SUP Adventure in Portugal

Each year the Algarve SUP team ventures out into the unknown for a week (or more) of pure adventuring by stand up paddle. In 2016 we plunged into the depths of Portugal and explored the River Zezere and the River Tejo for 9 exciting days. I documented it on video (which you can see below in a YouTube playlist) and I wrote up a fairly long winded tale about it.

Let me know in the comments if you want me to write more?

Notes from the Zezere SUP Adventure

A 9 day SUP adventure paddleboarding down the rivers of Central Portugal

Planning any kind of paddleboarding trip is half the fun for me. Pouring over maps, visualizing potential conditions, dreaming of the dewy dawns that could call in a new day. All that is hugely exciting. It can also get frustrating due to unforeseen constraints coming to light. That is where I was two days before the #DouroSup. In true modern tradition I had even hashtagged the journey #douroSUP. The caps were printed, the vests were laid out crisply on my bed, all the kit was present and accounted for… all branded with our trip to come: “The Douro SUP”.

A friend who operates a Sup school in central Portugal, helpfully posted on Facebook: “we tried to descend the Douro River last year but ended up not going due to regulations”. What? I messaged him and got the full story. Apparently if we didn’t apply for a licence (which requires you to have an accompanying motorized boat) then we have the wonderful opportunity of being fined anywhere from €500 to €7,400!

FRIDAY (three days to go)

I drove down to the beach that Friday morning and had a chat with Mauro (who paddled the Algarve with Spike Reid and myself last year). He was on lifeguard duty and he called the Douro River Capitania while we were sitting in the sand, observing some lazy swimmers. The Capitania is the maritime authority responsible for law and order on the Douro River. They told us in a derisive tone that there was NO WAY we would get a licence without a support boat and without the 30 day waiting period. A change of plan was in the offing.

That Friday afternoon, I quickly built a back up plan, however I decided to wait until the team was together in Porto before coming to a final decision as to our exact route. We could either carry on with paddling the Douro (a little awkward now that we knew it was illegal) or proceed with Plan B…

I looked at the equipment laid out neatly on my lounge floor.  It was all there. All there except for one important item: One sparkling jewel in our expedition’s crown was still winding it’s way through the meandering processes of public postage. Amazon had assured me that it was on its way and would arrive on time before we left to join the rest of the crew up in Porto.

Thankfully it arrived that afternoon.

This little device was a brilliant tracking system but I was really disappointed with the online mapping service that the company provided. I searched online and spoke to some adventurous friends. A chap called Tedde de Boer had developed an amazing map that plugged into the Spot device’s data feed. It was called Follow My Challenge and the output was a perfectly designed expedition map. Initially I thought there were only two costs involved: the device (about €120) and Tedde’s FollowMyChallenge service (€75 for two weeks). On arrival in Porto as I was setting up the funky little orange tracker I realized that I would have to activate it for a further €140 a year! This unforeseen extra payment just sent the total cost over the edge for me. To be honest I didn’t feel that paying €300 odd euros for tracking was worth it. It could well be if I had prepared a lot more and garnered funding for the trip. However my attitude was that this was an adventure and we’d try to limit a lot of planning and rely on our own  abilities to pitch, pivot and proceed as opportunity arose.

It was Friday evening and things started to fall in place as others fell apart. Mauro, our young SUP instructor realized he couldn’t make it at the last minute as he had some other urgent commitments. Thankfully my brother, Andrew, flew in from the UK perfectly on schedule. I nipped down to pick him up from the airport.

I had time for a quick Friday afternoon beer with a mate, before picking up the vests and caps which were all hashtagged “#dourosup”. Mmm, that may well turn out to be “#notthedouro”!

It was fantastic to see my brother again and we caught up over a delicious meal at home that my wife had prepared. The rest of that Friday night was spent packing and repacking our massive blue Jobe dry bags. Exhausted, I dropped into bed close to 2am. Our 04h30 alarm didn’t feel that far off.

SATURDAY (two days to go)

Saturday morning dawned crisp and clear as we headed down to Loulé station courtesy of Uber. It was pretty exciting as that was the very first time I had taken an Uber from my house. After using it in Cape Town and London, Uber has just launched in the Algarve and it’s fantastic to have this excellent service available to us. Things WERE falling into place perfectly.

