-A 5-part journal of a kayak trip down the Danube in 2009-
The Donau River was on my mind for some time now. About 50 years ago I paddled it for the first time with my friend Wolfgang who died very young only two years after that.
This river was always a place of great significance for me, each time it left a powerful, magical impression on me, and I yearned to see it again. I had found the essence of it, the meaning, the heart and soul of a river as such elsewhere on other rivers, however, the Donau was always the mother of all rivers for me.
The Donau is no wild river. On its 1777 miles across Europe through many nations it flows through landscapes that have been shaped and cultivated by man for thousands of years; in fact, in many ways, the Donau was a major artery of European cultural development and really the means of cultivation and civilization.
The Donau is usually called Danube in English, but I’m not going to follow this tradition. The Donau runs through many nations and has many other legitimate names there like Dunava (Slovene), Dunaj (Slovak), Duna (Hungarian), Dunav (Bulgarian & Serbian), Dunare (Romanian), and Dunay (Ucranian). (none English). I always find it strange to translate names; a name is pure sound and tradition, how could you and why should you translate it into another language? Pronunciation may be a problem, but what is so difficult with Donau? Donau: like ‘somehow‘, only ‘Donau‘.
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This summer, with the new miracle source of the Internet, I had found my old childhood friend Hans.
We had not seen or known about each other for over 40 years. He had just retired from a fabulous career at the German air force (something close to a General). He had flown in exciting, sexy fighter jets and had been in charge of firing nuclear missiles.
He plays the saxophone, and…
… there are always other unexpected aspects in a story – he turned out to live in Ingolstadt, Bavaria (the town where the famous Audi cars are built) right on the banks of the Donau. I told him about my dream and he immediately offered to be our host for launching our paddle trip from his place.
We had a most wonderful time seeing each other again.
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The boat – a 30-year-old American-made folding kayak – came to us last year. We bought it for peanuts from a friend of a friend. It had already seen many other adventures and had been to New Zealand once.
And – it took some dramatic last-minute negotiation with the Lufthansa clerk – we actually managed to check it in as airline luggage.
In Frankfurt we rented a little van and drove to Bavaria.
I had never really paddled the boat before. But, as this was going to be a very easy ride, I didn’t worry. I had fixed a few leaks before, and I had changed Parvin’s seat so she could sometimes turn around and face me (and not paddle).
There is no ship traffic yet in the first few days down river from Ingolstadt, but soon the first barges appear and become our constant companions on the water.
On the upper reaches of the Donau are small locks next to the dams. We can operate them ourselves: You push a few buttons, the doors open, you paddle in, the doors close, the water drains out of the chamber, you sink down, the lower doors open, and you can move out. Pretty neat!
But at some dams there are even better solutions! There are fantastic automatic channels especially for kayaks. They call them “Bootsgasse”: ingenious chutes for small sport boats.
Guided by signs, you paddle up to the setup area, pull a cord that triggers the system, and have a few minutes to line up. Then a gate in front of the pretty narrow chute lowers hydraulically, water begins to rush through like crazy, the whole channel fills and becomes a wild river.
It looks a little scary, but it turns out to be quite safe. You head into the flow, the current picks you up, the stream pretty much centers the vessel itself and keeps it from bumping against the walls, there is nothing to do but ride with the flow. It’s hilarious! Hang on to your hat, it’s fast, I tell you! At the end, about a hundred yards below, the boat gently slows down in the calm lower level of the river. Well, ‘mostly‘, I have to say. There is one Bootsgasse in Regensburg – probably the first one they ever built – that isn’t designed perfectly; it has an unexpected nasty standing wave at the end that swamped us big time.
Soon there are big locks for the commercial ships. Sometimes we can use them too. It’s quite an experience as well. You have to obey orders from the lock masters, and they don’t care much for the tiny little kayaks that could so easily get crushed by the gigantic ships.
* * *
I have to say it here: camping and all that, the entire trip, in a way was quite a challenge. The very first night the worst storm we ever experienced in a tent hit us while we were barely finished setting up. The brand new tent broke, and as it lay flat on us we had to hang on to it in utter desperation while a 50 mph wind was trying to rip it apart. We have endured a few disasters on our many adventures and learned to take these kind of things not too personally, but it wasn’t much fun. Fortunately I was able to pretty much repair the tent poles, however, the weather kept pummeling us. We had downpours that lasted an hour or so but were as intense as sitting under a waterfall, and we had 24 hour soakers that made us miserable. I don’t think we had a single day when we could get the tent packed up dry.
Especially later in Austria they officially declared the Donau area a disaster region several times. Houses were destroyed, trees lay broken and power lines were damaged. The river rose to serious flood stage a few times. The water was littered with floating trees and debris. One time a tree crashed down only inches next to our tent.
Here, one day, we had found rescue at the pier of a rowing club and got shelter in their club house. Next morning the river had gone crazy. The platform was hanging on a last flimsy wire and had almost floated away.
Anyway, bear with me, it still was a fabulous trip…
* * *
… to be continued.
Klaus August 2009