Events in this article happened on Wednesday the 24th of July, 2019. We paddled our sturdy inflatable boat Zucchini from Langenlebarn in Lower Austria to Vienna, the capital city of Austria. Vienna is also the first capital city along the Danube river.
Between Langenlebarn and Tulln
We planned our stay in Langenlebarn in such a way that we’d meet my mom, stepfather, and Robin (the dog). They were on their way through Austria to Slovenia for the summer holidays and picked the campsite in Tulln just 5 kilometers away.
Back in late April, we ordered nearly all our kayak stuff to my mom’s home in the Netherlands. I hadn’t seen my mom since December 2018. Unfortunately, when we came by to pick it up and test it, they were on holidays. So was one of my grandmothers, which meant we missed out on seeing a lot of my family. Like back in 2015 for my 24th birthday – same people, different beloved pet – our best chance to see one another was to see if our routes intersected during their summer holidays. They were headed to Slovenia through Austria, so as long as we didn’t move too far eastwards or into a big city like Vienna, it would be possible to meet.
They decided to stay at the campsite in Tulln, which was also one of our options for accommodation around this area. But because it’s better for us to stay at hotels and apartments instead of campsites, we’d either be west of Tulln in Zwentendorf, or east of Tulln in Langenlebarn. They arrived on Tuesday the 23rd of July, so we would be in Langenlebarn at that time.
We met up around dinner time. They came to pick us up from Langenlebarn and we went out to dinner in Tulln. It was nice to catch up, but also just a very short meeting. I gave my parents my best guess for when we’re coming back to the Netherlands to pack for Asia. This time we hopefully won’t miss each other yet again. That’s the idea at least.
Afterward, we walked along the Danube, our launch spot for the next morning, and our landing spot from the day before. A cruise ship and a speed boat passed by while we were at the dock we’d used the day before. The waves violently slammed the semi free-floating platform into the shore. My mom and stepfather looked shocked and worried about us, and my dog got very spooked as she was about to walk on it. Even Jonas was a little scared. What if there had been similar waves while we were still unpacking our boat yesterday? It irritated me that the Danube couldn’t show its best behavior while my parents were watching just now. Now they have questions about the safety of this trip.
After saying goodbye, we had to pack all our stuff for the next day. We had two cold coffees floating in the sink and a big bag of baked goods. We went to sleep at a decent time and put our alarms at Very Fucking Early so we could avoid the predicted 33°C heat as much as possible.
The Coffee Fiasco
The next morning (the 24th), we got dressed in our battle gear, put on sunscreen, and enjoyed our cold (lukewarm) coffees at the table. Jonas had a different cold coffee than I because I wanted to try the sugar-free one. He’s already halfway through his beverage when I take a sip of mine. I’m on auto-pilot, so I swallow the sip. Only then I notice it tastes absolutely rank. I shudder, shake my had, make gagging sounds, and then drink a sip of water to wash the taste away. I shudder some more for good measure.
Is it because it’s sugar-free? I thought I was one of those people who had weaned their tastebuds off the high-sugar diet of these countries, but now I wasn’t so sure. So I ask Jonas. He smells it, takes a sip, also swallows it despite my explicit warning. He, too, likes to keep his immune system guessing. Jonas smacks his tongue like a coffee sommelier. I’m sure he’s going to come up with a recommendation on how this beverage should be drunk, or how to properly decant it. I can trust his senses, right?
Jonas says it’s probably fine, it just tastes a little weird. He slides the plastic packaging back over the table towards me. I’m sure I mis-tasted the cold coffee – if that’s even a thing. I take another sip. This time I take my time to find enjoyment in it.
There is none.
I spit it out in a coffee mug from the previous day and I shudder some more. Disgusting. Jonas sees I’ve reached a hard limit and offers me his last sips of coffee. “I guess it has gone bad,” he says. “Gone bad? But we just bought it yesterday. And we’ve cooled it in the sink!” I ask. Jonas confesses “No… the water in the sink was all gone this morning.”
I fear we might get the runs today. This is not good.
Leaving Langenlebarn for Vienna
Despite the coffee fiasco, we keep packing up to finally leave the hotel at 6:30. The slipway looks very nice this morning, but there’s no shadow from a tree or a cloud. It’s still quite cool outside, but we know that this won’t last without the help of some clouds. A cyclist sits on a nearby bench and watches us as we inflate our boat. He waves at us when we paddle away at 6:55. On to Vienna!
