“I should be alright, right?”
Everyone stops eating and looks up.
“I’m going there kayaking from island to island and camping each night out, by myself.”
And so, the lunch continued with concerned, thoughtful questions. It was 9th July 2014, and suddenly I felt like a kid again. All the flights and accommodation for my first long vacation in two years have been booked and paid for two months ago. I was now sitting with my pals for our monthly catchup lunch in the Singapore business district less than two weeks before I fly off for my vacation. It only just dawned on them what I was choosing for a vacation was out of the ordinary and came with some risks. I was going to fly in to Germany for a very good friend’s wedding in the first week and then spend the second week in the west coast of Sweden, taking in the summer sea breeze while paddling in a kayak. The Bohuslän Coast, I read about it last year in a travel article on the CNN website (click here), is perfect for paddling at this time of the year because of its warm waters and the waters are usually calm.
Fed up with working so hard for the past many months and weighed down by personal failures, the holiday could not have come at a more opportune time. I needed time off to get away for a bit. Hamburg is in the north of Germany and less than two hours away from Gothenburg, the second largest Swedish city after the capital. From Gothenburg (or Göteborg), I would hit the road for a few hours north to visit Kosterhavet, the first Swedish marine national park. The wedding would be in mid-July and I would fly to Sweden the following week, possibly spending five days visiting the area. The fantasizing and planning began in April.
I researched in earnest because I had no idea what to expect. My last kayak experience was with an outdoors activities group in school ten years back, even that was a minor controlled experience in a big group lasting two hours, I was now looking at five days. I figured five days was the limit by which anything more might result in boredom and a lot of discomfort. Truthfully, during that lunch, the idea of abandoning the trip after two or three days was even entertained in case it was not interesting enough to warrant a few more nights of camping. From the research, it was evident there were enough establishments offering tours or kayaks for rent, all of them dotted along the coast northwards of Gothenburg. It seems to reinforce the fact that sea kayaking is something popular with Swedes.
Some readers might find this blog thus far bordering on weird, but coming from someone born in Singapore and living in a big city all his life whose main experience with the outdoors coming from a mandatory stint in the army, I think the doubts I had at that time were justified. I have visited many cities in Europe, but never Scandinavia, and the closest outdoors experience I had in European summer was jogging in the woods or cycling in farmland. This was going to be a real adventure, though I did not know it at that time. It only dawned on me when I told wedding guests in Germany what I was going to be doing the following week that one of them coined the term “adventure camping” to describe my trip. It was not going to be just camping, which one of them had done in a Swedish forest, it was adventure camping because of the kayaking out to islands in the archipelago. They told me to watch out for bears. I corrected them that the most extreme wildlife I would encounter would be seals. In truth, I was terrified of something swimming up from under my kayak and taking a chunk of me. Spielberg should be proud of his Jaws legacy.
In any case, my research led me to Skärgårdsidyllen (http://www.skargardsidyllen.se/en/). This company is run by a husband and wife team and they were one of the kayak renters that showed up on the official Swedish tourism website. Through much consideration, I settled on them. Their shop is located in Grebbestad, a fishing town located between the Koster islands to the north and Fjällbacka to the south, a quaint little town which I intended to visit. All these, as seen from the map, lie within the myriad of islands along the coast. Gothenburg is more than two hours by bus to the south. For more evidence of how unfamiliar all this is to me, I provide the fact that an hour’s bus ride on the highway in Singapore with unopposed traffic gets me from one end of the country to the other end. I am talking about the longer end. The location was not the only reason I chose Skärgårdsidyllen. They had the most reasonable prices for rental and the way Marcus and Ingela ran the business really attracted me. You can tell from their offerings and their media that they really liked what they do and their lives are very linked to the coast. And thus, on the 4th of May, I began the first of my many (annoying) emails to these wonderful people.
I would like to take a self-guided kayaking tour from 20 July to 25 July this summer. I would like to join a group, but I do not have friends travelling with me to Sweden. I have some sea kayaking experience. Could you advise on the following questions?
- I am thinking of renting a kayak from you beginning in Grebbestad and want to visit Sydkoster, Kosterhavets Nationalpark and Fjällbacka within the 5 days, will this be possible?
- Is it safe for me to paddle alone? Will I be able to call for help with my mobile phone if I stick close to the shoreline?
- I intend to camp overnight along the way and maybe explore some islands as well? Is it secure to leave the kayak near the beach of uninhabited islands? Do most paddlers do that?
Do you have any other advice? It will be much appreciated.
We continued conversing on email for the next two months. For five days’ worth of a single kayak rental, these guys must really love what they do. To be honest, the enquiries got a lot more specific and tedious after the lunch with my pals. Marcus and Ingela were really patient and I decided to spare them nearer the date and stopped enquiring.
You could tell I was clearly concerned about doing the activity alone, I mean, capsizing alone out at sea is no joke. Marcus and Ingela offered to help me post an advertisement on their facebook page to see if there would be interested kayakers for those dates, but I declined, I could not bear the thought of thinking of Jaws during the day or Psycho during the night. I decided to ask my work colleagues in the UK if they would join me. They were sufficiently interested of the adventure and worked towards joining it. All three of us decided that we would make our separate arrangements for the trip because I am in Singapore, GK is in Aberdeen and GV is in London. I was getting more excited by then. GK is what most of us would describe as a gentle giant, he hails from south India and is a towering black frame at 1.85 m. GV is of mixed parentage, but looks mainly dark and is of slight build. We imagined what a sight the three of us would make paddling up and down the Swedish coast. But in the end, it was not to be, a wedding came for GV to attend that very week and GK’s client delayed his contract a week later to hit the same week. I was destined to see this through on my own.
By now, you might have been wondering what a commitment it is to pay up so far in advance of a holiday. I had sorted out all my flights two months before and made a telegraphic transfer for full payment of 5 days’ rent to Skärgårdsidyllen too to secure a kayak for the stated dates. Well, in general for travel logistics, it is usually cheaper to buy ahead and the week I chose for the trip is the start of the peak season, so I did not want to risk having to change my kayak trip to a city tour or have to research and find another shop to rent from again. When it comes to commitments, I have no problems and usually book ahead.
After the wedding, I reached Gothenburg on a sunny Sunday (20th) morning. Hamburg was already warm at more than 30oC the week before (hot by European standards, but this is the usual day time temperature in Singapore all year round). Gothenburg must have just been one or two degrees cooler. Because of the wedding, I could not travel with a camping backpack and had a wheeled case to hold all the formal attire. I would just be in proper accommodation for two nights. The first night was in a hostel because I was leaving early next morning for Grebbestad, the next night was in a proper hotel near to the airport bus shuttle stop in the city centre because I was catching the first bus at 0420 hours on Saturday (26th). I left my wheeled case in the hotel after removing the camping items I required and putting them in a large black trash bag. With this large trash bag and my backpack, I went to my hostel and headed for a supermarket to buy my food supplies for the next few days. Thereafter. I spent some time confirming my bus schedule for the next day and buying a Swedish SIM card for my spare phone. For details, refer to In country logistics.
You might wonder why I needed to get a Swedish SIM card for a spare phone. My pals kind of requested me to send them updates often. I described it as “kind of requested” because they did not say specifically how and when, but my guess is they were pretty concerned. I suppose this could be classified as awkward bromance. My sister also asked for daily updates and that was even when she only got half the story. I told her I was going camping and had deliberately omitted sea kayaking when describing my holiday plans a month earlier. Perhaps she will only find out the truth from this blog, if I share it with her. In Singapore, when you tell someone you are going to Sweden for a holiday, the informed person would ask if it was Stockholm, some might suggest Copenhagen for further conversation. In this part of the world, travelling to Europe usually means London, Paris, Munich, Greece and the other usual suspects. Scandinavian countries seem more exotic and very few would go camping somewhere, they might climb a mountain, but not fly for 13 hours for camping.
