For years we have been reading adventure books enthusiastically and dreaming of going on a big trip ourselves one day. We thought it should be possible to paddle round Europe in two folding kayaks. However, there is a big step between idea and realization with many ifs and buts. Yet, ignoring our friends’ and relatives’ scepticism we ventured the step towards uncertainty.
And we made it: down the Danube through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria until out of the Black Sea. Along the coast of the Black Sea as far as Istanbul, through the Bosporus into the Sea of Marmara. Past the Dardanelles into the Aegean Sea until Bodrum. Across the twelve isles of Kyklandes of the Aegean Sea to Athens. Through the Corinth Canal. Past the twelve Greek isles in the Ionian Sea as far as Southern Italian. Along the Italian boot into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Across the Ligurian Sea to Monaco and farther to France into the Gulf of Lion. Towards the Spanish Costa Brava, Costa Blanca on the Balearic Sea to the Costa del Sol as far as Gibraltar. On the Atlantic Ocean towards Portugal to the Cape Finisterre. Further ahead through the canals in France, Belgium, the Netherlands. Thus we reached our aim Hamburg on October 10th, 2005. The journey took us 1990 days altogether, and the distance covered 12, 075 km.
However, back to the beginning: as we could not get the idea of paddling round Europe out of our minds, we started to work on its realisation. We began looking for sponsors, cancelled our insurance’s and applied for visas. When planning, there were a lot to think about: what kind of boat, what kind of equipment for summer and winter should we take with us. How can everything be stowed? We spent weeks putting together packing lists considering the weight and room each single item would need. Finally, our pair-folding kayaks “Aerius Quattro Expedition” were loaded with 120 kg each – and pretty heavy. We actually started from the Danube in Ulm on May 1st, 2000. It was overwhelming to know, that we were about to leave all the daily luxury, which is said to be indispensable, behind us. It took us some weeks until we realised what it means to have time on our hands. Within the first few weeks on the Danube we gave away more and more pieces of equipment, which we thought to be indispensable so far: e. g. countless articles of clothing or the many waterproof tins with spices – they took so much room and we soon restricted to salt and pepper for cooking.
The many kilometres on the Danube were a good training for the Black Sea. We could hardly get some exercise at home, as we were busy in our jobs shortly before we set off. As far as Vienna we counted 30 locks. The steady waiting there is nerve-racking. Especially, when older people tell us of the former blue Danube with its current and sand and river banks. Hungary was more fascinating with its many sandy islands, on which you can spend the night undisturbed. As the Danube is still mined in Serbia and destroyed bridges make it impossible to pass, we did not try to get a visa for Serbia.
Thus a Hungarian took us round Serbia in his van. In Calafat, the first town in Romania, we put our boats into the water again. That is, we wanted to, but policemen suspected us of spying and were about to arrest us. However, we wanted to leave our boats and the complete equipment by no means. After 30 minutes fussing about, we found ourselves surrounded by about twenty people wanting to look at and touch everything. If we had gone to the police station for questioning, all our belonging would probably have gone, too. So, Franziska alone was taken to the police station, where she had to answer quite unreasonable questions. Two hours later she returned. Someone speaking English could be found and thus Franziska was able to deny the accusation of espionage. They accepted our visas. In the meantime, Rainer staying at the boats with all those Romanians had to remain at least as cool as Franziska. They seemed to have thousand hands. The people there are really poor. We occasionally had problems with the food supply ourselves. Sometimes there was no other way than to do some food shopping on the Bulgarian side, which was forbidden. When we ran out of food or shopping was impossible because of a storm, we were glad to have our expedition-rations of the brand “Reiter Travellunch”. After two and a half months and 2,585 km we got to the Black Sea. The first days it lay calm and still in front us. Paddling was great fun. But some time later we went through heavy storms, partly with waves of two metres height. And than it happened: during a sailing-manoeuvre Rainer capsized in his boat. It took us nearly two hours to ladle out the water, so that new breaker could not fill it again. We were just crossing a large bay, so we were 2 km off land. We were fighting for three hours to reach the coast. At another time we nearly risked our boats and perhaps even our lives at the endless wall of the industry harbour in Constanta. The next time a heavy storm threatened us to smash us against the interlocked, triangle concrete piles, which were some metres high. Another situation that we will never forget was the transportation of our boats on a lorry out of a military prohibited zone in Romania, which was not on our map. Completely unsuspecting, we were about to put up our tents for the night when suddenly policemen and soldiers were holding their pistols to our heads. On the evening of the fifth day of our (illegal) stay in Bulgaria we went ashore at a former Club Med Hotel. At once we were the subject of discussion. We were invited to dinner and we were talking with Russian generals and rich businessmen from the Eastern bloc who met there to do some business and make connections. All the arsenal was guarded, and some of those people had their own bodyguards with them. And we were right in the middle of that apparent mafia-group. Nevertheless, wherever we were, we used to meet people who warned us against everything that might happen and tried to fill us with fear. Mostly, those were people who had not yet travelled much themselves, but they did know tremendously lot by hearsay. Of course, there are areas where you have to be more careful. However, the longer we were travelling, the more we got some kind of intuition for such situations.
