Day 42: From Orsova to Drobeta Turnu Severin – 25.4 km – 4 hours 45 minutes – 6,866 paddle strokes – Total kilometres covered: 1,531.2 kmThomas Fiebiger
30/08/2017. It was 1964, Romania and the former Yugoslavia were panting for energy. The task was to transform poor farming countries into exemplary planned economy industrial nations. Nature conservation, the protection of creation? Of secondary importance. In 1972 the Iron Gate 1 Power Plant was finally completed. To do so the Danube had been intensively modified. Villages, streets, and cultural heritage were submerged beneath the waters. The water level was raised by 30 metres. The backlog of the water is tangible as far as Belgrade, 200 kilometres upstream. It is one of the most massive instances of interference with the Danube. The price for this was paid by sturgeons and many other fish. The barriers prevented them from swimming up the Danube to spawn. And this is the dam that Pascal should pass today. But first things first.
Pascal sent a nice evening yesterday with Joan, the husband of the innkeeper, Michaela. They had cooked for him and, after the very warm exchange, Joan pressed a donation into Pascal's hand. Later on his mate Andrusa turned up, a local journalist who wanted to write a short article about Pascal's mission. Very early this morning, about 08:45, Pascal set off – with slight tension evident on his face, as he had to cross the great weir. And he'd already heard one or two horror stories about this.
The beginning of the passage was the last little section of the Iron Gate. He asked me yesterday how Lothar-Günther Buchheim, managed his paddle tour in the Iron Gate with a folding canoe in 1938. Buchheim made it easy for himself, he boarded a steamboat at Belgrade, and avoided the demanding paddling. He had good reason for this: "The high-rising cliffs forced the riverbed to become ever narrower, and the ship took a much-interrupted course from one bank to the other. Although the riverbed is very deep in some places, rocky islets often run across it, reaching up to just below the surface […] Like the ribs of stranded whales, here and there the frames of ships run aground or sunk in the world war stuck out of the water.", writes Buchheim in his travel log Days and Nights Rise Out of the Current (Tage und Nächte stiegen aus dem Strom). Despite the blasts and mitigation already begun in the 19th century, the passageway remained dangerous in the 30s.
After Orsova the Danube suddenly pulls back into a south-easterly direction. From here Pascal could already see the dam in the distance. There are no further narrow channels, the Danube once more acts like a wide shipping lane. Earlier this place was only possible to pass with unloaded ships and at sufficient water level. After the blasts the canal was formed, on which the ships sped along at up to 20 kilometres per hour. The signal stations always allowed only one ship through at a time due to the high speeds, as noted by Buchheim. Above all, towing was particularly energy-consuming at this point, as well as throughout the entire Iron Gate. The Germans built a towing locomotive in the First World War to secure the grain supplies from the Balkans. There was no more trace of a good current for Pascal today due to the building of the dams, quite the contrary, it was instead a painstaking undertaking. The canal once created by the blasts now lies 50 metres beneath the water's surface.
At 945 kilometres he then reached the great dam. What should he do now? He had the many terrible stories in his head. First he fought his way out of the water and five metres up the riverbank. Up above the busy E70 motorway passes by. He couldn't reach this as suddenly a railroad lay ahead of him. And here, for starters, a goods train and a repair train were running past him. And so Pascal simply struck out, keeping to the railroad. He jumped from beam to beam, constantly checking to see if a train was approaching. He even went through a tunnel, which did, however, offer enough space in case of falling. In total he covered a stretch of 1.5 kilometres. The entire time, a pleasure boat was sailing parallel to him, playing loud Austrian music. While Pascal had to fight across rail tracks, there was a party going on on the other side – always nice. Later he was able to walk along a section of the main road, and so pass by the electricity plants. In total he had to walk around 3.5 kilometres with his luggage and the SUP. When he finally arrived back at the riverbank, he first indulged in a little, well-earned break. His summary: you should always listen to what people say. The dam itself is certainly large, but not colossal. And Pascal has, of course, seen one or two other dams. He was relieved and at the end it hadn't been too great a drama for him.
After the dam the river valley slowly opens up. To the East Pascal can already see the flat expanses of Walachia. He continues on his tour, and as if there hadn't been enough excitement, after around five kilometres more there is a whistling from the bushes and three police officers come into view. Pascal was asked to land, he showed them his papers, and once again it was the beer mat that won smiles from the police officers – and so Pascal was able to continue with his tour. Ever more industrial plants and shipyards were coming into view on the riverbank.
At around 13:30 Pascal arrived at his goal for the day, Drobeta Turnu Severin. His first encounter was with a horse and cart. At this point Pascal realised that he had arrived in Romania. In Drobeta Turnu Severin, Pascal enjoyed the Continental Hotel, which lies only 350 metres from the Danube and gave him a brilliant view of the river. As always, he finds it great fun to march into the receptions of upmarket hotels with his SUP – the looks are always, at any rate, in his favour.
The most striking building in Drobeta Turnu Severin is the large water tower in the centre of the town. Drobeta Turnu Severin has a long history behind it. Under the Romans the area became a colony. Later the Romans withdrew and the Dacia and Drobeta regions slowly fell into ruin. In Roman times a very special cultural treasure was born: Trajan's Bridge. It was built by Roman soldiers between 103 and 105 AD in order to logistically prepare for the successful campaign against the Dacians. It was the first permanent bridge on the lower Danube and remained the longest bridge in the world for over a thousand years. To see its span and its arches must have been a fascinating sight. Unfortunately it was destroyed just 165 years later and so only the columns on the riverbanks and the 20 columns under water remain. On a similar note, the Romanian language is a romantic tongue and 75% of its vocabulary is similar to Italian, due to the fact that Rome occupied Dacia at the beginning of the first century AD. Over time in particular Slavic, Greek and, to a lesser extent, also German words have been mixed into the language.
After Pascal had freshened up, he took a taxi to the town centre, which he described as beautiful and, above all, very clean. The taxi driver spoke a little English and so was able to help Pascal with a small shopping tour. In order to be flexible for the next few stages, Pascal needs a tent, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping mat. There was no outdoor shop, and so he first went to a fishing shop, which did not, however, have the desired utensils. Pascal then found everything that he needed in the Dedeman DIY store, a type of Romanian B&Q. He then kitted himself out with a few more necessary provisions from Carrefour – and so the journey onwards no longer presents any obstacles. This gives Pascal the freedom he needs, as, after the short stretches of the last few days, he would like to get back to 40- to 50-kilometre stages, and to do so without relying on accommodation. Among the utensils he also equipped himself with second bag, which from tomorrow will be placed on the back of the SUP and will be his constant companion.
At around 2300 megawatts, the Iron Gate 1 Power Plant is the highest performing power plant on the Danube, in 1972 it was even the biggest hydraulic power station in the world. It is a massive lump of concrete right across the Danube, over a kilometre in length. For the ships there is a two-tier lock system, conquering a height of 32 metres. It is the penultimate dam before the Black Sea. There is only one more: the smaller Iron Gate 2 Power Plant at kilometre 863. And the Pascal will have a free run to the Black Sea.
Tomorrow Pascal plans a stage of around 40 kilometres; let's see how far the SUP carries him. TF