En­thu­si­as­tic swim­mer He­len Walne has an is­land-hop­ping hol­i­day with a dif­fer­ence

There’s a new type of hol­i­day you can do: open-wa­ter, or wild, swim­ming. The waters around the lit­tle-known Greek is­land of Mathraki are per­fect for it


Be­fore Mathraki, I wasn’t fully breath­ing. I didn’t glide when I swam and I didn’t know the real taste of apri­cots. I didn’t know the word kalimera and I ex­pected ev­ery Greek man to have a mous­tache. Be­fore Mathraki, I didn’t know what the colour blue was. Now I not only know its lay­ers, I know its source. If you’d told me 10 years ago I’d be­come an ob­ses­sive open-wa­ter swim­mer, I would have laughed and reached for an­other cig­a­rette. I could barely pull on a bathing cos­tume with­out winc­ing with thigh shame. But one af­ter­noon in the gym changed that. Bored with ma­chines and seek­ing es­cape from Katy Perry, I slipped into the pool and strug­gled through a few lengths. And did it again the fol­low­ing day. And again and again. Un­til, a few months later, I was up to three kilo­me­tres and spend­ing ev­ery spare hour in the sea or the pool. One morn­ing at the beach, salt crust­ing on my shoul­ders, a man asked why I swam so much. ‘For the light and the si­lence,’ I replied. Mathraki is a small is­land north­west of Corfu. Glossy guide books might her­ald it as an ‘undis­cov­ered gem with azure waters’. And al­though they would be tech­ni­cally cor­rect, the is­land can’t be re­duced to touristy clichés … be­cause it barely knows what tourism is. Part of the Di­apon­tia ar­chi­pel­ago, its wooded hills are sparsely dot­ted with houses, some oc­cu­pied by the 40 res­i­dents es­ti­mated to live on the is­land all year round. There is no ATM and be­sides the tav­erna at Mathraki’s sole ho­tel, there are just two restau­rants, one of which houses a ba­sic shop. In sum­mer, Greeks from Corfu or the main­land might come for a hol­i­day, but most of the tourism in­volves day-trip­pers drawn to Mathraki for its soli­tude and nat­u­ral beauty. And it has that in bun­dles. From the main beach of Portello, the un­in­hab­ited islets of Kar­avi, Di­apolo, Plateia and Tracheia hunch in the Io­nian Sea like sleep­ing ketea. In the dis­tance, the hills of Al­ba­nia ap­pear and dis­ap­pear mi­rage-like in the haze. A walk along the is­land’s eight-kilo­me­tre gravel ring-road takes you past cy­press forests, gnarled olive trees, fruit or­chards, the husks of aban­doned homes and cars, clumps of yel­low flow­ers, tiny bee or­chids – and rocky coves serv­ing up bowls of aquar­ium-like light. And for a week, this pris­tine place be­longed to a small group of us who had signed up for a SwimQuest hol­i­day. A rel­a­tively new con­cept in South Africa, swim­ming hol­i­days have be­come pop­u­lar among those who like a good dose of freestyle with their free time. They usu­ally in­volve two guided swims a day – any­thing from one-and-a-half to six kilo­me­tres – and in­clude ac­com­mo­da­tion, most meals and daily boat trips. Des­ti­na­tions are cho­sen for their calm, safe and beau­ti­ful waters, found in abun­dance around Mathraki. Un­like my usual swim­ming spots off Cape Town’s coast, there were no shark threats, no crash­ing waves, no icy cur­rents – and the clar­ity of the sea was enough to make some­one like me very an­noy­ing. ‘I’m go­ing to die of ex­cite­ment!’ I yelled (again) as I dived off the dinghy into the ocean. Skip­per Ge­or­gios Ar­gy­ros, who to­gether with dad Gian­nis, sis­ter Maria and mom Nora run the Corfu Par­adise Mathraki ho­tel and pro­vide boat sup­port for SwimQuest, had ex­pertly de­liv­ered us to this spot in the mid­dle of the sea. Swim­ming guides Sam Mould from Eng­land and Natalie Dumont de Chas­sart, a Zim­bab­wean de­camped to Mathraki for the sea­son, had been shar­ing ex­cited glances in the boat as we skimmed across the wa­ter. Once sub­merged, I could see why. Re­ferred to as the

‘ Dur­ing the course of the week, I died of ex­cite­ment again and again – and made sure ev­ery­one knew about it’

Big Blue, this 50-me­tre-deep chasm must surely be the spawn­ing place for the colour cobalt. An in­tense, deep blue tex­tured only by shafts of light, the wa­ter pulled us in and held us. In this co­coon of colour, we looked like newly formed crea­tures drift­ing in space. Dur­ing the course of the week I died of ex­cite­ment again and again – and made sure ev­ery­one knew about it. ‘Dy­ing of ex­cite­ment!’ I hollered as we struck out on a three-kilo­me­tre swim from the tiny, shark fin-shaped is­land of Kar­avi back to Mathraki. Minute black fish darted be­neath me and rocky shelves dropped away into acres of milky topaz. ‘Se­ri­ously dy­ing of ex­cite­ment!’ I splut­tered on a swim around Di­apolo, be­fore div­ing down to ad­mire disc-shaped coral grow­ing like fields of pink mush­rooms on smooth rocks. In a shel­tered chan­nel be­tween Di­apolo and tiny Di­akopo, Natalie threw us a giant flamingo-shaped lilo and we took turns pad­dling it past caves and over patches of turquoise wa­ter. ‘To­tally dy­ing of ex­cite­ment!’ I shouted to fel­low swim­mer Suzie as we kicked and stroked the three kilo­me­tres from Kravia islet to Corfu’s har­bour vil­lage of Aril­las. There, warmed by the sun in a seafront tav­erna and drenched with that sense of re­lax­ation that only comes from be­ing in wa­ter, our group tucked into a seem­ingly end­less flow of Greek meze: cour­gette balls, grilled sar­dines, dol­mades, pita bread, tzatziki, prawns in a rich tomato sauce, hum­mus and – my favourite – saganaki (pan-fried hard cheese). Af­ter­wards, a stroll along the main boule­vard took us past hol­i­day­mak­ers – many Bri­tish – lolling on loungers on the sand and float­ing in the shal­lows. One woman with sun-pinked shoul­ders stopped us and asked if we had re­ally swum all the way to Aril­las. ‘What about sharks?’ she said. We grinned and felt like he­roes. Af­ter draw­ing cash from the ATM, stock­ing up on sun­screen and fondling trin­kets in shops, we grate­fully clam­bered aboard the dinghy to head back to Mathraki – to its si­lence and sim­plic­ity, its lack of trans­ac­tion, the slow turn­ing of time. Op­po­site the har­bour, The­o­fa­nis Kasimis was tend­ing his dense veg­etable gar­den, straight­en­ing up tomato plants and wa­ter­ing frothy clumps of fen­nel. De­spite a decades-long tra­di­tion of is­lan­ders mi­grat­ing to New York in search of work and dol­lars, he has lived on Mathraki most of his life and says he wouldn’t want to be any­where else. ‘Here,’ he said, hand­ing me a bou­quet of freshly

cut ar­ti­choke flow­ers. ‘I am 76 years old, have never been mar­ried and this quiet life is good. Would you like to meet my sheep? She’s called Michelle Obaama.’ This warmth and open­ness could be found across the is­land: from the woman I met on an early-morn­ing walk who pressed wild car­na­tions into my hand to the wel­come we re­ceived from Chris­tos, who un­locked the tiny church up the road for us – and then opened up the ad­ja­cent bar, where he plied us with olives and served us cold beers; from Christina, who came upon some of our group steal­ing apri­cots from her tree and in­vited them in for cof­fee to Ge­or­gios, Nora, Gian­nis and Maria who served us de­li­cious home-cooked meals and made us feel like part of their fam­ily. On the last morn­ing, a wind whipped up the bay in front of the ho­tel. This was where, on the first day, Natalie and Sam had filmed each of us swim­ming and then given us feed­back on our strokes. My hands crossed over in front of me, I didn’t ro­tate enough and I breathed only to one side. Dur­ing the course of the week, the guides had egged us on from the boat, shout­ing out tips and feed­ing us jelly ba­bies. I had learnt more about swim­ming from them in a few days than I had at months of squad train­ing. From my bal­cony I watched as, one by one, the other swim­mers wan­dered across the sand, stripped off their clothes and waded into the sea. There were whoops and squeals, limbs carv­ing up wa­ter. I pulled on my cos­tume, grabbed my gog­gles and hur­ried down. Plung­ing into the sea, I struck out to­wards the oth­ers, fo­cus­ing on keep­ing my arms wide, my shoul­ders re­laxed and turn­ing to breathe on ev­ery third stroke. ‘Guys, guys!’ I cried. ‘I’m bi­lat­eral breath­ing!’ Then I ducked un­der the sur­face to the bot­tom of the world to watch the wa­ter make X-rays of the sun.

‘ There were whoops and squeals, limbs carv­ing up wa­ter. i pulled on my cos­tume, grabbed my gog­gles and hur­ried down’

FROM TOP A swim­mer strolls back to the ho­tel af­ter frol­ick­ing in the sea with an in­flat­able croc­o­dile; long-time Mathraki res­i­dent The­o­fa­nis Kasimis in his abun­dant gar­den.

FROM TOP The pink-tinged cliffs of Corfu can be seen from green and tran­quil Mathraki; food at Corfu Par­adise Mathraki ho­tel is sim­ple and won­der­fully fresh –this sea bream was caught by lo­cal fish­er­man Spiros.

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