Kayaking the maze of islands in Zadar Archipelago.
By Marko Mrše http://www.malikadventures.com
What happens when you combine Croatian, Italian, Illyrian culture with a dash of Turkish, put it all on dozens of small islands and islets covered in thick green maquis dotted with little fisherman villages, sprinkle some unusual carbonate rock formations, keep it all in crystal clear waters and then you go paddling there? We’re here to find out.
You smell the intense and refreshing scent of the pine trees. You figure out it’s coming from the little island not wider than 100 metres that you are approaching with your kayak. It’s your third crossing of the afternoon as you work your way through the dense archipelago towards the open sea. Italy is some 100km behind the horizon. The light wind has picked up carrying your kayak downwind to a little pebble stone beach. You look back and observe the poles of the shipwreck half standing above the sea level – this is the gist of what to expect here.
On the one hand there is the intact nature that relaxes the senses with stunning views, diverse vegetation with intense scents of self-grown medicinal plants. Juxtaposed with this are historical leftovers of human intervention: be it a Roman quarry, Yugoslav submarine cave or an Italian shipwreck. What you see only scratches the surface of the rich and turbulent history that merged Croatian, Italian, Illyrian, Roman and Illyrian destinies.
The area is a collection of small natural harbours, villages, fishing settlements scattered on tens of islands. While tourism infrastructure is developing on many other parts of Dalmatia, this hidden gem is still intact and ideal for kayaking exploration of Croatia as it once was: wild, personal and beautiful. That includes the very basic infrastructure: organic shops (the kind that never were labelled organic because it has been that way the whole time), cafes (a Croatian necessity) and a boat to get you there (just one a day to keep the crowds away).
There is one ideal starting point for exploration of the archipelago. It is a former military base that hints at its strategic position and explains why the local life is still unscratched by the influences of tourism. It is the village of Molat on the island of Molat. The archipelago is ideal for intermediate or more relaxed paddlers looking for shorter island crossings and distances (up to 20km per day).
Don’t be misled, there are plenty of things to see if you are up for 40km per day. It is the best place for island hopping and visiting numerous small picturesque villages. In other words great for getting a feel for what real Croatia is like – for living with the locals and moving around with your own power. There is plenty of things to discover even if you stay for 14 days.
The nature is very diverse and geologically the area is very old (Triassic period). Expect sandy beaches, pebble stone covered coves, turquoise water, carbonate cliffs, numerous islets, coves and meandering rock shore (ideal for slaloms in high tide). Jump in the water and expect to find equally dynamic sea floor with caves and cliffs.
One thing that comes as a surprise in this warm climate is the greenness of the area. Tall pine trees, thick maquis and a number of self-grown medicinal plants unique for this part of Europe. It explains why one of the islands was named after honey (Mellitus – Molat). Yes, there is a local beekeeper for sampling its products.
Picturesque fisherman villages
A unique kayaking twist is the fact that itineraries include island hopping on both uninhabited islands and a collection of small fishing villages, known for sticking to their traditions. One day you may be on Zverinac Island sampling its olive oil, the next day in Molat sampling its honey and local goat cheese, whilst further north, Silba will offer a wide variety of bars and restaurants and a slightly more upbeat vibe (but still on the very laid back end of the spectrum typical for the archipelago).
Depending on where you are coming from, or how much you have traveled in the Mediterranean, expect a bit of a surprise – it’s as if time has stopped. The islands have their own relaxed pace and you feel the easy going mode as soon as you step on the island from the public catamaran boat. It’s all about small rituals. By the third day you will be drawn into the small town life and start connecting the dots and subtle social hints. For example, why is the baker late today or why fisherman are rushing to the sea before the winds change? Things work perfectly in their own rhythm and people will be very friendly and helpful, even if they reply in perfect Croatian.
The climate is mild. The sea is crystal clear. Traditions are well respected. This may explain why even after years of paddling in the area, the kayak is still considered the most unusual vehicle. Locals will always dismiss an invite for a short paddling session with a nod and a slight grumpy murmur: ‘I’m not getting in one of those (kayaks). I can’t install my outer board motor! What if I capsize?
Your neighbour may not be a paddler, but there is a big focus on organic and local food. Be it locally caught squid, fish or calamari, you get your share of organic produce served at the end of a long paddling day. Same goes for locally grown vegetables, olive oil and a few more surprises.
Croatian outdoor policy may be far from the Swedish ‘Allemansratter’ (every man’s right or free to camp anywhere). You can only camp in designated areas, the main reason being the fact that fires are a big issue in Croatia.
Particularly so in July and August when the grass dries out, temperatures reach the 30s, rain is infrequent and it doesn’t take much to start a fire. Add in to the mix many first time campers from the hordes of tourists that come to the mainland and it’s a very real hazard. On the islands there are very few camps since most are on the mainland for easy car access. Independent paddlers will find it fairly easy to arrange accommodation in B&B, or improvise – it’s the Croatian way to do things.
Historically most of the people that inhabited the islands were brought in to work on the land and grow crops and they brought their animals. With time agriculture significantly reduced and animals adopted well to the island and today form a part of the wildlife. Wild goat or sheep herds can be found in the coves cooling down knee deep in the sea. Donkeys often come by our kayaks in one of our bases to get their share of water in the summer months.
Cormorants are common all around the area and sea gulls are particularly ‘talkative’ in May when defending their nests on remote islets. On trips it is common to see bottlenose dolphins that are an endangered species in Croatia, but their population has stabilised. Molat Island is also a hub for Dolphin research in the area and there you can find out more about the protection work being undertaken. If you keep an eye on things you may also run into large owls and falcons.
Planning your trip/quick facts
Best time to come: from April to October.
Airport: Closest airport is Zadar (half an hour drive from the Old Town) and alternatively Split (1.5h drive)
Getting to the base: passenger boats for Molat depart daily from Zadar Old Town
Other activities on the island Molat: cycling, yoga, beekeeping tour, local wine and cheese sampling events.
For any questions or assistance with planning your trip in North Dalmata you can reach Marko@malikadventures.com