In September 2000, we reached Istanbul, the city of thousand faces, in which antiquity mingles with modern times. It was there where we met the Austrian writer Robert Gratzer, who said about us, “They are still there – the great adventures. It is not important whether GEO or National Geographic use these adventures commercially and send some adventurers round the world: The great adventures are in your head and mind, as Andre Heller said it. The Greek did not know where the Danube has its source; they thought it to be in Istria and thus they called the river “Istria”. In 1780 the British did not know the course of the Niger River, and therefore they used up whole ship`s crews to find it out, but did not succeed. And they used up even more ship`s crews to find out where there is the Northwest-passage in Labrador. Although hundreds of men died and yet there is no such passage. I know some people who have started the rather dangerous adventure of paddle on the Danube in a canoe. Most of them gave up at the dams which are set up for electricity supply, others at the former Soviet borders. Then I know others who have lost their bearings in the Danube delta and fled to the next village and station in order to get away from that boundless country. And now I get to know those two people – a man from Franconia and a woman from Carinthia – they seem to manage it: they are paddling in two folding kayaks round Europe. From Ulm to Hamburg, and it takes them five years …”
What we especially liked about Istanbul was the people’s hospitality, which we got to know everywhere. After all: Where else if not in Turkey can you be welcomed with a bunch of flowers and a great party in the evening in our honour? That party, which was given by the village Turgutreis (near Bodrum) meant for us saying goodbye to the Turkish land. After eight month of paddling in Turkey, we left the country on April 20th, 2001. Two big ships of the border patrol and many fishing boats, along with the mayor and the municipal council accompanied us into international waters where we were already welcomed by the mayor of Kos, also with the municipal council, the press and media. All of us got on the huge ferry which were especially hired for that action, which should support international understanding. With a Turkish folk dance group we celebrated our farewell from Turkey and arrival in Greece. The place where we camped in the evenings depended on how far wind and waves let us got ahead. We liked the fishing ports in Turkey.
We were always surrounded by people and they soon involved us in the village life. We often spent many hours in the houses of the fishermen in front of a cosy fireside. We were playing Backgammon while the fishermen were mending their nets. When we set off in stormy sea, the villagers tried to prevent us from doing so. They did not really trust the small nutshells of cotton. The twelve isles of Kyklandes were a real challenge on our way to Athens. Not only because of the stormy Aegean Sea but also because of the distances. Some of those we could not reach within one day of paddling. That meant for us to paddle through one day and one night before getting on ground again. That was extremely exhausting and a real challenge. We did not have a lighting (only GPS) and thus there was the steady danger of being run over by fishing boats, fast ferries and big container ships. On our way through the Mediterranean Sea, Rainer suffers from a painful slipped disc in Taranto. Roberto, the owner of a restaurant and the small docks, helped us by taking Rainer to Rome for an emergency operation and putting us up afterwards. We could not continue our journey till one month of regular rehabilitation exercises.
