The Odyssey: From Olbia to Orosei
We used the search for supplies as an excuse to explore the small town of Olbia. The crowded main street gave way to quiet alleys, where most people were keeping out of the heat. While trying to find gas for our cooking stove we walked into a sail repair shop. Looking at the huge pieces of cloth lying on the cutting boards, we were told we could find some next door. Tick. We then searched for maps to no avail. Almost everyone gave us directions towards a nautical shop on the sea front, an organised mess of ropes, netting and mechanical equipment. We spoke with the kind owner who told us there was little interest in charting the region properly. The marine charts were indeed not very detailed, and the price meant we decided to make do with our digital ones. We thanked him and set off for our last supplies. We completed our food reserves in a local supermarket, tempted by smoked sausages and the traditional flat and folded Sardinian bread. Both turned out to be great, travel friendly supplies. Tick.
We had decided to kayak down the coast of Sardinia only a few weeks before. Due to work constraints we had only managed to grab ten days at the end of August. But wanting to make the most of it, and having read several reports of kayak expeditions around the island, we decided to try our luck. It would be a change from the cold waters of Lofoten, offering us some relaxing beaches as well as enough time to let us get used to travelling as a team with our gear. Our first concern was to choose which part of the coast we wanted to paddle. Having read an article about the wild west coast, we felt tempted, but upon checking the weather we thought that the east side was a safer bet. It is also relatively untouched, especially the gulf of Orosei area, where the mountains and cliffs make access to the coast almost impossible. As we were flying into Olbia we decided to keep things simple and leave by our own means and head south. Over the course of the trip this revealed itself to be the best decision, as the west side of the island was exposed to constant storms and strong winds during our stay. The ensuing account would have turned out quite different and probably much shorter!
On our first evening, once we had finished preparing our gear for the next day, we decided to enjoy the evening. Olbia is a sleepy town, a place of passing before heading out to the villages nearer the beautiful turquoise coast. Walking back into town, the air cooled down and the streets woke up. Looking for somewhere to eat, we saw a busy terrace, with plenty of young Italians. Over the door hung the sign: “Pizza al Taglio”. Al Ciclope was the name, a fitting name for the start of our Mediterranean journey. Anyone who has been to Italy knows that al taglio is the best way to eat pizza on the street: by the slice. We walked inside, where two cooks were making, baking and selling pizza in the blink on an eye. As we waited, we observed their creation again and again, from rising dough to hot squares of perfect, simple pizza in only a few minutes. Grabbing a pair of Ichnusa beers from the fridge we took our steaming slices outside into the market-place. Sitting on the bench we enjoyed every bite while looking at the street art and listening to the music coming from the bars behind us. We were ready for our adventure!
We set up the kayaks under the inquisitive regard of a local fisherman. While I did the return journeys to ferry all our gear to the water’s edge, Sandie got the boats into shape, fitting the rigid sections before folding the white plastic. As always, the first loading was slower, with double checks to make sure everything was correctly packed and accounted for before leaving the harbour. Waving goodbye to our onlooker, we set off under the large bridge that connects the city and into the wider bay. Our kayaking objective was simple: to get out of the large basin that connects Olbia to the sea and find somewhere to camp, as well as getting back into the paddling routine. We spent the first couple of hours darting between the thousands of buoys placed in long lines to mark seafood traps. The barrels and bottles danced in the swell around us. We left them behind and came across some local cockle hunters. They trawled the murky water, where the silt from several river mouths poured into the bay. Standing waist-deep they sifted the sea bottom with a specially designed rake. A heavy bag on their other arm showed the fruits of their labour.
As the bay opened up we went past a headland on our right, and a tiny island, the Isola della Bocca on our left, upon which a square light house was built. The wind had picked up considerably, and a windsurfer zipped back and forth at breakneck speed. The board skipped on the surf, making a fast thudding noise. We kept paddling, leaving the lone surfer behind to enjoy the ever stronger breeze. Stopping at a small beach, we pulled up between sunbathers and swimmers. Having left the murky depths of the main bay, we now admired its colour. It was a transparent turquoise, and announced some of the tints we would be seeing over the next few days. But our current concern was to find a viable campsite. Making the decision while we were sheltered from the wind made the choice to keep going easier. But soon after setting off and looking back onto the Punta Saline, the waves started to throw up spray and froth and we started to have our doubts. We had to cross just over a kilometre and a half of choppy water in front of us. Luckily the wind was coming from straight ahead, which meant we could keep a true course. The waves, pushed by the gusts of wind, started to break over the stern. This was Sandie’s first sea crossing and she was understandably concerned by the conditions, the boat low in the water with all the gear and supplies. We battled on. It is the most frustrating type of kayaking, when you can barely tell if you are making any head-way, but with the certain knowledge that any pauses will have to be paid for in full. There is no respite and any interruption will see you swiftly pushed back several times faster than you can advance. At its worst we were almost at a standstill for several minutes. Even with the spray skirt on I could feel some water moving around in the cockpit and between my feet. I was getting worried, but we continued to inch our way into the shadow of the headland. Finally we were protected from wind and waves. Closing in on one of the beaches the water was almost calm. With the low sun telling how long we had spent we pushed on, keeping close to the rocky coast and winding in and out of small rocks. I’d set my sights on a small creek not much further on. The tiny strip of sand, called Spiaggia Mareddu would make a perfect camp site. Paddling in as the sun glowed a deep orange it was a perfect finish. Our first base was a fitting start to the beginning of our costal adventure.
