The temperature’s been climbing higher and higher on the thermometer. The same goes for the water of Danube. I turn to Pavel and Leandro. What we need now is a cozy restaurant on the bank with a dock. Shadow under an umbrella and a chilled frappe in our hands. It takes exactly eight minutes before we spot the shape of an umbrella on the horizon….
Only a few moments later I find myself sitting in a comfy armchair with my legs up. The waiter’s handing me a frappe saying: ‘Welcome to Belgrade.’ That’s the city saying hi to me; the city that spiced up the journey yet a little more, or sweeten up more likely.
The instructions I got from my friends in Novy Sad were spot on. First turn right after the bridge around the island of the Great War and up the stream of the river Sava. Sailing under four bridges and there they’d be expecting me on the ship Brodič. I followed those instructions. I was climbing up the overflowing river meter by meter. Pass the fourth bridge on the right bank there’s a sympathetic looking man waving at me. He showed me a great spot for anchoring and introduced himself as Bane.
Bane, the owner of a floating bar, restaurant, anchorage, the same as of a floating island with grown trees. After I few minutes he provides me with a 10-meter yacht together with the whole facility of the restaurant and his floating flat. That floating hub became my home and office for a week. Except two walks in the city I spent the week in Belgrade literally on water.
I’ve already narrated the magic moment when my little engine for the self-made ship appeared miraculously in front of me on the ground. Building a vessel from the wood brought in by the water was only a natural development of such a situation. It took almost three days and the process was overlooked by a professional ship designer. He was banked with his ship just at the dock next to me. When the vessel underwent a durability testing done by a three big guys and me I was quite satisfied.
Recounting the distance between Belgrade and the Greek islands, where it’s essential to arrive before the yearly wind season, was the confirmation of everything that happened with the engine. That experience was supposed to help me getting at the right place on the right time. I’m very thankful for all the gifts I’ve been given. As it’s becoming a tradition, there’s no big testing of the engine itself. If it’s destined to work then it would.
Leandro from Switzerland finished his journey in Belgrade. He gave his archaic kayak to a professional Serbian kayaker Nebojsa from Apatin. Although he decided to continue towards the Black Sea on a bike he returns back to Switzerland in a few weeks. We traveled together for more than 1000 kilometers and paddled through four states. This friendship’s been hardened up by the river itself, by sweat, fun and common experience.
Me and Pavel sink our paddles into the water and our six-meter catamaran gets moving. Our aim is to paddle back on Sava to Danube and away from the sight of Belgrade. Or, to be more exact, away from the long fingers of the Serbian police. The reason’s that in a country where everything’s possible, dealings with the police come just a bit too easy. After all, we’re moving on a six-meter long ship with an engine of which no documents exist and I still don’t have a license for driving a motorized water vehicle in my hand.
So and here it comes, Belgrade disappears from our sight. We take out the engine that was finely stowed away in the cockpit of the kayak. Carefully, I fix the engine to the construction prepared in advance and connect the fuel tank. I pull at the starting string but nothing happens. I try again. What was it the guy said? Two times an empty pull and then the choke? Or the choke first and then wait for a bit? I pull again and again…and then finally! It works! The engine starts humming and the whole ship begins moving slowly forward.
We honestly didn’t imagine that two connected kayaks would cut through the water at such a speed. That’s true even when we sailed without stepping on the gas and the speed’s comparable with paddling. Every single little wave sprayed us from the top to the bottom, and I’m not even mentioning the waves from the big ships. Nevertheless our happiness at the self-made ship was above all and we pressed on smiling although soaking wet.
First anchoring revealed that hauling the 200-kilogram vessel out of the water was simply impossible. So, we learnt how to tie it to the bank without damaging our boats. Right next morning I gained yet another piece of experience. The combination of the night ship traffic with the drop in the water level filled the cockpit of my kayak with water and mud right to the brim. So, not only were the kayaks suddenly lying a meter away from the water on sharp rocks, but my kayak was heavier by about 100 kilos of water and mud.
