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August 2020 with Lena
The police were waiting for us. Lena saw them first. It didn’t occur to either of us we were doing anything illegal. We had been ferrying across the Danube in our inflatable kayak as a sign on the other side had been very clear the paddleboat takeout area was closed. The current was swift, not unmanageable swift, but strong enough that it was an effort to get across to the two massive ship locks on the other side.
The police and the Lock Master stood there as we landed on a muddy bank and unloaded and carried everything up a rocky embankment. “Why did you land next to the ship locks?”, one of them asked Lena in German. “The sign on the other side told us to,” was her answer and a response that the Lock Master should have known. There was hesitation as a tiny packraft with two men arrived behind us. “Are they with you?” the police asked. “No” Lena replied politely resulting in more head scratching by the police. “Did you know it is high water and the waves are really massive on the other side of the dam”, they asked in German. “Yes” replied Lena, adding “we have done far worse”. What else can one say?
You dear reader, you probably remember the Raba. Here on the Austrian Danube there were no log jams, no crazy bends, no sweepers waiting to remove us from the boat. There were however waves. Large crazy chaotic waves from the overflow of the dams that licked at the shore for several kilometres downriver. That morning we had entered near a dam from a side channel and we watched these waves break beside us as the river current strengthened and pulled us downstream into the main river body. Only a couple had hit us hard threatening to swamp the boat. Worse case scenario we would have opened the self bailing drains; our little boat was rated for class IV whitewater and this could have been at max class II. It was all a lot tamer than the course I took on paddling high volume rivers.
To avoid the worst of the high water we had spent a night in an amazing farm complex that doubled as a hotel. The owner, who was dressed in green velvet overalls complete with suspenders and a rather drab shirt and shoes which looks like he stole from a homeless person, showed me where to hang my wet gear to dry in a little room in the back of a massive barn hot with strange clunking farm equipment. Our room was above the horse stables. I am sure at one point it must have been the servants area, but it had been tastefully redone into rather large guest rooms. This was a very active farm with most of our evening meal and breakfast home grown or hunted by the owners son. Our night off the water was a much needed break to do laundry and shower after several days of rain and the damp festering smell that comes with too much wetness.
The flooded river had pulled us along at over 14 km an hour, considerably faster than the barely moving river of the days before. It was a considerable speed especially since our little boat was only capable of cruising at about 3 km/h. Standing on the bank the police told us the river was closed. They warned us if we were caught on the closed river again we would face massive fines. They took our passport details completely ignoring my European entry dates that were way past the maximum 90 days and instead they scrutinized Lena’s work visa which admittedly did look fake. A closed river would explain why we had seen zero traffic the last 40 or so kilometres. The packraft that landed behind was the only other thing on the water. It had been a thrill, safe from any cargo ships or drunken pleasure boats that can overwhelm stretches of the river. We just assumed because the river was at the maximum speed for most ships they had chosen not to be on the water. It had been a thrilling ride past cliff top castles and beautiful towns. We had stayed in the shipping channels to avoid shallows that were now bubbling boiling rapids.
Without a choice we boarded a train to Melk just 20 kilometres down the river. It had a good riverside campground and a massive abbey to occupy our afternoon. We were rather crestfallen the adrenaline flowing through our veins suddenly without an outlet. From the train we saw river cruise ships making their way up river. The river wasn’t even closed!! A kayaking couple we later talked to told us the whole day it had been just below the level where the police were supposed to close the river. The police didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. At least they were nice about it all.
We made it in amazing time to Bratislava arriving Friday night instead of our expected Sunday night. This despite spending a day and a half waiting for the river to subside. All the beautiful sandy campsites that lined the river were now flooded forests so it is just as well we sped through. We had survived freighters passing freighters going up stream the resulting wash more fun than the Prata carnival ride Lena had insisted upon in Vienna. We even had an encounter with the Twin City Liner; an almost mythical large passenger catamaran capable of 70 km/h. It appeared in the blink of an eye and with its shallow draft didn’t need to follow the navigation buoys. Every blog I read on canoeing the river mentioned it with dread. To us every single ship going up stream barely appeared to be moving. To the Twin City Liner everything on the river would appear as a stationary obstacle to go around.
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