Kayaking in Matka canyon

Day 18 – Monday 15th August – From Skopje to Matka canyon and back (37km)

The effects of the floods in the city centre were barely visible other than on the river banks, where lots of debris and tree branches could be seen. Aside from visiting the city, the other thing that had brought us to Skopje was Matka canyon, which we wanted to explore by kayak.

I was afraid that it might be dangerous due to the floods, but it turned out that there is a dam which forms Matka lake and regulates water flow, together with the fact that the floods had affected the north part of the city and the canyon was to the southwest, so Goran assured us that there was no problem. He also told us something we did not know – the lake is home to Vrelo cave, a big cave with very interesting stalactite formations and two lakes inside. He also gave us directions to the entrance of the canyon, which was only 18km from the city.

A short while after leaving the hostel I remembered Goran’s directions – ‘straight ahead, you can’t miss it, you can’t miss it’ – while the GPS took us through a narrow road that crossed a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Skopje where we saw exactly zero signs pointing to the canyon. The only sign I saw was when we were already there, so once again I was very glad to have the GPS.

The road ended in a small car park where we saw no signs of a place that rented kayaks (or the lake), but there seemed to be a narrower road going on from the further left corner of it, so up we went on the bike. It became a lot narrower a few meters down, and we realised it was a pedestrian path, so I parked the motorbike on a space by the path and Nat went ahead to ask about the lake and the kayaks.

DCIM123GOPROIt turned out that the dam was right round the next corner, and the kayak place five minutes further up. As we were changing out of the motorbike clothes, a security guard, presumably from the dam, walked past, and I asked him whether it was OK to park the bike there. He gave me a thumbs up and pointed to a security camera I had not seen.

20160815045039After a short walk we reached a place where the walls of the canyon opened a bit wider and found a restaurant and a small wooden hut with a flight of wooden stairs leading down to a jetty where three boats and several plastic kayaks were moored. They told us that two hours were enough to reach the caves, visit them and come back by kayak, and that they also offered tours by boat. Seeing that the kayak was only marginally more expensive and would not only last longer, but give us more freedom, we rented one.

20160815063542This was the third time that Nat and I used a kayak, and I am happy to say that after being able to go on shopping trips to IKEA without getting into an argument, managing to row a kayak in a straight line without shouting insults at each other is a clear sign that our relationship is solid.

20160815063415The journey through the canyon to the cave provided great sights, and we reached our destination faster than we were expecting. After some amateurish manoeuvring, I tied the kayak to the stairs that led to the cave and we got off just as a boat with a small group was also arriving.

20160815054801That was quite good timing, as we had no flashlights and the guy in the kayak hut had told us that the caves were illuminated but the generator was only turned on by the guides on the boats. We joined the group and profited from light and a short explanation.
The caves were amazing, and it seems that there is a lot more underwater, at least three other caves from what we were told. Not everything has been explored, and they said that it might be the deepest underwater cave in the world. I can only imagine how claustrophobic it might be to dive in those conditions, swimming forward into the unknown through narrow gaps knowing that there is no air to float up to if something goes wrong.

20160815060331We took the way back a lot easier, knowing that we had time to spare, and when we reached the hut they told us that the short journey across the canyon to the other shore, from which a path went up the mountain and to a church, was free for customers who had rented a kayak, so we took the chance to go visit the church. When we got off the boat after the short crossing, the guy warned us about the steep walk in the midday heat and pointed at a metal plate and a hammer hanging from a tree and told us to bang on it to call for the boat back.

20160815073915I am a keen hiker, but I almost had a heart attack on the walk up to the church on that heat… at least the visit was worth it, the church was on a small col where there was also a fountain and what seemed to be some picnic and camping facilities for the people who were hiking the trail that reached the canyon from Skopje, about 16km across the mountain.

20160815073517We made our way back down, I stopped to collect my underpants, which had got wet in the kayak and I had left drying in the sun on the way up, and when we reached the shore I used the high tech intercom to call the boat.

The GPS took us on a much more direct route back to the city in the afternoon, which I imagine was the one Goran was telling me about the day before, and we went back to the same restaurant for a very late lunch, since the service and the food had been excellent the previous day. There we had a long chat with Ace, our waiter, who told us he was volunteering to help the flood victims, and complained that aid was being distributed unequally depending on the political party the victims were members of. If you are in Skopje, do not miss this restaurant – Etno Bar Grill, by the river in the centre.

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It would have been easier to walk up to the Jungfrau

Day 68 – Saturday 31st of August – Interlaken (0km)

The number one tourist attraction in Interlaken is the Jungfrau. The tallest peak in the region, it stands 4,158m above sea level, and about 600m below that there is an observation center that offers visitors a unique view of the surrounding peaks and that glacier that extends at its feet. What makes this place special, aside from the fact that it is the highest building in Europe, is that tourists do not need to climb up the mountain to get to it, there is a railway that reaches as far up as 3,454m, travelling inside the mountain to Jungfraujoch station, an underground complex that would not look out of place in a Bond movie. From there, a short elevator ride takes people to the observation center.

It is an astonishing place and one definitely worth visiting, but there are a couple of things to take into account before deciding to go there. First, it is not cheap. A return ticket will set you back just over 160€. Second, the weather is very changeable at that height, which means that you may end up paying a small fortune just for a fancy train ride and get zero visibility once you are at the top.

I had already been there years ago (it cost about 60€ then, which was still expensive for a student on an Interrail trip), so we decided to do something different with our last day before heading home. The campsite rented kayaks, something I had never tried before, and we thought it would be a great idea to explore the lake.

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We were given a couple of life vests, a water-proof barrel to keep our stuff dry and were told to keep close to the left shore as the various ships and boats we would be sharing the waters with were not very considerate towards tourists drifting onto their paths. We dragged the kayak to the cannal, launched it into the water, strapped the barrel onto it and then managed to sit in the thing without tipping over, which I considered a great success already.

We pushed ourselves away from the shore and started paddling up the canal leading into the big lake. We had decided to go for a tandem kayak, as we thought it would be funnier than getting individual ones, but it soon became clear it had been a mistake. With zero experience, the damn thing was impossible to keep straight. We tried to coordinate the paddling, but it was hopeless, we were just wandering from left to right, from right to left, all the time trying to keep away from passing boats.

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Every time we got the thing going straight for a few metres, either Nat or I would paddle to fast once or twice, or even just give a small push with the paddle on the wrong side, and the kayak would start turning fast to the wrong direction. After some exhausting experimentation, we discovered that if only one of us paddled it was quite easy to go on a straight line, and I also discovered that Nat paddled harder on her left side, meaning that left to paddle alone, she would go round in big clockwise circles. We also discovered that we had both been trying to paddle and steer the boat, while the right thing to do is have the person sitting at the front just paddle and the one at the back paddle and steer.

Having learnt the lesson and having had to stand a few condescending smiles from other more experienced kayakers sailing past and from people watching from the shore and enjoying the show, we managed to make some progress and started to enjoy the scenery. The shores of the lake were lined with quaint wooden houses half-hidden in the trees, and most of them had a jetty and a boat. It was a beautiful day and there were a lot of people sunbathing by the shore or diving into the lake from their back gardens. After a couple of hours we made it to a public swimming area with a floating platform and decided it was a good place to go for a swim before heading back. The water was quite cold, but it was a pleasure to swim in such crystalline waters.

On our way back we kept the kayak heading straight and true, like real pros, and we made good progress, which was all the more surprising when after about an hour we realized how far we still had to go. We had the feeling that we had not gone very far from the campsite to the swimming platform – true, we had taken a couple of hours to get there, but we had been going on a very erratic line, struggling to go straight – and now we were becoming aware how how much distance we had covered, which made us feel kind of proud.

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We took a few pictures before handing the kayak back and then went for a walk in Interlaken for the rest of the afternoon. In the center we saw a convoy of old Nissan Skylines that were taking part on a rally going from Kuwait to Morocco via Europe – it looked as if they were having great fun!

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We bought some food and a couple of beers for dinner and headed back to the campsite to sort out all the gear and decide which things would stay on the bike and which things Nat would take on the plane.

As we were packing I realized that was it – the journey was coming to an end. Nat had originally planned to join me only for the Swiss leg of the trip because I thought I would be back in Europe much later than I was and not wanting to do so many kilometers on her first trip on a motorbike, she had decided to fly back to Barcelona, so I was going to take her to Geneva the following morning. In the end though, my change of plans meant that she had joined me in Helsinki and we had travelled for about 4,400km on the bike together. Not bad, taking into account that she did not have proper riding gear and had to wear several layers of clothes and a waterproof jacket underneath a summer riding jacket I had lent her, as well as a pair of hiking boots that were not exactly waterproof. She was very, very brave.

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