The way through the Strait of Messina was tough. Especially the strong current and the “Kreuzsee” caused us trouble. In contrast, we really enjoyed the rocky coast of Amalfi and Sorrento with its many small bays, which can only be reached on water. Whenever it was possible we paddled to harbours to fill up our food- and water supplies. Whatever luxury(harbour) we were coming to, people always welcomed us warmly and enthusiastically. There were days when the sea lay like a mirror in front of us, such as it could not touch a hair on one`s head. And just the other day it could change into a frightening washhouse. No one can say that he knows the sea, no matter how long he has been travelling on it. Shortly before the French border to Spain in St. Cyprien Rainer gets again problems with his disk he was operated on. So he went back to Rome by bus to get another treatment. In the meantime Franziska provided us with new boatskins. The old ones got more and more chapped because of the sun and the salt water – above all at the point between the rubber and the cotton. Thank to our sponsor Klepper everything went down well. All in all we were very satisfied with our boats. All the years the wooden frame survived well in the sea with all its breakers. According to the use we had to renew the sails, as they got porous from the sun and the salt water. We are very glad that our sponsors always supplied us with new material whenever we needed it.
Repeatedly, sailors warned us not to paddle round the notorious “Rock of Apes” Gibraltar. We were told the most horrible stories. Of course, it can be rough in the entrance to the strait of Gibraltar. We also had to struggle with light “Kreuzsee” that threw us back and forth. The moon was already standing high above us when we docked after the first long harbour-wall of Gibraltar at a wooden pier. Completely ignorant, we were standing on that pier, on which normally the nuclear submarines and warships moor – an absolute prohibited zone. Some minutes later a speedboat from the British military appeared in the darkness. They located us on the video-monitoring. The soldiers were surprised as they did not see us coming. As they were getting some terrorist-warnings for cruise liners in recent times, they were very cautious. We soon cleared up everything and the situation got more relaxed. However, they could not let us stay. We were also not allowed to paddle further to the marina without navigation lights. Thus, the military organized two boats which escorted us to the customs. They almost put our mascot, an Italian duck-lady called Enza,
who had been travelling with us on the boat for one and a half year, in quarantine. Yet, the officers did not exactly know the rules for ducks … Finally they forbid us to tell about the duck in Gibraltar TV and the newspaper, because she was there illegal. After four days of recovering and visiting Gibraltar, the sea calmed, so that we could cross the bay of Algeciras. There was busy traffic of huge tankers and catamarans, which were on their way to Africa.
There was always the danger that we could not be seen. In February 2004 we reached Tarifa, a small town on the southernmost part of the European continent. On the 1,505th day of our journey we had again reason for delight: we managed to paddle round Cape Sao Vicente in Portugal (also known as the End of the World). On the rock, which is 42 meters high, there is a lighthouse with the strongest light of Europe, which we were told later. The west coast of Portugal with its steep coast seems spooky. The forms of the rocks are bizarre, sometimes rising from the sea like sharp nails. They seem to be invincible guards of the country. We had great respect and for many days we were even scared on our way on the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Finisterre. There Rainer`s disc causes pain again. From the harbour of Porto Sin we went to Santiago de Compostela to visit some doctors. They wanted to operate on Rainer in the conventional way by implanting him titanium. On the internet we found the ALPHA hospital in Munich, where they were prepared to operate on Rainer in a new, endoscopic way free of charge. Thus he flew to Munich and we interrupted our tour over Christmas. After the operation we gave us few weeks for recovery. After Rainer’s third operation we decided to paddle home on inland waters.
