A journey for Gallipoli

By Huw Kingston 14 July 2015
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To mark the centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove, one adventurer gave himself the ultimate challenge – to circumnavigate the Mediterranean Sea by boat, bike and on foot

Safely inside the harbour walls of Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the northern tip of Morocco, I was finally able to head east, back towards Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula.

For the past eight months I’d travelled 7500km west from Gallipoli, traversing all of Europe to reach the Straits of Gibraltar. It was 15 December 2014 and I had just kayaked across that 30km stretch of turbulent sea separating Europe from Africa.

The Straits literally marked a turning point in my expedition. The journey so far had exceeded all expectations: the geography; the people; the sheer exertion of keeping going for eight or more hours a day, month after month. Coincidences and acts of kindness had touched me time and again.

Eight months earlier, on 26 April, I had paddled away from a cool, windy Anzac Cove, filled with emotion. I swallowed hard thinking about what lay ahead on the expedition I’d named ‘mediterr année’ (or, year in the Mediterranean), a 12-month, 20-nation circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea by kayak, foot, bike and sea-going rowing boat.

I thought of my beautiful wife and family in Australia whom I wouldn’t see for a year – but who would give me strength from afar. As I looked up at the crumbling cliffs at North Beach, I saw workmen dismantling infrastructure from the Anzac Day commemorations, where – two nights before – I’d lain among thousands awaiting the Dawn Service. I knew that my excitement and trepidation was nothing compared with the feelings of those soldiers who’d landed here almost a century before. I was embarking on a dream; they had entered a nightmare.

Related: Adventure in the Alps of Australia

The idea of a human-powered circumnavigation of the Mediterranean had been gnawing at me for a decade. It was the Anzac Centenary in 2015 that fertilised the idea – it gave it a start/finish point with a very meaningful Australian link. It was an opportunity to honour those brave men, and ensured that whenever I hit a tough patch, I would remember that my suffering was insignificant compared with theirs.

I would be able to tell the story of Gallipoli in 1915 to many, many people in the countries I was to travel to, as well as raise money for Save the Children, helping kids in war-torn areas.

Planning began in earnest. By chance, travelling anticlockwise from Turkey in late April was the perfect place and time to start. My fi rst three months in the sea kayak following the coasts of Greece, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia would be heading into summer warmth.

Adventure in Gallipoli

Trekking the entire length of the European Alps could only be accomplished before the winter snows. Finally my run back east along North Africa by bike, rowing boat and kayak would be in the cool of winter, not the heat of a Saharan summer. But it was not to be a smooth start. A few hours from Gallipoli, I rounded the headland to face a strong nor’easter. After a while I gave up and camped on a rocky beach, just 15km from Anzac Cove.

During that night I woke with a fever and I lay wasted for the next 24 hours, unable to move while my tent was battered by storms. By the third day I felt weak but better. The wind had dropped and as I packed I watched a pod of porpoises playing – it was the good omen I needed to set off.

Later that day, above the sound of the wind and breaking waves, I heard a horn beeping madly. I looked over my shoulder to see a car bouncing down a track, the driver beckoning me to shore. A young man ran down the beach, his father following. As the bow of my kayak, christened Miss Grape after a night spent with wine and friends, hit the sand, he handed me a large jar of honey. The father, Erhmet, explained that they’d seen me paddle past some kilometres earlier with the New Zealand flag (given to me by Kiwis at Anzac Cove) flying on my kayak.

Related: Lest we forget: looking after Anzac Cove

This act of kindness set the tone for the long journey ahead. I paddled into Greece, the fishing boats going to and fro around me. Rest areas were plentiful if I dared to pause – but I was always aware that a leg-stretch could turn into a long lunch.

I am neither fast nor particularly skilled at the adventure activities I undertake. But I have the ability, like an old diesel engine, to keep plugging away. During the nearly 50 days along the Greek coast, I explored stunning sea caves near Mt Ossa and Mt Pelion and the cliffs of the Halkidiki peninsulas. I took short-cuts through ancient and more modern sea canals, the grandest being the Corinth Canal. For millennia boats had been hauled across the 6km Isthmus of Corinth on logs, to avoid a treacherous 250km journey around the Peloponnese.

