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July 2020 with Lena
The sky opened up and the rain bucketed down. This was not the best day to start a kayak trip down the Raba River. So we hurried along the dyke where we were supposed to launch and sought dryness under a picnic shelter. It didn’t take long for the wind to whip the rain through the rather large shelter leaving me standing behind a pillar with our gear trying to stay dry. The weather was so dismal even a little mouse joined me. He looked half drowned as the grass was now more than mouse deep in water.
I had sent Lena to look at the hotel next door as the Raba is notorious for its ability to flood rapidly. She was the only one with fully functioning rain gear and she seemed eager to get out of the rain. She reported back that the hotel had vacancy and it looked ok despite looking like a Soviet summer camp dormitory. So our decision was made. From the bridge we crossed before the rain hit, the river looked so empty you could see the gravel on the bottom of the river. It didn’t look like enough water for our inflatable kayak to even float. It was now raining so hard an open window in the hotel at the top of the staircase resulted in a puddle that flowed down the three flights of stairs to the ground floor.
With the worst of the rain over we ventured out to the local thermal baths. It had already been three days of paddling on a side channel of the Danube and we were thankful for a bit of RnR and a chance to shower and relax. Crossing the bridge the once gently burbling Raba was a torrent of chocolate milk with an almost constant flow of sticks and larger chunks of wood. It seemed a bit more than the 50 centimetre rise the river level forecast predicted.
We slept in hoping the worst of the flood water would be gone. The river level report still said only an extra 50 centimetres of water so we decided to launch at around noon. The water along the banks had dropped over a meter leaving a very muddy slippery launch site. Clearly the report was substantially off. We arrived at the first weir much faster than expected. We heard it roaring far before we saw it.
We did a simple portage past the weir at the same time as a couple of locals in a canoe who couldn’t stop drooling over Lena. The weir was in full flood. It was impressive how much water was cascading over. Only now did we grasp how crazy the river was. Even part of the trail flowed like a stream. Lena, excited as ever, wanted to film our departure from the bank. Camera in hand trying to keep the horizon steady she replied she was ready so I pushed off. Within 5 seconds we had capsized in some non-dramatic footage that looks more like we had planned it all.
We both came up gasping for air and I pushed the boat and Lena to the bank where we thankfully managed to stand chest deep in water. Thankfully we were caught in a back eddy and everything was tied into the boat. The only thing that had escaped was a paddle that had floated up river. Getting to it was easy. Walking against the back eddy back to the boat was not. Inflatables are incredibly stable (unless you meet a crazy river and an inattentive kayak mate) and very easy to right and re enter. A canoe would not have been so forgiving.
The next part of the Raba meanders like a snake on drugs. Each bend is about 100 meters from each other, each tight and tricky with upwhelings everywhere often full of drift wood caught in the current. This wasn’t like the Monsai Danube where the meanders sometimes take a full hour to paddle around. My full attention was needed to make each turn and avoid all the sweepers and strainers as we sped down this flooded waterway. Lena added a bit of paddling power whenever we needed to escape a tree stretching out to reach us. Without any skegs the boat was like a top; very difficult to steer without significant effort. The upwellings and eddies constantly a challenge for balance and direction. Hours later we reached the second weir. The instructions on the Internet were simple on this one; land on the right side of the weir and walk across it down to the water. Fallen trees teetered on the edge as muddy water meters deep plunged over the abyss. It didn’t look like it had ever been possible to walk across it. At the moment it would be suicide. We landed on the far right before a hydro canal and a beautiful grassy place to camp. Lena’s canoe fans were on the other side of the canal beckoning us to follow. They suggested camping was much better where they were even thought they wanted us to follow them to a paid site in town. To get to them we needed to cross a short but rather tricky stretch of water to get to the nicer spot. Too far left meant a trip over the weir too far right and we would be sucked into a hydro channel. Large whirlpools of water pulled down and under the sluice gates of the hydro channel. Falling in wasn’t an option at all. We even witnessed a large plastic bottle disappear down the whirlpool funnel with barely a fight. The two canoeist egged us on equipped with a rope to throw to Lena to assist in the crossing. So we did it. The rope as added protection. One of the eager men grabbed the front of the boat as it hit the shore and yanked it hard up on to land as we shouted “no”. You simply don’t treat inflatables with the same roughness as a cheap hardshell like they had. The other man eyes fixated on Lena didn’t see me throw the paddle on shore as his friend pulled giving me a throw a little harder than intended. It landed blade first on to his poorly shod foot which ended in a few unmentionable words and a quick retreat to their own boat. They had left us marooned on this island.
