Events in this story happened Wednesday the 31st of July, 2019 – a.k.a. my birthday. We paddled our adorable yet fierce inflatable canoe named Zucchini from Vienna (Wien) to Haslau on the Danube river. Vienna is the capital city of Austria and Haslau is a village en route to the Austro-Slovakian border and Bratislava. This is how I spent my 28th birthday.
Unfortunately, when editing the videos for this post and the next one (Day 34), I accidentally deleted all of them from the tiny camera’s SD card. Yes, we’ve tried every recovery program in the world. Yes, I am angry with myself. And yes, I’m fucking sad, too. So all the videos (if any) for this post come from my phone camera or Jonas’ phone.
Our Stay in Vienna (24-31 July)
We had a pleasant seven nights booked in an Airbnb in Mariahilf neighborhood in Vienna. In that time, we worked a lot, relaxed a bit, and met up with a lot of people. I finally met Nina Sodin, the hitchhiker from the Roaming Pencil comics (and a lot more, she contains multitudes) in real life. Together we shared some wholesome meals, many travel stories, and lots of ideas about blogging and travel writing. You can follow her journey the coming months to Poland, Lithuania, and… that’s about the plans she had fixed when we met!
Vienna was a lot nicer than Linz, but it was still a bit of a struggle for me personally; it’s the biggest city we’ve been to on this trip and it’s very popular with the masses, especially in summer. There was yet another heatwave for us to deal with, which would have been OK as long as we could have kept the windows of our Airbnb open. Alas, there was a construction site underneath the window. I’d rather die of heat stroke or something than listen to one of the oldest CIA torture tactics. They won’t get my secrets.
Jonas and I had the opportunity to cook for ourselves. It sometimes feels a little silly; only in the big cities we can rent apartments with proper kitchens, but there are also a lot of great (cheap) restaurants about for all kinds of food. But when we’re in a village, we only have the choice between local food and kebab, or local food and another ‘foreign’ kitchen.
We compensate for that by home-cooking the most amazing meals we learned about during our travels. We made Belarusian kholodnik (холодник), Levantine tabouleh, and for some reason, I roasted oodles of caramelized onions. All of it was (accidentally) vegetarian. In that week, we collected copious amounts of beer bottles with Pfand (deposit) money. We painedly returned those bottles and then forgot to hand over the coupon to the cashier for a discount – so we made a young woman happy with a discount on her groceries instead.
On the 29th of July – two days before my birthday – we visited the Donauturm (Danube Tower) across the entire city. The fare up the elevator is €14.50, which is definitely pushing it before people start rioting. The view up there is very nice. It’s the stretch of river we skipped paddling with our kayak. I got to tell Jonas a lot about the landscape around us from 161 meters above ground in the presence of a €5.20 Weizenbier. Very lavish, spending-wise. Unfortunately, a snotty kid with grubby fingers assaulted Jonas in the slowly rotating restaurant.
Before we’d arrived in Vienna, Jonas argued we should either stay 5 days or 9 days, so that we never had to pack nor paddle on my birthday. I argued that birthdays are inconvenient and that I’d be just as happy paddling on my birthday and not screwing over the paddle schedule. Since the internet didn’t give us obvious answers, we also spent an afternoon questing for a launch spot for our boat Zucchini for the day we’d leave.
Scouting a Site
One day we boldly walked through the city center and many of its main tourist hotspots in search of a launch spot. The idea was that we’d walk the 3.5 kilometers through the center, see some of the sights, and then arrive at the Donaukanal (Danube Canal) find a place to inflate Zucchini. Instead, we just got very irritated with the crowds and tried to find the shortest way through. Granted, we did this on a fucking Saturday afternoon.
We arrived at the Donaukanal at the Salztorbrucke and walked parallel to the river in the downstream direction. There were lots of stairs to the water level, but many of them were littered with trash, cigarette butts, and broken glass from partygoers and day drinkers. The area stunk of man-piss and didn’t exactly exude the trust we’d hoped for.
On our stroll, we also came past the docking station of the Twin City Liner, which travels between Vienna and Austria. This is the ferry we fear; we’d seen the YouTube videos of another paddler who warned that by the time you spot it, it’s too late. And the ferry would make a lot of high waves as it speeds between these two capital cities that are only located 55 kilometers apart – by their city limits. So, of course, we were very curious about this catamaran ferry.
The Twin City Liner would arrive in Vienna in one hour, so we went up to the KLYO café in the Urania observatory – a pretty cool building – to wait for it. After a Wiener Melange coffee break, we left the café and saw the face of our enemy the Twin City Liner traveling through the Donaukanal. The catamaran was obviously showing its best behavior since it didn’t make high waves on our selected launch spot.
We continued our path alongside the Wien. We learned with a hot cup of coffee that the bigger cruise ships (ab)use the river Wien as a turnaround spot for their ridiculous vessels. The river Wien was only two blocks from our Airbnb, but it took quite some time before it joined the Donaukanal. The map clearly stated that this small river would disappear underneath the Naschmarkt and other urban structures for quite a bit before reemerging in the Stadtpark (city park) and joining the Danube. We walked the Wien from the confluence of the Danube till where it ducked under the cityscape.
