Menorca – a return journey
Previously published in Canoeist magazine - November 2017 (If you're reading this on a mobile device the photos may appear at the end of the text - scroll down to view)
It’s grey. It’s drizzling but wow, the water’s warm. We’ve only paddled 150 metres and we’re already in our first cave. I love this coastline. We’re paddling in Menorca, repeating part of a journey that I made 14 years ago. I’m paddling with Paco who I first met on that trip. Then, we were a group of twelve. Today, it’s just the two of us. Then, we never did get to do the entire circumnavigation of the island. Now, part of the plan is to complete that “missing” 10K.
We set off from Binibeca where we’ve hired kit from David Mascaro of DMS Sports & Kayak. I remember hot sun 14 years ago which is part of the reason why today’s drizzle is disappointing. However, the high winds that forced us to delay our start by several days have blown through and we’re on our way, westwards, heading along Menorca’s south coast. As well as the temperature it’s the colour of the water that impresses; a spectacular, deep blue reminding me of the bottles of Quink ink I used as a schoolboy.
We‘ve not set ourselves a desperately ambitious target distance today. Partly, that’s because most of the morning has been spent sorting and packing our kit but also, in part, as charging around this coastline rather misses the point. I recall last time being surprised at our relatively modest pace. The cliffs now aren’t desperately high but they are entertaining and they do merit a closer, more leisurely perspective. Highlights include a mini-Mount Rushmore with a series of blurry, limestone faces created by the erosion of the waves and the somewhat more man-made remains of a necropolis carved into the cliffs.
A second necropolis greets us as we pull into Cala Coves. When we were here last we were storm bound for 24 hours and we had the place entirely to ourselves. There are a few more tourists today wandering around the “City of the Dead”, 90 odd caves used as burial chambers from 500 to 1,000BC. In the 60’s there was a hippy commune here but now access to many of the caves is protected by iron grills. It’s quite a spot, even in death it seems that a sea view is at a premium.
It’s a relatively short hop around the next section of cliffs to Cala en Porter. A somewhat busier cala than our usual choice on the island but the lure of the restaurant, El Pulpo is too great to resist. We choose a quiet spot at the far side of the beach where we plan to bivvy later that night. A quick swim is followed by my Spanish isotonic drink of choice - a clara con limón. Later that night the restaurant doesn’t disappoint. Paco has become a bit of a regular here and we’re greeted like long lost friends. Their signature, octopus paella is as delicious as ever.
The next morning, we awake with three other paddlers on the beach. David had “rescued” them yesterday as the high winds and waves off the entrance to Mahón had left them stranded the wrong side of the harbour. They’re from Aragon and I struggle with their unfamiliar accent but they confirm what Gustavo, our Bali-surfing-waiter from last night was saying about two metre waves.
Breakfast here is not an option, at least not according to the barman with the “cara de pocos amigos” so we’re on the water at 9.00am, one of my earlier starts paddling in Spain! The water’s not quite so warm this morning and the shade has changed too. Paco asks me why I tell him that in English we wouldn’t use navy blue as a description for the sea. I make a poor joke about our sea always being grey. Paco’s questions swing back to our conversation with our new Aragonese friends. How do you measure the height of a wave? Paco is a scientist so I try to explain but eventually conclude with my usual rule of thumb – halve whatever estimate someone gives you.
We’re back with gorgeous cliffs. Another necropolis with sea views leads us to a photo opportunity at the narrow entrance to Cala de Sant Llorenç albeit the drizzle makes for less than perfect light. A goat with three kids gambolling from one precarious ledge to another keep us entertained over a late breakfast of cashew nuts before we round the last of the cliffs before the bay at Son Bou.
I remember this beach. It’s not especially attractive but the real view is straight down, looking at the sea bed through the now, crystal clear water. I introduce Paco to the concept of “bob-ins”, those seemingly random thoughts that pop into the mind while doing any exercise. I tell him about The Rider, a book by Tim Krabbé, which as well as vividly capturing the psyche of the competitor also describes, albeit without naming it, the same weirdly unstructured thinking process.
David had lent us a laminated folder of aerial photos of the island that we’re using to navigate. There’s no scale, so on the water we’re calculating distance by pages. Over the next page and a bit, bob-ins have included high-rise developments (of which fortunately, Menorca has only a few), fatherhood, birds, friendship and the passage of time. The latter comes into sharper focus when we raft up for another break and WhatsApp photos to our respective families. We remind ourselves that 14 years ago neither of us had a mobile phone and that we were both using film cameras! Before we get too self-congratulatory as to how modern we are, I remember that last night Paco posted an “hola” to Toni on the Kayaking Costa Brava Facebook page. It was with Toni that we first did this trip. This morning we got a reply from Jordi, another member of the twelve, telling us that Toni wasn’t an avid user of social media but that he’d pass the message on. I suspect that many of us old boys are cut from the same cloth.