The second use of the spare SIM would be to call for help in case I capsize and somehow my Singapore SIM did not work. To that end, I had prepared a survival vest which I wore throughout the kayaking over my lifejacket. By now, you could tell that I was truly worried about an accident happening that prevented me from returning home.
I reached Grebbestad busstation (it is just a single bus stand in the middle of a busy car park) at noon after much effort and called the fixed line number listed for Skärgårdsidyllen. Nobody picked up and I was thinking Skärgårdsidyllen might not exist at all. After weeks of preparation, I had the sudden urge to run away. I would actually start kayaking and camping today and the uncertainty of it all was climaxing. I called the listed mobile number next and was greeted by a female voice. I guessed it was Ingela and greeted her, but she continued in Swedish and it was only after a while that she realized I am the visitor from far away Singapore. Maybe they forgot about me. She maintained her cheery voice, but in English this time, told me to look out for Marcus who is 1.8 m and blonde. I wanted to tell her to inform Marcus I am also 1.8 m tall and look Chinese, with black hair. I did not do that. In very sunny Grebbestad, in the middle of that busy car park with many Caucasians in summer shirts and shorts milling about, I did not think Marcus would miss me in my brown outdoor shirt, thick cargo pants, backpack and black trash bag. It was noon and I was hungry, so I started on my hardboiled egg as I did not think Marcus would be there so soon. They had volunteered to pick me up from the busstation on email and I was really grateful for that as it would have been a half hour walk with my full gear to their shop.
Marcus found me as I was on half the egg and deep in grateful thoughts. Awkward was an understatement not just because I am usually shy with meeting people, but I stuffed the rest of the egg into my mouth, offered my hand for a shake and introduce myself with a mouthful of egg. Marcus was as cheery as Ingela sounded on the phone. He walked me to the car, which is a station wagon. He opened the boot for me to put my stuff in and apologized for the mess in the car which he explained was a result of high season and kids. He had no idea how happy I was with being picked up. During the short drive, Marcus offered that he had been in Singapore a few years ago while transiting there and visited the city for a few days. I seized on this and told him how foreign the idea of a camping and kayaking holiday would be to my friends and I since we lived in an urban environment all the time. It was to explain and apologise for the many questions over email I had asked before.
Readying to launch
If there was anything that would stop me from travelling, it would be packing for a trip. That and maybe if my flight got cancelled. I hate packing. It is the one thing in life I procrastinate about and it usually means more frantic nerves before departing for the airport. By now, you might have asked why I decided to bring all my stuff (barang barang, as we say in Singapore) in a black trash bag. Well, it is no ordinary trash bag, it is an extra thick one, not the type you line your bins with. In fact, it is the thickest one the army surplus stores sell in Singapore. Soldiers buy it and line their camping packs to keep items dry while swimming across rivers. Well, in my case, I forgot the trash bag is supposed to line a backpack and forgot to bring my camping pack. Sounds amazing? Yes, even more so when you haul the 15 kg worth of contents all over Gothenburg and for the bus ride. I must have looked like an alternative version of Santa Claus with the trash bag over my shoulder.
I guess my initial plan was to use the bag to waterproof my stuff in the kayak. That plan did not pan out because the hatches were quite small though the space was sufficient, so I left the trash bag with half the stuff I came with in Skärgårdsidyllen’s garage in the end. After stuffing the kayak with a two-man tent, a sleeping bag, a set of clothes, food and cooking gear, there was no space left for anything else. It was a good thing I brought along a spare thick white trash bag, which I used to wrap around the foam sleeping mat and secured it on the topside of the kayak. Marcus and I carried the red Seabird Expedition LV kayak to the sandy beach 30 m away from the shop. He would later help me carry the empty kayak and place it in the water for me, if only he had helped me pack my stuff into the kayak. When he scooped up the 5 m long craft and carried it a few metres, I stood there on the beach watching in awe. Man, he’s strong. I later realized lifting an empty kayak was manageable, just very odd because it is very long and hence difficult to balance when you hold it from the cockpit. The manufacturer lists it as weighing 25 kg.
I had no idea how long I took to pack my things into the craft. It is the first time I have even seen an expedition kayak, much less go on a kayak expedition. In what seems like an hour, I packed in the essentials, slapped on sunblock, changed into my swim jersey and shorts and readied the survival dry bag. In between, Marcus gave me a crash course in kayaking. He taught me how to get into the cockpit in the water by steadying yourself with one arm holding the paddle on the water. You have to enter when the kayak is in water because the whole craft is designed to take the full weight, not the mid-section alone. He also cautioned me not to drag the kayak on the ground if it is too heavy to lift, but to place the lifejacket underneath so it slides over. The fully loaded kayak must be nearly 50 kg and difficult to carry around because the weight is unbalanced. The 15 minute prep talk also included the all-important sea navigation, weather forecast and emergencies.
I could see Marcus was starting to get a bit conflicted, he had a beginner in front of him and he probably needed a few hours to a day to properly teach me all about sea kayaking and he probably did not want to scare me by telling me more things I did not know. In fact, most of the things I should be apprehensive about and some of the things he covered already went through my mind in the past month. The initial plan, if my colleagues had joined me, was to ask Skärgårdsidyllen to give us a kayak intro tour that afternoon. But like a lot of things on this trip, plans did not quite work out. In any case, I took the plunge and launched the kayak at about 1500 hrs. It was really into the unknown as I paddled north in the general direction of Koster and trying to remember all the things Marcus told me in the last hour.
Monday: first day of paddling
I definitely covered less than 10 km and stayed in the kayak for less than three hours on the first day of paddling. The path in yellow in the Google Earth schematic shows the path taken, beginning from the beach in Ulmekårrssand (where the shop is near Grebbestad). After my first hour, I took my first break in the sheltered cove and tried to ascertain my location. The first two days of navigation at sea were a lot of trial and error. At sea, every piece of land in front of you looks nearly the same, two separate islands may look continuous to you and it is very difficult to judge distance by eye. For example, from the schematic, the islands of Långeskär and Ulsholmen will look like a single stretch of land when viewed from the direction of Ulmekårrssand. The advantage of being in a kayak is you cannot cover great distances. Hence, with the aid of a compass, you should be able to follow a general direction and head from point to point. The key is start from a known location and identify a point of reference on the map and find that point in front of you with the compass. For example, if I was the red coloured diamond in the schematic and I want to reach the green diamond, the general direction would be north-west-west. I would use the compass and point north-west-west and identify a feature in that direction. With that feature in sight, you then start paddling towards that feature. Depending on whether you drift while paddling, there might be slight directional changes observed on the compass. Also, you will not be able to tell the distance travelled by estimating the time because it depends on whether your paddling was aided or hindered by the currents
I remember grasping the navigational concepts only after the second day. Like everything on this trip, I had a lot to learn and got better with each day. The first day was simple enough since the islands were so near.
During my first break in the cove, I reached behind to the right to open the mini hatch for the first time. As I did so, I lost balance momentarily and my kayak wobbled. It is difficult to maintain balance when you twist your torso around and I was glad to have found out in that cove. I ate some chocolates and a cereal bar before spying on the few Swedes on the rocky shore in that cove. After eating, I had my first conversation on water with a Swede on land. It was with a middle-aged man with his dog, they were swimming and enjoying the day. I paddled near the shore, where the rocks were up to my chest height in the kayak. He was very friendly and I asked him to confirm if my location was in that cove, he was able to point out the cove and I was immediately relieved. We had a further chat about what I was doing there and where I rented the kayak from. He also came from Grebbestad and remarked that Skärgårdsidyllen’s fee for the all-inclusive rental of equipment was extremely reasonable. He also recommended a few islands in Koster that I should visit. I thanked him and departed after happily heading for my first campsite for the night.
