Kayak Trip Day 21: Passau to Engelhartszell – A Border Crossing

This story reflects the events on the 30th of June, 2019. We paddled Zucchini – our inflatable canoe – from Passau in Germany to Engelhartszell in Austria. This was our first international border crossing. We also encountered other paddlers from the TID (Tour International Danubien) on this 25.4-kilometer stretch. This is what happened.

Our Stay in Passau

We’re spending quite a bit of time indoors in Passau. Not only because it’s very very hot outside and often very busy, but also because we have other things to do: I need to write stories, Jonas needs to write code. Together we book all the accommodations ahead all the way to Linz in Austria. Jonas adds the finishing touches to his entrepreneurial endeavor called ‘Neeed’. He’s been working on this with two other German digital nomads for about two months, and it’s about to be alpha-test ready.

A few days earlier, Jonas told me that nothing really seems to make sense on this trip; he spends several days a week inside an inflatable canoe, yet he’s more productive than he’s ever been. Yes, Jonas is more productive than during the year I was stuck studying in Maastricht. Or that time we wrote Digital Nomads Guides Medellín in Colombia and had stable internet and good working space for several weeks. I’m also more productive than ever in terms of writing consistently about this trip, despite the crappy German internet situation. Have we found a loophole? A… lifehack?

We spent one afternoon at a Danube-flanked restaurant waiting for the Tour International Danubien (TID) to pass. They started paddling their kayaks and canoes in Ingolstadt only seven days ago, and are already overtaking us, who have been at this since the source in Donaueschingen for nearly two months. They take almost no breaks and cover many more kilometers a day. The night before, I Facebook-stalked some pages to guesstimate at what time they’d come by. We did see a few paddlers, but not the 113 that the Kajakclub Ingolstadt announced. More like… seven boats and eight people.

We enjoyed a walk around Passau’s central peninsula and to the confluence of the three rivers Danube, Inn, and Ilz. We walked around town every evening past the midday heat and saw many well-dressed students in this prosperous university town. It’s a whole different aesthetic from the beer-stained sorority and fraternity shirts and hair-gelled, grubby finger-nailed, halitosis-breathed folk of dear Maastricht, which permeated all faculties without exception.

The night before departure for Austria we had to pack our bags. This is our first border crossing on this trip. We pack the passports in a reachable spot because “what if” they want to see our passports? Perhaps it’s a silly worry to have, but we know Austria has been doing border checks – albeit on the east/south side of the country. We also don’t know how they’d stop us to check our passports, but it seems even sillier to not have it handy on the off-chance.

We do some research on where to get in. Our exit spot on the Danube from when we arrived in Passau is quite far away, so we’re scouting for a better location. Our hotel ‘Zur goldenen Sonne’ is at the River Inn. That river flows quite fast and has a light-blue or grey color because it’s full of rapid-flowing meltwater from the Alps in Switzerland. I speculate that the color is this way because it carves its way through areas full of limestone. Right under the last bridge on the Inn, there are quite some scary-looking currents. But it’s nothing we haven’t done before. The Google Earth satellite image of Passau clearly shows the distinct colors of the Danube, the Inn, and the smaller Ilz. There are some beautiful stairs leading down to the waterline just across the big street.

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Aerial view (west up) of Passau’s peninsula. The big river on the left is the Inn, the middle one the Danube, and the small one on the right the Ilz. They have very different colors. Image sourced from Wikipedia user Solarthermienator under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

The weather forecast tells us it will be the hottest day yet… 36°C. Even though it’s not a very large distance, we’d like to have the earliest start imaginable to dodge the heat and prevent sunburn. While I’m on a writing frenzy, Jonas goes to the supermarket to get food and cold coffee for tomorrow. We’re very excited.

Leaving Passau for Engelhartszell via the River Inn

It’s the morning of the 30th of June, a Sunday. We wake up at 5:45, chuck our coffees and finalize packing. By 6:30 we leave the hotel and walk the 50 meters to the River Inn. There are two groups of people around at this hour: some Polish men on a bench and downriver a group of young students: one woman and a few men. Both are performing their after-party hair-of-the-dog ritual with a – probably lukewarm – beer. We hope they don’t cause any trouble.