Vienna is the first capital city of a country along the Danube. It’s one out of four: Vienna (Austria), Bratislava (Slovakia), Budapest (Hungary), and Belgrade (Serbia). If all goes well, we’ll paddle through the first three capital cities in 2019 and finally (re)visit Belgrade in 2021. And no, I’ve never made ‘plans’ that far ahead of time. It makes me feel very mature.
The river was calm this morning and we’re paddling directly east. The sun is still low in the sky, to the point that it pierces my eyes from below the edge of my cap. At the same time, the undisturbed water reflects the sunshine into my eyes as well. If I sit a little lower, I’m left unbothered by the reflected sun. The boat itself blocks the reflected sun from Jonas’ eyes since he sits further back. I close my eyes for relief from the light.
From Langenlebarn, it’s about 8 kilometers to the next dam. That’s why there was already very little current. In the distance, I see a church-like structure to the left. To the right is a pretty mountain ridge on the right-hand side of the river. Perhaps this is the last Alp or the first hills of the West-Carpathian mountains. Perhaps we’re already at a mystical place called the ‘Hungarian Gate’, which none of my internet resources has been able to pinpoint to an exact location.
But it’s probably just a hill called the Eichleitenberg or the Totenkopf in the municipality in Hadersfeld. And that church might or might not be the St. Michael church near Haselbach. After all, the more distant a topographical feature or point of interest is, the more likely I am to be wrong. But it’s good practice. Perhaps I’ll find that arcane Hungarian Gate as long as I keep paying attention to my surroundings.
We’re paddling through the calm, reflecting waters on the right-hand side. On the embankment is the Treppelweg (towpath), which used to be for the horses that towed the boats upstream against the strong current. Today it’s a bike path.
We’re looking at the shore in that direction when an animal freaks out and makes a big sploosh in the water. A beaver! We haven’t seen one in a long time. I ask Jonas if we can stop paddling until the creature resurfaces again for air. It takes quite some time for it to return, so I grab my camera hoping I can take a picture of the beaver. The beaver resurfaces, and I’m ready to click when it notices we’re still here and dives back under the water. Disturbed water is all the evidence I have:
A few minutes later, we’re paddling close to the shore when we see another beaver sitting just above the waterline. It also panics and plunges into the river. It was sitting on a proper lodge next to the shore. One day…
Arriving at Greifenstein Dam
In the distance, we can see the distinct crane from Kraftwerk (hydroelectric plant) Greifenstein. There’s a speedboat with a wakeboarder behind it at this early hour. It looks as if they’re approaching us and we prepare for the worst, but they turn around and we never see them again.
I focus on contributing my share of arm power while crossing the final kilometers to the portage point. The numbers on the right-hand shore slowly go down. We started at the 1959-kilometer sign, now we’re at 1954. I sometimes close my eyes a little too long to dodge that reflected sunshine – and almost fall asleep. If only I’d had a non-rotten coffee for breakfast, this would have been much easier on me.
We pass a wakeboard and jetski school and then spot the sign where we’re supposed to carry our boat around. I film our landing at 8:30 and Jonas gets out to find a boat cart like we always do. I’m taking the luggage from Zucchini and put everything a safe distance up on the shore. There are some loud sounds coming from the dam. A little while later, I see a cargo ship traveling upstream.
There are many cyclists passing by on the embankment while I anticipate the waves of the cargo ship and the other one following behind it. There are some tiny fish in the shallow waters of the slipway that get dragged back in the deep end before the first cargo ship even passes. When the ship’s wake arrives at the slipway, it tosses our boat a little onto the shore a little. I’m waiting for a very long time for Jonas to return with the boat cart.
Jonas finally returns with a boat wagon of the shitty kind – the one that’s made for wooden rowing boats instead of kayaks. This sucks, but I guess we’ll have to make it work. Jonas rolls the wagon close to the waterline and we lift the boat in. The wheels snag onto our boat when we roll it out of the water. I try to put the boat further back on the wagon so the widest point is not at the wheels, but it’s hard to do this while we’re still on the slipway, which makes the wagon roll back every time you try to do something.
I try putting in our luggage, but this makes the snagging worse. Jonas disagrees with my approach and we’re getting snappy at one another. To make things worse, a big stream of cyclists is now using the Treppelweg from both directions, so we still have to wait with our boat on wheels on the ramp.