Porto was a six hour train ride away and Andrew and I settled into our seats opposite a woman who seemed strangely familiar. I fell asleep and awoke a few hours later with my brother chatting to her. It turns out that she was a yoga instructor from the Algarve and good friends with a friend of mine. How cool! She pointed us in the right direction on arrival at Porto station and we lugged our heavy kit over to the Metro. Snaking our way over to the beach we arrived at Onda Pura Surf School eventually, having stopped for a quick bite of lunch on the way.

Our boards were sponsored by Starboard and that was interesting in it’s own right. A week before they were supposed to be shipped, we were under the impression that RED Paddle Co was sponsoring us. Due to the overwhelming popularity of RED Paddle boards, when the time came to ship our expedition boards out to Portugal they were completely sold out. Luckily the guys at RED are a great bunch and also happen to be the UK distributors for Starboard. Five Starboards winged their way over to Portugal and arrived in record time, 24 hours before we arrived to unpack them.

The boards were shipped to SUP Norte who organize wonderful stand up paddle tours around the Douro River and the surrounds of Porto as well as selling a lot of stand up paddle kit. Nuno offered to receive the boards for us and he was super helpful. We didn’t get to meet him when we arrived in Porto to pick up the boards but I had met him before on one of his sales trips to the Algarve. We couldn’t have done without his cheerful logistical support.

Now all we were waiting for was for Tim and Nicky to arrive. They had flown into Porto from London and .. what was that? There they were, hovering over the parapet, waving at us. I introduced them to Andrew and we set about packing the boards into our kit. Within an hour we were ready to cart all the kit back into Porto and attempted to fit them (and us) into a little hostel room built for midgets. Nicky had thoughtfully booked the room and thankfully she HAD reserved it; apparently Porto was really full. It certainly was a small little spot but it turned out to be the best sleep I had had in ages, and the best sleep I would have for a while.

The four of us stowed our heavy bags and tripped into Porto center for what was intended to be a few sundowners. It turned into a wet and rainy dinner by the Douro where we discussed our options. No one was that keen to get into any potential problems with the police by paddling down the Douro. The decision was simple. Zezere River. I had mapped out our starting point and that was our new mission for Sunday. So how would you get four large people and four massive bags 230km into the depths of deepest Portugal?

sup adventure bags

SUNDAY (one day to go)

Our original thought was to head over to Europcar, the closest car hire firm that was open on a Sunday and persuade them to let us have a car. We would then navigate our way to Cambas in the Castelo Branco District, drop all the kit and half of us off and return the car to the nearest drop off center. From that centre (probably Coimbra) we would have to try and get back to Cambas by bus or taxi. However as we arrived at the Europcar shop, after a long 5km walk through Porto, Nicky fished out the card of the Uber driver who had delivered us home the night before. I called him up and he was willing to drive us all the way down to Cambas. Jackpot! It would probably be a lot cheaper and a lot easier than the original plan (plus Europcar was looking REALLY full with a queue stretching far out of the door onto the street).

It was a long, uncomfortable trip sitting with large bags on our laps and three fairly large people in the back of a C-series Merc. Two and a half hours later we arrived in the idyllic little village of Cambas. It blew me away. It truly was a perfect little town nestled in a bend of the river, surrounded by hills and tucked away in a lush river valley. Our launch spot was thick with soft grass, shady willow trees and calm water lapping away at the banks. Honestly, it was straight out of the “Wind in the Willows”. I was beyond excited and couldn’t wait to unpack all the boards, pump them up and set off on our journey. One more problem had to be rapidly dealt with though, I had left my phone in the car and it was now driving back to Porto. We called both the driver and my phone but we couldn’t get any reception and he didn’t or couldn’t answer. Minutes later the black Mercedes rolled up and Nelson got out with a grin, handing me back my phone. I should have hugged him!

Launching onto the placid waters of the Zezere felt exhilarating. The culmination of a summer’s dreams all flowed into my stroke as I thrust my carbon blade deep into the dark waters. I had longed for this all year. Countless clients had endured my chattering about the Trans Algarve trip of 2015 and the Douro SUP of 2016. Hey, so this adventure didn’t pan out exactly as I had planned but THAT right there is one of the core truths about a pure adventure. If everything goes to plan it just ain’t right.

I often muse over the word “adventure” and what it means to various people. I define it as a non-motorized trip from A to B that involves a fair amount of physical endeavour. A good adventure almost always features unknown perils, that when looking back on it, elicits a chuckle.  When you’re striving your way through a rough patch with an unknown outcome, well that doesn’t seem so much fun at the time.

