Sugar highs and carbon lows - the sweeter way to Greece
With 50 Earthwatch projects and a hideous amount of air miles between us, when we found we were all booked on the same Dolphins of Greece team we decided to get there in the greenest way possible.After some research, this turned out to be by horse and cart and so we opted for the second greenest approach - train, ferry and bus. After the drudgery of flying, we expected this to be a far more relaxing and adventurous way to travel, and our expectations were certainly borne out.
Planning the trip proved more difficult than anticipated. With an infinite number of possible routes, it seemed easier to use an agent rather than book by ourselves online - at least, it seemed easier until we dealt with someone, who despite being a European rail specialist, seemed to know nothing about travelling in Europe by rail. Several weeks and hundreds of emails and telephone calls later, we finally had the correct train tickets. In hindsight, perhaps booking online would have been easier. The ferry tickets (which we booked directly) were a breeze by comparison. Unfortunately, we couldn't plan our trip completely as the Greek bus companies no longer publish their timetables, due to them being used for "commercial purposes".
After meeting up at Waterloo, we were quickly checked through to the Eurostar waiting lounge. The 30 minute check-in period passed in no time (for those of us used to a two-three hour wait at airports) and we were soon sitting back with our Harry Potter books, watching the countryside speed by. Before long we arrived in Paris (having munched our way through most of a packet of liquorice allsorts and some fruit gums). Crossing Paris was made easier by directions from www.seat61.com, which provides information on train travel throughout the world - the important point to note being that you need to know the final destination of each metro train to know in which direction to travel.
Anticipating that an international train station would have at least a café, we were disappointed when we arrived at Paris Bercy. Oh well, sweets and crisps for our evening meal then...
As this was a sleeper train, we were curious as to how the six passengers in the compartment were going to be able to sleep, particularly with our vast amounts of luggage. Fortunately, our three fellow passengers had travelled by couchette before, and after a little brute force six bunks, each with a sheet and pillow, magically appeared.
The couchette was not the most comfortable way to travel, particularly as there wasn't quite enough room for our luggage and we had to sleep with some of it on our beds. We arrived in Milan hoping for a nice continental breakfast to make up for the previous night's meal, but unfortunately, at 6am everything was closed apart from one small café, which had a huge queue; so it was yet more sweets and crisps for breakfast. Never mind, we thought, we'll get some breakfast on the train to Brindisi.
Of course, the buffet car was closed for the whole trip, and the buffet trolley had a somewhat limited stock (a choice of a processed cheese sandwich with a suspiciously long shelf life or a processed cheese roll with a suspiciously long shelf life). They also ran out of water about two hours into the eight hour journey.
However, we spent this part of the journey through Italy enjoying the beautiful coastline and chattering about our previous Earthwatch trips. Despite all our previous projects, we'd never been on the same trip together.
We arrived in Brindisi in late afternoon feeling relaxed and looking forward to a nice dinner; after all, Italy is renowned for its great food. Unfortunately, it seems Italians eat late at night and we arrived before all the nice cafes opened. Never mind, we thought, we're bound to get a nice meal on the ferry...
The trip from the railway station to the ferry port was the one part of the journey we had neglected to research, so we headed towards the sea, which seemed a logical place to catch a ferry. Fortunately, Greece was well signposted from the station! At the sea front we were accosted by a couple of Australians, who asked if we knew where the shuttle bus to the ferry port stopped. Interesting - apparently there was a shuttle bus. A local told us it would arrive in 10 minutes, and in true European style, 45 minutes later the shuttle turned up and we were soon checking in at the ferry port.
Having paid our departure taxes we boarded the ship and quickly found our en-suite cabin - very spacious and comfortable, and conveniently close to the restaurant. This was certainly more welcoming than the children's play area, which was where many of the passengers who had opted for the cheaper "deck" option slept.