I headed for Ulsholmen next as recommended by Marcus to set up camp for the night. Once reaching Ulsholmen, I took quite a while to get out of the kayak as I reached for my sandals to put on before stepping into the water. I decided that it was not worth getting my feet cut by shells on this trip and wore my sandals all the time while walking around, except on the final night. Marcus had earlier taught me how to use the rudder and by controlling it with my feet and kayakers usually go barefoot or wear neoprene booties so they can feel the rudder pedals better. I had only started using the rudder sometime on Tuesday and once I started, I was immensely grateful for the craft having one.
Once out of the kayak, I pulled it up to shore and attracted quite a few curious look. I was the most clothed person on the beach! It was very hot for me as the sun was very strong and I started looking for some shade. I realised only tropical beaches have coconut trees and on these islands, it was bare of tree and covered with shrubs. In the end, I found my shade next to a boulder and sat there for a breather and food and to plan on the map.
As I sat on the rock and looked to the beach, I could not imagine wearing only swim shorts and walking around in the sun, it was too strong for me. In tropical Singapore, where humidity is usually 80%, the heat is trapped in the air and you feel very warm even in the shade, but you do not get a burning sensation on the skin when out in the sun maybe because the rays get dispersed more. Looking at the map, I started pondering whether I will get to Koster at all. In my mind, I played different scenarios and made mental estimates of how long it would all take me. Marcus’ advice then came to mind. “Let the weather decide for you.” That kind of sounded like Yoda would say to a young padawan, but I decided it made a lot of sense and realised in that situation, just like a lot of times in life, you cannot plan for everything. I had to just let things happens. But I could try a bit harder, so I decided that since nightfall would not be for a few hours, I would inch a bit further up the map, by paddling to the next island, Långeskär, to set up camp.
I arrived on the Långeskär beach within an hour and realised the site was smaller than Ulsholmen, but there were not that many people around. The thing I distinctly remember about the initial bit of the trip was how slow I moved. It took me very long to move about, get my gear out, in general, just doing things. Inertia was really high in the beginning. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of it all and it really takes a while to shake yourself out of city living. No electricity, running water, proper toilet, people, cars… everything. It was not like I missed any of it, I supposed it was the physical activity as well because I have a desk job and typing all day is quite the opposite of holding a paddle and hauling a kayak up the shore.
There was another group of people consisting mainly of families on Långeskär, but I was the only kayaker. They came in their sailboats and were anchored off the rock faces away from the beach, so I pretty much had the whole beach to myself. The beaches are usually too shallow to accommodate larger vessels, so most of the time, only the small boats fitted with outboard motors came up to the beach. I proceeded to cook dinner first and then cleaned up the utensils with the seawater. Marcus had earlier advised that I could conserve freshwater by boiling pasta or potatoes with seawater. It was a concept completely foreign to me because the seawater I have seen around Asia was mostly cloudy and judging by the amount of shipping traffic near Singapore, I would never risk my stomach. I realised this was the first time I have actually been on a beach with clear seawater and in an area without commercial maritime traffic.
I have never pitched a recreational tent myself in my life, but the dome tent supplied by Skärgårdsidyllen and sponsored by their partners, Swedemount, was practically idiot-proof. I had mine up in 15 minutes after figuring out what the parts were for. On that very first night, I must have fallen asleep the minute I hit the sack. I am usually a light sleeper, so I did wake a few times that night because it was difficult to sleep on your side when you are on hard ground. Also, I was afraid my kayak would get washed away although I had dragged it up at least three metres from the shoreline. Dragging a kayak up was hard work because I was lazy to empty my gear from storage. Although I slid the kayak over my lifejacket, the uneven weight distribution made it a real chore. It was not until Wednesday that I accepted that the best way was to empty the kayak and lift it up to place it where I want. By this way, you can bring as far away from the shore as you want and not have to worry about it being washed away later. I really wished my colleagues had come with me, having more than one kayak means you can carry more and having more than one kayaker means you don’t have to empty the kayak each time you need to carry it up to shore. “Kayamping” (kayak+camping) alone is hard work.
Tuesday: getting much better
My first morning getting up outside did not feel weird. I was woken by the heat in the tent from the early morning sun. It was difficult to
continue sleeping. I made a mental note to make sure I face the tent opening away from the morning sun next time. It was disorienting because the setting and rising sun does not follow a 180 degree arc so far up north the equator and I had difficulty the next few days trying to figure out where the sun will rise from. I was still moving slowly due to the unfamiliar setting. It must have taken me more than two hours from waking up to launching the kayak, but I figure boat launch must have been around 10 am. I had to pack up the sleeping bag and tent and stuff them back in the kayak after I carried it to the water. There was more thought to packing the kayak from this day on. I placed all the meal related items in front and all the camping items in the back because the rubber cover for the back was very tight and difficult to close. I would only need the camping stuff when I reach the next campsite and hence I would not have to rummage through both spaces to make lunch next.
Tuesday was very eventful not just due to the distance covered and the amount of time spent in the kayak, I realised I was progressing a lot. As I paddled north past St Grundskar island, I noticed a fellow kayaker going south. I paddled towards his direction and said my hello before starting to ask him to confirm my approximate location. The kayaker is a very tanned Norwegian whom I estimate to be more than 50 years old. He was in his wooden kayak, complete with wooden paddle, which I assume were his own because his wife had driven him south from Norway before starting his trip. He had just come from Koster and was going south for a few days before going back up north. He was not even using a map and compass and said I should be fine since I have them. We chatted a bit more before departing. He had recommended me a few nice places at Koster to visit and to set up camp for the night. It is meeting people like this during the whole trip that made it very special. A common thing that happened throughout was most of them recommending me to visit the places that they thought are nice. It seems like everyone has their own special island out of the many along this coast.
As the hours went by paddling, I alternated between bouts of hardworking and leisurely paddles. The weather was still holding up, there were light winds and so the waves were gentle. However, I reached a body of water after mid-day that I felt was very different from what I have experienced so far. The waves were still gentle, but I felt like I was paddling on more water. The description sounds strange, but it is the only way to describe it when you reach very deep water. The volume is much greater and you can feel difference from when you were in shallower waters. I had not known at that time that the area I chose to cut across was pretty deep, more than 100 m. I took a break when I came to the nearest rock and had a cereal bar and some chocolate. It was after the break when I spotted a pod of seals basking on some rocks in the distance. There must have been at least five seals, one of them with light whitish fur. I have to admit, I was pretty scared at the time, thinking if they swam over to rock my kayak, I might capsize. Of course, that was just in my mind as I gave them a wide berth, but they were still startled even though I was not very near. They just bounced on their bellies towards the water’s edge and dived in.
I started to paddle with all my strength away and continued north. For a good 10 minutes, one of the seals followed my kayak from a distance behind. I could hear it surfacing a few times for air and I turned around to look once or twice. I suppose seals are shy of humans, but very curious creatures. All I reminded myself was that they are still wild animals and should be left alone. The experience of seeing seals while kayaking was magical and I would have two more encounters over the next few days.