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We start inflating our boat and a young blonde man from the student group comes over to ask for a cigarette. Or cigarette papers. Or anything tobacco or something. Jonas tells him we don’t smoke. He is clearly disappointed and asks what crazy thing we are doing here anyway. Then the young man walks over to the group of Polish guys to ask for a cigarette which he receives. He’s still drunk and a little annoying. An older Polish lady who didn’t party all night walks by and joins the group of Polish men to have an early morning chat. We continue prepping our boat.

By 7:00, we’re ready to start paddling. The Polish men wish us a good trip and wave us goodbye. Then the young man walks over to us again and asks if he can join our boat. Jonas says he can’t. He keeps nagging like a fucking child but keeps his distance from our boat. We’re struggling to not get our shoes too muddy while getting in the boat and aren’t willing to negotiate with this annoying fuck. Granted, it’s not like the young drunk student version of me wouldn’t have tried the same at dawn, albeit less obstinately.

The rough currents under the bridge are the first item on the agenda. Everything’s well-attached to the boat. We paddle under the second arc on the left and there’s a lot of splashing going on. With some wind from the front, the water gets blown into the boat and mostly on me.

Sploosh! Splash! Splotch!

I’m fucking wet.

It was fun, though. It’s genuinely a lot of fun to have a quick start at a long paddle day. And this experience of the sudden cold water helped the coffee finally kick into my system and get me alert. We cross over to the right-hand shore and see the Dreiflüsseeck (three rivers corner) we stood at the day before.

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Crossing the Border into Austria

We meet some more drunk guys on the right-hand shore, but at a safe distance. They’re in a markedly better mood than the other guy. We pass under a bridge at 7:25 and spot the Kräutelstein, which is a big rock and the official border marker of Austria. For emphasis, there’s another white boundary marker stone on top. A new country for Jonas! From now on, the right-hand side of the shore is Austrian territory, while the left-hand shore is still Bavarian Germany.

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We paddle n towards the island called Soldatenau. We’re not allowed to land our boat here, because the city of Passau uses it as a drinking water reservoir. The first cruise ships appear at 7:30, and it’s directly a train of them. I’m certain none of them are fully-booked, so I wonder how these river cruises really make money. What a silly sight.

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The river bends right and we keep right until the river straightens out and we see some shadow on the left-hand side. We cross the river right to left at 7:55 and enjoy the cool shadow. It’s heating up quickly.

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Unexpectedly, we see a kayaker paddling upstream on our side just when we’re about to pass Erlau at 8:25. Erlau is the town on the German side of the Danube in this stretch where the TID stays overnight. I’d forgotten that they actually stayed here for two nights when we suddenly see a large bunch of paddlers on the shore prepping their boats. Jonas asks them if they’re with the TID and one guy responds with “Yes!” and the follow-up question “Are you done here [in Germany]?” and the guy says “No, we’re paddling on!”

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Jonas concludes the chat with “OK, see you later!”

Paddling Along with the TID

The TID splits up their trip by country. If you want to join the TID and paddle a stretch of the Danube, you can basically pay the basic fee and then add modules on top. One module can be Germany, so you can paddle a few hundred kilometers from Ingolstadt to Erlau and then return by paddling upstream or taking a train/bus/car back home. With our confusion about when they’d continue to Austria, we thought that the people we saw onshore here must be the people who are done with the TID now. Most of them were actually the people who continue downstream to Austria and beyond.

When the river Erlau joins the Danube from the left, Jonas spots a group of kayakers coming up from behind in his boat mirror. We’re not alone today.

