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July 2020 with Lena
The Danube is the second largest river in Europe. It runs through 10 countries and countless cities on its way to the Black Sea. With its origins in the Alps it also has a canal which allows river ships to travel from Rotterdam and the North Sea via the Main River. During peak season over 70 cruise liners cruise the river enjoying its scenic splendour.
Confined to Hungary we decided to run the Hungarian section of the Danube from the Danube floodplains at KM 1842 to Baja at KM 1480 in our inflatable two person boat. Note we had already run some of the side channels and a portion of the main river which we skipped on this second trip.
The floodplains were we started in North West Hungary are a paddlers dream. The river braids into various channels some so narrow the boat barely squeezes through. The navigation can be tricky if you have a specific place in mind otherwise you can just point downstream where eventually all the braids end up back in the shipping channel. Along the way, weirs many of which are runnable create a little bit of fun but also slowed the current. In some areas where the weirs backed up the river you can paddle between the trees in flooded forests while dodging mosquitos.
It didn’t take long to get back into the main channel of the Danube with all the barges and cruise ships. The first night our perfect little beach was invaded by rude fishermen so we moved several kilometers downriver to a flat field just off the water that was plagued by thousands of mosquitos. Our herbal repellent didn’t work and to make matters worse the bottle pump had failed leaving us to pour the ineffective repellent on ourselves. We resorted to putting up the tent in full rain gear as mosquito protection. Safe inside the tent having killed those that snuck in with us, we fell asleep to the buzz of mosquitos and woke up to at least 500 sitting on our boat waiting for their breakfast to emerge. We packed the tent away so quickly then when I took it out to dry in our hotel the next night scores of corpses fell out and a few live ones emerged to seek vengeance.
That next night a windstorm was forecast. We opted for two nights in a hotel since the following day would also be too windy to paddle. We chose the Slovakian fortress town of Kormano with its series of protective elements most left to rot or used in the past by the Soviets for munitions storage. The hotel that Lena chose was one of the stranger places I have stayed. This former synagogue looked like a fancy hotel with the lobby converted into a bar and bowling alley. Our en-suite bathroom had a claw foot tub and chandelier hanging above. From the restaurant a small staircase led down to a narrow passage into a vast cellar system with massive empty wine barrels in one room, pool table in the next and so on. We are very certain the gay waiter was high on something. Apart from being very flirty with me he was inept at even basic tasks. My 8 euro bill (he had trouble imputing our items into the machine), was rung up as 800 euro on the credit card terminal before I had a chance to comment, he changed it to 80 euro cents, followed by 80 euro and eventually the 8 euros as he had totalled up. He had meant well having plied us with free drinks earlier on in the day.
Nights on the Danube were generally very pleasant. Beautiful beaches backed by forest dot the river throughout Hungary. Not all are mosquito plagued. On several nights we set up the tent meters from the river edge. With all the dams up in Austria the river only rises or falls very slowly unlike the Raba. That said waves crashing ashore from late night ships are enough to give the feeling the tent is going to wash away. The waves never do touch the tent but it is enough to make you wake up in a midnight panic no matter how often it happens.
When we reached the massive hilltop cathedral in the town of Estergom we came ashore, deflated the boat and took a train to Budapest. We had done the next part as a two day paddle as a warm up for Lena a month before. It has been memorable for the tasty goulash and beer some locals staying in a tent next to us had been keen to share.
My first three months in Budapest had been completely rain free. I was convinced it never rains in Hungary. Water levels were unseasonably low and rivers like the Raba had become unrunnable. Since then the rains had come back often in flood proportions raising the Danube considerably higher.
The river beyond Budapest alternates between heavy industry and wilderness. Much of the industry is now in ruin quietly and picturesquely falling apart on the banks. The still running industry is often surrounded by company towns that have barely changed since the iron curtain came down. At times Lena felt like she had been transported back to Russia. Ships continued to be infrequent with only occasional powerboats. North of Budapest has countless rowing clubs with innumerable paddle craft going up and down the river. Everything from dragon boats one of which challenged us to a race (we lost badly) to super tippy kayaks where the occupant paddles from a lunging position. The occasional recreational canoeists pass as well in voyageur style canoes that we strangely don’t see in Canada. It seems two person canoes are a rarity here. Most canoes have between four and fourteen people. I had previously asked a couple places about renting canoes and the smallest they had were four seaters. In addition the occasional aluminum boat passed painted red with the word “Canadian” on the side. It reminded me of the sort of boat you see where I grew up.
A windstorm was forecast for our last night on the river. The 9knot headwind we had endured for several days would now be gone switching quickly to a 25 knot tailwind with gusts even higher. Our kayak is incredibly low to the water so the wind doesn’t blow us around that much but I was still wary of such a strong wind from any direction. It was surprisingly how quickly the wind changed. Out of nowhere a gust of white like a violent explosion hit the trees about 200 meters in front of us. We headed for a little backchannel Lena paddling so hard each paddle stroke landing water in my lap. We waited on the bank as a gentle breeze pushed away most of the mosquitos. The violent squall we had envisioned was nothing more than a blast of wind shaking the pollen out of the trees. That said the wind did grow quite quickly once we were back on the water. Each back eddy which was normally just swirling water growing into knots of foot high foaming chop as the water was shoved alternately by the current and the wind into a mess. It was late so we decided to pull into a beautiful little backwater with a white sandy beach. Behind the beach the forest was full of drift wood. With only a cheap tent for shelter we decided to build a wall. Lena excelled at this. She piled up driftwood on three sides of the tent creating a wind free haven in the storm that even attracted mosquitos.
The next morning was an easy paddling to Baja and a train back to Budapest.
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