Events from this post happened on Thursday the 27th of June, 2019. We paddled our magnificent inflatable canoe Zucchini from a town called Vilshofen an der Donau to Passau. Passau is the big city at the confluence of the Danube + Inn + Ilz rivers. It’s also the last major stop before the Danube flows into Austria.
Our Stay in Vilshofen an der Donau
Vilshofen an der Donau is an incredibly sweet little town. Its city center is well-maintained and the dining scene quite lively. On the evening of our arrival, we ate burgers in one of these hip burger places that are new to Germany. The next evening we ate Indian food at a fairly new business. We slept at the restaurant that also has rooms Gasthof Wolferstetter Bräustüberl.
On our off day, we tried to move our own projects forward. The hotel owner had warned us that the hotel didn’t really have great WiFi, but they’d tried to put us in the room with the best signal. Over the last weeks, we’ve had more trouble with the German internet than usual. My ASUS laptop somehow seems to nuke the internet for all other devices when connected to the internet, and it generally doesn’t download anything. So I did most of my things offline, hoping that in Passau my laptop would see better days.
These two-night stays are quite tough; we unpack everything for a minimum stay and need to pack it all up the night before. Most hotels here don’t have a fridge in the room. This means that we either have to buy paddle food that does well at room temperature or get creative. The forecast for Thursday said it would go up to a cruel 33°C, which meant we’d want to start paddling as early as possible.
Our recent insight that we could buy cold coffee instead of forgoing coffee completely meant that we had to do some shopping on Wednesday afternoon. We went to a supermarket called Penny, which is rapidly becoming my favorite German supermarket closely followed by Aldi. Our plan was to get baked goods which would survive overnight and then two cold coffees that we’d keep cool in our room’s sink. Gotta get nifty.
Leaving Vilshofen for Passau
The next morning, we woke up before our alarms at 5:50. It’s tough to wake up that early, but we know by now that it’s worth the sacrifice to get paddling before the heat strikes and the shadow disappears. We drank our cold coffees, got dressed, slapped on sunscreen, brushed teeth, and finished packing our things. We left the hotel at 6:45 and walked the 400 or so meters to our launch spot – which was the same as our landing spot on day 19 – and begun inflating our boat at 6:50.
It was quite sunny already. We took our time inflating the boat and saw it looked rather wonky again. Maybe we’ll have to fix that wonkiness another day. There’s no time for that now. We put the boat in the water at 7:15 and started paddling. Once all the luggage and ourselves are in the boat, Zucchini looks a lot less wonky. The boat doesn’t feel badly balanced. It’s a little strange that it doesn’t really seem to matter anymore.
We start paddling on the right-hand side of the river, which we intend to stick to for the rest of the day. On our left is the little airfield that runs parallel to the river. At the confluence of the river Vils with the Danube, there’s a little beach with a very cool-looking beach bar, and we wonder why we didn’t get out there upon arrival in Vilshofen instead of the stairs we’d used that have no refreshments nearby. Oh well, that’s too late now.
Finding the Shadow
The Danube already has very little current here in Vilshofen, which foreshadows the Kraftwerk Kachelet obstacle in the distance. There are a few river islands right of the river’s center that we need to pass on the left. They are blocked by dams or underwater ‘speedbumps’ that require dodging. I don’t want to run aground today.
After those river islands on the right, there’s a very long one on the left with many trees that provide some alluring shadow on that shore. We decide that we can last way longer when in the shadow, so at 7:40 we cross over at the pier that’s named after the nearby village Windorf. The right-hand side now shows the Santa Magdalena church of Hausbach, which is a navigational landmark on my nautical map. The wakeboard zone begins and it says the zone is 13.6 kilometers long here, which is probably all the way to Kachelet.
It’s so early, not even the commercial ships have started yet. By now, I have a good feeling that we don’t encounter any big boats until 8:30 or 9:30 in the morning. At some point, one of us announces “It’s time for another ship” and then usually within 10 minutes there’s a ship or two. Before the hydroelectric power plant Kachelet, the river already widens a lot. The buoys clearly mark where the ships will have to pass through and we have plenty of space.
But all we want is stick as much to the shadow as possible. Close to the shore, we can see the riprap rocks under the water. It’s impossible to not scrape them every now and then with our red fin. The river bends a little, which means the shadow space also changes. Our general bearing today is east-southeast. Combine that with the high-in-the-sky June sun and the early start, and you know that the shadow will only be a short-lived thin line on the left-hand shore.
Sandbach Ferry and the First Ships
We bend a little to the left, which means our shadow disappears. I see something moving on the river and realize it’s the ferry (Fähre) that the signs announced a good 2.5 kilometers in advance. I’d already forgotten that it exists by the time we get there at 8:20.
The ferry is in motion from our left-hand shore to the right. This one is again on a rope between two poles above the river. It carries two cars, a bunch of bicyclists and some pedestrians. The slow displacement of water makes the mirror we’re paddling on a little wobbly. We cross quickly on the left and already see the next passenger waiting.
At 8:45 the first ships pop around the corner in front of us. I only see two, but Jonas already sees it’s three of them. The shadow is nearly gone on the left side and we begin to sweat. The three boats – of which the last one carries the name Riskant (‘risky’) – pass us and we continue in their wake.
We pass by a town called Gaishofen that also has a hotel/restaurant along the shoreline. They have a proper dock for small and big boats, and apparently, also host a wakeboarding school. We’re trying really hard to paddle on to our halfway point. At 9:20 a thin unpredicted cloud pops in front of the sun. There are some swans and ducks here, and by now we’ve seen almost the full cycle of duck on this river: from small flightless bathtub ducky to semi-feathery teenage duck and full-fledged mature ducko. Some seem to have had a late start, as there are still small ones around.
Taking the Heat
We’re approaching the big highway bridge, which is the last bridge before the Kachelet dam. I’m suddenly famished and start eating a croissant from our six-piece baked goods bag from Penny. There’s a slight right-bend in the river here and my map tells me it’s best to avoid the shipping lanes by sticking to the right, so I put down my croissant and we cross.
On the other side, we take a short break to refresh ourselves. When on land, it looks as if the river does still have a significant current, but back in the boat it doesn’t feel that way. I take off a layer of clothing and Jonas enjoys not wearing his life jacket for a couple of minutes. It’s 9:35 when we get back into the boat, intending to quickly finish this stretch to the magnificent highway bridge.
But we’re incredibly slow. The heat starts to get really unbearable at 10:00 and the sweat starts running down my forehead. There’s absolutely no wind and it feels like we’re in a dangerously hot sauna. I try to replenish my lost fluids by drinking a little from my hydration bladder every two minutes or so. I advise Jonas to do the same, that it’s better to need to pee a lot than to get dehydrated and a heatstroke.
There is sometimes a little bit of shadow on the right-hand shore now. A small but fast boat travels upstream as we approach the highway bridge. It says the words “Strassburg” and “Rhein“, which means it’s probably very far from home right now. The shadow of the bridge is soothing but cruelly short-lasting. Jonas makes his hat a little wet with Danubian water. I follow his example and stick my cape hat in the water, let it drip out a little, then slap it on my head. The effect is not as big as I’d hoped.
We pass a little industrial terrain with a boat and an excavator machine grabbing stuff from the boat. Behind it, we take another break from inside the boat from 10:35 till 10:55. Jonas is finally hungry and we both desperately need to reapply sunscreen. The spot we picked is under a low-hanging tree. It’s hard to stay in the same place with the boat, so we often get stuck in the tree and rip a hair out of my head five seconds after I took my hat off.
It’s gross. Putting on sunscreen on sweaty skin does not spark joy. The grime on my skin gets that much extra when I realize I squashed a bug on my arm just a few minutes earlier and I’m dividing its quartered corpse now over my lower arm. I’m even sweating through the palms of my hands. I can’t get cool and I’m seriously considering getting out of the boat and into the water. Even my phone feels hot even though I stuck it in a shadowy place. Against my better judgment, I also open my lip balm that’s not exactly been in the coolest of places.
Jonas notices a boat traveling upstream. It’s quite close to the shore and they haven’t spotted us, so their waves will be big. I’m not ready yet with my sunscreen, but we have to deal with this first. The people aboard also notice us only when we pop out, but it’s too late to change course or speed. We go over the wake and return to the shadow to finish the sunscreen job.
We spot a sign saying “◀Sportboote“. Shit. That means we have to cross back over to the left-hand shore.
A Floating Carcass
We cross over to the left-hand side and finally get a good view of the hydroelectric plant of Kachelet and the port of Passau. Our research on Google Earth told us that left of the river island, but right of the locks, there’s a ramp for us human-powered boats to portage around.
Jonas and I discuss what it means to be a Sportboot (sport boat). Do speedboats count? Motorized dinghies? Those are definitely not commercial ships, but also not exactly sport. Unless you fish off them since fishing somehow counts as a sport.
Once back on the left side, we try to be as close to the thin line of shadow as possible. I see something big floating in the water. It looks brown and inflated and familiar to the thing we saw floating by when we landed our boat in Vilshofen. We didn’t manage to identify what kind of animal it was back then, but we do now know that it only traveled about 20 kilometers downstream over two days. Now it’s stuck in the stagnant water before the dam.
Already knowing the answer, I ask Jonas whether he wants to paddle closer to the carcass to identify the species and satisfy my disgusting curiosity.
We paddle on to the lock-side of the dam.
Approaching the Locks of Kachelet
There’s a little pier with a sign and a phone saying something like “Sportboats for the lock, report via the intercom and wait for instructions” We don’t want to go through the lock, I guarantee Jonas. Last time he went through a (self-operated) lock, it took for-fucking-ever and he nearly got a heatstroke. Now there’s two of us to get heatstroke in such a large concrete coffin. Hard pass.
Kraftwerk Kachelet is the first dam with double locks so that ships can travel upstream and downstream at the same time. Jonas sees a big ship moving in his mirror, and confirms with his own face eyes that a ship is coming towards the lock from behind. We need to cross now to the other side so that we can approach the ramp.
It doesn’t take long to cross and the enthusiasm for reaching today’s hardest obstacle helps me paddle quicker. After every 50 strokes, I take a short break to take a few sips of water. My face is crying through the layer of sunscreen and I feel gross, but this also feels good. It’s a challenge for sure.
We dock our canoe in the area with the protected ramp at 11:30. Jonas gets out first and he helps me get out. I walk up the shore to see if there are any trolleys to put our canoe on and carry it around as if we live in the late Neolithic instead of the Paleolithic. There’s a sign that asks us to use some kind of “Bootswagen“, but that can still mean I have to walk a hundred meters to fetch one. But there’s a shed.
I peek into the shed and see wheels.
I let out one of my excited grunts to tell Jonas that yes, there are kayak trolleys and the portage just got that much easier. I grab the wheelbarrow-esque tool and roll it to the boat, which Jonas lifts out of the water and onto the trolley. It takes a bit of work to get it balanced, but now we’re ready to portage around.
I try filming the whole thing. We walk between the buildings of the hydroelectric power plant and roll down the ramp on the other side. To our left are at least six kayak trolleys dumped in the bushes. It seems like nobody brings them back to the proper shed at the beginning. How heartbreaking.
These portages for human-powered sports boats aren’t in balance; most people will still only travel downstream and not again upstream, so when people don’t bring the trolleys back, they collect in one place.
We slide the boat back into the water on the lower side of the dam. Jonas thinks a little, and then he decides to bring our kayak trolley back to the shed. He says “Imagine if we’d arrived and got excited about the trolley in the shed, and there weren’t any…”
What a wholesome human.
I repack the boat in the time he’s being a do-gooder collecting river karma.
Passau and Kraftwerk Kachelet
Passau is the last big city on the Danube before the river flows into Austria. It’s also our last stop in the state of Bavaria and all of Germany. So far, the Danube has emerged from the Baar region in the Black Forest in the state Baden-Württemberg, engorged through its many tributaries, crossed state lines into Bavaria, and become navigable by big ships. What the Danube – and by proxy we – haven’t done yet, is cross a country border. That’s upcoming.
The city of Passau is also known as the Dreiflüssestadt (‘City of Three Rivers’), because the river Inn joins the Danube as a right-side tributary and the river Ilz merges from the left. This means the city regularly floods whenever any of these rivers (or all of them) throws a tantrum after prolonged periods of rain. That’s what happened in 2013.
Jonas found some information that the Kachelet dam was built because the Danubian leg between Vilshofen and Passau was treacherously shallow and full of boulders. Raising the water levels upstream of Passau would make the river more navigable for commercial ships. So the whole producing electricity was an afterthought and not the principal reason for damming the Danube here. Another side-effect might be the greater control over the river before the big tri-fluvial confluence for flood prevention.
We get back in our boat at 11:55. Now that the biggest obstacle of the day is done, we’re sure we’re going to arrive just fine in Passau. Before returning to me, Jonas took a short video of that big ship that came after us entering the lock. Now we’re paddling past the river island that separates the lock from the hydroelectric plant, we see the lock that ship entered releasing its water. We increase our paddle speed to get out of the way in case the ship is coming.
The last stretch is really fast again. The current propels us forward at a comfortable speed. We pass a tiny beach where some families are (sun)bathing at. We stick to the right side of the red buoys to stay out of the shipping lane, which is one direction at a time here. At the other end of this zone, we see a big ship waiting its turn to go upstream and enter the lock. On our right, the peninsula of a small harbor ends, so we check if there are any nasty surprises coming from there.
I’m suddenly feeling all the feels. Passau had always been this faraway goal that we weren’t sure was even feasible. And now, after about 60 days in Germany, we’re here. We’re fucking here. The last stop in Germany. Some 450 kilometers or something like that. Just us two and our canoe.
There seems to be some unevenness in the bottom, or a big ship had passed by very recently because there is a large undulation lifting us up and down as if we’re at sea. I spot some disturbed water in the distance and urge Jonas to help me steer the boat towards the middle of the river to dodge that shallowness.
We see a police boat and a few cruise ships of various sizes making turns before our exit bridge. Then Jonas points out the Rotel Inn hotel, which definitely qualifies as the most unappealing building in the world: it resembles a sleeping person. We shortly considered staying there when it seemed like Passau had nothing else available. However, that hotel has some excellent stairs leading into the water for paddlers like us.
Landing, Packing and Checking in to Passau
Before the bridge, we spot a good exit point. We were originally planning to get out after the bridge, but we see some of these giant Viking cruise ships and we don’t know what’s after them. Our communication doesn’t run smoothly and we need to raise our voices to surpass the city noises. We decide this place will do, so we turn our boat against the current and land parallel to the shore. Jonas gets out first. It’s 12:30, which is actually really early despite the weather making it feel like it’s later in the day.
I’m a little grumpy and overheated, so my main focus is getting us and all our stuff into the nearby shadow of a tree as soon as possible. Eventually, we high-five, kiss, and skip hugging because it’s warm to celebrate this achievement.
We spend the next hour and a half relaxing and packing up our stuff. A woman stops and says “[paddling] is the right thing to do today.” Lots of people in summer clothes pass behind us on the footpath/bike lane. Our hotel ‘Pension zur goldenen Sonne’ has a check-in time of 15:00, so we decide to first walk to a café or restaurant to drink a beer.
Once we’re ready to leave, the skipper on the nearest moored ship asked in German “And now you’ll continue on foot?” to which Jonas responded, “We stay here for a few days and then we’ll go to Austria.” He wished us a good trip.
We put down our stuff at an Asian restaurant called Jento to drink some Hefeweizen beers for an hour. Then we continue our walk to the hotel, where the owner directly checks us into our room while complaining that everyone arrives at the same check-in time. She sees we’re kind of filthy and offers to take our dirty laundry with hers tomorrow – at no extra cost – which we gladly accept. Now it’s a race to the shower to wash off our filth.
Feeling divine once again, we relax a bit in the room and enjoy our surprisingly good internet connection before heading out to town to eat a halloumi sandwich and a kebab. Tomorrow the TID (Tour International Danubien) will pass Passau, so I Facebook-stalk some pages to try to find out at what time they’ll pass. There are 113 paddlers participating this year. Wow!
We walk through the city around sunset to look at the river Inn, which is very close to our hotel. A majestic silver-shining river reflects the buildings and the orange evening sun. It’s fast. Like, really fast! Our host suggested we might want to put our boat into the Inn instead of the Danube when we depart because it’s much closer to the hotel and there are no big ships on it. It’s something we consider.
We still go out to smoke a shisha next door in a business called Aladdin. No booze served here, so we spend the next two and a half hours enjoying each other’s company with glasses of sparkling water and ‘green lemon-mint’ infused tobacco. It’s getting late and the exhaustion finally catches up with us.
Austria is near.