"We go inside," says Francesco, twenty minutes later. He points at an improbably small opening in a wall of rock.
"Inside," I say. "Underneath the cliffs?"
Along much of the Orosei coast there’s an overhanging lip, eroded by wave action and darkened by mineralization, a few feet high and few more deep. But here, a half mile past Cala Goloritzé, the lip is all white and with the oscillation of the sea, narrows to a gap fluctuating around a foot and a half tall.
"Through there?" I ask, hesitant. In the water, my kayak floats a foot above the surface. And that’s before I lay my head to the deck. Not to mention, I’m a foot taller than my Sardinian guide.
Francesco paddles forward. Ada tepidly follows. I do the same. Francesco puts his head to his deck, and paddles with his hands. And he’s gone. Ada hesitates. She shakes her head and backs out. Too tight. I push forward, flatten against my deck. Paddle with my hands. Pull against the slippery rock above. A wave surges into the gap. My boat rises and squeezes me against the smooth ceiling. I reach out and push my shoulders upward, trying to resist the crushing force.
"Oh, ouch," says Francesco.
"That’s a squeeze," I grimace, feeling the whole mountain press down on me.
When the pressure subsides, I inch forward until I slide into a small chamber of blues and whites. Our shadowy boats float under the inner heart of Orosei.
We spend two hours exploring more grottos. One is pitch black and silhouettes us against the sea. One has an arched ceiling with orange-brown rust stains and emerald moss. Another has bulbous walls of conglomerated cobblestones and recesses backward into a cold lagoon, where ancient fishermen once culled their catch. Another is green from mineralization, dropping stalactites toward the water like thirsty mouths reaching for a drink. The final one is wide and tall, with a bright skylight, and white stones stumbled round, for a bottom. Called Grotto Contessa, inside Francesco tells the story of lovers who fled their mountain village to be alone from the world and together in the cave. Outside, we emerge to find a small diving raft, with a naked Italian man pulling a wetsuit from his feet. His young wife reclines on a tube, rubbing her toes flirtatiously along his leg. They’re waiting to go inside.
We push onward until the early hours of evening, before turning back toward camp. As we retreat, the white cliffs darken to a hazy gray, their grandeur hidden like a mountain top in fog. We enter the narrow inlet of Porto Pedrozi. The craggy limestone walls are stained with leached iron. The bottom shallows and we pull our boats onto bone-white stones polished by dampened surf. Above a rock-strewn trail winds upward from the rear of the ravine into a dense canopy of cedars. It’s the Selvaggio Blu, Italy’s most remote trek, which crosses these nearly impenetrable 25 miles, clinging to bluffs, laddering up some cliffs and repelling off others.
We pitch our tents on gravel platforms terraced by thru-hikers. We have dinner under the trees, near a stone fire pit. I pull out a can of seemingly appropriate Sardines to share. According to trusty Wikipedia, they may have been named after Sardinia. I ask if it’s true. Francesco and Ada look at me, slowly shaking their heads in either negation or disappointment, perhaps both. "The island is S-A-R-D-E-G-N-A," spells Francesco. "In dialect."
As night descends, the waves subtly rush into the cove like gusts of wind. The danger Francesco warned of never appeared during the 17 miles we paddled that day. But as the fire smokes sweetly of juniper, I learn from Francesco about the havoc of crossing a windy Capo Monte Santo. A supposed expert paddler from Denmark, self-categorized as a level-four paddler—"I don’t know what this four means," says Francesco—had descended on Sardinia with his own boat to brave Orosei. In the gulf with the Dane, the wind had risen and the waves had crashed against the cliffs. Currents diverged south, north, and out to sea. Leading the way past the inlet to Porto Pedrozzi, Francesco glanced back. The Dane was gone. Francesco turned about. He found him rising and falling with the wave crests, inside the cove. Knuckles white on his paddle, body stiff as a board. "Can you help me?" said the Dane.
"It’s all psychological," Francesco tells me. "No pit stop. Must advance through many seas." That’s why he only has two levels. Easy or hard. Safe or dangerous. A simple system that he’s developed in his more than quarter century navigating the shores of his island.
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