Southern Cyclades sea kayak expedition
Milos to Santorini

1-7 October 2003

Expedition Members: Heidi Feldhaber (US), Geoff Gilbert (US) Peter Roscoe (UK), Rod Feldtmann (Aus). 

Click on centre area to enlarge map

Cyclades by Kayak (a trip report by Geoff)

“And you know what else?” she said, as she hushed her voice and leaned in closer to the group. (As if any of the locals in the restaurant understood.) “Scientists have observed lesbian octopus at the bottom of the sea-floor.”  The other three of us gave quizzical looks at each other, simultaneously wondering how the conversation had arrived here - perhaps from the calamari on our plates, or more likely, the wine.  Tonight’s taverna meal was a break in the camping food, but deserving in celebration for the first major sea crossing of our trip.

Our party of four set off from Milos on October 1, 2003, well after the main Greek Island tourist season.  Rod reserved 11 days from bookings in his regular Milos sea kayaking tours, for our first inter-island trip that he’s been dreaming of for years.  He’d wrangled an English kayaking buddy, Peter, and myself with merely the mention of the possibility last year (photo).  As an inlander from the US (Montana), my sea kayaking experience was limited to only a few multi-day trips and no extensive open-sea crossings.  Peter on the other hand, brought over 20 years to Rod’s already extensive kayaking experience.  (While I never actually witnessed Peter eating a seagull – as I understand hardcore paddlers in the UK are known to do – I did wake one morning to find him flossing with barbed wire beside a pile of feathers.)

Rod and I met whilst working as exploration geologists in Bolivia in 1996.  Although he’s turned in his rock hammer for a kayak, the explorer in him has never left.  When I commented on the great beach he found for camping at Ios, he replied that “if I was a gambling man, I would have bet on our last stop as the best camping spot we’d see.  But I’m not,” he said, “I’m an explorer and a seeker of possibilities.”  The fourth member of our group was a late edition.  Heidi’s spontaneous decision to leave Montana for the Mediterranean in less than two weeks was a testament to her free spirit that didn’t miss a beat; even as her plane was delayed till 2pm on our departure date.  So, fresh off the plane and into a boat, Heidi set off from Milos with Peter, Rod and myself on her flanks and the sun on our backs.

Beyond Kimolos, we paddled through the southern pinnacles of the uninhabited island of Poliegos (“many goats”) as the sun highlighted the bright colors of the massive volcanic cliffs (photo).  The idyllic tranquility of the sunset was soon lost as we emerged from the island’s protection into the wind on the eastern coast.  The near dark approach to our first evening’s campsite in swelling seas was a bleak foreshadowing of the predicted weather for the next day.

Drained from a restless sleep on a windy, albeit beautiful beach (photo), we woke to white-capped seas.  But as the roar of crashing waves are often more fierce than their bite, we cancelled a temporary delay and set off for the 23 km crossing to Folegandros at noon.  To combat drift, we adjusted our bearing more than 30 degrees and fought a fierce crosswind (force 6) for almost 3 hours before we could enjoy the rewards of a tailwind.  Though we employed towing and one member fought seasickness, there were still smiles exchanged as we arrived at our landing beach on Folegandros.  While I’m not new to enduring expeditions, I must admit that I was never prepared for the half-naked Mediterranean beauties  that frequented our landing destinations (photo).  If only mountain climbing were so fortuitous!

Our southern route around Folegandros afforded us with stunning limestone cliff scenery, the occasional sea cave (photo) and a spectacular natural arch.  The cliff line was broken by only three beaches, the second of which was to be our campsite for the night (photo).  Rod suggested we take a walk up to the old town, assuring us it had one of the best preserved medieval castles in the Cyclades islands. 

The 8km crossing to Sikinos dotted with a number of smaller islands, on the larger of which we made a rocky landing (photo).  Following a midday ascent to the 132m summit for lunch (photo),  we snorkeled the crystal clear waters before setting off to our third major island of the trip.   Sikinos is a barren and sparsely populated island despite being laced with, now abandoned, hillside terraces.  As with the previous island, the coastline comprises continuous limestone cliff line and few beaches.  The first of these was to be our campsite for the night, a small cobble beach with just enough  space to sleep.   The following morning we paddled into the port town of Sikinos where we were able to stock up on supplies, before making our way towards Ios.

We were more than pleasantly surprised by the beautiful beaches of the west coast of Ios (photo).  On this island, granite intrusions surface through the metamorphic rock and provide more than an ample supply of golden sand for the beaches.  Our fourth night camp was on the golden sandy beach of Milopotas (photo), the main beach in the summer months and all but deserted by October .  My hat off to Rod and Peter for allowing Heidi and I to try a little Montana two-step in one of Ios’ night clubs that didn’t open till midnight.  They were kind and took it easy on us the following day as we only paddled 14 kms to the southern tip of the island.

On the day of our final crossing to Santorini, we woke at first light and were on the water early trying to beat poor wind conditions predicted in a previous weather report.  The business of Santorini’s marine traffic was also heavy on our minds, as most nights we’d viewed the lights from immense barge and cruise ships coming from that direction.  During the past few days we had been teased with brief sightings of Santorini far in the distance, but for the most part it had remained obscured by clouds.  This day was no different as we set off with nothing but a bearing to guide us.  In fact, with still calm conditions, it was so foggy that we lost sight of our beach on Ios within 20 minutes.  I suppose it could have been reminiscent of home for Peter had it been colder.  Only the sounds of paddles lapping in the water penetrated the fog as visibility meandered between 600 and 800 meters.  At one point, I lagged behind to empty my pee bottle and almost lost sight of the group.  From then on we stopped together.  Within the first 40 minutes into the crossing a ship’s horn echoed through the fog from the direction of our destination.   Still 18 kms out, it’s bellow sounded as if it were almost upon us.  We hesitated and grouped closer together.  Fortunately, subsequent soundings assured us its path was far to the east.  This Mediterranean fog helped me better grasp why the Greek history is steeped in such rich mythology.

After more than two hours of paddling, we began to muse about what we’d do if we were to miss the island altogether.  Although hard to miss a 14km wide target in relatively calm seas, there’s always truth in humor, for a mere 15 degree error in our bearing would have allowed for such.  No sooner had that discussion began when the winds picked up.   Although the headwind made paddling more difficult, visibility improved.  As the imaginary choir sang, the clouds parted and Santorini was slowly revealed in her majesty.  Rod shouted with joy and the group exchanged broad smiles.

The sun eventually made its way out to greet us as we passed into the interior of the flooded caldera (photo).  The exterior islands form the rim of a still active volcano where once had stood a mountain.  That mountain exploded in a violent eruption (circa 1650 BC) that apparently wiped out the Minoan civilization.  Subsequent volcanic activity in 756AD, 1860  and as recently as 1950,  formed the two interior islands.  After a beautiful tour of Thirasia, the small island on the western side of the caldera, and a sunset paddle through the hot springs around the interior islands, we bedded down on the larger of the two.  What a view of the city lights of Santorini! (photo).  Tired but triumphant in completing the objective of our journey, we retired for the evening with dreams of which other islands we could tour with the days remaining.  But alas, with morning came a call beckoning our leader and “seeker of possibilities” back to reality (or what he calls reality) and to his family on Milos.  “Next time,” Rod said laughing, “I’ll have to specify a length of time – not a destination – so we won’t get cut short if we finish early.”  So the group planned to split, with Peter hungry to eat seagulls in the islands to the north and Heidi and I content to continue exploring the coastlines of Santorini.  As we made our final paddle to the port to see off Rod, all were in agreement when he said,....................
“there’s no better way to see the Greek Islands!”