Earlier this year, our very own Chris Sze teamed up with Gordon Bullock (of Barking & Dagenham Canoe Club and former BSCC member) and impressed us all when they set a new Guinness World Record for kayaking the 125-miles of the Thames (link). What was not apparent at the time was that this was just the warm-up for their real goal – a 1,500 mile journey down the length of the Danube, from Germany to the Black Sea.
Before they left, they checked in with a personal trainer who made sure they were fit for the journey and who would see what effect the experience had on them physically.
Mostly the pair stayed at riverside campsites overnight, frequently associated with Canoe Clubs, but where these were not available they had to find a nearby hotel.
Once they passed into Austria they mainly found themselves “Glamping”, and this accommodation was particularly welcome as the weather became stormy.
In the early stages of their trip, the biggest frustration was the many locks they had to operate, as they all seemed to work differently and the pair could not read the instructions written (unsurprisingly) in German.
Throughout the German/Austrian stretch there were many dams. In some cases there was a water chute for canoeists which was great fun! Most however involved a walk around. Simply finding the correct place to get off the water and in again proved to be an ongoing headache. They even encountered several dams which were not shown on the maps at all.
Both before and throughout their journey the paddlers were in constant communication with a network of well-wishers across the world who followed on GPS tracking and gave them tips about where to find the most convenient camping, hotels, restaurants and shops – a network which grew throughout the weeks as those they met along the way joined the ranks of their followers. Chris’s photos and blog on their FaceBook page were accompanied by a daily chat to camera from Gordon which made compelling viewing.
As the river passed along the Slovakia/Hungary border the pair had to deal with a strong head-wind and high temperatures by day.
Places beside the river to eat and sleep were fewer so they were more dependent on wild camping, and the mosquitos became a real problem.
Whenever they did find a restaurant, though, the pair always took full advantage of it.
Crossing borders by river also created issues when it came to getting passports stamped out of each country and into the next. Going from Hungary to Serbia, they simply could not find a Serbian border post to stamp them in within the permitted time interval. When they did finally reach one, Gordon somehow managed to convey their apologies with signs and gestures and they were allowed to continue on their way.
The next challenge was to get through the two sets of massive locks which allow ships to traverse the hydroelectric dams. The water was so choppy in the approach to the Iron Gate I lock that they were nearly capsized, but eventually they followed a barge into the lock and exited to land in Romania.
Here, Gordon was again called upon to use his body language skills to explain to the border officers how the strong wind had prevented them from landing in Serbia to get stamped out.
Proceeding to Iron Gate lock II, the roaring wind was now so intense that it was not safe to continue, so for two days they camped in a rather unpleasant spot while they waited for it to die down.
When it was a little calmer they decided to paddle up to the dam and portage around it rather than waiting out on the open water in the hope of going into the lock with the next ship.
Finally they had made it past the Iron Gates, but exhaustion was setting in and morale was low. Continued headwinds made it difficult to make any forward progress.
However they found some comfortable hotels to stay in so at least they were well rested at night, and little by little they approached their final hurdle – the Cernavoda Canal which leads to the Black Sea.