I finally stopped for a late lunch at Klovskar, I would cook and then rest before making my crossing towards the Koster islands over a body of water 270 m deep. There is a deep trench separating the islands from the main coast and the distance to cover before reaching an island is substantial. On Klovskar, I could find no shade, only plenty of beach-goers who had gotten there by motorised boats. I was so tired that I did not bother taking pictures and just went straight to making lunch and eating. The island was pretty small and crowded, so I had to pick a spot right next to the beach and only metres away from some sunbathers. As I was chopping away, a Swede in his mid-forties came over and asked if he could join me for a chat. It was a very welcomed encounter, I only regretted I could not pay more attention to him because I was famished and had to get cooking. He asked me the usual, where I’m from and where I’m going and why I’m here. This man, as it turns out, has been to Singapore quite a few times because he works for the Emirates airline and is based in Dubai. He was just holidaying in the area with his family, his in-laws own a holiday home nearby on the mainland. He must have found it very interesting for someone to just paddle in and sit himself down to start cooking. The colour of my hair and skin probably made it a lot more exotic in these parts. He wished me well and I said goodbye to him and his family as I launched my kayak after eating and cleaning up.
For the next hour, I paddled across a wide swath of deep water to reach Ramsö. I had chosen this route because of the line of sight between Klovskar and Ramsö. I lined up my compass to the northern most edge of Ramsö and just concentrated on that edge of the island while paddling towards it. The experience of paddling in the open water was not scary, but I kept my concentration anyway because there were no boats around and my kayak just felt like a rubber ducky sloshing about in a swimming pool. Again, I was fortunate to have light wind. I would later learn that weather can turn bad within an hour and if you get a thunderstorm, being alone in the middle of the crossing there in bad weather would have been bad.
By this time, the water in my 14 year old 3 L water bladder has started tasting like plastic. The bladder is made of silicone and I really should have bought a new one for the trip or substituted it for more PET bottles. I had finished all the water in the bottles and had half a bladder of water left. The purpose of heading to Ramsö was also to replenish my water and to throw my rubbish that was starting to smell from the carrot peels. The rubbish simmered in the front storage of the kayak which gets hot inside from the sun. All the chocolate I brought melted and I had to lick them off the wrappers. I landed at the marina in Ramsö, again to curious onlookers. I could see from the flags of the boats, there were both Norwegians and Swedes. On the island, I had to search for where I could fill my bottles up. It turned out that Ramsö did not have its own underwater pipeline to pipe treated water from the mainland. I was told only south Koster had it. Ramsö only had its own underground freshwater and the few cottages near the marina draw water directly from the aquifer. I knew this from a kind couple in a little yellow cottage who helped me fill up with their tap in their porch.
There was an old hand pump in the marina which I presumed pumped water up from the aquifer, but the rusty handles and taps turn me away and I asked someone lounging on the deck of a boat where I could get water. He pointed me to the cottage and I apprehensively approached the yellow one. There was a couple in their late forties out on the porch and I asked if there was anywhere I could get freshwater. I will have to admit their appearance made me even more apprehensive. The man looked like he is from a biker gang with his long silvery hair, tattoos and large build. It turned out they were very friendly and I was asked the usual questions again while the man helped me fill up. I checked with them at least twice if the water was safe to drink straight off while trying not be rude. I explained that in Southeast Asia, Singapore is the only country that you could drink the water straight from the tap without boiling and that is usually the first thing I checked in any country I visit. They were reassuring and told me they have been drinking from the tap for years without any problems. As the conversation progressed, they recommended me islands around the area to visit. Those were islands they visited in their childhood and I am sure they had a lot of fond summer memories. I thanked them a few times and bade them farewell.
Seeing I had only a few hours of daylight left and being excited at finally reaching the Koster area, I decided I would explore
around a few islands. As can be seen from the route in the map after leaving Ramsö, I circled around at least three islands. Halfway from the exploration, the fatigue from the full day of paddling set in and I got anxious to find a campsite. The low tide at that time made matters worse as it rendered a few areas impassable and I had to make detours. The one thing I did on this trip that would qualify as the most bizarre to anyone looking at me would be changing SD cards on my 9 year old 3.2 megapixel Panasonic digital camera which ran on two AA batteries, all while out at sea. See, nine years ago, a 128 mb SD card was the norm and SDHC was not even in use yet. Besides the 128 mb card, I had a 2 gb card with me, which I used only after the 128 mb card was full on the second day. Marcus did not have extra copies of a separate campsite map for the area north of Ulmekårrssand and had asked me to take a picture of the map instead. Well, I do not use a smartphone and I am still on a 4 year old Nokia candy bar phone (model 1616) with no camera. In fact, I brought along two of the same phones for different SIM cards. The phone, when idle, lasts more than a week on a single charge. I also forgot to pack along my red chinagraph (grease) pencil, which meant that I could not mark out the campsites on the navigational map. All these and the perfect combination of having to, after the second day, start using the 2 gb card, meant I had to swap in the 128 mb card to check the campsite map on the 1 by 1.5 inch screen on my trusty Panasonic. I did this out at sea in the kayak no less than five times throughout the trip. Call me old school or cheapskate or whatever you want, everything worked well regardless.
I finally settled for Ramsholmen, which happened to be the hilliest island I have seen so far. The elevation on the island made it unique though the beach I landed on left a lot to be desired at low tide. I had been spoiled with the beaches so far. The small beach meant that I had to wait for a family in their boat to depart before I could get in comfortably. Minutes after I went ashore, a Norwegian with his family approached with his boat to the inlet and asked if it was alright to share and if I minded naked children running around. I welcomed him and started to go about my routine because I probably only had two hours of light left.
Ramsholmen was horrible only because there was sheep droppings everywhere. With every two steps you took, you encountered some. The search for a dropping free area to pitch my tent took a while and the family already took an ideal spot near the beach as I went about dinner first. I wanted to maintain sight of my kayak and did not want to go too far in. I settled for a relatively flat spot in the end and swept some droppings away or ignored them. I was very tired from the day, but the upside of the long day was the sunset.
Wednesday: highlights of the trip
I woke the next morning feeling refreshed again. It was a good sleep. I put on my swim jersey and proceeded to look for shade to eat breakfast. I did not want to sit on the ground to eat while looking at droppings. The rocky cliff next to the inlet I landed was perfect, it had a place I could sit and make tea and was high enough to block out the morning sun. I just did not want to start perspiring in the day while having breakfast. I remembered the morning from yesterday where my swim jersey was already drenched with perspiration by the time I finished packing the tent due to the sun and exertion and when I finally launched the kayak, I was tired. The only bummer for the trip was not having milk for my tea in the mornings. I could not find long-life fresh milk in the stores I visited, they only stocked refrigerated ones. In Asia, it is common to have long-life milk because of the summer temperatures and cost of refrigeration. Even in the UK, Germany and Australia, you can find long-life fresh milk, so I was quite annoyed when I did not find any in Gothenburg. However, I was surprised I enjoyed the tea black, perhaps it was the water.
The breaking of camp after breakfast was much faster than the previous day and I tried to be as efficient as possible to avoid getting tired even before launching. However, before breaking camp, I took a dump. I understand covering such a topic is pretty unpleasant, but there are a few tips to having an enjoyable experience out in nature. The first thing to do is to choose a spot before bringing along your gear. The spot should be far from sight and also from any water source to avoid contamination (to the water). I actually brought along a candle holder with me for burning a tea candle infused with citrus oil for driving bugs away. But that was not strong enough to drive away flies which are attracted to hot poop like bees to honey. The most effective way to not have company while taking a dump outside is to burn a rolled up wad of toilet paper about four squares long. The rolled up wad ensures a slow burn and the resulting smoke discourages insects from approaching. Burning of used paper is also good afterwards as is using antiseptic wet wipes to clean up well. However, note that wet wipes are not degradable and hence should be taken along with other trash. Of course, the site should also be covered up well afterwards and any fires should be put out before leaving the site.