Finally, the man-made canal (with walls up to 76m high) was finished in 1893. It was a privilege to pass through in a kayak, even if I did anger a few impatient ships’ captains. A surprising sight came while I was sheltering in a small harbour.

An old man waved from the only house. Theo, 86, told me that in 1954 he’d moved to Tasmania to work for what was then the Hydro-Electric Commission. There he fell in love with a Greek girl and they married in Sydney, but returned to Greece five years later. As we spoke on the beach I glanced over his shoulder. There in the yard, heavy with laundry, was a Hills Hoist that had returned on the ship with him in 1959.

Albania had me intrigued. For 40 years up until 1992, it closed its borders and – ruled with an iron fi st by communist leader Enver Hoxha – had slowly retreated from the world. During this time, 700,000-odd concrete bunkers were built: one for every four Albanians. These little concrete domes dominated sections of the coast.

Now the country is open again and visitors are welcome. The people were overwhelmingly friendly – rarely had anyone seen a kayak before. The Karaburun Peninsula was one of the most spectacular and remote sections of coast I’d seen so far – a 50km line of cliffs with many tiny coves and huge sea caves. As I paddled towards the largest cove I spotted tents on the beach and police boats. It turned out I was gatecrashing the R&R weekend of the US Embassy. I introduced myself and sat down to enjoy a US Army-issue MRE (meal ready to eat) and a local beer.

Amid the rusting hulks of Soviet-era torpedo boats and surrounded by puzzled police officers in the port of Shëngjin, Miss Grape and I were cleared to leave Albania. On my final night I experienced a vicious ‘Bora’, a violent katabatic wind that blasted my tent. Many imagine the sea here to be calm.

Mariners, however, know the Mediterranean to be a place where calm can be replaced in moments by a maelstrom of wind and crashing waves. On many occasions I found myself paddling for cover, or – when cover was too far away – hanging on for dear life. After some days in Montenegro, I paddled into Croatia. A kayak crossing watery borders had caused issues throughout the journey.

Border officers generally wanted to treat Miss Grape like a yacht or a ship, complete with registration papers. In the rather pleasant town of Cavtat one immigration official told me: “You can’t arrive by kayak. It is not possible; it is not allowed.” To which I responded: “But I did. Here I am.”

In May the Mediterranean was largely quiet, but the human tide of summer slowly engulfed this sea and, by July, it belonged to the sun seekers and kids diving off harbour walls. Hospitality came from all directions. On one Sunday in Croatia, half the population of Ploce seemed to be out on the water. At lunchtime somebody hailed me and I paddled over to where they were anchored. Lunch was served as I bobbed about at their stern.

Saying thanks and farewell, I paddled on, but within minutes had the crew of another boat proffering cold beer and more food. Sunday lunch was had without getting out of the kayak.

While in Croatia, I also faced a major low-point. I had developed bursitis (known as housemaid’s knee) and I was forced to stop and rest. It played havoc with my thinking, but after two weeks I set out, still not really sure if it was okay, but I knew that half the battle was just setting out again.

The summer of 2014 here was wet and cool.During my final weeks in the kayak, I dodged one last storm and paddled towards Croatia’s Istria peninsula. I felt a little melancholic; I was absolutely ready to move on by foot, but my three months at sea had been very special.

Heading into the Alps

Just across the border from Slovenia, in the Italian city of Muggia – and exactly 100 days from my start at Gallipoli – I shouldered my backpack and headed into the Alps. It was, I reflected, also on this day 100 years before (4 August 1914) that the hostilities of World War I had truly begun, and would lead to more than 100,000 soldiers losing their lives at Gallipoli.

A staggering 16 million civilians and military personnel were killed during the war. As I began to walk, my body reminded me that it was a movement different from that of paddling. There are up to 850 muscles in the human body. The hundreds that didn’t get used while paddling ached like hell for the first week.