When finally descending the dam into the oxbow lake (Altwasser), Jonas decides to put the dry bags on is back instead of in the boat. It’s too early to deal with this kind of nonsense. Then at the end of the portage road, I see a naked man tanning on the spot where we need to put our boat back in. Oh hell no, it’s too early for this.
Fortunately, the man sees us coming, puts some pants on and decides to vacate the launch spot. We turn the boat around and I’m ready to put the boat in the water when I see that the dry part of the slipway is lined with dogshit. “Stop! Stop!” and we bring the boat wagon to a halt. First, we put our luggage down – while the boat wagon keeps trying to roll down and through the shit – then we try to lift the boat back into the water while dodging the dog shit. It’s really too early for this kind of fuckery.
We apologize for snapping at each other, hug, and get ready to paddle a few short kilometers through the oxbow lake before we have to portage our boat yet again.
The Oxbow Lake
By 9:00 we’re paddling through the little lake and I put on some music. Jonas remarks that we hadn’t shared the river with any other traffic yet this morning. This is strange because we’re so close to the capital city, which is arguably the source of all those cruise ships. Jonas also informs me we’re paddling in an FKK area (FKK-Bereich), which means that this is a designated area for people to be naked at. FKK stands for Freikörperkultur (free body culture). “Should I have known what FKK stands for?” I ask Jonas. “I thought it was something known internationally. It’s a big organization in Germany.” I am schooled.
The left-hand side of this lake is where the naturists are at, while the right-hand side hosts the village of Greifenstein. Only now I’m up close to the mountain ridge I’d spotted in the distance before it all makes sense. There’s a castle named Burg Greifenstein built on the hill that I couldn’t see from the distance since it had been in the shadow. On our water level, there’s a very large ship moored at the shore. Jonas and I wonder how it got here since this lake is self-contained and everything must fit on something no bigger than a boat trailer. Then the ramp for our second portage appears.
The Second Portage and Compliments
At least we know from the PDF flyer that this is the very last double-portage dam we need to deal with in Austria. That’s surely a relief. All we need to do now is land our boat at the slipway, hope there’s a ‘good’ boat wagon, and perform this annoying dance once more for today. I told Jonas I’m betting the good boat wagon is hiding out here. Somebody probably took it from the other portage area and rolled their boat on the public wagon all the way to the second re-entry point.
There are people and dogs swimming at our slipway. Or they’re using our stairs for tanning purposes. We’re approaching at a calm speed and land our boat at 9:35. One dog looks us dead in the eye and starts barking at this sorcery. The woman puts her dog on a leash. Other nervous dogs move out of the way instead of escalating things. I’m fairly afraid still of getting bitten by a dog on this trip.
I’m getting out to find the boat wagons, while Jonas takes the luggage out of the boat. Apparently, a woman saw our boat name ‘Zucchini’ and told Jonas she likes the name. Thank you, lady. As predicted, the good boat wagon is indeed at the shorter second portage. I bring it back to Jonas who said: “How did you know?” It was just a hunch.
Jonas had turned the boat around to put it on the wagon, which is actually not so great because we need to lift the boat even higher than normal to get the fin over the bars. It’s a little clumsy, but we manage. We put our luggage in the boat and roll it uphill and then downhill into the water past the African Queen pub. Unfortunately, it’s closed.
The other side is very muddy, so I’m trying my best to keep my shoes clean while putting the boat back in fin-first. I’m quite tired by now. The wind has picked up and it’s a headwind. From where I’m standing, it doesn’t look like the current picked up more speed. The last stretch to Vienna might actually still be quite tough. We’re paddling again by 9:50.
The Return of The Current
We have to paddle past a sandy island before we’re back in the Danube proper. Even though we’re far away from the little island, we still touch some shallow rock under the water with our boat. We check the locks for big ships, but we don’t have company. The right-hand shore has a few tall trees whose shadow reaches the water, so we paddle in that direction to be out of the sun for a bit.
It’s time to eat something, so I grab the baked goods and the stroopwafels (a Dutch cookie) that my parents had brought over for Jonas. We slowly notice that the current has picked up again, which is good when we’re not paddling for a few minutes anyway.
