The Main and Main-Donau Canal

Since our last expedition update over two weeks ago, Kate and I have thrown ourselves into a big push in order to complete the Main and Main-Donau Canal, an accumulative distance of over 465km across Germany.

Life on the Main was, simply put, a good life. Though paddling upstream, the flow was gentle enough to not hinder our progress too much meaning we were able to cover a good distance most days. For the most part this was incredibly enjoyable; the landscape and scenery around us kept our minds occupied as we took in the beauty of the forests, mountains and vineyards surrounding us.

The days have been hot and rarely below 30°C, however along the Main we were able to swim in the river most evenings to cool off before clambering into our tents. One evening we even got to go tubing after befriending a great group of people on the riverside! Thank you to Johannes, Rolf, Danny and the rest of the crew for a highly entertaining evening around the campfire.

After the amount of traffic and business on the Rhine, we were relieved that the Main was considerably quieter. There have still been plenty of barges and a noticeable increase in cruise ships, but on a much more manageable scale. Our perspective seems to have shifted as well: my reaction to seeing the bow of a ninety-metre long barge passing us from behind was “Aww, it’s quite a cute one!”

It isn’t that the Main was without hiccups... There was one lock which we were not able to go into, instead being instructed to take a 12km detour which followed the old Main river. At first, we thought nothing of this. Yes, the flow of the river we were paddling up had increased a little, but it was peaceful, rural and pretty - how fast could it be?

Answer: very fast. A few kilometres further and we were barely moving, despite some ferocious paddling. Just as we joked about it turning into rapids, we looked ahead to see exactly that... As the churning water attempted to thwart us and send us back down the river we had just paddled up, we dissolved into our signature giggle fit. This was hardly conducive to going in the desired direction, yet somehow we managed to paddle another six hundred metres before bailing out onto the first accessible bit of riverbank.

We were greeted by a bemused group of about twenty Germans who had just spent the afternoon canoeing down the river as part of a work summer event. As soon as the girl from the canoe rental company turned up with the minibus and trailer for the canoes, Kate went over and managed to convince her to give both us and Benji a lift back to the main river. It just so happened that this is where the canoe company was based and the girl offered us a grassy patch for our tents for the night. As we were pitching up, the boss from the work group came over to invite us to join their barbeque. Hungry (as always), we happily accepted.

While we were enjoying our food we got talking to a lovely girl called Aimee who very kindly offered to help us sort out some accommodation for the following night when we were due to arrive in her town. Thus, twenty-four hours later we found ourselves sleeping on a sofa-bed in the backstage production office of a rock venue, the seven male members of a touring Brazilian punk rock band our flatmates for the night!

Before we knew it, we had reached the end of the River Main and the start of the Main-Donau Canal. This unfortunately meant the end of our daily swims as the canal did not look clean enough. Instead, at the end of a sweaty eight to ten hour day of paddling in 30°C plus heat, we were forced to crawl into our tents to hide from the horsefly-wasp hybrids that were determined to make us their dinner. Wet-wipes just don’t feel as refreshing as cold water washing over you...

With that exception, there were barely any perceptible change between the river and the canal. The scenery continued to be stunning (with the exception of the concrete walls that towered over us as we passed Nurnberg). There were endless tree-covered hills that disappeared into the distance, castles and monasteries precariously balanced on high rocky outcrops and mornings when the water was so still it perfectly reflected the clouds overhead and pink flowers lining the banks. We also passed Europe’s Continental Divide, the highest point on Earth reachable by water crafts from the sea.

One difference we did observe was the change in the locks. On the Main, the deepest lock was a little under eight metres. On the Main-Donau Canal, however, there are three locks in a row which, at almost twenty-five metres deep, are Germany’s deepest locks, and among the deepest in Europe. Despite the terrifying depth, we were still allowed to kayak into these locks.

On the whole our encounters with locks were uneventful. However, there were two occasions which were verging on traumatising.

There is nothing particularly fun about these locks. Approaching them is akin to approaching the Black Gate in Lord of the Rings as they intimidatingly loom up above the water. Once inside, there is a continuous eery creaking and clanging. To get a better idea, watch this video. On top of that, to fill these larger locks the water comes from the bottom of the concrete tank. The streams of water are so powerful that they create volcano-like eruptions across the surface. We had been lucky to avoid being caught by one of these, until we were in one of the twenty-five metre deep locks.

The water level had gradually risen by a mere few metres when a sudden surge of water hit the bottom of Benji, forcing him away from the wall and ladder which Kate was clinging onto. It came with such force that Kate nearly lost her grip and had to use all of her strength to keep hold of the ladder. Between us, we managed to pull Benji back towards the wall, but the water was rising with such speed that it was flowing into my cockpit. Trying not to panic, I tried to work out the best way to handle capsizing, aware that there was likely a lot of debris below the surface of the churning water, and currents that would undoubtedly try to drag us under.

Just as we both began to feel like we could not keep hold for any longer, the eruption ceased. The lock continued to fill, but in a much more controlled manner. Hands shaking, Kate and I agreed that we had just experienced the most stressful moment of the expedition so far...

Reaching the next lock, we felt slightly nervous to paddle in. This one was “only” eighteen metres deep but proved to also be particularly unpleasant, though not in quite the same life-threatening way. As the lock’s gate lowered closed behind us, we discovered that we were about to spend the next fifteen minutes surrounded by a dozen rotting fish and eels. The smell of these was so horrific that Kate and I proceeded to gag more than we ever have in our lives... It was with huge relief that we left that lock!

Our perseverance over the sixteen days has paid off as yesterday we reached what is possibly the biggest milestone of our expedition: the Danube River. The Danube is the last waterway of our expedition and we will follow it for the remaining 2,400km to the Black Sea, through another nine countries and four capital cities.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day, we have another incredibly exciting announcement: we have somehow managed to reach our original fundraising target of £50,000! As we’ve still got almost two months of the expedition remaining, we’ve decided to raise our fundraising target to £75,000.

To see the video we posted earlier today announcing this, click here, and to sponsor us and help us smash our new target, click here!