After our first rough hours on the water, the next couple of days went smoothly as we followed the coast south. To our left, the imposing Isola Tavolara rose up sharply from the sea. Its huge cliffs drop into the waves from the long, sharp ridgeline that runs the length of the island. Closer, cormorants perched on rocky outcrops drying their wings after their last underwater foray. Pleasure craft would sail past, the occupants draped out on the deck without moving, at best hiding from the sun behind a book or magazine. The sea below our white hulls entertained us with incredible shades of blue to green and all the types of turquoise imaginable. Often it would be hard to keep going, as the temptation to dive deep into the crystalline water was extremely strong. For our second night we arrived in Coda da Cavallio, a natural protected harbour. The long arm of rock and sand stretched out, protecting the small fleet of moored yachts from the open sea. Passing between them, we were hailed by a floating ice-cream vendor, selling his wares. We soon found ourselves rocking slightly between the yachts and eating our gelato. What a way to prepare for setting up camp. This we did at the end of the spit of land and instead of putting up our tent we decided to try the hammocks. These we strung up, not far from the ground (the trees where not very big), their nets an efficient defence against the mosquitoes. We fell asleep watching the mast lights reflected in the calm water, the boats rocking slowly in the bay.
Our third day was once again bright and sunny, and we made good use of the weather to keep up a steady rhythm, trying to advance as much as possible. Our objective was the far-off city of Arbatax and Tortoli, meaning we had quite a way to go. As we moved forward, the other side of Tavolara revealed itself. We then left Isola Molara behind. After stopping at Spiaggia di Budoni for lunch, we kept going. Our dream was to see one of the strange Sun fish, or Mola Mola. The Sun fish, named after its habit of basking in the sun just below the surface, is in fact called Moon fish in French, Spanish and Italian. This is probably more to do with its rounded shape. Two small and disproportionate fins propel the creature forward, which can weigh up to 2 tonnes. Although it may be considered ugly, this is subjective, and I for one think it is a majestic and fascinating beast. We would have loved to catch a glimpse of one sunbathing in the green waves. Perhaps my singing did not help…
Paddling round the Matta E Peru headland I had hoped to camp at the north end of the Spiaggia di Su Tiriarzu, expecting the small river drawn on the maps to cut this section off from the road. But as we neared the beach, it was obvious that I’d miscalculated. It was easily accessible and a small bar had been built recently, still busy with bathers. We therefore paddled back to a small inlet not far behind. Five large pine trees created a canopy beneath which we could shelter. As we unloaded the boats we realised two people were already making use of the shade, playing cards on a small table next to their car. It turned out to be an adorable elderly couple. They greeted us as we carried up the gear, and with the lights starting to fade they packed up and left. But not before the woman offered us a bag of home grown apricots! That night we checked our map and realised it would be a very hard push if we wanted to complete the original journey. Although we had paddled consistently, by following the rough contour of the coast we were slowed down. If we wanted to complete our trip we would have to either paddle every day with neither respite nor margin for the weather, or leapfrog ahead. Thanks to our folding kayaks, this was a real option. So next day, after passing the beautiful village of Posada, with its Castello della Fava perched on top of the hill, we entered the harbour at La Caletta. Everything was folded up, cleaned and packed so we could catch the bus. This was easier said than done. By the time we’d had lunch and tried to run (or rather hobble along – 40 kg of gear included) to the stop, the bus to Orosei had left. We spent the next couple of hours drinking beer and coffee while trying to find another bus south. After perusing multiple out-dated and inaccurate timetables I managed to call one of the agencies. With their instructions we got on a coach to Cala Gonone. Hanging onto the seats we sped through small villages, bumped over holes in the road and sped round hairping bends. I looked out of the window and tried not to imagine our kayaks bouncing around in the hold. Driving down the steep road above Cala Gonone we looked back out onto the sea. Behold the Gulf of Orosei, and the second part of our odyssey.
The next morning, eager to be off, we were up at the crack of dawn. Through the quiet streets we carried both kayak and supplies to the water’s edge. The sea was calm as we glided out of the harbour. The coast line rose sharply around us into the continuous cliff that protects the entire gulf. And far off in the distance, something else… Could it be? Yes! A fin had just broken the mirror-like surface, followed by a second. This was succeeded by a muffled roar, like a clothes iron letting off a bust of steam. It was a couple of dolphins of course, swimming in the morning calm. Quietly we paddled towards them. We eagerly counted the seconds between puffs, trying to guess where they would come up next. Sometimes they would turn back, or change direction, meaning we stared around in all directions, never sure where they would be next. Sandie was thrilled to see them from our kayak, while I was pleased to get some quick shots on the camera. After the cetaceans left us for deeper water, we continued on, heading for the Grutta del Bue Marino.