Rainer Ulm wrote an essay reflecting the disappointment of having to break off paddling on the Atlantic Ocean: You gave us only one year on you – from Gibraltar to Cape Finisterre. You stayed rough and wild as on the first day of Creation. The rugged and torn steep coast is a silent relic of your power. One year full of fears and frightening - how often did you spit us out onto your beaches like rubbish which YOU did not want to have on you! One can feel your derisive laughter behind your surging waves and breakers. How often we were a plaything of your power in our folding kayaks. We still hear the groaning and moaning of the wooden frames of our kayaks – as well as of our bones – when we were heading the shore on your large rolling waves. Yes, you really frightened us to death. How can we offer resistance to your elemental force: a few muscles – what can they bring about? If there had not been the many people who welcomed us warmly, because they knew that you sent us away uncaring, we would have been discouraged and despaired long before. No, you never loved us – thus we are standing at Cape Finisterre and are looking at you for the last time shaking our heads. How could we have been that arrogant believing to be able conquering you. No, we did not make it, but you made us give up all our illusions. We submit ourselves to your power – this realization comes late, but thank God before it is too late. We were spared a disaster on the sea. Respectfully we greet you and say good bye!
Unfortunately, the next canals are only in France, so we got our things packed. A Frenchman, who we got to know on our way, gave us a lift with his trailer. Paddling on the canals is really relaxing, completely without any fears. We liked the way from Lyon to Paris. Then we got some problems on the Seine. In Paris there is no thoroughfare! You have to have a permission, but we do not get easily discouraged. As we were so shortly before the Eiffel Tower, we wanted to paddle past it. Then we got some help from a ZDF-team, who accompanied us through Paris for a report. Across the very dirty canal we reached the yacht club B.R.Y.C. in Brussels. Exactly in time, as on the next day they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the launching. We were invited to the party, where we got to know the Belgian Secretary of State Brigitte Growels and the Chairman of the EVP-fraction in the European Parliament Prof. Dr. Hans-Gert Poettering. Of course, we accepted the invitation to give a slide-show of our journey in the European Parliament. It was also a special honour for us when we got two very personal letters from two members of the European Commission Günter Verheugen (Germany) and Ferrero-Waldner (Austria).
We reached the Netherlands in September. Our first stop was Willemstad, which is really worth seeing, and then we went on to Dordrecht. The Dutch are really nice and hospitable people. We paddled across the Meuse River to Rotterdam and then we went into the Schie-Kanal to Delft and further to The Hague. In Scheveningen we enjoyed meeting again the Van der Kooy family, who we got to know in Portugal. We are glad to launch a good thing for charity also in the Netherlands. The van der Kooy company sponsored € 10,-- for each 80 miles on sea from Belgian to Scheveningen. Thus, € 800,-- go to a home for children. We did a short excursion to Leiden and we got to the Sail 2005 in Amsterdam in time. Inspite of the loads of people and boats we experienced hospitality in Sixhaven. The Sail-Management invited us to the news conference. We crossed the marginal seas and via Meppel we came to Groningen. On 13th September 2005 we reached our last canal lock on the Belgian side, Termuterziel. In front of us, there was the Ems-Dollart-region. On the 1960th day we reached Germany: Emden in East Frisia. The harbour master granted us accommodation in the yacht club of Emden. Thus, our worries about where to stay overnight in our tent was groundless. From there we paddled on the side-canal of Oldersum. Our French drake, called Filou, which we adopted shortly before Paris, did justice to his name and fell in love with a duck-girl from East Frisia. After four months of being with us he left to start a family. So, whoever happens to meet a drake in Oldersum, who speaks “Platt” with a French accent, should be so kind to give our regards to him! We paddled across the Hunte into the Weser and found beautiful sandy beaches and some isolated spots. We were able to get well forward with the current to Bremerhaven and reach the Elbe-Weser-canal. In Bad Bederkesa we stopped; it’s a beautiful spa town with a wonderful lake. At the spa we were invited to the moorbath with sauna and massage. For two days we were enjoying the luxury of a hotel. In Otterndorf, people also waited for us already. We registered in the Golden book. We reached our final destination Hamburg on October 14th, 2005 at 12 a.m. in the inner Alster, Reesendamm on the Rathausmarkt. On the occasion of our arrival we were given an enthusiastic reception. We were welcomed by the Senate of Hamburg, the Deutschen Sportbund (DSB) and the DKV. So our extraordinary adventure was over. We could go on reporting for many pages. Who wants to read more after this extracts from our logbook must be a little patient: our book about our paddling round Europe in folding kayaks will come out in few months. We are looking forward to every contact at www.ulmoutdoor.de