After breaking camp, the Norwegian man offered to help me carry the kayak into the water and I was very shy and grateful for it. It was simply much easier with two people. He offered yesterday to bring it in with me, but I declined and had lifted it myself after emptying the contents. As I waved farewell to him and his family, I paddled to explore the highlights of the entire trip. I paddled first towards Ursholmen which is in the south western edge of the area and had two very prominent white light houses side by side. After marvelling at the sight of the lighthouses, I paddled long and hard northwards towards the southern tip of north Koster.
I had called Skärgårdsidyllen that morning and it was Ingela who greeted me again with her cheerful voice. I was asking for recommendations about exploring Koster. I wanted to know whether there would be more to see by paddling through the narrow channel between north and south Koster or to paddle along the outside of north Koster. She recommended the outside (west) of north Koster as there would be wonderful beaches I could land on and seals along the way. Along the way to north
Koster, I would see wild sea birds and other boats full of holiday makers. The area was really nice with the clear water and abundant sea grass dancing in the currents. It was mid-day when I reached the southern tip of north Koster island and I took a break. By now, one of my favourite snacks during break time would be a mouthful of plain almonds followed by two dried prunes. My full mouth would be processing the crunchy and blissful chaos while I sat back against the seat and relaxed, but mindful of the kayak drifting. The most important thing while stationary is to stay aware of the situation. Even when you have chosen a sheltered cove to rest, the currents will still move the kayak and you have to occasionally paddle a few strokes while in the middle of reaching for food, eating or swapping SD cards. It is all manageable as long as you stay calm and careful.
After my almond crunching break on the water, I started paddling again with renewed vigour. The start must have taken on more yearning because I was finally at the Koster islands and about to explore them. This has been what the entire trip was about. Beginning from the planning when I thought I would visit Koster and then see Ingrid Bergman square in Fjällbacka, just like a child planning to get on every single ride in Disneyland in one visit. The plans evolved to just having Koster as an objective due to the available duration and then to a mere hope when I started to account for bad weather. And there I was right at the midpoint of the trip with some time to spare to make it back to Ulmekårrssand. In German, we would say, “Los geht’s”, and I paddled towards the bend that would let me face the Skagerrak strait. As I neared the bend, the waters started getting slightly rougher, but it was still manageable. I rounded the bend and headed north. I explored a cove with a rocky shoreline first and would encounter sunbathers who relaxed on the bare rock faces. It seemed like anyone can find their own quiet little spot here.
What came next sealed my decision to return to Koster for a second visit within my lifetime. I would name it Paradise Lagoon. As I paddled into an area completely sheltered by an island, the lagoon that formed had white sand on the beach and as I looked down into the water, on the lagoon floor as well. For as far as I could survey, the entire lagoon had waters less than knee deep. It was enough to welcome a kayak and reject any boats. The mid-day sun shone down on the shimmering waters and I closed my eyes to savour paradise by myself. This would be only the second time in my life when I had come to a place and told myself that if there was paradise on earth, this would be it. I would only stay for 5 minutes. I snapped out of it and fought the urge to land as I told myself this was not what I was here for and promised myself to return one day with someone special. Such was the determination to remember and return that I told myself I needed no pictures. Strangely there was no one on the entire stretch of beach, possibly because of the thick undergrowth all around that might have deterred walkers from reaching it from inland. It was only after I started paddling out of the lagoon that I spotted boats in the distance where the water was deeper.
After a short paddle, I finally landed for lunch at 2 pm. It was a nice beach about the size of Långeskär. This would be the only lunch where I had to hike at least 50 metres to sit on a rocky slope for shade. By this time, my gear had been properly organised. All lunch related gear was kept in the front space, and I could fit everything I needed into my survival vest and pockets and carried the rest in my hands. With the stuff, I ambled over rocks and hopped on them to cross a small swampy cove to reach a shaded slope overlooking the cove. I was usually famished by lunch and seeing that I had more cous cous left than I needed, I cooked at least 30% more than I could finish. The Primus cooking pot Marcus lent me was really handy for boiling water because it came with a tight lid and I even used it to keep the leftover lunch for eating later. I would burn much more energy than I ate through the trip because I simply did not stop enough and ate enough to replenish each time I stopped. The cargo pants I took the bus in would later get looser by an inch and sag.
Besides cous cous, which required only hot water to hydrate more than cook, the main meal items were simply canned mackerel and tuna, 5 eggs, a 1 kg bag of organic carrots, three bell peppers and a large grapefruit, which I reserved for the middle of the trip. On average, I ate 2 carrots a day with a bell pepper, 1 bulb of garlic and a few shavings of ginger. I actually ate more healthily during those 5 days than I would on most weeks during the entire year. Of course, the fibre rich meals also ensured I went potty au naturel a few times.
I was really thankful I filled up my stomach and took a rest before tackling the next stretch of north Koster. The lunch stop was no coincidence, I had planned it there because a study of the map shows the coast after the beach would be fully exposed to the Skagerrak strait with no islands forming channels between the coast. What followed soon after I departed from the beach was 30 minutes of sheer terror. Before I embarked on the trip, I could not find the time to go on a kayaking course in Singapore and simply made it up by trying to read about sea kayaking, specifically about how not to capsize. It all depends on whether the waters get rough, meaning how high the waves get. The thing I remember from the reading was that if the rolling waves end up with white caps, it means it is sufficiently rough to trouble the beginner. After I kayaked out of the beach and headed north to reach the tip of north Koster, the waters started getting rougher and as I looked ahead, I spotted the white caps and in a few cases, water sprays. It was my first encounter so far with water that rough.
I had repeatedly told myself before the trip that I would stop kayaking if waters got rough, but something that afternoon overwrote the rule I set myself. I guiltily carried on through and paddled ahead. The waves were coming at right angles to the length of the kayak as I was paddling along the length of the coast and my kayak rocked to my right as it ascended each crest. I vividly remember the first splash that came up to my chest and over the kayak. I actually made a snide mental remark to myself, “Poseidon’s showing you who’s the boss.” As soon as I did that, I shook it off immediately because it was no time to lose my concentration. You see, for that entire length of the coast, it was all rock walls for shore to my right and to my left were the waves that were coming in stronger and rocking me towards the rocks. I had to paddle in a slight zig-zag manner at times when I spotted larger waves so that my kayak would cut through the wave instead of being rocked to the side. I also maintained a bigger distance than in the past to avoid being slammed into the rocks. My eyes were constantly darting to the left to watch for incoming crests that might be high enough to cause me problems. This was in addition to looking out for any shallow reefs ahead of me of which I had to give them a wide berth in case the waves land me smack on them. These usually had tell-tale signs which manifested in the waves breaking differently from the rest of the surrounding surface.
In a brief respite of lower crests, I stole a quick glance all around me and realized I was the only person all around. I kept telling myself not to panic as I started to experience a few more crests that would splash over my head. I was comforted then for having worn my hat that covered over my sunglasses and prevented any seawater from splashing into my eyes. However, the worst thing that would happen was the accumulated sweat around my eyes starting to sting my eyes and I had to constantly bat my eyelids. It would finally get so bad that I could not keep my eyes open for too long and I frantically took my hat off and flipped the inside out and wiped my eyes with the inside which had been relatively dry. It was only a few seconds before I resumed my paddle.
