Black Sea or Bust 2017
Conditions were good when our small group launched our paddleboards onto the water just upriver from the Houses of Parliament. The outgoing tide that would carry us through London was strong, so we enjoyed fair progress without hard work, and we were not being rained upon. A different group of paddlers escorted me from Greenwich through the Barrier the next day, and on the third I was alone: just me, the board and all the gear I would need for my Big Ben to Black Sea odyssey.
The route along the Swale and English coastline was a joy, albeit with slow progress when faced with oncoming tides, which I mostly took as an excuse to lie on a beach and rest for a while. I tended to paddle further out from shore than my mother would have approved of, and I felt a pang of guilt at the thought of her seeing my tracking device pinging my location from somewhere out in the Channel. It was in the best interests of progress that I avoided the surf and the higher waves that came with the shallows. The direction of the tide was confused around the headlands, slowing or speeding up progress in a way I could not necessarily predict from maps and tide tables. Each day, before getting onto the water in the morning, and shortly after leaving it at night, I telephoned the coastguard as a courtesy to give updates on my location. It seemed correct that they should know about the paddleboarder on their stretch of water, and that all was well.
Without wanting to get too gushy, the coastal section of this trip was a real highlight. Harry from the London Kayak Company welcomed me with a beer and pizza to Herne Bay, and strangers offered me food and assistance along my camps before Folkestone. The coastline is such a beautiful, peaceful, lovely place to be. Curious seals would often watch me from the water as I passed, and one followed me along for a while, presumably wanting to make sense of this bizarre creature paddling along. The weather was extremely favourable, with calm winds and scarcely a drop of rain, right up until I arrived in Folkestone. There I had to endure a ten-day wait before being permitted to cross the Channel.
The crossing itself was wondrous. I was joined by fellow-paddler and friend, Michelle, whose calm and positivity made her the best companion. It was slow progress to France, with tides carrying us south and the necessary dodging of ships on the English half. We had to be carried across the French section by the support boat, as the French identify kayaks and paddleboards as beach pleasure craft, not permitted into their lane.
The French coast to Calais was great fun, as big waves and surf twice dumped me into the water as I attempted to descend into a more stable, kneeling position. An overloaded boat of young French men, each armed with fishing rods, came out to chat with me that afternoon, and wished me well on my journey. From Calais I joined the thin canals through the countryside of northern France, and it was serene and sweet and beautiful. At one of the many locks I was forbidden from getting back into the water, and a tense evening followed, before I was ultimately rescued by a friend from Watertrek, who confirmed with the lock operator that no regulation existed to block my progress and I was free to continue. Time had been lost but I had made friends with two local French girls, who visited me the next morning and brought me coffee and breakfast.
I had all but reached Belgium before a disappointing reality caused pause and a re-evaluation of the plan. The locks were far from paddler-friendly, many with no clear exit or entry points, and progress between those points being blocked or meandering. At some it took over an hour and a half to shift my gear along, sometimes necessitating a scramble up a bank of nettles, a walk of over a kilometre, and time lost seeking-out points to safely drop back down onto the water. I had hundreds of kilometres ahead in France, with a lock on average every ten kilometres, reducing my enjoyment and adding days of hiking to this part of the trip.
I sat down heavily at the side of the canal, frustrated and irritated with it all. I did the maths on the back of my eyelids, calculating how far I was behind schedule, and what those predictably slow kilometres ahead would do to my chances of reaching the Black Sea on time. I was confident I could compensate to some extent on the Danube, where the flow would be the right way and I only had locks to face through the first section. The problem was that I simply did not have enough days to make it, if progress continued at the current rate. What with a delayed start, the ten-day wait in Folkestone, and a job accepted and required to start at the end, the time I had in mind when I came up with the expedition had been squeezed from both ends and then delayed in the middle. I had to think of something.
A few Facebook Messenger texts later and a good friend had come to my rescue, loaning me a superb Sonder Bike. I would have to wait five days before it arrived, and, not knowing how far I might get and whether uncharitable lock operators might give me more bother later, I decided to stay put. I worked out a route that would take me across Germany, avoiding hundreds of kilometres of canals that I would otherwise need to get me upriver on the Rhine. Unable to afford three hundred euros for a proper bike trailer, I spent forty euros on a sack trolley, some metal rods, cord and gaffa tape, and produced something that would be sufficient to carry my 50-60kg of equipment across Germany.
