as a sign of bad weather to come. I’m not convinced, but even so I’m still interested in his suggestion of investigating the port of Palma. It’s only a few hours later that I’m looking out of the windows of the Yacht Club unable to see more than a few metres such is the intensity of the rain. The windows are flexing under the battering of the wind and I remind myself of the value of local knowledge!
It has to be said that I the extreme weather I encountered was more than a little unusual. Spring offers the most stable weather, but I would highly recommend a visit at any time of the year outside of the peak tourist weeks of late July and early August.
Miguel Albuquerque runs Piraguas GM and has a huge range of high-quality sea kayaks, paddles and kit available to hire. He is more than happy to help with logistics and/or guide groups to the best spots in Mallorca as well as being an essential source of that all-too valuable local knowledge! Contact him via his website