On this side of the dam, there are quite some tiny motorboats with or without wakeboarders in tow. We’re slowly turning right over the next few kilometers. Then, we pass a big riprap protrusion on the right-hand side where the Klosterneuburger Durchstich starts. Around the town of Klosterneuburg, the Danube splits up in the main navigable river and this Durchstich, which translates to ‘cut through’ or ‘shortcut’ because the water from the Danube cuts through this large river bend and reenters the Danube after 7 kilometers. We’d voted against taking the shortcut because 1) the water levels are quite low right now, and 2) apparently it’s for white-water kayaking.
The Speedbumps, The Ghost Ship, and The Ferry
We continue on the main Danube and see the first red buoys that indicate the speedbumps or sills in the river. Those are mean underwater thresholds to slow down the river’s speed here and prevent the river from digging in and taking away too much material. You can’t really see whether they’ll be a problem for your kayak until it’s too late, so we pass the red buoy on the left through the shipping lane. There are a few motorboats, but they’re not traveling very fast.
In the distance is a ship in the middle of the river. From our perspective, it looks like it’s either turning around or trying to dock somewhere on the left-hand side. We’re approaching at quite some speed, so we’re trying to make sense of what we’re witnessing. The boat moved all the way to the right-hand side and it looks like our passage is blocked. After the last sill, we paddle all the way to the right-hand shore to hope for an opening.
When we get up close, we finally see that it’s not a ship, but just the barge without a pusher boat anchored in the middle of the river. It floats really high, which means it’s empty. We don’t see a single person on board managing the ghost ship. Just when we think we’ve seen it all!
Right after the ghost ship is the ferry traveling from Korneuburg to Klosterneuburg. It’s the type that’s on a rope and propels itself by the power of the current. We need to slow down a little bit and travel a little more to the center of the river to pass it when it’s docking in Klosterneuburg. It’s empty, so while we’re passing the ferry, it’s already loading a bunch of impatient motorized vehicles for the crossing to the other side. But now we’re out of the busy zone. We’re really close to Vienna now.
A Brief History of the Danube in Vienna
After that fuckery, the river’s traffic calmed down again. and entered the Vienna Gate area (Wiener Pforte). The Danube found a way over the ages to carve down a mountain near the Vienna Woods (Wienerwald) to form a water gap so it could flow where it flows today. Downstream from the Vienna Gate is the Vienna Basin, which stretches from Vienna to Devín at the border of Slovakia.
The Romans created the first settlement named Vindobona. They used the Danube as a natural border of the province named Pannonia of the empire. North of the river lived some Germanic tribes like the Quadi and Marcomanni. Before canalization, it was already a good spot to cross the Danube and an important place for commerce.
But because it was flat, it’s also an area very prone to flooding. When the river started meandering away from the city in the 14th century, it was time for humans to interfere with its course. The river Wien enters the Danube at the city from the west, which the engineers used for the river planning that still exists today.
The modern-day layout of the tamed Danube looks like this: the Danube enters Vienna from the northwest, then splits up into the Neue Donau (New Danube) and the main Danube around the river island Donauinsel, which is more than 21 kilometers long before the two branches reconverge. The Neue Donau is not navigable by ships, who have to stick to the main Danube. After about six kilometers, the skinny Donaukanal (Danube Canal) splits off from the main Danube and flows close to the center of Vienna, partially using the old flow bed of the river Wien. The Donaukanal reenters the main Danube before the Neue Donau and the main Danube rejoin. When all three flows merged once again, the river flows eastward to Devín and Bratislava.
This whole tamed river system is, of course, further complicated by dams, weirs, and locks that regulate the flow in case of floods. They also keep the water levels high enough for the cargo and cruise ships to continue their business as usual when the water levels get dangerously low in summer. We’re not there yet, but the water is about 50 centimeters lower than normal after such extended periods of heat this summer of 2019.
Why am I telling you this? Because we had to decide which stream to use when entering Vienna. It took quite a bit of research before we settled on not paddling through the center of Vienna – which comes with its problematic city things like broken glass and dodginess – and leaving the river where the Donaukanal splits off instead. There’s a dam there anyway, so if we can avoid a portage, we will.
The Final Stretch to the Donaukanal
We paddled next to the city beaches of the Vienna Woods. One area, in particular, was full of dogs and their owners having a good time at the waterfront. Since Vienna is its own state enclaved inside the state of Lower Austria, I kept asking Jonas whether we already crossed this border. But the border runs a bit weird around here, so only somewhere after the Danube Island appeared, we could really say we entered Vienna.
