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FROM MADRID TO LISBON WITH TWO ITIWIT INFLATABLE KAYAKS

“On a bright late summer morning in 2017 a friend in Aranjuez (Spain) gave me the idea of kayaking the Tagus from Madrid to Lisbon.  Itiwit were very supportive and offered me and an old friend (joining in Portugal) each a 2 Man Inflatable Kayak. These were ideal for taking on the flight from the UK, and for doing the considerable portage I expected in order to navigate the Tagus and its many dams and weirs.   
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#1 Logistical planning required

I have travelled and lived abroad but in the company of friends or family. This would be my first long distance adventure challenge and first solo travelling too. From the outset I knew the main adversary would be the sun and I planned to take a midday break from 1100-1900 to avoid the hottest temperatures.

There was a fair amount of logistical planning required. Making sure I knew where I had to get more food and water and for how long and preparing stage maps so I would know the route as phone signal wouldn’t be reliable the whole way. Camping with tents was illegal in the part of Spain I was to pass through so I had a tarpaulin instead to allow me to say I was bivouacking in the unfortunate event that I needed to explain my situation to local law enforcement. Physical training had been a few half-day paddles on the Ouse through York to test the kayak and make sure I could maintain a decent pace over several hours. The prep stage made me realise that you can’t do enough planning but equally you can’t plan for every eventuality. 

So, 8 months later I had departed my desk job in York, UK and found myself back in Aranjuez about to do my first ever full day of kayaking. That morning though, the Tagus was taking me towards Toledo and ultimately, over 650 kilometres away, to Lisbon.
 

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#2 Introduction to “dam hacking”

I knew from the outset that the Tagus had a lot of dams. The first “dam” (in fact a weir) appeared within 20 minutes of starting my paddle and as I encountered more and more I gained a lot of knowledge in how to circumvent them. For example, I learnt most weirs have steps on the other side. So it is possible to paddle up to the lip, hop out the kayak and and walk down. This avoids the time and effort of the portage going around! Unfortunately, this requires being on the other side first to realise...

At Emblase de Valcañas after 8 days paddling I faced the first large, hydroelectric dams. After a couple of hours I found an old path possibly from the dam’s construction. It was steep, unstable and an uncomfortable decent that I had to do a couple of times with my kayak and then my gear. 

Besides the dams, the embalses (huge artificial lakes for water storage) and the longer stretches of river had strong headwinds and the embalses became like open sea but without the boost from the tide to take advantage of. 

There were a few quite monotonous stretches without any landmarks to aim for and the meanders of the river blending together. To pass the hours I started doing maths puzzles in my head. As I’m not a maths whizz this was quite a good way to burn through the boring stretches. 
 

#3 Monfragüe National Park

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After 9 days and 180km hard paddling I reached Monfragüe National Park. It was difficult to find shade from the strong heat so I had to keep paddling. I was carrying plenty of water and sun protection but there was no phone reception in the park so relied on gut instinct to find the course of the wide river and not go into the many wide inlets wasting time and effort in the midday heat. Besides this, the park has a healthy vulture population which seemed to follow me the whole way.

Travellers will usually arrive by road but moving by kayak meant I saw everything from a different perspective not least because I went into every village and town to get supplies I did so from the river. For example, I came across a wild boar and piglets one morning bathing in mud. They were startled by me and I was glad to have several metres of river as a barrier between me and the protective mother. Most places I stopped at were not tourist hotspots so it was a very genuine travel experience and I met lots of warm, friendly people who were interested to speak with me. 

After over two weeks on the river I made it to International Park Tejo. This was the feature which marked the transition from Spain to Portugal with the countries sharing the river itself.  For a few kilometres I enjoyed the novelty of kayaking in international waters, switching over from the Spanish to the Portuguese side as I made my way. By now I was comfortable getting up close and personal with Mother Nature. My tarpaulin set-up was through a process of trial and error was mosquito proof it wasn’t however arachnid proof and I discovered there are large spiders in Spain that like to hide in your bag while you sleep. I’m not a fan of spiders but recognised I was staying in their neighbourhood so couldn’t complain too much. 
 

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#4 Nighttime fightback from do Tejo

My good friend Liam joined me just over the border into Portugal as el Tajo became do Tejo. He was a novice kayaker too and had done “extremely limited” training. We supported each other and kept up with the distance targets while dealing with the heat, occasional roving farmers’ dogs, and theft of some gear by a couple of Gypsy lads. 

We were a few days from the endpoint at the Belem Tower when we woke up to the river, which was 2 metres below us a few hours before, flooding our campsite. Even worse, the kayaks were gone!

Through a friend at the local kayak club we met the previous day we were helped by local firemen. By a small miracle we found both kayaks in different spots several kilometres down the river. At this point it felt at this point that fate was on our side and we would finish whatever happened.  
 

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#5 Lisbon’s large industrial port

The flora and fauna began to turn into industry and an urban environment as we neared the endpoint in Lisbon. Finding places to rest and camp was more difficult and we had to hijack a yacht marina and stealth camp wherever we could find a decent spot in the final days while living a strange existence blending the river by day and the city by night.

Lisbon is an international port and we were getting first-hand experience of this. The river was hot 27-7 with boats, yachts, trawlers, catamarans and huge-ass freight liners. So the final stretch to the Belem Tower required a bit of seamanship to dodge disaster so close to the finish. 

But, of course, we made it in the end. Tired but elated we went in search of a hostel and began adjusting to life without the river.

Apparently Itiwit’s 2 person kayak is intended for day trips but I had been a reliable beast of burden, a durable adventure tool and over the constantly changing river environment it was a home from home. And so easy to travel with....

What will you do with your Itiwit inflatable kayak?
 

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