As all these happened, I truly felt, for the first time in my life, I was alone with my maker. I had always believed in a higher power, but have never been religious. Although in retrospect, I do not think there was one wave that would have capsized me, I was absolutely terrified then and was mentally exhausted when it ended. I rounded the northern tip of Koster and paddled into a sheltered cove slightly shaken. The water was calm again though it kept drifting me out to open water. I caught my breath here and reflected on what had transpired. I was relieved that throughout the episode I kept my nerve and constantly reminded myself not to lose respect for the water. It was in those moments you get reminded how fragile you are in life and panicking or a loss of concentration combined with an incoming wave would have made me lose balance and flip over. I doubt there would be any hope for me then, since I would not have been able to get back on myself and would eventually be carried towards the rocks.
After having something to eat, I went on my way again, this time southwards toward South Koster island. Along the way, the normal scenes of beaches filled with Swedes making merry came back again.
After I passed the marina at Ekenäs, I was presented with two choices. I could either make the open water crossing back to the main coast or spend another night on one of the beaches near the Koster islands. I had seen a map on a notice board about Kosterhavet on Ramsholmen, the map indicated water depth for the channel separating the Koster islands from the mainland. There is a very deep trough in the channel and the open stretch which I crossed on Tuesday was at least 240 metres deep. There is, however, a break in the trough where the water is only 70 metres deep. Though I did not know whether that made a difference, it felt safer than 240 metres. To hit the shallow in the trough, you had to make an eastwards paddle straight toward the mainland, beginning from the northern tip of the island south of Ekenäs. As the weather was still holding up, I decided to make the crossing that afternoon rather than risk bad weather the next day. Besides, covering more today means I have a bit less tomorrow. By this point in the trip, I was just concerned about making it back to Ulmekårrssand.
Honestly I could not remember how the crossing was, but I must have been really tired by then. It would be low tide again when I hunted for my campsite. Despite my fatigue, I was adamant in trying to find a good site and ended up circling Längholmen first before settling for Lökholmen eventually. The spot on Lökholmen looked perfect, even better than Långeskär. I would find out in a few hours’ time it was anything but. Regardless of how the night went, Wednesday was the best day in the entire trip.
Thursday: Worst day of the trip
The header for Thursday says it all. A wretched succession of events made me miserable for most of the day. It all began from the previous night as I lied down to sleep. I could not sleep in peace. A group of partying teenagers went at it nearly all night on Lindholmen and although the physical distance was nearly 500 metres away, the clear line of sight ensured I could hear them dancing and singing till the wee hours of the night. Apparently, a group of them thought it would be nice to watch the sunrise, so thanks to them, I caught my first sunrise in Sweden, at probably 4 in the morning. I reckoned I only got 4 hours of sleep. The fact that the waters right in front of the beach had quite a few floating plastic balls meant that fishermen came at different times to check on their traps. The sound of their boats also made sure I had a fitful night.
As I was having breakfast, I started getting a visitor, in the form of a black furry caterpillar with orange stripes. It was adamant in heading to the entrance of my tent where I sat to eat breakfast. In the end, I could stand the company no longer and lifted it up on a stick and relocated it to some bushes elsewhere. To my shock, I would encounter 2 to 3 more of its friends later as I was breaking camp. The amount of insects on this island was much higher than I encountered on previous campsites. It was probably due to the proximity to the mainland. I will remember from henceforth never to choose campsites on islands near to the mainland or any island with road access and watch for fishing traps in the vicinity of the waters. As I folded up the tent, I had no choice but to squash a few bugs inside of the tent as I could not be bothered to get them out. Besides lacking on sleep, I had run out of freshwater after breakfast and had to do a water run as I launched. The nearest marina is at Resö, about 12 km away if I get it right.
As luck would have it, I missed the channel between a pair of sister islands that would have pointed me in the right direction towards Resö and drifted west instead. By the time I realised, I had to make an eastward turn to get to the marina. The distance covered would be 17 km by the time I got to Resö with a parched throat. The paddle that morning was unsettling because there was no wind at all and the water’s surface looked like fresh sheets disturbed only by my kayak cutting through. The stillness of the water actually gave me the creeps and I kind of realised how sailors must have felt in days long past when seafaring vessels were still powered by the wind. As I had launched early, there were no boats for the initial part and I felt like I was paddling through a graveyard as I pushed very hard southwards for about 2 hours. Because of the long distance and my mental fatigue, I slowly drifted southwest when I should be going southeast. The awful paddle for that morning was made worse once I made out the faint outline of a lighthouse with a red house beside it. That was the lighthouse I encountered as I headed north on Tuesday. With that, I cut east immediately and by this time, I was already very tired from the lack of sleep, lack of water and most important of all, a lack of motivation from the morning’s boring paddle.
Just as I thought things could not get any worse, they got worse. As I was heading toward a marina and it was nearly mid-day, the boat traffic was horrible as I approached Resö. I was a single kayak facing all manner of sailboats and speedboats heading towards and away from Resö. I had to maintain focus and keep looking out for traffic and my heart dropped each time I spotted a speedboat with engines roaring. These bastards created the biggest swells and caused me the most trouble. I kept imagining the people on-board as inconsiderate rich bankers with egos to match the roar of their motors. There was a lot of cursing going on as I made the eternal paddle toward Resö. Marcus would later tell me people from the city came to Bohuslän to holiday only in the summer and would rent fast boats to get to place to place quickly. Whenever he led classes, he would always make sure any boats nearby saw his group, even going to the extent of raising his paddle in the air and waving to make sure they saw him. I had done none of that during that morning and only relied on myself to steer clear of traffic when it would have been easier for people to see me and avoid. It was probably dangerous.
I was completely drained when I reached a suitable beach on Resö. Even that took some searching, I had to get land some distance away from the marina and I was very concerned about leaving my kayak out of my sight, but I had little choice. I was thoroughly miserable by then, and started to feel very hungry in addition to being thirsty and tired. Throughout the morning paddle, I kept thinking to myself I would have been better off if I spent the night on a beach near Koster and only made the crossing that morning instead. I could have made my water run at the marinas on south Koster before looking for a campsite the previous afternoon. As I lumbered out of my kayak, I knew I would begin to start feeling giddy soon so I moved quite slowly, pulling the kayak in with the lifejacket cushioning the bottom. Once I was satisfied that the kayak was sufficiently far away from the water, I picked up all my empty bottles, rubbish and dry bag and walked towards the marina. As on Ramsö the previous day, there were no trash bins anywhere to be found. At the marinas, trash bins were locked in cabinets with coded locks. I suppose only boats that parked there had access to throw their trash and they had massive bins for recycling glass and plastic bottles separately. The Swedes do a lot of recycling, much more than the Germans from what I noticed.
Luckily for me, after some enquiries from the friendly locals, I found a building at the marina that housed a restaurant. The building even had public showers and toilets. There was a small bin there where I threw my trash and proceeded to fill my bottles at the sinks in the changing rooms. I filled the bottles and hydrated myself as well. The water tasted so good, I must have drank more than a litre straightaway. As I walked back to my kayak with the bottles dangling from my shoulder and water bladder in one hand, I imagined that Resö could have been my rest stop to clean up and replenish food if I was making a much longer trip. But it would have been easier in a group, where we would be able to take turns to clean up and look after the kayaks. I also debated whether I should take a meal in the restaurant, but I carried on walking back to my kayak. In the end, I settled on making a trip the supermarket to relax and see if I could pick up any nice snack to eat. I bought a Magnum ice-cream as a reward for the morning of troubles. It was a 25 year anniversary vanilla flavoured white chocolate Magnum. I sat down in the shade at the pier overlooking the beach where my kayak rested. I had also chatted with a mother holding her baby at the beach; she was lowering her baby into the water and letting him play. I really treasured my encounters with the strangers on the trip, it made the journey very special. She was the sixth random person I chatted with by that time and with all the encounters, we never exchanged names.
