Igoumenitsa 

Back to earth with a bang. ‘It’s good to be back in civilisation’ is a maxim not in my lexicon. 

Boarding the bus from Lafkada to Igoumenitsa, the driver enquired as I boarded whether I was going to the ‘terminal’ or the ‘port’. I assumed that the port was the same as the ferry terminal so I replied ‘port’ and for good measure threw in as rapidly as he threw my backpack into the bus, ‘ferry’. This pointed conversation proved rather pointless as the bus drew up at the bus terminal and it was immediately and obviously the first, last and only stop! I asked about the ferry terminal to Brindisi as I alighted and he gestured predictably towards the sea. He smoked continuously as he drove. I feel a letter coming on.

The road to Igoumenitsa hugs the coast and was quite delightful in some ways the Greek equivalent to our Great Ocean Road although not as scenically spectacular. Rolling hills and mountains drop down to the coast, the vegetation being being rather scrub like with an occasional pencil pine lots of olive trees and even a number of recognisable eucalypts. The roadsides are planted with never ending oleander shrubs which compete with wild olive trees, tall suffocating clumps of what appears to be bamboo and all fighting for survival from dense suffocating overgrowing weeds.

Forlorn groves of very old olive trees are unkempt and what were once majestic trees with huge trunks and graceful branches have all been unprofessionally severely lopped and so the overall appearance is of oxymoronic life size bonsai! It was explained to me that over the past few years the cost of heating oil has sky-rocketed so the trees have been plundered to provide firewood. Which reminds me that at medical school we we taught that a good method to assess immediate recall was to ask your patient to repeat after me the sentence : ‘One thing a nation needs to be rich and powerful is a large and plentiful supply of firewood’….. And so 40 years later here I am in Greece with an undeniable supply of firewood but devoid of wealth.

Amongst these olive groves are wild sown fig and pomegranate trees. I think I should plant a pomegranate when I return.

Most Greek towns and cities are dirty, dusty and half finished. Paved footpaths peter out into weed infested stoney gravel, rusty steel reinforced concrete columns loom like skeletons suffocated to death by the weeds and plastic. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Greeks had run out of money? Yet the bars and taverna spring to life after 8:30pm and money is tossed around as freely as the cigarettes and alcohol. 

I wander aimlessly along the docks as ferries arrive and depart, waiting for my ferry which leaves at 1 am and as I do, I reminisce that I was about to embark upon this same ferry journey from Greece to Brindisi 40 years go. On that occasion I was violently seasick.

Suddenly the night sky becomes a monstrous disco light of soundless lightning. After about half an hour ominous thunder heralds the approaching storm, then an eerie silent pregnant pause. One huge drop of rain splatters on my head then another and like a woman in labour the ‘waters break’ and in less than a minute I am delivered to the terminus saturated.

It is 1am Monday morning. The dock has an eerie blackness yet huge floodlights tower over the port and cast dancing glistening shadows on the wet oily tarmac and the pools of freshwater from the now passed deluge. It’s like a scene out of a 1950 s black and white gangster picture and I mean ‘picture’ because they were pictures then and certainly not movies!

I watch fascinated as the huge lorries of which there seems to be hundreds are skillfully reversed into the seemingly insatiable cargo bays. I try to stay awake till the ferry is ready to depart but it is a losing battle and I return to my cabin and am sound asleep within minutes waking as sunlight pours through the porthole around 7:30am. Such a diametrically different experience to the first time I travelled.

I am told that my cabin ticket entitles me to a ‘Business Breakfast’. Devoid of money I choose my usual mouse like menu of yoghurt, a soggy, saggy croissant, one fried egg on which the sun has never sided up or sided down and a rasher of greasy bacon. To my shock the cashier demands money! The bacon and egg combo is not included. I have no cash on me I explain and he waves me through as there is rapidly building up behind me a queue of morbidly obese Koreans. They are like tubs of Flora Margarine.

The European plug with integrated 4 USB charging ports, purchased in Australia has died! I am literally and figuratively powerless and in the next few hours will have a dead iPhone. This impeding catastrophe is worse than withdrawing from heroin addiction and going cold turkey to boot. 

  

my ferry

  

my cabin

    
 

And so it came to pass..

For a week I have been partially submerged having a quite unique and incredible time which explains the lack of literary outpourings. Did I have pre conceived ideas? Well yes, but being an Australian adding the adjectival description ‘open water’ ie in the sea, to the noun ‘swimming’ provoked more anxiety than exhilaration. So let me clarify out the beginning that there are NO sharks in the Ionan Sea let alone the Mediterranean Sea. At no stage did I have a sense that lurking 5 fathoms deep was a great white about to shoot up like a Polaris missile and devour me. Actually not true because on the 5 km swim between Islands, I was like Saint Thomas- of the doubting personality. If there was one minor disappointment, which I can’t blame on the Big Blue Swim it was rather a lack of wild life in the water. I commented to the crew who confirmed that the local waters are quite probably overfished. 

The organisation was superb and the it was not just the fact that one has swum 25km in 5 day, not an onerous task for me as those in the know would know. We were all sent a suggested swimming programme starting several months before we arrived. This was to say the least, potentially off putting so much so the one could have been forgiven for assuming that we were all to be smothered in Vaseline and herded into the Sea for a swim between Greece and Africa with lunch at Crete. It was not to be although the Vaseline was on hand and I willingly offered my cracks and crevices. 

So do not be dissuaded by the pre swim programme. Seriously we were joined by a delightful American as I described in an earlier blog with an unusual arthritic condition which has left him with elbow joints fused to 90 degrees of flexion and marked disuse atrophy of his upper limbs. Despite this he completed all legs of the week by breaststroke even the 5 km in the allotted time of 2.5 hours. An Olympian effort. His guide was Jax  a delightful giggling English woman who was the most provocative and we were equal at thigh wrestling.

The sea was crystal clear and a constant 28 degrees. The only wildlife were the occasional orange coloured jelly fish. Given again my Australian perception that all sea creatures if they don’t eat you alive, have a poisonous sting that makes curare a mere flea bite, I did find myself constantly looking out for these monstrous marine creatures which through my goggles registered as the size of dinner plates but in reality were button sized.

So the Big Blue Swim is not just the swimming. Those of you who have enjoyed our European cycle holidays know that it is not all about the bike, although PJM would disagree as is his nature. Rather it is the whole day of breakfast, the ride, the scenery, the long lunches ( as long as one find a little local restaurant that is open and not closed for siesta) and the evening at our destination with the social intercourse. So it is with this Swim Adventure, it was the leisurely swims and they were leisurely, with the lunch each day at a delightful Island village and the local taverna. I am completely relaxed and have some would say a somewhat unhealthy tan! I feel smugly healthy. Alcohol has rarely passed my lips. 

As I sit here at breakfast on our last morning together we are trying to create a swimming equivalent of the cycle peleton… Any suggestions? I can reassure Pamela that if she joins me next year for a swim around Crete I promise not to come up, unannounced on her inside leg.

Our leaders and guides were great fun yet professional, protective and at times provocative. Michael K was the chief and responsible for the pink team, of which I was a member of course and I get to keep my cap! Noah of the Ark fame a laconic tanned smooth skinned guide was responsible for herding the largest group, the orange people, who seemed to us to meander this way and that as though they were on recreational drugs. 

The pink team was of course the A team. We were all straight as a die in our strokes. On our last day we swam part way round an island that was purchased by a wealthy Russian! If by chance one swam inside a line of red bouys that marked the no-go zone,there was the threat of attack as several vicious rottweilers wearing flippers and water-wings dog paddle towards us. 
Our last night was at a taverna on the hillside above the bay with a typical Greek barbecue a memorable finish to the week 

pics of our last evening taverna

  
   
   
And for those who are wondering, yes I am practising, when convenient