The bike and trailer did the job. The bike was actually fantastic, although somewhat restrained by the improvised, heavy trailer. A flat trailer tyre saw a friend from Frankfurt come out to drive the kit on ahead, allowing me to experience the bike unleashed for the first time. Along the tarmac pavements and the riverside paths of dirt and gravel I absolutely flew along. By the time I reached Frankfurt, Daryl had changed the punctured inner tube and I was good to go.
A luxury of the bike was the new way to experience the villages and towns, including the many medieval villages in the Rhine valley. Finding somewhere for a morning coffee fast became a ritual, and in the searing heat of a European heatwave I was making the most of opportunities for cool drinks in the afternoon, and well-earned rests in the shade. On a couple of occasions, I arrived in a town in time for a festival of some kind, typically offering live music, beer and food. The bike tour added an excellent new element to the trip, making it hard to regret the temporary switch from SUP to cycle.
I passed Kilheim, at the confluence of the Main and Danube rivers, and continued on to Passau, where I was able to post the bike back and get the board onto the river. The improvised trailer now became improvised board wheels to portage the many locks I had ahead. Three rivers meet in Passau, and the combined flow whisked me out of Germany and into Austria. The Austrian section was the most stunning of the whole Danube, with a comparatively narrow river hemmed-in by the steep sides of tree-covered gorges. It was only powerful headwinds that stymied my progress, but progress was always made here nonetheless. I spent a night in Bratislava, as I felt a need to wander this city I had never seen before, and because the welcomes I received as I paddled close to the riverbank were so warm and encouraging. Indeed, friends were made that evening, as I sat up by the fortress overlooking the Danube and waiting for the sun to set.
I was welcomed into Hungary by a mean-minded, angry policeman, who forced me off the river and told me SUP was against regulations. This necessitated a 50-km hike to the southern end of Budapest, from where I had been informed the river police were far more SUP-friendly, and, indeed, more friendly in general.
Before leaving Hungary for Serbia, I made friends with a couple of young paddlers, and we camped together, sharing a liqueur I might have easily mistaken to be window cleaner, and standing by a fire that raged massively before us. I was proud of that fire, but we had to abandon it and retreat to our respective tents when a storm threatened us with a drenching. Friendships helped to mark what this journey was about, and I had to turn-down the vast majority of offers of beer and rakia in Serbia, for fear of never covering any distance at all. I was welcomed into Novi Sad by Sanja and the captain of the local canoeing club, and we drank rakia and beer, and had a delicious fish soup for dinner. I breakfasted with Sanja the next day, before she got to grips with stand-up paddleboarding, and I paddled about in a canoe for the first time in about two decades.
Camping at the riverside was always a joy, and many evenings I would build a fire to help keep the mosquitoes at bay. Sometimes I camped with fishermen, but mostly alone. On two nights I was visited by wild boars, and on many nights it was the howls of jackals that sent me to sleep. My nights were long but I was always fatigued. I could not have slept more, but the long days of paddling took their toll, as I felt permanently tired and had overuse injuries in my left foot, both elbows and all my fingers. My hands were good for gripping the paddle, but nothing requiring greater dexterity, and I would often wake with them like claws, unable to make a fist until the evening if I was fortunate. Somehow I kept all these issues at bay and more serious injuries never developed.
I stayed in Belgrade for a few days, to enjoy the city where I had lived for the previous three years. The Austrian paddlers caught up with me there, and my birthday was spent giving them a tour before heading to the Dogma brewery in the evening, owned and operated by friends from my days of living in the city. I saw old friends, including local ultra-running legend, Jovica, and was then on my way.
Heavy winds before canyons plunged my progress into the abyss, with my best 60-75-km days being a distant memory, and even the more average 55-km days becoming the stuff of dreams. I was forced onto an island between Serbia and Romania, with the next day seeing a meagre 6-km of poor but exhausting progress, then 25-km, and then a near-disastrous 4-km. These were my toughest days of paddling, and on the latter the Romanian police came into Serbian waters to invite me to take a ride to their shore. Although I refused the help, I did take the hint, and sought refuge for a couple of hours before pushing on a few more hundreds of metres. It was crushing to be so exhausted making such little distance each hour and each day.