The latter part of the beach is relatively unspoilt and leads onto a series of low cliffs. Warm, yellow rocks topped with stunted, vivid green pine trees. I remember this as my all-time favourite section of Menorca’s coastline. Not the highest cliffs, nor perhaps the most spectacular but undeniably gorgeous.
Although spectacular is the only word to describe the caves. My diary from 14 years ago recalls “Suddenly, we’re onto yet more caves. The first stretches my descriptive powers. A tightish entrance into a cavern with a window to the right, then another low entrance into a further, smaller cavern and then a super-tight passage until it’s just too narrow to get any further. The climax though is yet to come. On a further fifty metres or so and then we turn back on ourselves into a narrow v-shaped cleft and then out at the far end of the cavern, into the light through a paddler-shaped and sized hole. Stunning! Another cave! This one is more than 250metres deep and pretty intimidating. The waves have set up a deep booming noise inside and the atmosphere is warm and musty. We turn the final cavern into a debating chamber.”
The reason for that debating chamber all those years ago was that the high winds had slowed our progress and was likely to mean that we wouldn’t complete the full circumnavigation. Today it’s much less windy and now, leaving Cala Macarella after a stop for lunch we catch a glimpse of Cap d'Artrutx, the south-western tip of the island which marked the point at which progress then came to a complete stop.
We’ve decided to continue for a further hour to Son Saura mainly as the waiter at lunchtime had said that the chiringuito there remained open into the evening and that we’d be able to get something to eat. He proves significantly less reliable than Gustavo. The beach offers a wonderfully quiet spot to bivvy and the spectacular sunset reminds of us of last night’s slide show but of food… there is none. The snack bar is well and truly shut.
The next morning we decide to break all records and go for an 8.00am start. At ten past we’re ready to go. Paco explains the Spanish meeting system which would be to start ten minutes after the allotted hour as a polite way of allowing time for anyone delayed. I explain my system. A small cultural difference.
There’s a south west wind blowing which isn’t aiding our progress but the lighthouse is slowly getting nearer. The low cliffs continue and we’re entertained by five red kites that give an impressive display of tumbling.
My current bob-in is of Lorena of whom I took a photo 14 years ago with her on the top of a large wave and the lighthouse in the background. I had plenty of time to compose that shot for reasons that my diary explains “As we cross the final south coast bay of Cala en Bosc the skies start to cloud over. Under the lighthouse which guards Cap d'Artrutx we finally swing north and get a view of Ciutadella only 8km ahead. The waves though are huge and we’re finally exposed to the wind’s full strength which is ripping the tops off the substantial swell. Up ahead, I can see between us and our destination an even more confused section of sea that we’ll need to cross. I realize that we’re not going to make it. Toni though seems determined to demonstrate to the less experienced paddlers the inevitability of the decision and we’re still paddling hard. The lighthouse is now on our right. I’m keeping track of our progress, or rather lack of it. After 40 minutes paddling the lighthouse is still just off to our right. We’ve no option but to turn around and retreat to the nearest harbour.”
Today is somewhat more relaxed as we swing north to complete the “missing link” up to Ciutadella. Initially I’m thinking that this isn’t the prettiest section of coast. It’s largely unspoilt but the cliffs are fairly uniform in height. Then, a series of coves, small bays and a cave or two add entertainment as does the peregrine falcon patrolling the cliff edge.
After another page and a half of the aerial guide we’re approaching the harbour. It looks nothing like the photo in front of me and not much like I remember from 14 years ago. I do recall a double entrance, from a brief glance that I took last night, of the maps that I’d saved on my phone. In all honesty, the last hour or so have been a frustrating paddle with the wind and waves on our rear quarter hindering rather than aiding progress. As we get closer I realise that the new harbour arm that looked like it could guide us safely to the harbour mouth has a nasty, projecting concrete overhang. I urge Paco to swing left and up the pace. We’re quite exposed here and the ferries to the mainland take no prisoners!
It’s with some relief therefore that now in the shelter of the old harbour at Ciutadella we can relax. 14 years later we’ve at last come full-circle.