The Danube Part 2: Five countries and four capitals

Our last few weeks have been somewhat of a whirlwind as we’ve passed through five countries and four capital cities in twelve days of non-stop paddling on the Danube. The day after leaving Vienna we reached Slovakia, the ruins of Devin Castle indicating our arrival at the border. Soon after, as we rounded a corner in the river, we saw a city emerging from the river with an impressive white castle perched on the hilltop. It took us a moment to register that this was Bratislava, our third capital city.

Thankfully, the frenzy of cruise, tour and leisure boats in Bratislava was not indicative of the Danube to come; given the option, we soon diverted onto the “old” Danube rather than taking the new, canalised Danube built for the bigger ships. Though this did mean we had a peaceful day away from any river traffic (or towns or even other people, for that matter), we did unfortunately have to go through the ordeal of wheeling Benji and carrying all of our bags around two locks which were out of operation due to the low water levels. While on this short stretch, we also realised that we had made it to Hungary, our seventh country!

After following the Danube along the border between Hungary and Slovakia for a few days, it was time to bid a final farewell to Slovakia. A particularly beautiful and rare mountainous stretch marked the deviation of the river from the border as we made our way to Budapest, capital number four. After covering 75km, our longest day yet, we reached the city. Though we’d originally planned to take some time off in both Budapest and Bratislava, we decided against it: the Black Sea is in our sights and we’ve gained momentum which we are determined to maintain.

The following morning we paddled through the iconic centre of Budapest. It was equal parts exciting and terrifying: seeing the beautiful and famous buildings from the unique perspective of sitting in Benji was a fantastic experience, but making sure we didn’t get run over by the countless boats or tipped over by their wash was very stressful!

We were therefore very relieved to return to the peace and quiet of the rural landscape. A plus side of the water level being so low this summer is that it has left wide expanses of flat beach exposed at the riverside, ideal for camping on. We feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed many more breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, both increasingly easy to catch now as the days are noticeably shortening. The cooler nights and autumnal ones in the trees are an indication of another season setting in.

The scenery each day has been almost consistently unchanging. We’ve had back-to-back days spent paddling through a whitewashed landscape of sun-bleached trees and pale sand or stone beaches. Even the river has taken on a milky quality as it reflects the faded blue sky overhead and blurs into the hazy horizon.

There have been numerous encounters with wildlife to keep us entertained during these long days: we were joined by a curious fox one evening in Hungary who even returned the following morning. When I threw some pebbles in his direction in an attempt to scare him away from our tents, his response was to lie down and challenge me to a stare-off. When I inevitably lost, he made his way down to the river where he proceeded to spend an hour or so fishing. There have been countless birds, from the swifts flitting about overhead and the less dainty seagulls, to the waders standing poised in the shallows. We’ve even spotted a peacock and the occasional eagle. The banks have proffered pigs, cows and a herd of horses. Since reaching Serbia, we’ve also been treated to several nighttime concerts given by wild boar and packs of jackals.

Before long we were leaving Hungary behind and making our way along the border between Serbia and Croatia, countries eight and nine. Everything seems to be happening very fast now as we are averaging 70km a day, the equivalent of two canoe marathons daily.

Once we had checked out of Hungary at the Port Border Crossing, we had to paddle for 25km without stopping, until we reached the Serbian Port Border Control. Entering Serbia proved to be possibly the most surreal moment of the expedition so far... It is very much set up for barges and industrial traffic rather than kayaks and tourists. Having made it up the Stairs of Doom (named thus based on their terrifyingly decrepit state) we found the relevant building which at first appearances seemed to be abandoned. Stepping tentatively into the dilapidated atrium, we discovered broken windows and furniture, bird poo everywhere and signs in indecipherable Cyrillic plastered to doors and the few still-intact windows. We somehow managed to make it through all of the necessary checks with border control, police and customs and left feeling slightly taken-aback and confused at what had just happened.

Our experience at the border is just one of the many things contributing to the palpable sense of being in a non-EU country. Serbia is a noticeably poorer country, from the run-down buildings and outdated cars, to the very basic fishing boats and even the increase in pollution we’ve seen. However, the locals we have met thus far have been utterly wonderful and generous. As we landed on a beach a few evenings ago we were greeted by a couple, Voya and Verica, and their 14-month old daughter. Hearing what we were doing, Voya immediately went to fetch fresh fruit, large bottles of water and snacks for us!

There was also an elderly gentleman who paused from his fishing to come over to us, insisting he had two things to tell us: firstly, to welcome us to his country Serbia. Secondly, he wanted to let us know that there was a man on the bank opposite who would be able to give us water, juice, beer, food or help if we should need it. All we need do was shout and he would come over immediately. Before saying goodbye, he gave Kate and me a small packet of peanuts each.

Having now arrived in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, “all” that is remaining of our expedition is the final 1,200km and four countries. We are aiming to cover this in one big push over two and a half weeks. If all goes to plan, the next update we post will hopefully be from the Black Sea!