My first ever proper backpacking trip was extremely eventful. It had started in Israel with a spell on a kibbutz, followed by a month travelling round the country, on to Egypt for another month and then across to mainland Europe for a month’s Inter-Railing. I was naïve about most things but this trip made a man of me –slightly odd, as I was female when I’d set off.
I didn’t even know about the benefits of having a backpack for such a trip and soon discovered why ‘suitcasing’ never caught on. Backpacking would have been far more favourable to what I ended up doing, which was to drag my wheel-less suitcase around behind me for half a year. You live and learn.
Transport between Haifa in Israel and the Greek island of Crete was courtesy of a three day boat ride. I was travelling with a friend and was glad to have someone to snuggle up to. We’d opted for the cheapest option of being walk-on passengers, with no access to beds or seats. It was the height of summer and the boat was packed; the only space we could secure for ourselves was outside on the top deck. Nights were extremely cold and we obviously hadn’t had the foresight to take sleeping bags with us. This was a very steep learning curve.
Once in Crete we met up with a group of friends (who very annoyingly had backpacks) and had a proper girls’ beach holiday to break up our endless months of backpacking. Well, suitcasing.
Late one afternoon we thought it would be a great idea to take up the hotel offer of heading out on the beautiful seas on a variety of fun vessels. Between the five of us, we set off on two pedalos and what the hotel referred to as a canoe. There were no sides to the canoe, it was a simple, flat piece of fibreglass. We believed Rose to be the strongest of us so we made her take that; Melanie and I shared one pedalo, Tanya and Lydia took the other.
‘It’s pushing on a bit girls, so just promise me you won’t go out too far,’ said the owner.
‘Of course we won’t!’
Tanya and Lydia were always the sensible ones. Rose, Melanie and I were always the ones who went too far.
The tide was going out and the sun was going down. The two sensible ones had gone back to shore, leaving the remaining three of us to drift out further and further. It simply did not dawn on us how far we’d gone and we had no notion that the tide was now totally in control of our movements. The chattering and giggling had long abated as silent panic set in.
Try though we might, we were powerless to battle against the waves which were by now crashing over our heads. The further we got from the shore line, the closer we were edging to a high, jagged rocky islet.
I was the first to crack and started crying along with shouting and waving to Tanya and Lydia who I could clearly see back on the beach. They waved back nonchalantly.
One particularly ferocious wave knocked Rose clean off her canoe, which hit her on the head as she went under. Melanie and I struggled to reach her and she was a dead weight once we did. She was stunned by the incident so we hauled her into the pedalo and Melanie took her place on the canoe.
Unbeknownst to us, our plight had been noticed and the owner was winging his way towards us in a little motor boat. Far from impressed, through gritted teeth he reassured us we were now safe. He proceeded to attach the canoe to the pedalo and the pedalo to the boat with some rope. We remained in our positions and the idea was he would gently navigate us back to shore in convoy.
Had his ignition not conked out this would have been a brilliant plan. However, the four of us, our motor boat, pedalo and canoe weren’t heading back to land just yet.
I was now in bits. The craggy rocks were looming large once again.
The owner had the bright idea of nominating me to clamber over to his boat, lie face down the full (short) length of it in order to be in a position to push in the button of the engine and get the ignition to spark. Under me ran the knitted steel steering cable.
‘Just be very careful not to push it in too quickly or with too much force – it’s very sensitive.’
Muttering that I was feeling far more sensitive than his motor, I awaited his instruction to proceed. At which point I pushed it in too quickly and with way too much force. We took off like a rocket, launching me through the air and landing with a belly flop into the water. Luckily it didn’t hurt, but only because I couldn’t think about anything more painful than the injury sustained from the friction burn of the steel cable I’d been lying across that had rubbed my hip totally raw.
The boat had died.
Before long it went very dark. Thankfully though, this was because we were in the shadow of a huge fishing trawler which had spotted our nautical comedy of errors.
We were exhausted and freezing when the fishermen pulled us from the water; they wrapped us in tarpaulin and gave us some very welcome shots of Ouzo. They were very keen to ensure that we, the three young British girls, were comfortable and left the poor old owner on his lonesome to now add to the flotilla. He had his work cut out for him re-tying the canoe to the pedalo, the pedalo to the motor boat and, now, the motor boat to the fishing trawler. They insisted he sat at the very back on the canoe.
Off we set in the darkness raising our glasses to the fishermen and joining them in a warming singsong.
It took a long time for anyone to notice that the convoy had become unattached and for the screams of the owner to be heard. The fishermen seemed less keen on going back to get him but we convinced them to circle back to fetch him.
We were five miles away from the shore and we’d been out on the water for two hours. Of all the lessons I learned that summer, this was undoubtedly the most important one – and, thanks to the scar I still bear from the cable burn, it’s one I’ll never forget.