On a normal day at the office, an empty stomach was more of an annoyance than a
showstopper. Out there paddling, being hungry means wasting your body away. Even though the Magnum was packed full of calories, I knew it was insufficient to power me through and I thought about making lunch at the marina. It would have been totally weird, so I launched instead to carry on South. The plan was to head south right beside the coast as compared to the outer islands when I paddled north two days ago. The plan was abandoned after half an hour of paddling because the boat traffic was simply unbearable. I turned around in the end to head out towards the outer islands where there was more space. The trip south before turning around was horrifying. If I had thought facing my maker during the 30 minutes when paddling around north Koster was terrifying, the actions of men turned out to be worse. The relentless boat traffic and the swells created rocked my kayak as I paddled and kept a constant lookout. The waves were definitely gentler than the ones coming in from the open sea at Koster, but in the tight space I had and the sheer number of them caused me a near accident. I had paddled too close to a rock cliff and a misjudgement caused me to back paddle too late and careen towards the rock face at slow speed. I deflected some of the crash with the paddle and my hands, but it happened all so fast and I ended up bumping the kayak against the wall. I was unhurt, but badly shaken and felt the pain of the kayak being bumped into the wall. It is weird how the craft feels almost like a part of you after a few days with long hours in it. I depended on it for everything and it brought me everywhere.
On Thursday, it would be three days in a row where I spent at least 8 hours in the kayak with at least a single break in between. Marcus would ask me after I got back if I was sore anywhere and if I had back pain. The surprising thing after all the sitting in the kayak cockpit for so many hours was that my back never felt sore or ached. Looks like an office job had some use in kayaking after all.
As I paddled towards Långeskär, something I knew would happen, happened. I would have difficulty remembering and recognising the way back. Because you would be heading back from a different direction, the surroundings looked different so you won’t be able to rely on recognising features too much unless you made a note of it. I’m sure in today’s age of digital weatherproof cameras and handheld GPS units, most people would not have a problem finding their way, but I’m old school. I still find a map and compass romantic in a way and getting lost or finding your way is half the fun in exploring and making journeys. I suppose, in the world today, some meaning in travelling has differed from former times. In the past, part of going on a vacation lies in making the journey to get to a place, but faster means of getting from place to place has changed the meaning of travel for a lot of people. With a fast pace of life, going on vacation usually meant getting to the place for sightseeing as fast as possible and resting during the journey. I would call my kayaking holiday a travel instead of a vacation. The Chinese characters for travel is 旅行, the meaning has a stronger leaning towards making a journey as compared to the characters for vacation, which is 度假, the words translated to spending time on vacation and leans towards leisure. It struck me strongly that I preferred travels as opposed to vacation now that I recall how 6 years ago on my first backpacking trip in Vietnam, I was on an overnighter train from the central province heading north to Hanoi. I was in a six bunk-bed cabin with Vietnamese locals. I encountered a Vietnamese man who is ethnic Chinese and spoke Mandarin. He asked in Mandarin if I was on my travels and that was when I thought about the difference between travel and vacation. The idea of travel is very romantic for me. However, technically, my buddy, Dk, would probably correct me that my holiday would not qualify as a travel because since I am going back to the same place to return my kayak, there would be zero displacement. I suppose the technically correct term for my holiday would be zero displacement travel.
As I reached Långeskär, I even forgot where I set up camp on the first day and could not even be sure if I reached it. I checked with a local lounging in his boat tied to the rocks and he confirmed I had reached my destination. However, as the cove and the beach were busy with boats and it was still very early, I decided to head for Ursholmen to set up camp for the night. Ursholmen is a round island just south of Långeskär and I did a floating SD card exchange to find the right beach to land on. It was in vain, not because I dropped an SD card or camera in the water, but the spot pointed out in the map was to the west of the island and so I had to paddle round. In the end, that beach was not ideal and was definitely not the one I landed on, so I circled the whole island to find that beach and the spot was just where I turned west when I reached Ursholmen. By the time I landed, it was already 4 pm and I already had the longest paddle of the four days with just breakfast, almond crunchy chaos, a 25 year anniversary Magnum and quite a few adrenaline rushes, courtesy of speeding boats. Ursholmen was busy, so busy it was uncomfortable. There were so many boats moored in the cove I could see oil sheens in the water and that was the first time I had encountered that. Worst of all, I saw four kayaks on the beach and a large green tepee tent in the distance.
I actually took quite some time to find a spot to set up the tent because the island was simply very well used and there were patches everywhere. The main camping ground was where the tepee tent was set up and I wanted to avoid it. I noticed one or two of the expedition kayaks was a larger size and would have meant a big dude. I proceeded to make “lunch” on a growling stomach and rumbling thunderclouds in my head. The late lunch turned out to be the best meal I whipped up out of the entire trip and it was not just because I had the hunger of a bear (an old German saying). It was so flavoursome as I was extra generous on the spices since it was the last day. I also decided to spend time photographing the entire process. I could not finish a third of the meal and kept the rest of it handily in the mess mug which had a lid that doubled as a frying pan and fitted the mug snuggly.
It was after lunch that I decided I did not have any appetite to spend the night on the same island with four dudes and cleared out of the area even though I had already brought some camp stuff up to shore. I launched again after 6, this time to head off to where I had spent my first night. As I reached Långeskär, the fatigue from the day finally set in. As I kayaked in to the beach, there was a Swede in the water with his son on an inflatable plane float and his cute little son was making flying noises as he perched over his dad’s back and his dad on the plane. He would be the last kind stranger I chatted with on the trip. It would be the usual questions, the usual answers and the now familiar warmth of the conversation, which would soon be missed. His family was picnicking over the spot where I set up my tent on the first night. They were the only people there and were not staying for the night. Once again, I would have Långeskär beach to myself. I finally allowed myself a moment and sat down to relax on the sand for the first time in four days. All the other times I looked for shade or rocks or sat on grass. It was not as sunny as in the day and I started eating my leftovers from two hours ago, completely relaxed. However, as though Poseidon wanted to show me who’s boss again, the winds started whipping up after 10 minutes of me on the sand and the waves coming in suddenly got so strong that the Seabird was washed to its side parallel to shore. I put everything down and rushed to unpack and lifted the kayak in to rest on grass on the beach.
As I lied down to sleep that night, after my longest day, it also became the most terrifying night out camping. Heavy winds kept up and shook the tent all night, fluttering the flaps incessantly as I slept fitfully. It was then that I felt vindicated for taking the decision to make the crossing back near mainland late on Wednesday instead of looking for a nice beach around Koster. If the winds were bad the next day, I would have had to call Marcus to pick me up somewhere instead of returning to Ulmekårrssand myself. The heavy winds that night concluded my worst day of the entire trip.
Friday: Zero displacement
Magically, the winds died the next morning and the waters were calm and gently lapping at the shore. I woke and was again grateful for the good weather and my decision to push so hard yesterday. Once again, I sat in the shade afforded by the tent and went about the, what is by now usual, business of breakfast with black cherry jam on crisp bread and black tea boiled in a mess mug. It would be the last breakfast out and I did not know when I would again have the chance to have breakfast out on a private beach on an island with no one, but the warm sea breeze. It was going to be a leisurely morning and I went about packing things up. I launched just after 9, but not before composing a series of shots to remember myself on the trip and on the beach.