Their promised camp spot was bumpy with long grass. We had trouble with ticks on the last river even with one discovered in my ass crack so we were trying to keep the camping a little less wild.
Beneath the weir the river raged even more than the last one. A small side river entered creating a giant whirlpool where entire trees circled waiting to be released and sent down river. The canoeists had gone exiting down a muddy meter and a half drop straight into a small back eddy clogged with wood. Out of the back eddy they would have to deal with the full force of the river cascading down the weir. At best this was a gamble. Besides it was late and we were ready to camp. Neither of us liked the continue option or the return across the tricky stretch of water we had just crossed. The only “safe” way was to bushwhack with the boat over to the hydro canal and paddle across it’s rather safe but illegal waters. So we did and camped the other side with the better grass before we had been enticed over to the other side by the canoeists.
In the morning the giant whirlpool was log free but still too crazy to consider the “high” water route a safe option. So we portaged a few kilometres along the hydro canal to a safer put in down river. Today was fast and not as crazy as the day before. There was no sign of the canoeists until midday. A log jam blocked the river so we landed in the thigh deep mud to scout a way around. Lena stayed with the boat and I bushwhacked through the head high stinging nettle thinking of how I was going to explain to Lena what we had to do. (She later stated she didn’t think any of part of the trip was crazy despite having very limited paddle experience). I glanced at the river to see the log jam breaking up leaving us free to float down. At the same time the other canoeists arrived and witnessed Lena calf deep and covered in mud. Miraculously, the other canoeists always appeared clean while we looked like pigs in mud on tour. Our boat wasn’t white anymore and Lena and I looked like we had been wrestling in the stuff.
Once through the log jam we had to pass the now floating jam fragments. With all the meanders and sweepers large lots bits and pieces would get caught or hit partially submerged trees often with a thunk and horrible tearing sounds. Much of the stuff was too big to “push” out of the way with our boat if we got stuck on the wrong side. It was like overtaking on a difficult windy highway except the other “drivers” weaved and bobbed around as if they were drunk never staying in their lane. We didn’t even want to stop in the mud to have lunch lest we get overtaken again.
We stopped early at a beautiful riverside camp spot. As the sun went down the fireflies came out but the skies soon clouded over. The wind picked up sending the fireflies off at a furious pace as they were batted about by the wind. The lightening drew closer lighting the sky like a strobe. The thunder overhead like cannons firing over the tent. The tent reverberated and shook the bolts were so close. Looking at the water level report, the storm we had the first night turned out to be a 3.5 meter rise on an almost empty river pushing through 18 times the volume of water as mere hours before. This next storm was predicted to almost do the same but we would be protected somewhat by the weirs. The river depth graph looked more like a rollercoaster than the flat line I had been watching for weeks before.
It was a fairly short and easy paddle to the town of Sarvar and it’s medieval castle and vast water park. We predicted we should be there just after lunch. The river however had plans for us.
Our first log jam was a difficult bushwhack through brambles and stinging nettle. The put in was a steep muddy bank. It was not impossible, just difficult and slow. I only fell on my ass once trying to get in the boat. Lena was far more graceful.
The second involved an easy landing and a very long bushwhack around thick forest. It was much easier to hit a road and walk for a couple kilometres around. In between was a field of rapeseed beyond the pretty yellow flower stage and in the impenetrable knots of seedpods stage. The part by the forest wasn’t too thick and quickly led to circular paths in the field. At first I thought they were crop circles but most likely they were from a farmer joyriding in his tractor. The paths simply went around in circles with no exit at the far end. It was here I had to force my way through the rapeseed pushing forward until I was so tangled I couldn’t move before trying to climb up and over the knots the boat above my head and Lena trailing behind with the bags.
The third weir was a bit of a shock. The river had backed up into a long lake and very little water flowed over it most of it being siphoned off into a hydro power canal. In fact the next part of the river was practicall empty. We often had to get out and walk as there was not enough water for the boat to float with us in it. From flood to drought in the same day courtesy of water diversion. Where the diverted river reentered we were back to flood and a muddy exit into Sarvar where we had an apartment waiting and another thermal bath complex complete with an aqua fun park and some game show like obstacle courses.
Plenty of flood water now tapered by the weir with delightful camping in front of restaurants. The second of which was a campspot on a farm where the a pony and his donkey friends came and watched us put up our tent.
From here we took public transport to the incredible Danube floodplains to complete the Hungarian portion of the Danube to the Romanian border.
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