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trip down the Danube

Joseph has just taken on the Danube by kayak and shares his account of his adventures here.
Incredible views, new people, challenges etc. There’s plenty of excitement that’s sure to have you eager to plan your own trip!

The Loire by kayak

“Saturday 3rd July 2021, off we go... I’m setting off for the banks of Budapest. The Hungarian capital, where I set out last July after my first 700 km expedition to test out touring kayaking on the Danube. Last summer I discovered the river, and river touring in Germany, Austria and Hungary. Yet, since the end of that adventure-packed summer, I’ve had another, way more ambitious challenge in my head: navigating from the delta of the Danube (in Sulina, Romania) all the way to the Black Sea. Off we go! Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Romania: here’s the list of countries I’ll navigate through over the coming days. 1700 km to get to the Black Sea. A doable challenge? We’ll see... Let’s go! "

Solo trip down the Danube by kayak: why would I take on this crazy challenge?

"Adventure - this quest for escapism, seeking to push limits, to find freedom and the unpredictable - has always drawn me and been part of me since I was a student. I can still remember my first adventure with friends, when three of us set out to discover Albania!
I’ve always been into sport, and passionate about wild nature, and have always loved to set unique challenges for myself. So, when I discovered a high-performance inflatable (which means easy to transport!) kayak two or three years ago, so many adventures ideas flooded into my head. After my first adventures on foot or bike, alone or in groups, I now had my sights set on kayaking expeditions!
I discovered what travelling meant to me - the journey and the experience count more than the destination. So, kayaking was a new means of travel that suited me perfectly: sporty, adventurous, right out in nature, and a reduced carbon footprint.
Not long after I discovered kayaking, I came across an article about a trip down the Danube (thanks, François) and, all of a sudden, the plan became clear to me: I wanted to take on the second-longest river in Europe (after the Volga in Russia)! Passing through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine. This river was perfect for my kayaking adventure! I completed the first leg last year (700 km) and I couldn’t wait to come back for another adventure.
Going solo for this trip allows me to clear my head, test my limits and surpass them, to enjoy some tranquillity and to manage my days in my own way. You’ve just got yourself to count on! I’ve got goosebumps just writing about it."

What preparation and organisation is needed for a 1700 km kayaking adventure?

"Living on the move for several days at a time has never been a particular issue for me. I packed three waterproof bags (40 litres, 30 litres, and 5 litres) with my tent and duvet, some clothes, my camera, and some cooking equipment. As for food, I stocked up every 4-5 days in the villages on the banks of the Danube. For water, I tried to fill my canisters whenever possible, because in the sun and 40° C heat, my reserves were quickly depleted. My experiences on foot and bike had prepared me well for this!
As for the itinerary, there was nothing in particular to prepare. I did my research on river signage and the hydroelectric dams that I’d encounter on my way. I hadn’t planned any stage in particular. I’d gotten used to not preparing my excursions, so that I could let myself be surprised by the adventure. Anyway, it’s pretty easy to find a spot to pitch a tent on the banks of the Danube.
Sporty from a young age, I’ve always been comfortable in a kayak, but a 1700 km solo trip isn’t something to improvise, and there’s no room for error. My first kayaking trip taught me how to correctly handle navigation (700 km from Germany to Hungary) and this year, I succeeded in properly training: I was able to practice kayaking and I prepared myself physically for the adventure that awaited me. I must have covered over 1000 km in this kayak before taking on this intense, 25-day trip. In theory, I was ready, but in all honesty, I didn’t know if it would be enough to get me through such a huge challenge. I took it on without really knowing whether I would succeed... but I wanted to give it a go!
Before I set off, I set myself the target of covering 50 km each day. In the end, I covered more like 65-75 km per day. My progress really depended on the weather and the river. Sometimes, I could cover 30 km in less than 2h15, and sometimes I could battle for 4 hours to cover 20 km, going into the wind and losing my hat!"

And the views?

"Each stroke of the paddle and each kilometre covered revealed new landscapes and incredible views. The Danube took me through large cities, swamps, villages, forests with huge trees, ports, sandy and pebbled beaches, canals, almost desert-like riverbanks, narrow segments and segments so wide you’d think you were out at sea... until I reached the Black Sea. A different view every day was a great source of motivation! What’s really amazing is that I lived by the water, but also by the daylight. I was able to paddle with a rising sun and a setting sun, which was magical. I’ll always remember the sight of the Golubac Fortress illuminated by the very first rays of sunlight at 6 a.m.
After Budapest, the Danube is really wilder than it is upstream. There’s almost no river tourism and signs of human life become increasingly rare. You feel so much more alone, but then there are the thousands of birds (herons, gulls, ducks, pelicans, ernes and other species that I don't even know the name of), fish and animals (deer, wild dogs, wild boar, sheep, cows, etc.) who populate the river’s edges. However, on the less pleasant end of the spectrum are the passages through industrial ports and plastic pollution which increases as you go down the river. Plastic waste can be seen along the Danube, and it gathers on certain beaches, and it’s certainly a sad sight."