This is a huge cave, filled partially with sea water, is where a colony of local species of seal once lived. Passing under a chain blocking the entrance we entered the dark tunnel to explore its beginning. The cave disappeared mysteriously into the depth. It is in fact a huge complex with multiple branches coming down from an underground river. Unfortunately it was scheduled to open to tourists so we paddled back out into the sun before the multitudes arrived. The crags, disappearing under the waves are pale orange and grey limestone and although much older than the Alps, reminded us of the Vercors and the Verdon. A band of eroded rock a metre or so above us showed geological evidence to a time when the sea-water level was higher. Not only has the sea eaten away at the limestone, so has the acidic rainwater filtering down from the plateaux above. This has given way to the huge cave systems, complete with unexplored galleries. As we paddled into the mouth of one of these caves, we were surprised by a sudden roar. Was it the one eyed monster? Unfortunately it was just the outboard motor of the first of many gommoni, or rubber dinghies. Filled with tourists like sardines in a can the inflatable boat flew into the cave, before being whisked out again and off to the next chosen spot. Another crew was already waiting to take its place. We looked on at this horrific ritual, thankful that we could enjoy the place calmly between visits. This was something quite particular about the gulf: from sunrise to around nine o’clock, not a soul stirred on the water. Not even a lone fishing boat would bother to leave port early. But come nine, and it would be a frenzied race to get the best spot and drop anchor in one of the bays. Having claimed their chunk of sea-estate, they would spend the remainder of the day sitting in the boat. Sometimes, if someone was feeling brave they would swim ashore. As soon as the cliffs started to cast their shadow onto the sea, everyone would then scuttle home. This left us with plenty of time to enjoy the coast, allowing us to watch both sunsets and sunrises in peace and quiet.
Our first day in the Orosei gulf continued into the afternoon. We crept along the rocky edge, enjoying the geological formations, beautiful coves and beaches. The most famous are well known: Cala Luna, Cala Sisine, Cala Mariolu… We were heading for perhaps the most reputed of them all, Cala Goloritzè. It is adorned with a sharp pinnacle of rock and can only be accessed by land via a rocky path. Arriving at dusk we found it a bit too rocky to our taste, so with the luxury of choice headed back to the previous inlet. Pulling up at the even more inaccessible and lesser known Cala dei Gabbiani we danced under the starts, ecstatic to have the small patch of paradise to ourselves.
The next morning we got up early, as we would be going round the largest headland of the whole trip and leaving the Golfo de Orosei. With the forecast predicting deteriorating conditions, we wanted pass the cape as soon as possible. We went past Goloritzè again, this time bathed in the morning light, and under the famous rock arch. From there we continued toward the end of the mountains, ever higher cliffs on our right. We looked up, awed by the huge expanses of rock. The weather stayed calm and we were soon around the most prominent point. This was in fact where the highest precipices rise up, adorned with birds’ nests and caves. We kept on paddling. In the early afternoon the heat started to become unbearable. Wishing for the announced wind, I soaked my cap in the water once again to cool off. As the cliffs started to become smaller, I spotted a tiny beach and we decided to stop for a swim. The black, pink and white pebbles, coupled with the turquoise water made it a spectacular spot. Someone had built a small tepee out of driftwood, and after a quick dip to cool off I was soon snoozing in the shade. It was so perfect we decided to delay our progress and enjoy the creek a little longer. We swam in the transparent waters and I tried my hand at fishing. Alas it was not as easy as Norway! As the sun dipped once again behind the Supramonte we were isolated from the outer world, the crashing of the waves our only companions. Looking out into the fading light, we knew the reason behind all the planning, packing and paddling. Buonanotte!
The next day, we got up even earlier. Loading the kayaks one last time in the dark, we pushed out into the swell. In the calm minutes before sunrise we glided onto the water. And then, suddenly the orange ball of the sun rose up from behind its hiding place. We stopped, to watch the shadows form and shorten, as the peaks behind us lit up in the glow. The sea gradually came to life with the new day and we carried on, past Pedra Longa, past Santa Maria de Navarrese before finally grinding our keels into the sand just outside Arbatax. The next few days were to hold new enterprises including biking in the backcountry, visiting artistic villages and enjoying the excellent Supramonte food. But for time being it was the end of our kayak journey and we folded away our little craft, ready for the next escapade.
Another little kayak expedition and I am more convinced than ever it is the way to go for exploring the coastline, especially if it is a beautiful as the Sardinian shore. We were lucky with the weather, and our folding kayaks performed admirably, even fully loaded. Although the east coast has quite a reputation for being kayak friendly, it was only on the last day that we came across a group of three Italians who had followed a similar itinerary to our own. They were the only other paddlers we saw for the duration of the trip except a couple of Basques and a German pair who had been doing day-trips around Cala Gonone. Considering it was the end of August and not completely off season we found this surprising for such a wild and accessible coast. As mentioned above, the sea is calm outside of daytime hours, with little traffic and disturbance. It just shows how even close to home it is possible to find all elements of a epic adventure: beautiful scenery, a bit of a challenge and some great bivvies!