It was during those times that I would reflect upon the less-well-thought-out comments people had made whilst trying to be supportive, like commending me on slow progress because they imagined I was taking it easy, or commenting on how effortless it was to paddle with a board full of gear. Mostly effortless with a strong flow and a superb tailwind, I accept, but in strong headwinds or crosswinds, or where there is not good flow, the burden of all the equipment makes what would ordinarily be difficult progress almost, or actually, impossible.
A threatening storm showed itself on my last night in Serbia, where brothers Darko and Sladije welcomed me onto their patch of beach and gave me a beer. In the morning, it was a breakfast of coffee and rakia, before I headed off into Bulgaria. That night it was the kayaking club of Vidin who gave me shelter, as well as whisky and beer that night, and with whom I enjoyed breakfast the next day. The warm welcomes, the easy-going, friendly atmosphere, and the sweet generosity of strangers, now friends, were what defined so much of this journey.
By the time I had arrived in Vidin I had developed infections in both feet. These had been caused by cuts and abrasions to the skin, into which some unfriendly bacteria had now set up home and started to proliferate. During the days my feet felt as though they were as strong as wet paper, with any surface damaging the skin and causing soreness and discomfort. At night my feet burned, as my body attempted to fight the infection, and I experienced a horrid pain that kept me from sleep for hours each night. In Vidin, one of my new friends, Tony, escorted me to a pharmacy and we left with something to help treat it. Although this worked whilst my feet were dry, in bad weather my feet were wet all day, and my health regressed. When I attempted to paddle for long days, the damage became worse.
Tony had joined up with an international tour of the Danube further along, where some 160 kayakers were making progress from Ingolstadt to the Black Sea. He saw my feet and we agreed I needed to leave the river. I continued to Silistra, at the border with Romania, and deflated the board there. It would have taken about a week to complete the remaining 375 kilometres to the Black Sea via the Danube, but days in discomfort and nights in pain, with an infection worsening, was not the way to continue. Aside from the risks of allowing an infection to rage unhindered, the discomfort was beginning to take from the expedition more than I was getting out of it at this point. There had to be a better way to finish.
I visited a medical centre and managed to get a better treatment. The staff at my hotel helped to coordinate getting a rental bike posted to me from Varna on the Black Sea coast. After a couple of nights in Silistra I left, abandoning my luggage in the hotel for a couple of days, as I cycled the 145-km to the Black Sea, and a satisfying end to the expedition.
A bus journey reunited me with my luggage the next day, and that evening I took the paddleboard out on the sea for about an hour, bouncing across big waves following a day of stormy weather. It was a sweet ending to a fantastic journey, and I was soon reflecting on how this was easily one of the best journeys I have ever attempted, even if I had had to improvise and adapt outside of the original plan and scope.
The journey suffered through its low moments, which were mostly the horrendous and sickening levels of plastic pollution I had seen from Hungary onwards, and worst of all in Serbia. The overuse injuries had never developed into anything more serious, and the foot infection was now apparently under control. I would not miss the discomfort that had brought. The weather had rarely been unkind for long. The daytime temperature probably averaged a little over 30 degrees Celsius, hardly dipping below 20, even with big storms, and many days in Serbia were above 40. Rainfall was rare, although challenging headwinds and crosswinds were very common and a barrier to easy progress. This was not intended to be a real endurance challenge, yet the vast majority of days on SUP involved ultra-marathon distances, with only six days on the Danube below a marathon. I am satisfied with that.
I would love to paddle the Austrian section again, in particular, although I would quite happily do the whole expedition again, such a wonderful experience that it was. Overall, it is the generosity of the people I met during the journey that sticks in my mind. These were people who wanted nothing more than to experience a little bit of the journey with me, sometimes not even able to communicate well because of language barriers, but who nevertheless helped me and showed selfless generosity towards this stranger travelling along their river. There were too many people to name them all in the above, but it gives some impression of what it was like. The journey had all the ingredients of a serious and engaging expedition, complete with the predictable hardships and challenges, but it was so very engaging because of the familiar cultures, history and heritage of the places experienced, and the wonderful friendships and kindnesses enjoyed along the way.
This expedition was made possible thanks to sponsors, supporters, beers cans, cord, gaffa tape and stubbornness. Huge thanks to everyone who supported this journey, whether in person along the way, or via social media from home.
This expedition was completed to help raise awareness of the following organisations and causes: