Kayaking with seals at Walvis Bay, Namibia
Most people come to Swakopmund, a Bavarian-style town surreally out of place on the edge of the Namib Desert, to explore the vast dunes. Few who visit know that the sandy Atlantic shallows of nearby Walvis Bay are also home to 2500 cape fur seals – one of the country’s last remaining colonies – as well as a resident population of diminutive benguela dolphins.
Namyak Namibia, a tour operator based in a community crafts shop in the centre of Swakopmund, offers kayak trips in the bay. Canoeing among the seals in the early morning is a joyous experience: the seals surround the canoes and leap across the bows, while the pups look up at you like labradors waiting for a stick to be thrown. The dolphins are a little more circumspect, but will swim alongside, weaving this way and that only so long as you paddle furiously enough to keep up with them.
For details of excursions and rates see www.nam-c-yak.com.
Kayaking on Lake Malawi
Exhilarating as paddling across Lake Malawi is, it’s important from time to time just to sit still and allow the waters around you to become calm. When that happens, it’s like peering down into a giant aquarium, filled with fish of every conceivable colour. The cichlids alone, of which Lake Malawi has six hundred species, are so dazzlingly various that they are sometimes given the name peacock fish.
Kayak Africa, based in laid-back Cape Maclear, employs fishermen from the nearby village of Chembe as guides, to share their lifetime’s understanding of the lake and the many islets and caves that line its shore. Accommodation is at exclusive bushcamps on either Mumbo or Domwe, otherwise deserted tropical islands so picture-perfect that the urge is to play Robinson Crusoe and not come home. Spend a few evenings on the empty beach, enjoying your freshly caught dinner and watching the lights from the fishermen’s boats flicker on the darkening horizon, and that feeling will only get stronger.
Cape Maclear is a bumpy 115km bus ride from the capital Lilongwe. For tour details and rates see www.kayakafrica.co.za.
Canoeing the Danube Delta, Romania
Paddling through the vast Danube delta, almost 3000km from where the river began in Germany’s Black Forest, offers the chance to combine some of the best birdwatching in Europe with visits to communities little touched by industrialization. Each spring hundreds of species ranging from spoonbills to warblers migrate here from the southern hemisphere, when the area’s vast silence is broken by their songs and mating calls. In the autumn, huge flocks again gather here to prepare for the long journey south. On canoe trips with Barefoot Tours through this vast maze of channels, forests, sand dunes and reeds, you’ll have the advantage of approaching on the water almost noiselessly, enabling you to get close to the birds without disturbing them or their habitat.
Tours last anything from a day to a week, with nights spent at homestays and lodges in the villages of Tulcea, Crisan and the curiously named Mila 23, all of which are accessible only by water; the main mode of transport in each is canoe. Staying here gives you plenty of opportunity to learn about the locals’ work harvesting reeds and fishing. If you can, it’s worth coming for at least a few days to allow yourself to drift into the gentle, age-old rhythm of the river and the lives of the people here.
For details of tours, prices, availability and getting there see www.barefoot-tours.com.
Kayaking around the Maddalena Archipelago, Sardinia
Much has been written about the celebrity highlife of Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda, as well as the island’s traditional cuisine and its distinctive character and customs. Less well known is that Sardinia has some of the best-conserved coastline in the Mediterranean, thanks to government legislation that bans building property within 2km of the sea around the entire island.
One of the best ways to enjoy Sardinia’s coastline is by sea kayak. Away from the hum of the pleasure boats, paddling under your own steam, you can reach some of the island’s most unspoilt beaches. In particular, the protected islands of the Maddalena Archipelago in the Straits of Bonifacio between Corsica and northeastern Sardinia provide excellent conditions for an island-hopping kayaking adventure. There are seven main islands (five are uninhabited) and over fifty islets around which you can paddle for days in warm, translucent water, searching for that ideal spot to land along the wind-blown granite coastline – home to gulls, cormorants and herons.
British-run Location Sardinia hires out kayaks, and also organizes week-long kayaking trips around the archipelago, including accommodation and guide. For further info see www.locationsardinia.com.
