Sea Kayaker
Sandy Robson

Following Oskar Speck's Journey - Diary - The Vardar

Hi there - these notes outline the basics of my route on the Vardar (Macedonia) and the Axios (as it is known in Greece) River as I retrace Oskar Speck's journey from Germany to Australia.  I dont think I will ever go to Greece to paddle the Axios again in my life!  The Vardar is fun though and I can recommend a trip through Demir Kapija gorge for sure. 
Thanks for following my travels with paddles and Thanks to all the Macedonian paddlers who helped me and to Dragan for driving me to Veles.
To follow my trip after the Vardar page, continue reading on the Greece page.

June 28 To the sea! 1 massive portage around a weir made from 3 or 4 levels of Gabian walls in the river, then to the sea and west to Methoni, Greece, approx 36km....

Google Earth maps printed out would help with this day of paddling.  The first problem for the day was a massive weir with Gabian walls in the river on 3 levels.  There is a very small track to the river on River left just before the top of the weir.  I scouted from here and found a route around the corn field leading away from the river, then right parallel to the river, then right back to the river and entering the river below a bridge and below the weir.  You could not do this portage easily without kayak wheels.  I was glad I had the trolley/bootswagen.  After this I prayed for no more weirs.  The only further obstacle was a sand mining pipe across the river blocking my path.  I scouted and found a section of the pipe that I could pull my kayak over because I did not want to have to portage again.  The shore was swampy and I sunk in up to my knees in some places.  The guys working on the sand dredging equipment didnt bat an eyelid when i jumped on their pipe and pulled my kayak over it (ha). 
The remaining parts of the Vardar are deep and in some places there are cows grazing and in other parts the vegetation on the side is packed with water bird breeding rookeries.  I saw cormorants, storks and pied oyster catchers to name a few. Just before the final autobarn bridge there is a Greek Makedonia/Alexander the Great monument and a good lunch stop area with tables and chairs on river left.  After that it is smooth sailing to the sea.  I had the wind on my back.  I did not get photos of them but I saw a red dragon fly today and a beaver too.  When i was close to the sea I stopped in some barren land to have a pee and take a photo, I was chased running back to my kayak by the bitiest flies I have ever encountered, they killed!  So now I am covered in itchy bites and my legs are shredded from scouting portage routes.  It was so good to get to the sea.  Below is the cow grazing at the mouth of the Vardar - my first view of the sea - celebration time :)  Later there was a flock of pelicans which made me feel I HAD arrived at the sea.   BIG AH! no more weirs for sure now.  From the mouth of the Vardar/Axios river I paddled west to reach Methoni...this story is continued on my Greece page.

June 27 Gevgelija to somewhere about 20kms from the sea!, Approx 50kms, 2 portage, 1 around an old weir and 1 massive portage around a working dam:  feeling very tired now, nice campsite though.
I had no local information for the rest of the Vardar/Axios, so I was going in blind.
I have given the main rapids names...
1. Casino Royale...just after you see the casino up on the border near the highway there is an easy rapid
2. Freight Train...Under the railway bridge the river is constricted and there is an easy rapid, I went centre, it was easy.
After this a gorge starts and it is very beautiful paddling.  There was a place that looked like a restaurant or campsite on River Left - it looked like a nice place to spend a night.
3. Gorgeous...In the gorge there is a very small rapid
On River Left there is a place that looks like an army training ground before Problem 1 for the day
4.  Problem number 1 for the day, old weir portage, but not so hard.  Get out River Left.  Scout a route to the track and a way to access the beach below the weir.  I found a cool tortoise while scouting.

Then there is a long paddle section with no major obstacles.  Sand mining was evident in several places.
You know you are approaching Problem 2 when you see a closed down bar/restaurant on River Right with a jetty you can land on for a break.  There are lots of fisherman in this area.
5.  Problem 2 for the day: They would not let me through this dam...the upside is that as well as lone kayakers they also seem to be filtering out all of the rubbish from the Balkans too.  At the side of the dam were 30 giant bags of plastic bottles and rubbish and also one full skip bin!  I thought I would arrive to the sea with a mountain of litter, but thanks to the Greek dam, this is not the case.
This dam filters water into an aquaduct and sends it off to farmland.  Get out on River Right at the boat ramp and walk on the track and roads following the river.  I got back into the river miles away near the next big road bridge.  Google earth pics would be good for this portage route.  Where I camped was a broken bridge in the river and a really nice beach with white sand.  Greek Rubbish polluted the shores.

I am walking as far as the eye can see and then some more to get back in the river at the next bridge.