We portaged over the first obstacle a few hundred metres in. The weir wasn’t unexpected, but it was a whole lot larger than the smudged little line on Google’s satellite view. Technology helps a huge amount but it still can’t fully prepare you for the exact feeling of being out there, experiencing the real world. I’m pretty sure if we had high resolution paper maps, it would have been much easier. Naturally the bonus about this trip was that we had near constant internet coverage all the way down our two rivers, and that little blue spot, pulsing away our location did help at times.

I looked over my shoulder at Andrew, Tim and Nicky struggling through the rocky rapids. I glanced at the weir, now a distant sheet of water slipping over concrete. The going was slow and we tripped and slid our way into deeper waters, coming across one other weir-like rock formation before being able to stand up and paddle confidently through deeper water again. Gliding past a taciturn fisherman, I enquired if the fishing was good. No smile and a shrug. The banks slipped past and we turned our attention to the night ahead. Camp selection time. This was to become a nightly ritual and we soon slipped into the inevitable hunt for a cosy, albeit temporary, home. Our first night riverside was to be on a bend where clearly the locals came to fish. Sardine cans, bait tins and dollops of white toilet paper were strewn all over the place. We cleaned up the area and muttered to each other how little respect the locals had for their very own environment. Too sad. It was going to be a recurring theme along the river: litter.

The first night was always going to be a little different, sorting out the places in your dry bag where you kept what, figuring out the best way to store stuff, but one soon got into the rhythm of it. We exchanged kit tips and by the time the end of the trip had come, we had discovered three must haves.

  1. The comfiest mattress you can find. We weren’t hiking here, so weight isn’t really a huge issue. Get a good night’s rest on a comfortable blow up mattress.
  2. A groundsheet to unpack your dry bag onto every night.
  3. Some say a tent is better than a bivvy bag. I don’t buy it, to be honest. I love my bivvy bag, but I could do with a bigger sleeping bag.

One of THE most important items, not mentioned above is a party pack of red wine. How can you not sit next to a campfire snacking on rough sardines and even rougher local hunks of bread without washing it down with a mug of red wine. I shouldn’t even have to mention it! The fire died, we retired and I marvelled at the carpet of light that the heavens rolled out. It was exactly what wild camping is all about. Pure peace.

sup adventure cambas river zezere

MONDAY (day one)

I guess many people were riding the concrete highways of the world into work as we stirred on this particular Monday morning. Tendrils of mist clung to the Zezere while light zephyrs of wind tugged and played with them. The coffee was on, the porridge was hot and we were slowly ridding ourselves of the effects of a long night out in the bush.

We packed up camp and headed downstream through the glassy waters. A town appeared on the right a few kilometres further on and we knew we had to resupply. We needed the basics like bread, cheese and water as we hadn’t had time to do a proper shop before setting out. It had been a whirlwind trip through Porto and down to Cambas. All of us were confident that the river-side villages would have at least one shop and if not, one often reads about friendly locals inviting you into their homes and fattening you up.

There was no shop in this village though. A super friendly old one toothed man kindly offered us his rainwater that he had collected off his roof. He sucked on his old brown tooth as he looked at us with kind eyes and mumbled on in Portuguese. His wife had a permanent look of complete shock on her face as we walk passed her and greeted her: “Bom dia, senhora”. She eventually summoned the courage to return the favour and turned back to pulling a tree trunk across the road. It wasn’t a big tree but nonetheless we dutifully asked her if she needed help. She waved us off and we played with her cute little dog called “Viana”.

I asked the old man where the shop was? No shop. I asked him where we could buy cheese, ham and bread. Shrug. We were just about to give up and head back down the steep road to the river when a huge honking echoed off the walls of the old, quiet walls. With a flurry of action what appeared to be a mobile shop screeched into town and out jumped two super animated men. They opened their flashy white van and showed us all their wares: rich wheels of cheese, fresh meats, great hunks of bread, tins of sardines and water (that didn’t taste like roof!). It was paradise. We filled up on supplies and headed back down wondering why on earth the old man couldn’t have suggested we wait around for the mobile shop to arrive. The answer was perfectly simple, because we didn’t ask him!

With our provisions bolstered, we headed back down the steep hill towards Tim and the Starboards. Soon enough we were stroking out through the watery glass, through the Zezere River valley. We paddled past a team of fishermen that looked like they had stepped out of the Discovery channel. The equipment they had brought down was astonishing. We hailed them and slipped on down the river towards our destination. Lisbon occasionally popped into my head with the thought that it was rather a long way off (250kms away) and it was not very likely that we would even get there. Anything could happen in the next week that could stop us from achieving our goal, so normally I just pushed the thought of reaching Lisbon out of my head and concentrated on what was around me. It wasn’t hard, there was so much going on and so much to think about. Occasionally the thought of Lisbon popped back into my head and I dramatised it hugely, creating a mythical city of towering buildings and a golden glow emanating from the streets of prosperity. Our “Holy Grail”.

