Tom de Castella swims around the Cy­clades in the blue heart of the Aegean Sea

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

BE­NEATH me is the deep blue abyss of the Aegean. Eyes, shoul­ders and mouth are re­spec­tively sting­ing, chaf­ing and dried by the salt. But I’m into my rhythm, stretch­ing out my newly im­proved stroke, pulling my arms through the wa­ter un­til the tips of the fin­gers brush my thighs. Ev­ery so of­ten I can make out the is­land of Schi­noussa and the white houses on a high plateau we are aiming for. I won­der where the oth­ers are.

My fel­low green caps and I have set off to­gether but now I’m alone. I don’t look too hard; we know where we’re head­ing and there are two res­cue boats to look out for us. In this warm but not en­er­vat­ing wa­ter, pro­pel­ling one­self from is­land to is­land, I feel a sense of pur­pose and calm.

My girl­friend Jeanette and I have signed up with Swimtrek, a travel com­pany spe­cial­is­ing in swim­ming hol­i­days across the world. The list of des­ti­na­tions is var­ied and grow­ing: the Isles of Scilly, Croa­tia, the Bavar­ian lakes, Malta, the In­ner He­brides, Turkey and the Vir­gin Is­lands, among oth­ers. But for us there is only one choice: the Cy­clades, lit­er­ally ‘‘ the cir­cling’’, a clus­ter of two dozen Greek is­lands in the heart of the Aegean.

The con­cept is to swim two or three hours a day from is­land to is­land, ac­com­pa­nied by safety boats, mak­ing your way around the cir­cle.

Of course hol­i­day lo­gis­tics mean it’s not quite that sim­ple; to avoid mov­ing ho­tel ev­ery night, you of­ten hitch a ride back to the day’s start­ing point on the com­pany’s yacht, Even so, you’ll be in the wa­ter for two or three hours a day: swim­ming is your rai­son d’etre and your means of trans­port.

De­spite not of­fer­ing any trips in the An­tipodes, Swimtrek has a strong Aus­tralian link. Si­mon Murie, its founder, was born in Syd­ney and tells me the com­pany av­er­ages two Aus­tralians a trip in groups of about a dozen; Gozo (Malta), Croa­tia and Greece are the favoured des­ti­na­tions. Murie, who moved to Bri­tain as a child, has never re­ally got the Pa­cific out of his sys­tem: ‘‘ My fa­ther was a life­guard on Syd­ney beaches for a few sea­sons so that’s where I think my love for open wa­ter swim­ming comes from,’’ he ex­plains.

He spends his life ex­plor­ing new lo­ca­tions to ex­pand the Swimtrek list of des­ti­na­tions. He has real swim­ming pedi­gree to call on, be­ing one of only 900 peo­ple to have swum the English Chan­nel: ‘‘ I had the idea for Swimtrek be­fore do­ing the Chan­nel but it does give you cred­i­bil­ity with the swim­mers. It’s a bit like know­ing your moun­tain guide has climbed Ever­est.’’

We start on the is­land of An­tiparos. At the seafront ho­tel, we meet the two guides and our nine fel­low swim­mers and head to the beach where, Speedos, hats and gog­gles in place, we are asked to swim out to the head­land and back. It’s a chance for the guides to mea­sure our abil­i­ties.

For the past three months we’ve been keep­ing to a train­ing sched­ule. But an in­door pool or a cold pond is a far cry from the Aegean. We wade out through the beau­ti­fully warm shal­lows. The wa­ter tem­per­a­ture here al­lows Swimtrek to run this trip from mid-May to the end of Oc­to­ber. It’s the last day of June and it is al­ready 26C. As we be­gin swim­ming, I no­tice the wa­ter is far saltier than the At­lantic.

That evening we are briefed and handed dif­fer­ent coloured swim caps: yel­low for the ‘‘ scenic swim­mers’’, green for the mid­dle group, which in­cludes Jeanette and me, and pink for the three women who are way out in front.

At din­ner the first night the talk is of triathlons, veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and the per­ils of drink­ing too much. Later in the room, con­tem­plat­ing a 7.30am swim to­mor­row, we won­der if it’s not a tad too whole­some. Have we ended up on a hol­i­day for health freaks?

There are strong winds next morn­ing and the yel­low caps are to forgo the cross­ing but green and pink caps will forge ahead on this 1.5km loosener from An­tiparos to Paros. It feels a bit sur­real to be walk­ing down to the lit­tle port in Speedos at this hour on a Sun­day morn­ing. We head through the wa­ter to moored boats at the point, then past the head­land, where the waves hit us. With spray all around, I fix on the sea bot­tom to mea­sure progress and am shocked to re­alise the cur­rent is sweep­ing me to the right but I am not mov­ing for­ward. It is sober­ing to swim at full pelt and ap­par­ently not go any­where.