We cross to the right-hand side of the river at 8:45 and some paddlers follow our example. They’re much faster than us and none of them are in a canoe, like us, let alone an inflatable one. We’re paddling to Engelhartszell today, which is the first village in Austrian territory where both sides of the river are Austria. They’re paddling further to Inzell. Even our different starting points – Passau versus Erlau – doesn’t keep us synched, because they’re paddling 33 kilometers and we’re paddling less than 26 kilometers.

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Jonas and I land our boat on the Austrian side of the shore (right) to make a quick toilet break. That was the first thing we did in Austria on this trip. But there’s not a lot of peace, because a second wave of kayakers comes up from behind the river bend and startles me. We let them pass before we get back into the boat to paddle on.

There is now a constant trickle of kayakers overtaking us calmly. Jonas talks about how there must be a lot of people finding love on the TID, but I argue against that; I think it’s probably a majority cis-het men proverbial sausage fest. So far, we’ve seen mostly older men paddle by. Almost every time we see a woman, it’s a woman with a man in a two-person kayak – much like us. Only once I see a woman in her own kayak.

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One man overtakes us very closely and sees me with my camera. He asks me if I can take a picture of him and later send it to him. Here ya go, buddy:

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I think he probably thinks we’re part of the TID and have access to their collective photo album. “Since the average age of the TID participant is so high, many of them are not Facebook-savvy” (these are their own words, translated from German), they’ve quit using Facebook to share their photos and videos and instead opted for sending all pictures to one lady named Antje by email. Antje then uploads them to Google Photos, which is sorted in sub-albums per participant and not per date or location. That’s going to be one hell of a job to sort.

We cross back to the left-hand shore at 9:10 at the Bavarian village of Obernzell. A funny-looking boat overtakes us. It’s a… catamaran airboat-like raft with an outboard motor and two people under a tarp with a bicycle tied to the front. It’s a funny sight.

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Obernzell Ferry and Mayhem

We calmly paddle by the little village of Obernzell while I chomp on a cheese bread bun. The TID people behind and in front of us are scattered all over the river. We’ve always been sticking to one side because our boat is significantly slower and we really don’t want to constantly be alert to our proximity of sudden cruise ships or freighters. Also, most of the TID people are not wearing their life jackets or even a shirt – nipples everywhere – or a hat. Are they all going through a midlife crisis or are they just that comfortable with all the traffic?

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Then some wakeboarders pop out of a little marina on our shore, followed by another speedboat without wakeboarder. The fast boats slalom between the paddlers and cause quite some wake. Nobody seems worried. Up ahead the ferry is about to cross from left to right and at the same time a big motorboat approaches from downstream and there’s also a freighter somewhere. The motorboat doesn’t keep in a clear direction and swerves undetermined in all sorts of directions, and when getting closer the boat itself says why; it’s a motorboat to learn how to drive a motorboat. We’re happy once we passed them and they seem to keep to the same area.

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We paddle on. At the campsite Kohlbachmühle at 9:55, we see some very young and small duckies that are really close to our boat. The tiny ducks are definitely the most consistent and adorable wildlife on this river.

We get back into the shadow and prepare to round the final bend before the long stretch before the dam. A fast cruise ship races towards the locks and causes quite some waves for us to deal with.

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Kraftwerk Jochenstein

Around the bend, we get a first look at the hydroelectric powerplant called Jochenstein. While we have sighted it, it’s still 4 kilometers away. It’s the first Austrian powerplant, even though the left side of the shore is still Germany. The valley becomes more open and a strong headwind emerges that even kicks up the otherwise stagnant water in this reservoir. It’s tough to paddle against it. In hopes of finding better conditions on the right-hand side of the shore, we cross at 10:10. We know we’ll also need to portage our boat around the dam on the right side. The left has the locks.

While crossing, the wind only seems to get stronger. We need to paddle quite powerfully against the wind and into the waves, which makes quite some splashes that end up in my face and in the boat. On the other side, there is actually no respite from the wind. Nor is there really any shadow. A cruise ship pops out of the locks and travels quickly upstream. On the left-hand side are still a few kayakers who I’m sure are part of the TID. They seem to be going for the locks instead of the ramp.