June 26 Demir Kapija to Gevgelija, Approx 55km: paddling solo again, border formalities and passport control at Gevgelija -
At the start of the day I was paddling in the Demir Kapija gorge and this is the best part of the whole Vardar River.  The first 10kms or so are whitewater.  The rapids are easy.  Then there are a few more rapids and shallow sections of river to negotiate on your way to Gevgelija.  At Gevgelija there are three bridges.  At the first bridge go down on River Left then cross to River Right to camp on the sandy beach below the 2nd bridge.  There is an old bridge collapsed under the 2nd bridge and obstacles to watch out for - go with care.    I went down the rapid on the left under the first bridge and then paddled back upstream, ferry gliding to get to the beach on river right.  Above the beach there is a restaurant and Motel Vardar.  I took a taxi to the border control station on the highway to go through passport control (200 Dinar round trip), then I returned to the restaurant and spent what remained of my Macedonian currency (about 240 Dinar) on a nice meal.  I guess if you had a larger budget than me you could get a motel room for the night.

June 25 Stobi - Demir Kapija, Approx 50km, 3 problem areas on the river (described below):
paddling with Marjan (all day) and Robert (1 rapid before the campsite)
Angel and Robert dropped off Marijan at around 11am with his kayak.  Once again, there are many small rapids on this section of the Vardar and these are easily paddled, but there are also 3 problem areas to find your way through when you paddle this section.  I had some google earth pics laminated that Dejan had helped me with when I was in Serbia.  These were great references with notes on them.
On the stops we made along the way, and around the river there are many bright blue dragon flies - these are gorgeous.  The guys tell me you get blue, green and red ones.
1.  The first problem is about 4kms before Negotino.  There is an old weir across the river.  Marijan and I got out on River Left and walked along the bank (carefully through someone's crop) and scouted a way through.  Then we ferry glided and paddled across to River Right and I pulled my kayak across some vegetation and into a channel on river right.  Marijan then went ahead and scouted a route to below the rapid.
2.  The second problem is a dam/lock across the river about 10kms before Demir Kapija.  We were lucky because the dam gates were all open and we could just paddle straight through.  If it is closed it is apparently possible to self-operate the lock there, maybe you could also portage.
3.  The third problem is at Demir Kapija.  You must exercise extreme care to get out on the River Right just before the Demir Kapija bridge because under the bridge are the remains of an old collapsed bridge and pieces of metal poke up out of the water.  Once you get out on River Right you can go and explore under the bridge and further downsteam you can see the rapid and the water level and decide where to go.  You could camp somewhere near the bridge too if you want to.  You can portage your kayak past the metal poking up under the bridge and re-enter the water on the other side.  I was scared to tackle the rapid immediately after the bridge on my own.  It was a bit daunting because the Demir Kapija gorge contricts the river and increases the flow and white water.  I think the rapid after the bridge was grade 3? Robert (who met us under the bridge) thought it was no problem and jumped into Marijan's kayak with no spray deck on and led me down the rapid I was scared of.  Then we pulled out on River Right in a big eddy below some farmland and the railway line.  I could perch my tent on the river bank there.  A farmer walked past leading a donkey and gave my kayak and tent a wide berth, as he did so the donkey gave out a big kick backwards...I was glad he anticipated this! 
Angel, Marijan, Robert and I all went out to dinner that night and it was the funniest night ever - I will remember it forever.  Great friends and food and good times in this country.