It was a leisurely paddle back and I took the opportunity to try to explore one last time before heading back to Skärgårdsidyllen’s boathouse on Ulmekårrssand. I had difficulty recognising which house it was and called their mobile number. Ingela picked up and I could see her getting up from a chair at their porch facing the water. I waved to her and asked if she could help me take a few pictures of me coming in to land. She grabbed her DSLR and began snapping away as I came in to the beach. She took some really good pictures and made them available to me after I returned to Singapore. After I came in and took a breather, Marcus and I chatted enthusiastically about where I had been and how lucky I had been with the weather. Probably the warmest summer they have had in a long time. I was lucky too, because there was a forecast for rain after lunch. They were prepared to launch their sailboat to pick me up if I had not been back by lunch.
I was tired, but deeply satisfied and still trying to comprehend what I had been through. I sent the last of my many SMS updates to my lunch buddies, one of whom started a Whatsapp group to update the rest. When there was no update in the middle of the trip, they messaged and asked if everything was alright. My last message read, “Hello Houston, we have a landing! I have reach back to the mainland safely and will be heading back to the city after packing up.” I started packing up slowly and returned the equipment while Marcus handed me quite a few postcards they made and other brochures for souvenirs. Of all the postcards Marcus gave me, I was able to send most of them, to the wedding couple from the week before, my friends in Germany and my colleagues in the UK who were not able to join me. When I finished packing and changing, I watched their children play for a while before Marcus drove me to the town’s busstation. I said my goodbyes and hugged everyone.
The title of this travel journey is borrowed from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. As Bilbo returned home after his adventures, he was once again able to relive it by going there as he wrote, while readers are comforted to know that he makes it back safely. Obviously my travel was in no way dangerous, but it was an adventure, at least to me anyway. I am now back to the usual hum of the life as a desktop warrior, accompanied not by waves lapping at the shore, but the tackety-tap-click of the keyboard and mouse, where the only inquisitive being is a colleague walking over to peer over my shoulder. I sometimes wish my colleague was a harbour seal instead. I cannot help, but keep reliving the thrill of launching in a Seabird from a beach and the freedom to paddle on my own power and explore. It has been nearly two months since the trip, but I find my thoughts drifting back to Koster now and then and reminiscing of how great the holiday was. I am, at the same time, continually grateful of how lucky I was to have had so many things come together for me to have enjoyed myself to the fullest. The good weather, that I had the chance to meet Skärgårdsidyllen, all contributed to my wonderful and deeply personal journey to Koster and now having the chance to ruminate and relive the moments.
What I learnt
A few useful life lessons gleaned from the ample me-time on the trip.
- You will always meet people along the way who can help you, when you do, always ask nicely and flash your teeth.
- On the other hand, you will also meet people who are just there for the summer, but their actions innocently ruin your day. No point swearing or cursing, just stay on track and watch the swells.
- Break the main objective out into several smaller ones and plan as you go along.
- If on the wrong track, stop to reevaluate. Don’t keep going, ignoring problems don’t make them go away.
- Best laid plans also get flushed down the toilet, but don’t let hopes go down too. Stay positive.
- When you want something, be prepared to be in it for the long haul, you can’t always brute force it through. Stay optimistic, but realistic and patient
- Watch for underlying signs, waves don’t break or smooth out for no reason, there are always rocks beneath.
- And take early precautions. Swerve out to avoid danger areas.
- You can be swashbuckling, but be prepared to accept the consequences.
- Stay calm, never panic and don’t forget to breath, deeply.
- There is always support even when you don’t actually use it, but knowing it exists is reassuring.
- Don’t take chances for small gains when the destination is nearing. Screwing up at the final moment erases all previous achievements. Savour and be grateful for past achievements.
In country logistics
I would fly from Hamburg to Gothenburg via Copenhagen with SAS and then back to Singapore via Amsterdam. Gothenburg seems to pretty good connecting flights with most European cities. From the airport, there is a very reliable and timely bus shuttle (run by Flygbussarna) to the city within 45 minutes. My return flight to Amsterdam was scheduled for 0620 hrs and the first airport shuttle from the city is at 0420 hrs, this allowed me enough time to check in my luggage and the flight. The bus tickets can actually be bought in advance on the website and is cheaper than if you paid cash in the airport. The ticket simply has a QR code that gets scanned when you board the bus. That was my first experience with Swedish services in general, they tend to prefer cashless transactions. Anything that involves cash would likely involve labour and labour costs are very high in Scandinavia.
At the Nils Ericson Terminalen near the central station, I confirmed my initial online research for the bus journey to Grebbestad. In Nordstan, a big mall in the city centre, I went to no less than three different mobile phone service companies to enquire about purchasing a local prepaid SIM card. Prepaid services, as you can imagine, makes very little money and business for phone companies. The charges were exorbitant, considering I would need local calls and overseas as well. All the providers charged 50 SEK for the SIM alone and the calling value cost separate. I got lucky in the end when I encountered a staff in the last shop who advised me to avoid the major companies and simply purchase a SIM by Comviq and use the plan called Comviq Amigos. I was directed to buy it from a newsstand chain called Pressbyrån (pronounced as press buro). I understood immediately why he would know. He looked like he was of Arab origins and must be an immigrant. Prepaid mobile services with cheap overseas rates are popular with immigrants or short term visitors for obvious reasons. I myself have used them myself many times in the past. I purchased the SIM for 50 SEK and took a plan costing 45 SEK. Each local or overseas SMS or call per minute cost me less than 3 SEK and by the end of the week, I was left with 15 SEK.
From the Gothenburg city centre, I would catch a regional bus from the Nils Ericson Terminalen to Grebbestad busstation. From the national bus service provider’s website, vasttrafik.se, I figured out the way and the most suitable times to catch the regional bus. The spanner that was thrown my way on the first day was that the bus was not always timely at the locations. The regional bus, 871, which I took, ran from Gothenburg to Strömstad, which is a city nearer to Grebbestad to the north. I was supposed to get off at Tanumshede centrum after 2 hours from Gothenburg to connect to a city bus that will drive for 15 minutes to Grebbestad. Bus 871 was late to my destination and I missed the connection. I was lucky to have picked a route that has a connection near Grebbestad because Tanumshede centrum had other frequent services that drives to Grebbestad. It seemed like no problem except that I panicked and hopped onto a service that went in the opposite direction to Grebbestad. It did not help that the driver spoke less English than in the city. In the end, I still managed to get to Grebbestad busstation by waiting for the service to go the other direction.
I must say I was quite fortunate because the day before I had made enquiries at the Nils Ericson Terminalen regarding the bus journey. I had opted to purchase a transport stored value card with the provider. With the card that also works for other public transport in Gothenburg, you simply tap in at a terminal at the entrance and tap out when you alight. A single one way ticket (Enkelbiljett) would have cost me 175 SEK compared to 135 SEK using the card account (Kontoladdning). There is no way to purchase tickets on the bus except using a credit card with chip and PIN. The two-way journey by card would cost 270 SEK, so the ticket operator at the terminal advised me to load the card with 250 SEK and with the card deposit costing 50 SEK, I would have enough for the trip because when I refund the card, I get 30 SEK back. Using the card for the entire trip would still return me 10 SEK. Sounds complicated, well it got more complicated, because tapping out at Grebbestad, my card showed a remaining value of 115 SEK. On the return, I was afraid I would not have enough on the card, so I called the customer services number on the back of my card receipt and got excellent service in English. I was reassured that the card actually takes negative values and as long as I get on a bus with positive value, I would be allowed on.
Travelling by bus was definitely not easy for a tourist and I would have been done for had I travelled with a single ticket because I missed the connection. Other than buying tickets at the terminal, you can buy tickets at a supermarket in the smaller towns. I only brought swipe credit cards along, so I would not have been able to buy tickets on the bus, which only take chip and PIN. The added advice is to have the latest bus schedules available with you when you travel in case the connection is missed and always choose the connection with changes that are near to the destination or origin.