So, what does a day of kayaking on the Danube look like?

"Each day, I had the same routine (I was used to it!) I would wake up, make a breakfast with as many calories as possible, pack up my tent and my things into two big, waterproof bags, before getting started with the day’s action. I’d put a bag in the rear storage unit of my kayak and strap the other to the top. I’d keep some important things in the small, accessible bag in front of me (phone, camera, wallets, snacks) to avoid having to unpack everything at each break, and I’d attach my solar panel onto the bag behind me. Once sat in the kayak, it would be go time. My body would wake up gradually as I paddled, and any aches or stiff muscles would ease off. The landscape would pass by over the day until evening, when I’d find a nice spot to eat and spend the night.
Generally, I’d have three breaks per day: two short breaks one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon, and a lunch break at noon. That said, the programme wasn't strict, so nothing stopped me from taking a nap on a deserted little beach, in the shade of a rock, or from going for a swim to cool off! I’d always try to find nice spot to enjoy my breaks, whilst making sure to find shade and to avoid mosquito-infested areas!"

What did you find in this adventure?

"Despite the difficulty, I loved and savoured each of my days. This feeling of escapism and freedom, and this impression of gliding over the water will definitely stick with me! These memories will last forever, that’s for sure. For me, the most incredible moment wasn’t necessarily my arrival at the “finish line”. I was so proud to have made it to Sulina, but the feelings I experienced over the journey were stronger, particularly at the beginning and end of the adventure. There was a huge satisfaction in reaching my goal, to set foot on land after 1700 km in the kayak, but the feeling of setting out on an adventure and telling yourself that the you’re nearly at the end goal is simply magical! As I neared the end of my adventure, I was increasingly driven by this desire and this motivation to conquer the challenge I had set for myself! It became more and more real, step by step! You could feel like you were getting drunk on it. The last days and the final kilometres were crazy! You say to yourself, “Damn, I’m nearly there!! I’m going to make it!"
Of course, 25 consecutive days of kayaking at such a pace hadn’t been all fun and games. At the beginning of the adventure, I was driven mad by blistered hands and mosquito bites. At the end of the adventure, it was my back muscles and hand joints that were suffering. Physical fatigue set in very quickly, despite my preparation. There were days when I would wake up or go to sleep completely broken, and I don’t talk about the moments when I wondered what the hell I was doing, alone in my kayak in the middle of Romania with nothing but rice and tomato sauce for the next two days! I just had to grit my teeth and get on with it, hoping that the wind didn't pick up. That was also what I was looking for in this adventure - a real physical and mental challenge.
Plus, I often doubted my ability to complete the trip, right to the very end. When you look at your GPS after paddling for three hours straight, and you’ve only covered half of your aim for the morning. That really dampens your spirits! Yet, despite the fatigue, you carry on. There you are, alone on the Danube, appreciating the calm and the views, thinking about everything and nothing, enjoying the present moment whilst pushing yourself towards the end of the day and the end of the journey."

Did you encounter any difficulties?

"The Danube is a relatively calm river, so there were no real difficulties. The main difficulty was largely physical, because you can’t just rely on the current to carry you, as it’s often non-existent. Nevertheless, you need to be careful at dams and passing by large boats, particularly in the Sulina Canal! With the wind, you can’t necessarily hear them coming, and you want to get out of their way quickly! At the beginning, the waves made by passing boats can quickly take you by surprise, but soon I came to use them to have fun, when the calm flatness of the Danube could get pretty boring!
Even so, I was still taken by surprise a few times and got caught up in extremely strong currents after heavy rainfall overnight. The weather could completely change the river overnight, so you need to be vigilant. The same applies to heat and wind, which can make progressing along the river difficult. You need to keep an eye on them. I can’t really complain about the weather, though, as it only rained at night. I only had one rainy morning out of 25 days."

Solo trip down the Danube

"Here I am, a week after I set foot on land in Sulina to bring this 1700 km adventure to a close, and I’m still on cloud nine, proud to have succeeded in reaching my ambitious goal; still in awe of the rich landscapes which passed before my eyes; and filled with this feeling of adventure and freedom. So, for any lovers of touring adventures, I’d say don’t hesitate to take a trip down the Danube!
Now, it’s time for me to rest up before taking on more adventures."
Joseph Gandrieau, 26, PE teacher and PHD student at the University of Lille.