Adventure Travel

Kayaking puts you in touch with the Earth like no other mode of transport

A kayaking holiday is hard work, but it'll also make you deliriously happy. Go on, grab a paddle

02 September 2018 - 00:00

Someone - I forget who, but it may have been a grizzled veteran of the road, sitting in a bar in Britstown - once told me there are only three ways to travel - on foot, by horse and by kayak.
Each comes with its own hardships - blisters, raw butt and sore arms and blisters, in that order - but the pleasure of slow and contemplative travel is usually ample compensation for the pain.
I've done lots of hiking and horse-riding but neither comes close to the joy of paddling up a wild and sparsely populated coast, as I once did for 12 days along Lake Malawi's eastern shore.
I'm a sucker, then, for stories of epic journeys by canoe and kayak. Like paddling from London to Dar es Salaam, which Terry and Barbara Bell set off to do in 1967 and about which Terry has written a recently published memoir called A hat, a kayak and dreams of Dar.
The couple had been living in exile in London after Terry evaded arrest by the security branch and set off on foot to Zambia. London in the '60s was exciting but the Bells, like most African exiles, felt the relentless pull of their continent and home.
In 1966, Terry spent some of his study grant on a 5m, two-seat fibreglass kayak. They named her "Amandla" and told their friends that they were going to paddle her to Dar es Salaam.
On paper, the voyage looks insane. It involved a Channel crossing followed by a meander down the French canal system to the Mediterranean Sea. From there, they planned to hug the Spanish coast and nip across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco and then voyage along the African coast to Egypt. A short overland hop to the Red Sea would put them on course for the East African coast and a triumphant arrival in Dar es Salaam many months - and more likely, years - later.
And why not? This was the '60s after all. The world was full of hope and change was in the air. Anyway, a man named Oskar Speck had paddled a wood-and-canvas Klepper kayak from Germany to Australia in the early 1930s and lived to tell the story.
On a warm morning in August 1967, Terry and Barbara pushed the grossly-laden "Amandla" off the river bank in Chiswick, and paddled off down the Thames.
Terry had omitted to tell Barbara that the only chart he had was a Michelin road map, which fact emerged a few miles downstream at Greenwich when they broke for lunch.
In an age of health and safety and high-vis vests and apps that rob travellers of original thought, the Bells' voyage is a refreshing reminder that sometimes it isn't planning that you keeps you safe but happy ignorance mixed with lashings of good luck.
It was the same for game ranger Ian Player, when he and a fellow ranger set off by kayak down the Pongola River before it was dammed in the 1950s.
Player, like the Bells, understood how travelling by kayak puts you in touch with the Earth like no other mode of transport, that a kayak will gently carry its human freight into the picture.
"We paddled quietly on, afraid to talk and disturb the stillness that had settled upon us," Player writes in his memoir Men, Rivers and Canoes. "We were away from the killing mechanisation of that other world.
"There was so much to see, to hear, to smell. The pungent odour of rotting leaves, of woodsmoke from the Amatonga huts, of old figs lying in the mud, of mud itself and the river."
You do not have to paddle some remote river or get lost in a watery wilderness to understand the magic of a kayak journey.
Some years ago, I interviewed a delightful woman named Bee Van Til about the voyage she and her husband William had made down the Danube in 1938.
"It was something that I relive and relive and I can't believe two kids were able to do this," Van Til said.
Long before green travel was even a notion, the Van Tils' journey was the definition of sustainability. They travelled light, with just their kayak, sleeping bags, one set of shore clothes and what Bee called a "Bunsen burner" - a stove - to cook on.
"We would stop at little villages and go to the market," Bee said. "I would fetch enough food for that breakfast. Sometimes I could buy a whole chicken for a dollar. We would make a little fire and make lunch."
The 37-day trip cost them $170.29 or about $4.60 a day because, as William later wrote in his own book, The Danube Flows Through Fascism, their income was "distinctly more limited than that of Croesus or Ford".
Paddling a kayak day after day takes courage. It is hard, even brutal work. But one day, powering along while lost in a hypnotic rhythm, water dripping from the paddles, you will discover that despite the aching arms, the sunburn, the raging thirst, that you are deliriously happy.
• Listen to Barbara and Terry Bell - and Bee Van Til - talk about their adventures on the Sunday Times Travel Podcast.

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