After a non-impressive distance, the entire river became shallow and dry. There was no real water here. This would be a complete nightmare to paddle, let alone the thought of getting down there. This river isn’t navigable – not even by kayaks or canoes. However, the river is very popular with waterfowl like ducks, swans, and (sea)gulls. There are at least six weirs in that little stretch to slow down the speed of the water.
Leaving Vienna for Haslau
We’re doing our final preparations to leave the Airbnb. I didn’t sleep well and my ears are making funny sounds all by themselves. The Great Deterioration is in full power by now. I’m 28 and I feel like shit. My eyes are painful like there’s something stuck in them, and then I have to make things worse by rubbing sunscreen on my face. Its vapors irritate my eyes even more.
We get into a Bolt taxi at around 8:00. It’s a bit dodgy because the license plate in the app doesn’t match the one on the car. On our way to the confluence of the Donaukanal and the Wien rivers, we almost get into an accident. It’s definitely too damn early for road rage. Somehow, we arrive intact at a parking spot. There we take our luggage out of the car and walk the final bits to the stairs down to the river. Our driver asks a few times to give him five stars – something we heard drivers do but never experienced ourselves until now.
Our gear has expanded by one extra paddle of 1.5 kilograms since our last paddling day because Jonas ordered a newer, longer paddle for himself. We’re still carrying around his old yellow paddle in case he hates the new model.
We arrive at the stairs at 8:25 and start rigging our boat. A man and his daughter stop by to ask us about our trip. Jonas answers them. The first Twin City Liner is supposed to leave at 8:30, so I wonder whether we missed it as it still hasn’t passed. I’m getting a bit worried we’ll encounter it in the canal. But at 8:37, that bloody boat passes us by and causes a few little waves in the canal. We notice the water levels are about 40 centimeters higher today than on the day we screened the site. This is a good thing for us. It probably relates to the high rainfall in the Austrian and Swiss Alps that engorged the River Inn upstream of our location.
By 9:00, we’re ready to paddle. We launch Zucchini into the fast-flowing waters and get in. The fisherman on the confluence with the Wien watches as we dodge his lines into the water. A flat-bottomed kind of patrol boat travels downstream ahead of us. We’re paddling again!
Paddling the Donaukanal
I’m filming and photographing quite a bit as we’re carried downstream on the fast current. We’ve experienced quite some fast currents, including what was actually a flood after its peak, but this was fast yet not very intimidating. When not paddling, our speed was still at about 9km/h. With our help? Easily 13 km/h without breaking a sweat.
The weather conditions that day were quite pleasant. It was still a bit cool from the previous days, but definitely sunny. The sun didn’t bother us in the tree-lined canal. A small tour boat overtook us from the back, which formed no troubles. Then at 9:25 we passed under the giant turnpike near Vienna’s international bus station. After that, we got to a zone outside of the inner city where there was a cabin on poles with a fishing net every 100 meters. This went on for quite some kilometers.
We passed the big Biomassekraftwerk (biomass power plant) and its wildly adding waters, where we crossed to the left-hand side of the skinny canal. A simple police boat overtook us from the back as we passed the 30th iteration of these holiday homes. Almost none of them were occupied, and none of them had their ridiculous nets in the water. The nets were really big enough to empty the Donaukanal of all its fish stock in an hour or two if they coordinated their efforts and put it all in at the same time. I’m not sure why fishing ever qualified as a ‘sport’ after some of these inventions.
All the while, we followed our progress with the different distance markers on the shores. We knew we had to get to 17.0, but what that meant for our total distance in the canal, we had no idea. The police boat traveled back upstream. I swear the guy steering the boat made a kissy face at me. This led me to quietly repeat the mantra fuck the police until they were out of sight. We see the ‘sister’ of the Twin City Liner – the hydrofoil ferry we know very little about – travel upstream fast on the main Danube in the distance.
It’s about 10:00 when we finally rejoin the main Danube. We look into the main Danube to the left of us if there are any nasty surprises at the Freudenau dam. The locks are closed or empty, so we have nothing to worry about. A harbor appears on our right-hand side, of which we’re not sure if it’s still in use by cargo ships or has been turned into a recreational area.
We do know that there’s a sinister chapel near that harbor; it’s where the unidentified bodies that are discovered at the confluence of the main Danube and the Donaukanal get buried. Apparently, the corpses collect at this confluence because there’s a kind of spinning current that brings all the corpses to one place. Extended time in the water does no good for the identification of remains. It’s called the Friedhof der Namenlosen (the cemetery of the nameless) and here are the directions.
Vienna Airport’s Departures
We paddle past some funny-looking pipe bridges. The kind of tame Neue Donau (New Danube) joins the main Danube from the left and we’re finally complete again. It’s 10:30 and we’re almost halfway, I’d say. We’re expecting the speed of the river to slow down quickly, but that doesn’t happen. We’re paddling on the wide river we’ve come to know. Outside of the city of Vienna, there’s the airport on the right-hand shores. It has two runways that don’t intersect. One of the runways is oriented at the Danube river.