Sea kayaking along the Dalmatian Coast, Croatia
A necklace of islands licked by glimmering waters, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is one of Europe’s most beautiful shorelines. And by far the best way to explore it is to get in a kayak and paddle out, meandering leisurely between the islands as you sit a few centimetres above the water, taking a dip in the glassy sea or soaking up the sun on empty, white-sand beaches. Adriatic Kayak Tours, an organization based in Dubrovnik, offers small-group trips lasting from a few hours to a whole week; they also run quirky themed tours such as “Cliffs and Caves” and a “Wine and Cheese Sunset Paddle”. At the end of each salty, tiring but exhilarating day, knowledgeable guides direct weary canoeists to family-run restaurants where freshly caught seafood and local meats are dished up alongside liberal quantities of local wine. The bling may be returning to Dubrovnik, but Croatia’s real jewels are still to be found out to sea.
For more on the types of tours offered, reservations and frequently asked questions see www.adriatickayaktours.com.
Camping and kayaking in the Summer Isles, Scotland
The protected sandy beaches and shallow shores of the Summer Isles are perfect places to land a kayak and pitch a tent for the night. If you like the idea, canoeing tours organized by Wilderness Scotland make for an excellent choice: there can’t be many trips that leave so little trace behind them.
The journey begins and ends at Inverness train station, where you’re taken by minibus across the northwest of Scotland to Achiltibuie, the launchpad to the Summer Isles. Paddling 12–14km daily for five days, guests are led along the rugged coastline of this remote archipelago, under sea arches and over water surges between narrow channels of rocks. You pass the dramatic sandstone cliffs of Eilean Flada Mar and its outlying skurries, the dramatic peaks of Assynt, the island of Eilean Mullagrach and the wildlife reserve of Isle Ristol. Along the way, you may see dolphins, whales, seals and a huge variety of birds, including golden eagles. After setting up camp late in the afternoon on one of the many islands, dinner is prepared and eaten in a communal tipi before retiring to your tent under a clear night’s sky.
Wilderness Scotland offers a range of guided and non-guided activity holidays across Scotland, including walking, sailing and mountain biking. For details of these see www.wildernessscotland.com.
Sea kayaking the Baltic
Over fifty million migratory birds visit Estonia each year, with many rare species – like the velvet scoter and red-breasted merganser – settling on the country’s northern islands to breed. These wildlife havens were the chance consequence of Soviet deportations in the 1950s to allow military tests to take place: when the locals were forced out, the birds began to move in.
You can explore this twitcher’s paradise on guided kayak tours with Reimann Retked, an adventure-holiday specialist certified by the Estonian Ecotourism Association. You can paddle from island to island, approaching the birds without disturbing them, or leave the canoes onshore and hike over the flat scrubland. The latter can be somewhat eerie, as these islands are still dotted with crumbling farmhouses and deserted Soviet watchtowers, half-rusted by the salty air. Covered in white gulls against a setting sun, though, they make for a great photograph.
As well as sea kayaking, Reimann Retked offers rafting, snow-shoeing, bogwalking and kicksledding tours. For full details and prices, see www.retked.ee.
Canoeing the Ba Be Lakes, Vietnam
As your guide paddles out of the dim, stalagtite-filled cave and onto the shimmering lake, the air fills with the roar of the distant Dau Dang waterfall. On all sides the tree-covered limestone cliffs loom overhead, their dense vegetation seeming to merge into the jade-coloured water. You’re a long way north of Hanoi and it feels like it.
Canoeing on the tranquil Ba Be Lakes with Footprints Vietnam (an operator staffed by local Vietnamese that works directly with the villages you visit) is a nature retreat like few others. Ba Be means “three seas” – a reference to the three natural lakes that spread over an area 7km long and 1km wide – and three-day boat trips on this wide expanse of water typically stop by caves and waterfalls, and include a stay in the homes of the Tay people who live beside the lake. The Tay, most of whom are farmers or fishermen, live in houses on stilts perched over the edge of the water – and it’s in one of these that you’ll eat and sleep, looking out over the bamboo-lined lake as fishermen pass by at dusk in their wooden canoes.
The best time to go is September to April. The lakes are around six hours’ drive from Hanoi, though Footprints Vietnam and other operators will drive you from the capital. For details of tours and rates see www.footprintsvietnam.com.
For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, check out Great Escapes