June 24 Veles - Stobi, Approx 39km, many rapids - easy grade (I think grade 1 to 2):
paddling with Sasko & Borce.
In the morning I get up at around 7.30am.  I am not feeling so well and have a sore throat.  My body is telling me too many late nights.  The late nights that seem to be the norm' in the Balkans don't suit my system, I am usually a morning person and go to bed early.  I have a rose hip tea (not coffee) and Aleksander's wife gives me a sugary sweet fig preserved in syrup with the tea.  It is a treat from the south of Macedonia (nice).  We chat, I check my emails and then we are off to the river.  Aleksander takes me to the local market to buy fruit and this is awesome, I could easily have spent the day exploring that market and taking photos.  I have changed 10 Euro and Alekasander says that this is enough money for my 3 days in Macedonia.  Back at the riverside park I am organising my kayak and Sasko and Borce arrive to paddle with me.  It is sad to have to say goodbye to my friend Dragan thismorning.  I feel like I have gotten to know him well and I wish he was coming along today.  It is also a pity that Aleksander doesnt have time for a paddle after helping me so much, but with his work and paragliding comp's he is too busy.  I am very glad that Aleksander has organised these paddling companions because the river has many small rapids.  They are easy rapids, but I am a bit nervous and if I was alone I would have scouted them to check the best way through without damaging my kayak, and the paddle would take a lot longer.  This way Sasko and Borce go first in their downriver boats and scout the best route and tell me to go to the right or left or to watch for an obstacle. It is also safer to go as a group on whitewater and more fun to have some paddling companions to chat to.  One obstacle we paddle past is a collapsed bridge with pieces poking up out of the water.  You really have to take care on this river.
The old roman city of Stobi is at the confluence of the Vardar and Crna (Black) rivers.  I am camping on the Crna tonight.  The water in it is freezing - it must come from the mountains. Aleksander told me to be careful to put my tent high up on the bank because every afternoon they let water out at a dam upstream and the river level rises dramatically.  Sure enough, Sasko, Borce and I went off to see the archaeological site and when we returned the river level had come up at least 1 metre.  Stobi was the largest city of the Roman province Macedonia Secunda, an important urban, military and administrative trade and religious center of two large empires: Roman and Byzantine.  The rivers Vardar and Morava were communication and trade routes since prehistoric times, connnecting the Aegean Thessalonica with Singidunum (now Belgrade).  Stobi came to an end toward the end of the 6th century AD after 10 centuries of history.  It vanished under layers of earth and sand, until 1861, when French historian and traveller Leon Heuzey discovered and uncovered the ancient city.  Nowadays with funding assistance from the EU and the US, Stobi has been 15% excavated in an Archaelogical dig and conservated.  I was amazed at how Roman civilisation was so advanced.  You can tour the site and see what remains e.g bath houses, underfloor heating, churches and beautiful mosaics.  In winter it snows here and they have to preserve the mosaics by covering them with 1m of sand.  The task of removing this sand before the tourist season must be painful.  The finding of Stobi is only 15% complete because these projects are extremely costly.  For example, restoration or conservation of 1 mosaic cost $72000 donated by the US.  So a large proportion of the money donated for projects goes to the conservation of what is found, rather than to the dig itself.  Visit Stobi if you get a chance:
At the Stobi site there is a drinks vending machine where we buy cold drinks and I fill my water bag from the fountain there too.  It says it is not drinking water, but that is just a sign for the tourists.  Every person on site drinks this water every day.  Later in the afternoon Angel arrives to collect Sasko and Borce, they are not camping.  Also Aleksander arrives to say hello and plan my paddling companions and times for tomorrow.  He also drops off some of my things...I have been paddling with a lighter boat so my kayak can sit higher in the water and avoid those rocks.  I laugh as Angel gets out the packing tape to attach the roof racks to his car rack.  Once the plan is set for the next day I am left to make my dinner by the river.  A shepherd comes by with his flock of sheep, other than that I do not see anyone.  I am really tired and glad to get an early night tonight.  I reflect on the amount of rubbish on the river bank and recall something Aleksander said thismorning.  He told me not to look at the rubbish in the is apparently just the way it is in the Balkans.  One placed we paddled past there was purple chemical liquid pouring into the river from a factory (scary!).  The river was really fast today and it would have been possible to paddle all the way to Demir Kapija in one long day, but I am really glad that I did take the time to go and explore Stobi in the afternoon instead of just keeping on paddling. 

June 23 Road Trip from Djerdup 2/Kusjac to Veles via Skopje:
  Dragan and I spent the afternoon road tripping across Serbia and into Macedonia.  No street map required, he stops and asks people for directions whenever he needs to and taps into the local knowledge for the best way to go.  We stop for a famous Serbian hamburger from a restaurant for dinner - McDonalds should have no chance in this country, but alas, they are everywhere!  We arrive in Skopje when it is dark and I meet the Vardar.  First impression is it is really fast, I am told 16km/hr and it is cold water.  The information I have is that there is not enough water in the river to paddle from Skopje to Veles at this time of year.  That section is also not for my type of kayak.  It is serious whitewater and lots of rapids.  I think it is prudent not to paddle from Skopje to Veles on the advice I have, but to do that section by car and then from Veles I am told it is possible to paddle the Vardar in my kayak, but I must be careful not to damage it on the rocks and their will be some portages in places.  We arrive at Veles and call our contact kayaker, Aleksandar Kocev.  Aleksander met the Serbian paddlers last year when they came for the Vardra regatta.  Aleksandar is hosting me in Veles and finding people to paddle with me and he has all of the information I need for the Macedonian section of the Vardar to the Greek border at Gevgelija.  After that I am on my own again.

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