We passed several motorboats just bobbing in the river right next to their marina. This is not something new at all; ever since we’ve spotted these boats, we’ve seen they never really ventured far from their bases. One of them returns back to the marina right as we pass. Jonas jokes that that’s all the fuel money they can afford to squander today. He remarks that he doesn’t understand the appeal of owning a tiny motorboat you can’t sleep, cook, or shit in. Me neither. It’s like five minutes of fun because of the speed, followed by a lifetime of paying it off or paying for repairs and parking costs. But I bet if you drew a Venn-diagram of people who own motorboats and people who enjoy tanning, it’d be a circle.
There were a few cruise ships that entered the city at the same time as us. The promised heat of the day arrived at 12:00 like clockwork. We enjoyed the good current for the final stretch towards our exit. Two people in two kayaks paddled upstream while we were preparing to call it a day. The last three kilometers got really tough as the heat became unbearable and we entered the proximity of the cityscape that had been distant before.
Vienna is a major milestone on our trip.
Soon, we spotted the split of the Donaukanal from the straight main Danube. That’s our exit for today. The little island that forms between the two flows has a rowing club, but we’re not using their infrastructure. We land at the steps of the portaging point at 12:15 – a very decent time. There are no boat wagons here, so if we wanted to continue paddling in the Donaukanal, we’d have to carry our boat without the comfort of wheels. Instead, we’re calling it quits here and taking a Bolt taxi to our Airbnb.
We land our boat at the steps before the weir. This suburb of Vienna is called Nußdorf. There’s a train station nearby and a highway bridge above our heads. We lift all the luggage out of the boat and put Zucchini upside down to dry. We’re eating some more of our food and rest in the shadow of the highway bridge. It’s kind of a sketchy place by the looks of it, but it doesn’t feel that way now in the daytime. Some cyclists come by starting or finishing the Danube bike path (Donauradweg).
In the bin next to us, we find a beautiful pump that someone trashed. I test if it works, which it does. Such a shame. It even has a pressure meter on top, which we have as a separate tool with our kit. I’m thinking of taking it, but Jonas doesn’t want a dumpster-dived pump. Besides, the pressure meter on this thing doesn’t have the right scale for our low-pressure boat. I put it back next to the bin.
We fold our boat and pack it into the CabinMAX. All we have to do is walk under the train tracks via a tunnel and order a Bolt to our location. Jonas orders a Bolt instead of an Uber because he’s not sure whether an Uber driver will complain about our icky boat stuff; he doesn’t want to mess up his Uber rating with one ride.
Arriving at Our Airbnb
The Bolt driver with first letters on the license plate being ‘GF‘ shows up and helps us put all our stuff in the trunk. I expected the plate to have a ‘W’ for Wien (Vienna). His trunk is fairly messy, so we don’t feel bad for putting our kayak stuff in the boot. The guy is very friendly and drives us all the way from Nußdorf to the Mariahilf neighborhood in Vienna’s core.
Jonas is thoroughly enjoying the ride from the passenger’s seat. I’m distracted by my phone because my GPS stopped working. We pass the funny-looking municipal waste incinerator tower named Spittelau designed by Hundertwasser. It’s a chimney. Jonas tries to snap some photos.
As we approach our neighborhood, the buildings become more in the style of what you expect of a former imperial city. When we enter our street, everything changes. There are roadworks going on and the entrance to our building is blocked. We take up an awkward temporary parking spot and our Bolt driver helps us get the luggage out of the trunk. Off he goes, with a five-star rating. We’re standing on the curb when a construction worker uses his drill on the hard concrete. My ears hurt and I can’t hear anything Jonas says to me anymore. He picks up the key to our apartment and I’m just waiting for the man to stop drilling or for us to enter the building.
Our Airbnb is very big, very bright, and very pleasant. But yes, we can still hear the drill from the inside, even with the windows closed. I experience these sounds as very distracting, annoying or even ill-making, which could be something like hyperacusis, misophonia, or phonophobia. At least the bedroom does not have a window on the street side, which prompts me to take a nap.
Jonas and I know quite a lot of people in or near Vienna, so our extensive stop of seven nights is partly a social call. We’ll also try to get work done, scout a good re-entry point into the river, and order some items to improve our kayak kit. This is our longest stay since our one-week misadventure in Sigmaringen.