I climbed higher into the mountains, the Friuli Dolomites, which steadfastly refused to reveal themselves behind a cloak of rainstorms. On the cliffs the ground shook with thunder as I clambered down narrow paths made raging torrents by the rain. The Alps were punishing – 1500m climbs tested my lungs, while 1500m downs tested my knees. They were much quieter than I had expected, and I would often go a day or more without seeing other trekkers.

The Swiss really do eat fondue, but shepherds are not always as one might expect. When I climbed to sit on Giumela Pass in Switzerland for lunch, I arrived to fi nd a young lad: baseball cap backwards, baggy jeans with underpants waistband proudly displayed. Alan was a shepherd, with 19 cows and a handful of goats in his care. In French and Italian, with two maps spread, I tried to convey my confusion over the path ahead. Alan tried to explain another possible route before he hitched up his jeans, told me to follow him, and set off.

A few hours of scree-hopping later, I was where I wanted to be. I thanked Alan profusely before he bounded off in the dusk.

By France, autumn had arrived in the Alps and the colours were spectacular. Already the shepherds were starting to gather their flocks for the descent to lower valleys. The bells would soon fall silent, as would the squeal of the marmots as they prepared their burrows for the long winter.

I took a guide, Rick Marchant, for an attempted ascent of Mont Blanc, which – at 4810m – is Europe’s highest peak. Rick was great company and, cheating the weather forecast, we had a ball.

Having climbed 2000m up from the Chamonix valley the day before, Rick and I headed out into the darkness from the Tête Rousse hut at 4.30am. Crampons on, we crunched across snow and scuttled across the Grand Couloir, a place notorious for rockfalls. A steep 500m scramble over rocks led to snowcovered glaciers at 3800m.

The first light glowed beyond the Aiguille de Midi rock spires, and, soon after, the great cone of Mont Blanc itself cast a shadow across the cloud below. The sun touched us briefly with 500m still to climb, but soon we were back in the shade. A steep climb up on to the Bosses ridge led to another ever-narrowing ridge. Then the angled catwalk ended and we were alone in the sun on the highest stage in Europe.

On 26 October and exactly six months since I kayaked away from Gallipoli, I arrived in Monaco on foot. My alpine traverse had taken 84 days. From Monaco it was time to get on my bike. I pedalled across the south of France and down much of Spain. Just before I crossed into Spain I spent a wonderful few hours with a couple, Jean and Annie, for whom I had picked grapes 30 years before.

In the quiet of November I enjoyed a ride through the back roads of Spain, making up the route as I went. Then, four months since we’d parted in Croatia, I rendezvoused with Miss Grape who’d arrived thanks to a relay of car roofs belonging to European friends. We kayaked the coast of Andalucia and into the tiny British enclave of Gibraltar. To celebrate my wedding anniversary, I paddled alone across to Africa. Standing there in Ceuta in December, I pondered the fact that there were just four months left to the Anzac Centenary and that my final destination, Gallipoli, was still a long way away. But if the planets remained in reasonable alignment, I was still on target to arrive back at Anzac Cove for 25 April.

I now have to cycle some 2300km across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Then, in a twist that was never in my original plans, I will, accompanied by Slovenian Marin Medak, use a sea-going rowing boat christened Mr Hops, the beery companion to Miss Grape, to row 24 hours a day for some 40-50 days (pulling two hours on, two hours off) from Tunisia to Malta, Cyprus and, finally, Turkey. Marin has warned me that I will hallucinate with fatigue – but there is no other way. This will allow me to avoid Libya and Syria, deemed no-go areas due to political instability.

For some 2500km I will once again have my back to Gallipoli even though with every pull on the oars, I will be getting closer. Once in Turkey I’ll climb into Miss Grape again for the final weeks, to kayak up the coastline to Gallipoli. There is one small matter, however. When we push off in Mr Hops from Tunisia in February, it will be my first time in a rowing boat. There of course, be plenty of time to learn how to do it.

Editor’s note: This story was published in Australian Geographic in March 2015. In late March, severe weather and punishing seas forced Huw to alter the route of his Mediterranean circumnavigation in order to complete in time on 25 April. Find more details about the conclusion of Huw’s journey on his website.