1940 km from Vienna to the Black Sea

George Savell 3 November 2011

The Cambridge University Expeditions Society (CUEX) is the oldest club of it’s type in the world, dating back to 1904. Every year it helps members of the university organise expeditions around the world. The club also facilitates official affiliation to the university, a huge boost in obtaining funding and sponsorship. The only expedition to gain affiliation last year was the Cambridge University Danube Kayak Expedition. The Aim: to paddle 1940km from Vienna to the Black sea. Apart from the physical challenge of paddling 8-10 hours per day, the secondary objective was to produce a mini-guide book, in order to encourage sustainable travel on the river.

On Thursday 11th August 2011, after packing, rationing, and a quick ‘yes we still float’ test run, we set off to paddle 1940km down the Danube. Apart from the physical challenge of paddling 8-10 hours per day, the secondary objective was to produce a mini-guide book, in order to encourage sustainable travel on the river.

We launched into a roaring stream and into Vienna, the first capital city. Somewhat lacking in experience, we spent the first day learning to paddle the hard way. The first set of rapids was nerve-wracking to say the least. Fortunately we survived without mishap.

Our next surprise was quite how big the shipping is on the Danube! Tankers and cruise-liners over 100m and tugs pushing strings of up to six 75m barges charge up and down at a cracking pace, creating huge waves.

With Vienna astern, we stopped for lunch on a tiny gravel beach; a welcome chance to stretch and relax in the shade. Disaster struck as an armada of ships came barreling out of the lock, kicking up monster waves, tossing our kayaks onto the rocks.

We dived in, but all we could do was hold on and prevent the worst of the damage. All of the hatches were open, and we watched helplessly as items were washed into the river. After discovering that our essential hatch covers didn’t float we spent an hour worriedly ‘dredging’ for them, fortunately recovering everything.

Repacked, we headed for our first lock. We had no idea of procedure; we waited for the doors to open for a cruise-liner and paddled into the narrow gap. Predictably this prompted a good deal of shouting and arm waving. As it turns out, you should call the lock keepers (with a radio we didn’t have…) before entering.

The lock was huge, and we spent an amusing 20 minutes slowly sinking into the massive concrete box along- side an entire ship full of tourists busily photographing us. Paddling out into the Lobau National park with the sun setting over the Vienna sky- line was a special experience.

Highlights of the next two weeks included campfires, gorgeous beach campsites, a wander around the beautiful town of Esztergom on the famous Danube Bend, loads of naked Slovakians, an evening paddle through Bratislava and wild camping in the centre of Budapest.

Late on day 16, the usually frequent camping opportunities had all but vanished and we were considering climbing onto an abandoned dredger, when a Serbian man came chugging by in his tiny fishing boat. After much gesturing and with no English at all, he convinced us to follow him, albeit apprehensively. He turned out to be incredibly friendly and great fun as well. His wife gave us dinner, and he filled our glasses relentlessly with tuica, a potent home-made plum brandy.

It was amazing to have a real bed to sleep in, and they wouldn’t let us leave in the morning without more tuica, some coffee and bags of garden vegetables. They waved us off as we paddled away, nursing the first hangover of the expedition.

We used cycle maps the whole way, but with 348km to go the map ran out as the bike route turned away from the river. Unfortunately, this is exactly the point where the navigation gets tricky. It took us a total of 17 minutes to get lost.

Despite our frustration, it was a chance to see much more of Romanian life. We paddled past goat herders’ shacks, fishermen trawling with 100m nets (all of whom tried to sell us a variety of suspicious looking fish!), gypsies with animals and farmers ‘harvesting’ mud from the river bed and carting it off in horse- drawn wagons.

With 140km to go, the km mark- ers vanished to be replaced by nautical mile posts. This confused us for a while as the numbering suddenly jumped to 75. This is the lower section, which is navigable by ocean going ships, many of whom did their best to run us down!

Here, the north bank becomes Moldova and then Ukraine. Entering Ukraine, a line of rusting watch-towers stretches into the distance. As we crossed the ‘line’, two soldiers in full camouflage and carrying rifles ran out of the trees, jumped into a speed boat, and started the sirens wailing. When it became clear that their boat wasn’t going to start they resorted to shouting and waving as we paddled on by.

From here on we were in the Danube Delta; full of wildlife and marshy backwaters. The ‘end’ in Sulina was a little bit of a let-down. After such a long way it seemed there should be more to it than a small post next to a rusting shipyard and a muddy beach.

Due to rapid land mass growth in the delta, the ‘real’ sea was still 8 miles further downstream.

With no time to paddle there and battle back against the current, we made do with the very pleasant atmosphere of Sulina. We enjoyed dinner, a real bed, the company of some friendly locals, and got the hydrofoil back upstream to start out on the 2000 mile trip home.

George Savell