“Nick. Nick!”

I glanced over at Andrew. “Is this Álvaro?” It certainly was and we floated under the bridge in still, glassy conditions. I was amazed the wind hadn’t come up yet, but normally the afternoons brought the wind. We beached our boards in front of a fake, floating swimming pool and headed up towards what looked gloriously like a riverside cafe. Our only hope was, “was it open?”

We were so deep in the countryside that it wasn’t often that we saw any form of civilisation. It may seem like there were places all around us, but I’m only relating the built up bits. There were hours and hours of just forest and water and hardly any visible habitation. Occasionally a little hamlet would pop up, high on the hillside, but not much civilisation was situated down next to the river. It makes sense if you think about it, as the river is not really a means of transportation (although clearly it was for us). Hamlets, villages and cities rely on communication and infrastructure.  Roads provide the links with the rest of civilisation, not the River Zezere.

The restaurant above the pool at Álvaro WAS open. We ordered some ice cold beers to assuage the rapidly heating day and asked about lunch. “No no”. The Portuguese finger waggled. “No, no, you need to order the day before”. I honestly tried to hide my disappointment as we were all super hungry. I felt like I was becoming “hangry” too. I forced a smile and asked him if he had any bread. No.

I returned to relate the story to the team, as none of them spoke any Portuguese. We were pretty down heartened, but then old finger wagger strode over and announced that if we had time, he could defrost and barbeque a chicken for us. Incredible! We were so happy. A Portuguese chicken lunch is good at the best of times, but when you have been paddling all morning it’s a super special treat. We finished off the rest of our beers and set off up the hill in search of a shop that the waiter had directed us to. “We’re coming back!” we called to him as we trundled out the restaurant and up the hill.

The village of Álvaro is a beauty. Its arranged delicately on the spine of a spur which juts directly into the Zezere. We only realised that this was a part of the famous (to me) “Aldeias do Xisto”. This is a name given to a group of villages in central Portugal that are mainly constructed with slate stone walls. We were to come across another one of these 27 villages on the next day of our journey.

Puffing up the main (and possibly the only) street, we came across another restaurant. Upon asking the proprietor if she knew where a shop was, she shook her head.

“No. No. No shops here.”

I told her that the waiter down near the river had said there was definitely one in the village.

“No. No.”

She shook her head again and wagged her finger. I felt a little exasperated and decided on a different tack. “Do you know where we can buy some bread and cheese?”

“Oh, sure”, she said, Follow me.” We did. She led us into her back room which was bedecked with all kinds of juicy delights to eat and drink. A cash register sat on a table along with some plastic shopping bags. We started blankly at each other. “Isn’t this a shop I asked her?”

“No.No. This is a mercearia!”

Back on the river, slightly heavier with supplies, we braced ourselves as another heavy gust belted down the river, straight into our faces. The water whipped itself up as the gust shifted smartly past us. The only thing to do was put your head down and get on with it. Rounding the next bend, we had the glorious sensation of feeling the wind back up and hurl us down the next straight towards another bend, and another upwind stretch. We did this all afternoon before the light started to fade and the evening search for a camp site commenced.  It’s tough because as you paddle past a place which looks good, the thought enters your head, “What if there is a better one up ahead” and simultaneously, “What if there are no more suitable camp sites?”

Nicky spotted the perfect stone terrace which had created a beautiful flat area sparsely covered with old, dead, black wattles. The access was steep and tricky but we managed without twisting ankles or any other type of injury. Boards were secured, kit laid out in the sleeping area and a communal fire place was built. Once that was all done, we decided to take advantage of the warm evening light and grab a quick wash in the river. Thankfully Andrew had bought some ecological soap with and we set about washing ourselves. Tim and Nicky followed afterwards and soon we were sitting around, chatting aloud and sipping on good red wine as the remains of dinner lay beside us. It’s a fantastic feeling: physically tired, clean and full with a little buzz from the wine. We listened and talked into the night and eventually lay down to let sleep renew us for the day ahead. It promised to be a tough one.

Zezere 2016 SUP Adventure photos

Here are some more shots from the rest of the paddleboarding trip, which was an exhausting 9 day paddle.

Let me know in the comments if you want me to write more?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *