In memory of Mathieu Pauly – adventure spirit

by Carlos De Sousa

We left Greece after our 7th marathon in Skiathos with a sad feeling – our time there was too good, the pearl of all marathons so far but it was too short! The evening after the marathon Carolyn pulled her back in a classic ‘slipping on a banana peel’ moment (only it was another fruit) so we had to slow down a little bit for her recover! It gave us a good opportunity to catch up with social media and organise the next few marathons from our new home in Skopje, Macedonia near to the location for marathon number 8.

While there we took the opportunity to paddle (gently) on the Treska River, through the Matka Canyon which means ‘womb’. Matka Lake, the oldest artificial lake in the country and home to a few medieval monasteries, is one of the most popular outdoor destinations in Macedonia and a proper invitation for SUPers or kayak lovers. With Kristijan and Zoran from local SUP club, Aqua Terra as our guides, we made our way to Matka Canyon with our plastic bottle board. Matka is a beautiful canyon with a powerful energy; it makes you feel small when you are inside it and you cannot help but notice how special the place is. Indeed many people come to appreciate the nature, trek through the forest up to the monastery on the cliff above, walk through the massive white rocks or take kayak and boat trips to the caves. After paddling about 3km we decided to head back as it was getting dark, on our way collecting a number of bottles that were floating in the water.

Our dusk paddle in Matka was quite short so we decided to return the next day to walk along the cliffs to witness the beauty from another angle. We were not prepared for the sight that greeted us. All the way along the riverbank, on the path, on the rocks, between trees and right next to the water we saw hundreds of plastic bottles. They were everywhere and it was a shock to see.   As we walked we became more and more upset, confused by how people could just throw their litter in a place of such outstanding beauty. Then we realised that there was not a single bin so, tired of carrying their rubbish, people simply discarded it on what had become a dump. Instead of photographing the stunning canyon we started taking pictures of plastic whilst people sat picnicking, apparently oblivious to the mountain of rubbish that surrounded them.

I noticed that I was not the only one distracted by the sickening levels of plastic; another man (with a much better camera) was doing the same. A few hours later, we met the plastic photographer, Fernand Pauly and his wife, Maryse. We got chatting over a beer and discovered that they are keen kayakers from Luxembourg. We explained our expedition and invited them to join us for our next marathon a few kilometres away in Lake Ohrid.

Lake Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site straddles the mountainous border between southwestern Macedonia and eastern Albania. It is one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes, preserving a unique ecosystem of worldwide importance, with more than 200 endemic species. We felt privileged to paddle in such a breath-taking place with crystal water; although I was quite concerned about how much plastic we might see after witnessing over 100 kilometres of plastic along the roadside from Skopje to Lake Ohrid

With the company of our new friends, Fernand & Maryse, we set off from the Monastery in Saint Naum to our campsite in Kalishta. Before leaving we heard the sad story of Mathieu, their adventure-loving son, who sadly died two years ago. This challenge would be in his honour and I am sure he would have been proud. They set off at rocket speed leaving us on our plastic bottle SUP in their wake! We would meet them again a few hours later on their return to the monastery.

 

It was a long but incredibly peaceful day on the lake. We were pleasantly surprised by how little plastic we saw in the water given the quantity on the roadside – still it was enough to fill the front of our board.  We met a lovely French ‘pirate’, Marc Morell, who built his own SUP out of pvc tubes and has started a campaign against plastic in Lake Ohrid. He regularly organises clean ups to try to tackle the enormous problem of plastic on the beaches. At 7.30, as the sun set behind the mountains we were still going strong. We realised we were still a good 7 or 8 kilometres away and we would have to paddle the last 2 hours in the dark. Fortunately the lights (and pretty good live music) from Struga guided us home.   We paddled cautiously through the reeds and finally located the multi-coloured light that was flashing in a tree in our campsite after 10 hours and 20 minutes of paddling.

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