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Some actual canoes and one red kayak paddle up from behind us. All of the boats approaching us from behind seem to have multiple people in them instead of solo paddlers. I’m trying to keep the pace because every time we take a short paddle break, it feels like the wind blows us back so we lose the progress we made. I’m not sure if that’s really true, but it’s certainly how it feels like. The canoes and kayaks overtake us in the last kilometer before the exit ramp.

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They have wheels. These people brought their own wheels. I’m not sure if the two white canoes are actually part of the TID because they have no luggage aboard. Also, the two white canoes have a weird division of labor; one boat only has one paddler in it, while the other has three people. They are just as fast.

We’re approaching the weir part of the hydroelectric power plant and we can finally relate the things we’d spotted on satellite images to the real world. A tiny buoy and a small sign suggest we’d perhaps like to get out here instead of dropping over the edge. There are no big signs screaming “LEBENSGEFAHR” (danger of life) at us. This is the first indicator that navigating the Austrian part of the river is not playing in easy mode anymore.

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We arrive on the ramp at 10:40 and the white canoes are still there. There’s a yellow labrador that belongs to this group. Unfortunately, I hadn’t spotted the dog in the canoe when they overtook us. The guy who was paddling his own canoe has a giant fucking rock in the back of the boat. That’s also where he was sitting, and when he overtook us it already looked like the front of the boat was quite a bit out of the water. Oh well, he must know better what the advantage is of carrying a fucking boulder in your canoe. I am surely at a loss.

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It’s so busy at the portage area in Kraftwerk Jochenstein. And most people are taking their jolly sweet time to get around it. We know it’s only another 4 kilometers or so to our destination in Engelhartszell. The TID people go to a place called Inzell today which, according to my spreadsheet, is 21 kilometers after Engelhartszell.

The Jochenstein dam is a popular spot for cyclists and hikers to cross the Danube as well. It has a bridge on it and lots of signs telling the visitors about its history and where to go next. I’m taking a few photos and Jonas disappears to use the public toilet (öffentliche Toiletten) on the premises. A sign also says there are Bootswagen (boat wagons/kayak trolleys) available, but I can’t see any around here and it says it’s still 300 meters away. We might as well just carry the boat.

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Jonas returns and we continue carrying. We get stuck in the gate with another paddler and I’m thinking maybe this whole group stuff just REALLY ISN’T MY THING. I’m getting quite annoyed by the traffic jam and general business around here. And I’m sensing that the feeling is mutual and that all the other paddlers also resent the group thing. But they chose it.

A group of people and their canoes/kayaks gathers around the exit ramp on the other side, which we’ll have to go down. They and their cute dog block the way. Then, we see a familiar boat, with a semi-familiar paddler: the guy in the blue inflatable boat from Neu-Ulm! He rolls his Gumotex boat on his fancy boat wagon down the ramp. We see some stairs, but choose to follow him to the same ramp since it’s the first one and all the other places are occupied.

He wrote his route on the outside of his boat. This guy also started like us at the origin in Donaueschingen. We know we met him in Neu-Ulm, but what happened in between we have no clue about. We expect him to be much faster than us, so did he paddle on to Ingolstadt, then wait there until the TID started and joined it? Is he part of the TID?

I have so many questions, but also know that the general attitude of paddlers has so far been to not talk to each other about stuff. So instead I snap a picture of his boat when the guy’s behind (a startled) Jonas and try to Google him to see if he also has a blog. I’m pretty sure he’s Hungarian since his boat has a big H on it. The side of the boat also says (I think) “utazás hajó” followed by the places he’s been, which could translate to “boat trip” in Hungarian. Disclaimer: I don’t understand Hungarian for shit. Googling “utazás hajó duna kenu kajak blog gumotex” yielded nothing.

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Paddling on to Engelhartszell

The Hungarian paddler leaves first and says something in German to acknowledge our existence. We also get in our boat and paddle on in the little back current after the dam. We see him become a dot in the distance quite quickly. It’s 11:05 and it’s not far anymore to Engelhartszell. But there are still a few moments we need to watch out.

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First, the waterway that leads to the locks rejoins with the main river. There’s a large rock in the river there that’s named the Jochenstein, which also features a statue of Saint John of Nepomuk – patron saint of protecting believers from floods and drowning. Hooooooo that’s dark. Anyway, the big boats rejoin us here so we look around it to see if the coast is clear. There are no big ships.

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We need to stick to the right-hand side since that’s our exit. The river bends right and has several stony beaches. Then there’s the ferry. It’s a cyclist and pedestrian ferry. People ring the bell if they need it to go on the other side. It’s perhaps mainly a tourist attraction but also services the many many cyclists that bike down the Donauradweg (Danube bike path) from Passau to Vienna. I’d just spoken online to a woman who biked it one week before this day. Biking next to the river must be a very different experience from paddling it, especially because the time frame is so different. Our estimate is that Passau to Vienna will take us 12 whole paddle days, rest days not included.

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Our anticipated landing spot is a ramp right in front of our hotel Goldenes Schiff (golden ship). The current picked up quite a bit here, so we need to be more alert for landing. We see a giant cruise ship with some ugly-ass decorations called ‘A-Rosa’ moored before our exit spot. Then there’s an unexpected ramp before that ship, so we take it and land our boat. It’s 11:30, the earliest we’ve ever arrived somewhere. And it’s well before the maximum heat hits at 17:00.

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We argue whether this was the right spot to get out, and I walk to the other spot to see if it still makes sense to paddle there. Eventually, we settle for our first spot. We dry our boat in the sun while we’re sitting in the shadow of a tree. I want to walk to our hotel as soon as possible since it also has a nice restaurant where we can relax. Jonas visited the bathroom at Jochenstein, but I didn’t go – which is kind of against our policy of always synching our visits.

With all our paddle stuff packed, we walk the 250 meters past the A-Rosa to the hotel. They’re loudly playing the Backstreet Boys’ As Long As You Love Me and holy shit… are people who grew up with the Backstreet Boys now the target demographic for tacky river cruises? We arrive at the hotel and pick a table on the terrace. We order two large wheat beers and relax for a couple of hours waiting for our room to be ready. Cyclists come and go. People eat a big lunch. Some US American – I think – lady walks to our table and asks us if we’re paddling. We answer yes and she asks if it’s not too hot. We told her we start very early so we’re done by noon, and yes, the boat is in that backpack.

Checking in to Engelhartszell

Check-in time is at 15:00. We’re ready to go to our room and see what’s the first thing we booked in Austria. It’s an absolutely giant room with a fantastic view of the river. We see some (presumably) late TID-paddlers pass from our window. It’s really hot outside now and we’re happy to have shelter.

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We realize that we’re not really doing ‘canoe camping/touring/tripping or ‘expedition canoeing’, but more… Glamor + Canoeing = Glanoeing? Glayaking?

I mean… we’re self-organizing. There are no valets or porters or sherpa’s waiting for us at the dams to carry our boats around for us. And we’re of course working almost every day we don’t paddle, which isn’t always easy. But we definitely do have a lot more comfort and off-time than the brutal program of the TID people, who have only 12 Ruhetagen (rest days) out of the 78-day trip in total. We do something like one paddle day out of every three days, but we’re also not doing the whole river in one year.

We spend two nights here and work one day. The internet already seems a lot better here and Jonas has 3G on his phone – a rarity inside buildings and in between towns in Germany. We’re off to a good start in Austria!

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On the 21st day of our kayak trip on the Danube River, we crossed the border from Germany to Austria! As Passau is the three-river city, we first put our boat in the river Inn. #Donau #Inn #Ilz #Dreiflüssestadt #Passau #Germany #Bavaria #Deutschland #Bayern #confluence #river #Danube #Austria #border #bordercrossing #Engelhartszell #Europe #Schengen #Schengenzone #internationalriver

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