It wouldn’t be a real adventure if the engine didn’t have yet one more surprise in store. There was the ever-present floating wood soaked up just so much that it would hang a few centimeters below the water surface. And exactly such a piece of wood took care of breaking off of the engine’s propeller. When that happened for the fifth time I began feeling like an F1 mechanic. We managed to bring the repair of the unnavigable vessel carried by the stream to a record time of under two minutes. It’s an admirable thing to do considering it’s necessary to take the engine out of the water, unscrew the propeller, change the broken fuse and then put everything back together. Not to mention that it’s all done above water when any second every tiny screw could’ve ended up at the bottom of the river.
Other things on the list of repairs were a twice ripped fuel pipe and a hole in the fuel tank. The pipe was quite easy to repair with a pair of pliers. The tank was saved by sacrificing of the sole of one of Pavel’s shoes. The knocked-out spark plug or the propeller getting tangled in riverweed about 30 times seemed only as some kind of fun after that.
Trying to sail down Danube on two conjoined kayaks had both its pros and cons. Inability to get the vessel out of water meant getting through the last two of Danube’s dams by the canal locks. It happened that both times it was managed perfectly and I had a chance to test my radio communication skills in action. Still, when one gets into the lock on something that somehow looks like a fragile egg shell than anything else and has to keep just an arm length away from a giant several hundred meters long ship with a displacement of many thousand tons….Well, then you just know that it’s more than desirable to be on really good terms with the captain who’s somewhere up the front.
Doubtlessly, one of the most fascinating parts of Danube is the so-called Iron Gate. It’s a place where the river found its way right through the mountains. There the several kilometers wide river squeezes itself into a gorge of only a few meters. The depth of the water reaches several hundred of meters and it’s truly a stunning view. That’s especially true when you happen to be there at full traffic, on a boat with a weak engine and with the wildest storm that I’ve ever experienced on Danube just about to break open. That’s the moment when all worries about the kayak, equipment or the engine had to move aside. The sentence: ‘I won’t stay here even for another single minute.’ became unforgettable for a long time. If there’s one situation that proved that I could fully trust the handmade catamaran then it’s this one. Absolutely unimaginably strong current, wind, waves more than a meter tall and playing for time… It’s that very moment when both the catamaran and the engine had our back, we pushed through the claws of the gorge and were out of there just minutes before too late.
Among all the excitement there’s also the game with the border police to whom we somehow never really wanted to explain why we’re using an engine with no papers and that we, frankly, didn’t steal it anywhere, and which soon started to resemble a cat chasing a mouse. It’s especially so, since our plan was to hide the engine always at least a kilometer before an expected police check. But of course we’re never able to do it on time. It wasn’t only once that a police boat with flashing lights’s been our companion. Still, we finally managed to carry the document-less engine through three different states.
After several months spent on Danube I made a logical decision to leave the exploration of its delta to some other time. The way from Černá Voda to Constanta by a channel became the only right choice. It allows me to get to the Greek islands a few weeks earlier and, therefore, head towards more stable weather conditions. Although the channel is only 64 kilometers long we’re not allowed to enter it. ‘It’s only for yachts and large ships,’ they said. No matter we had a catamaran and a small engine.
So, what were we to do? Well, I say it’s best to have a coffee and don’t push things too much. While finishing the coffee Pavel asked me what should happen now. I suggest another coffee and some food. Before we finish our meal a young guy delivering pizza comes up to us. He doesn’t speak English but I manage to explain to him that we need to get to the other end of the channel to the see but that they wouldn’t let us through it. He brings out his phone and starts fiddling with it. Then he shows me its display. There the Google translator says: ‘I want help you.’
We find out his car isn’t fit for our transport. So, he off he goes and stops a friend on the street. And the phones start ringing. A few phone calls later and a ‘tug-car service’ is secured that would load us up at the sunset altogether with the kayaks. That great guy drove us to the sea in exchange for the engine for which we had no use any more. Oh, how I love simply leaving the best reality to come to me by itself.