Time for dinner; of course, the restaurant was closed and apparently didn't open until a couple of hours after departure. After some strawberry laces for supper and a sound night's sleep, we woke shortly before arriving in port and left the cabin, baggage in hand. At this point the purser pointed out that we were actually arriving in Corfu, not Igoumenitsa...
Ninety minutes later than scheduled we arrived in Igoumenitsa. Strangely, our first thought was not "what's for breakfast?" but "where's the bus station?", as we still didn't know what time the bus departed. Equally strangely, the bus station is not signposted until you've walked 20 metres past it, but the locals were happy to point us in the right direction. Unfortunately, English is not widely spoken in the bus station itself and the ticket clerk eventually resorted to using his calculator to show us that the first bus to Lefkada wasn't until 11.30 - too late for the expedition rendezvous in Vonitsa. So we checked out the local taxi prices: eventually we managed to explain where we wanted to go (they'd never heard of Vonitsa, but once they'd seen it written down in the Earthwatch briefing they realised we meant VONitsa). At this point we bumped into Eli, one of the project staff members, so we shared a taxi - a slight compromise on our green plans, but at least the taxi was full.
Finally, after 43 hours, eight trains (including the underground), a ferry, a taxi ride and too many bags of sweets to count, we arrived at the rendezvous point in Vonitsa. Fortunately, the rendezvous is a really nice taverna. Unfortunately, it didn't open until three hours after our arrival, but eventually our patience was rewarded by a great Greek lunch of pita, tzatsiki and greek salad.
So what was the point of the journey? Earthwatch is an international charity which matches up volunteers who want to make a difference with scientists needing both funding and, more importantly, people willing to get their hands dirty to help collect data. Earthwatch projects are as diverse in their subject matter as the volunteers who go on them, from monitoring leatherback sea turtles on their nesting beaches in Costa Rica to excavating Bronze Age sites in Thailand. Volunteers range in age from 16 (or younger on "family" teams) to 80 plus, and come from all walks of life and nationalities. You don't need to be scientifically minded to be a volunteer: all you need is enthusiasm.
Once on the project we spent the next week in the glorious Mediterranean sunshine on a 20 foot inflatable boat, in close proximity to lots of bottlenose dolphins and the occasional curious turtle. We helped record data on how many dolphins we saw, where they were, what they were doing and whether there were other dolphins in sight coming to join "our" dolphins. At the same time, Joan, the lead scientist, was taking photographs of the dolphins' fins for photo-identification back at base, to help establish the population size and who hangs around with whom.
Counting dolphins might sound easy, but it isn't: they go underwater and surface at different times and in different places, so (unless, like Joan, you can instantly recognise individuals) it can be hard to work out how many there are. Each volunteer looks after a different quadrant around the boat and counts their dolphins, while Joan tallies everyone's totals, keeps an eye on the dolphins, takes photos, checks the data collection and drives the boat.
This research is looking at the effects of pollution, coastline development and fishing activities on the bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Amvrakikos. The gulf is almost entirely enclosed, with only a small outlet into the Ionian Sea, so the population is highly susceptible to these threats. Hopefully, the research will help to ensure the population is well protected and continues to thrive.
After lunch it was siesta time, although we generally used this time to explore the coastline or local castle, and to sample ice-creams and milkshakes at tavernas. Later in the afternoon we returned to the spacious loft-style apartment to work on photo-identification and listen to talks from the researchers.
After a fabulous week, our return journey beckoned. This time we were able to get a bus back to Igoumenitsa and a decent meal or two on the way.
So would we travel the same way again? Yes, definitely; it was a very relaxing trip and we arrived in much better shape than usual after flying to a project. But next time we'd spend a little more money on a more expensive sleeper cabin on the train, and try to organise our meals a little better.
Overall, the cost was about the same as flying, and we effectively had two nights free accommodation. Plus, by travelling this way we saved around one tonne of carbon dioxide each - approximately equivalent to the emissions from our entire annual electricity usage!