Slowly but surely land be­comes closer and I reach the small is­land in the mid­dle of the strait where the pink caps are al­ready wait­ing. From there we swim on to Paros, still bat­tling the cur­rent un­til we clam­ber through the rocks on to the sandy shore. We are all a bit stunned. This isn’t the Greek is­land-hop­ping ad­ven­ture we ex­pected, but when we dis­cover even the fer­ries are can­celled, our morale is boosted. Noth­ing else will prove as de­mand­ing as this first short cross­ing.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing we move on to Kou­fonissi, where we join up with Akis, our smooth Spar­tan yachts­man, who we learn owns an olive grove and a fast-food joint but has de­cided to de­vote his life to sail­ing and fish­ing. The af­ter­noon is spent watch­ing dol­phins from the yacht and do­ing a coastal swim be­side a re­mote is­land, watched by in­trepid goats graz­ing on a sheer cliff. The colours are stun­ning. One minute the wa­ter is pale green, the next a wall of deep blue as the bot­tom falls into a steep canyon. We al­most have to stop swim­ming, sens­ing we are about to fall off a precipice.

The next morn­ing there is the dreaded stroke anal­y­sis in the ho­tel pool. To my sur­prise it turns out to be one of the high­lights of the week. We each swim two widths and one length of the pool while Melissa, our Aus­tralian guide, films us. Then af­ter break­fast we watch our­selves. I look like I’m on speed, all flail­ing arms and swiv­el­ling head. ‘‘ Slow down your stroke, stop cross­ing over your hands, breathe less and fol­low through prop­erly with your arms,’’ Melissa ad­vises.

Then we cross to Schi­noussa, where we spend two bliss­ful days. It is the most iso­lated and the loveli­est of the is­lands, with a win­ter pop­u­la­tion of just 80 in­hab­i­tants, and home to the won­der­ful Mar­garita restau­rant, where Greek cui­sine is given a mod­ern twist. The ho­tel, as with all of the Swimtrek ac­com­mo­da­tion, is com­fort­able and beau­ti­fully sit­u­ated at the top of the hill over­look­ing the sea.

By now the am­bi­ence is re­laxed and less com­pet­i­tive. We’re a mix of ages, abil­i­ties and ec­cen­tric­i­ties, and the hol­i­day is the richer for it. Thurs­day, our last day of swim­ming, is the big one, Paros to Naxos, a 5.5km swim through one of the busiest ship­ping lanes in the Cy­clades. ‘‘ Yel­low caps, you’ve got 15 min­utes be­fore you start,’’ Swimtrek’s Kate shouts. The adrenalin is pump­ing. Naxos looks a good 16km away. It will be a chal­lenge not just swim­ming the dis­tance but dodg­ing the huge fer­ries that thun­der across.

But, no, Akis feels the swell is too strong. In­stead we will do a 4km coastal swim around Paros via the wreck of a Ger­man ship tor­pe­doed in World War II. I’m gut­ted. The whole week has been build­ing up to this chal­lenge and now it’s off.

How­ever, 20 min­utes later, the dis­ap­point­ment lifts. It is one of the most beau­ti­ful swims, through sun­streaked wa­ter, ex­plor­ing dozens of lit­tle in­lets with con­stantly chang­ing un­der­wa­ter to­pog­ra­phy. Be­cause we are not go­ing head to head with the fer­ries we can take it as fast or slow as we like. I linger in the cave, while Jeanette flies off in tan­dem with one of the pink caps.

The last night is spent on Naxos, the big­gest and liveli­est of the Cy­clades, and the four least ab­stemious mem­bers of the party hold a beer-fu­elled post­mortem. We are dis­ap­pointed we didn’t do the Paros to Naxos swim and not ev­ery­thing was as we ex­pected. It wasn’t re­ally a case of swim­ming from point to point and there was a lot of sail­ing, which most of us loved, but not the guy who got sea­sick. But Swimtrek has in­vented a great con­cept that binds one not just to fel­low swim­mers, but to the sur­round­ings.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing we climb 1000m Mt Zeus. Through the heat haze we can make out the is­lands we have swum to and from, spread out like dusty sleep­ing lizards on a huge blue table­cloth. Many trav­ellers have cov­ered the Cy­clades through the years, but there’s a cer­tain sat­is­fac­tion in know­ing we have done it un­der our own steam. Tom de Castella was a guest of Swimtrek. www.vis­it­

In the swim: Is­land hop­ping in the Aegean, two-stroke style

Pic­tures: Tom de Castella

Sea legs: Swimtrek par­tic­i­pants wear dif­fer­ent coloured swim caps based on their prow­ess in the wa­ter, left; white­washed ports dot the Cy­clades, right

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