Sabor river kayaking excursion on Portugal river cruise: Oar-inspiring interlude

"Before we get into our little boats I always like to do a bit of stretching," says Doniria Afecto, our super-fit expedition leader. "OK, legs apart and shake out your arms. Please, follow my example."

After seven days of indulgence aboard the Scenic Azure, a luxury cruise ship that plies the gentle waters of Portugal's Douro River, my fellow kayakers and I are eager for a good workout.

This morning we've assembled in a grassy riverside park in Foz do Sabor, a lovely village which stands at the confluence of the Douro and Sabor rivers, about 200 kilometres inland from Porto, the start of our 11-day river journey.

"Today we are going to explore the Sabor River," says Doniria as we climb into our bright orange and yellow fibreglass kayaks. "The Sabor is a tributary of the Douro River and as you'll soon see is one of the prettiest rivers in the whole of Portugal."

Pretty is a woefully inadequate description of one of Portugal's most pristine, challenging and remote waterways that has supported local farming communities for more than 15,000 years.

Paddling in Douro River.

Paddling the Sabor River at our own pace. Photo: Mark Chipperfield

As we paddle away from the beach Portuguese families are setting up brightly coloured umbrellas, lighting barbecues (the air is soon filled with the smell of grilled octopus) and frolicking in the water. In early August the heat ripples across the dry hills and steep vineyard terraces. The whole country slumbers.

"At this time of the year it's nicer to come to the river than drive all the way to coast," says Doniria, who, with husband Jorge, runs a small hotel in the nearby town of Torre de Moncorvo.

While the Sabor may lack the grandeur of its big sister the Douro, there is something pleasantly intimate about this sleepy river, which stretches an impressive 120 kilometres inland from Foz do Sabor and across the Spanish border.

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The region's isolation has kept the industrial world at bay. The riverbanks are still shaded by trees and high reeds. Occasionally you'll see a well-stocked vegetable garden hidden in the undergrowth. Further up the slopes are well-tended groves of almond and olive trees.

Daytime delights of Torre de Moncorvo.

Daytime delights of Torre de Moncorvo. Photo: Alamy

Doniria may have been a hard taskmaster on land, but seems far more easy-going once we're paddling up river. "This is not a race," she says. "We have plenty of time, so please go at your own speed and intensity."

Apart from leading small kayak groups like ours her company, Sabor Douro, organises white water adventures, 4WD rallies and other challenging outdoor adventures across the sparsely populated Braganca region. Strip away its summery charms and you'll discover that this corner of Portugal is steeped in legend. Archaeological evidence such as ceramics, arrowheads and jewellery dates human settlement here back to the Neolithic period. Braganca was later conquered by the Romans and during the dark ages was the scene of bloody conflict between the Suebi and Visigoths tribes.

There is nothing half so grand as messing about in boats.

There is nothing half so much worth doing as messing about in boats. Photo: Mark Chipperfield

In the 15th century Braganca was a hotbed of political intrigue, but the local nobility eventually threw their support behind the warlike King Afonso V, a monarch best remembered for his African conquests, interest in maritime exploration and harsh treatment of the Moors; it is widely believed that Afonso poisoned his first wife Isabella in 1455.

Our 40-minute paddle along the Sabor provides ample opportunity to contemplate the vagaries of Portuguese history, and the obvious resilience of its inhabitants who have survived invasion, conquest, dictatorship and numerous other hardships over the centuries.

Like walking, kayaking is an excellent way of getting the feel of a place. It brings the topography into sharper focus, reveals hidden riverfront secrets, like that derelict old jetty, and for some inexplicable reason induces an overwhelming sense of wellbeing in the paddler.

By the time we wade ashore at Foz do Sabor, I'm feeling hot and sweaty but very pleased with myself. Abandoning my kayak and life jacket I immediately plunge into the water to cool off. A river cruiser toots its horn, the smell of sunscreen hangs in the air. It's true, there's nothing half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.

Trip Notes

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FLY

Etihad Airways flies frequently from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane to Switzerland, with onward connections to Porto aboard local carrier TAP. Cruises depart from downtown Porto, 11 kilometres south of the airport. etihad.com

CRUISE

Scenic's 11-day "Unforgettable Douro" cruise sails from Porto along the Douro River to Vega de Terron on the Spanish border and includes a day-trip to Salamanca. Guests can choose from a wide range of shore experiences, such as guided city tours, signature dining events, wine tastings and canoeing expeditions. Prices start at $6295 a person, twin share, for a standard suite. Tariffs include all meals and drinks onboard, shore excursions, complimentary mini-bar, free Wi-Fi, butler service, airport transfers and all tips and gratuities. For bookings phone 1300 742 859 or visit scenic.com.au

Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Scenic and Etihad Airways.

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