For the next hour, we’re exposed to the sounds and sights of departing airplanes. We’re getting really close to them. We can read that the Austrian fleet has the word Servus (Hello in Austro-Bavarian) printed on its belly. It kind of dawns on me that we, just like them, are leaving Austria soon.
Our least-favorite river feature shows up again: speedbumps. We’d love to go over them, but we can’t trust that the water over them is deep enough to avoid scraping our fin or worse: getting stuck on the sill. So we keep away from them and hug the shipping lane a little closer.
The sun heats up our air. We have a slight tailwind that doesn’t cool down our faces, so Jonas dips his hat in the water for quick relief. We’re waiting for the Twin City Liner to return from Bratislava. Jonas has an alarm for 11:00. We expect the catamaran ferry to pass us by at 11:20, but we want to be out of the water well on time for that, so we land our boat at kilometer-sign 1910 at 11:00 on a sheltered stony beach.
Waiting for the Twin City Liner
We needed this break on the shore. A small frog accompanies us on the pebbles. Jonas puts his new black paddle on the shore, but I move it higher up in case the waves are really big. We need to both be ready for this and not lose any of our stuff for silly reasons.
Jonas snaps a photo for me to share on social media as we juggle the boredom and anticipated excitement at finally seeing the Twin City Liner at cruising speed. We’ve seen the small waves it produces in the Donaukanal, but here the captain can actually go wild with their vessel. We both eat a sandwich and Jonas puts on his life jacket again when 11:20 strikes. No ferry.
I spot more frogs on the beach and Jonas eats a piece of chocolate as we’re both engaged in our own activities. Then, we hear a hum.
The hum grows louder and before I have my camera ready, the Twin City Liner is already halfway past our view. I film the whole thing from our position while Jonas holds the boat leash. The waves come in as the boat is almost already out of sight. It wobbles a bit, but there’s nothing really to worry about besides holding on to our boat and the exposed speedbumps we have to dodge when leaving our spot.
It makes a few splashes, but there isn’t a lot of water entering the boat via the back. Shit, apparently I didn’t shoot a video of it. I’m getting a bit irritated at my camera. We prep to get back into the boat and paddle on to Haslau at 11:40. I still have to finish my social media post from inside the boat while we continue downstream in this window between the ferries.
It’s only then that I realize that the Twin City Liner is actually just one ship. One catamaran. Not two that have to pass each other in the middle of the river.
Sailing to Haslau
After finishing my post and uploading it, I help paddle a bit. Jonas suggests that the tailwind is serious enough by now to use the kayak sail. What a day! I pop open the sail and strap it to my vest to help paddle. The wind is strong enough to sometimes make a difference, but it’s never really the windpower I’m hoping for.
We’re approaching Haslau – our destination of the day – at a good speed. I do have the feeling that the river is slowing down a bit as we’re entering the flattest part of the river: the Pannonian Basin through that arcane ‘Hungarian Gate’. We are now entering the Middle Danube if you divide the river into three parts.
A fighter jet with its wack sound effects passes over our heads at a low altitude while it follows the exact course of the river. It’s too fast to take a video. Yes, that’s yet another thing we’d never seen on this river until today. I wonder if Slovakia has such pricey planes patrolling their stretch of Danube as well.
We spot some structures on the left-hand shore and know we have to land somewhere here on the right-hand side for our two-night stop in Haslau. I’m trying to spot the ferry that should also be here so that we might use its slipway. But I don’t see a ferry. Only a blue boat traveling upstream that doesn’t really seem to be moving forward at all.
With some coordination, we veer a little closer to the right and see a big warning sign. We squint our eyes to read “Warning… danger of… life… in 20 meters.”
That’s not enough time to change course. We also don’t see any danger after 20, 30, or 50 meters, so perhaps a zero fell off and it’s actually 200 meters? We keep alert, but after 200 meters there’s still nothing around us that warrants such a panicky sign.
Jonas steers us towards the shore and we intend to land on some beach neither of us has marked on our map as the official exit spot. I argue we should arrive in the right place by just trusting our navigation. And yes, behind that beach is the sort of slipway we marked on our own maps. That’s our landing spot for Haslau!
The National Park and the Ferry Haslau – Orth
We land our boat on the shore through some shallow waters. This landing spot is in a nature reserve called Nationalpark Donau-Auen (National park Danube floodplain). The ground is kind of like dried mud or clay. It sticks to our wet shoes as we take everything out of our boat and put it on the grass and in the shadow. There are a lot of bugs here already, but none of them are mosquitoes or bitey fuckers, yet.
Jonas takes care of drying the boat while I go for a walk after changing my water shoes for land shoes. I need to solve the mystery of the ferry. On my map, it says it crosses from Haslau to a village called Orth on the opposite shore from 300 meters downstream from where we are. I find another one of those “Warning! Danger of life in 30 meters!” and try to understand what the fuss is all about. The sign is specifically for paddlers like us, but it seems like the perceived danger might only exist when the water levels are much higher. I snap a photo for Jonas to discuss later.
I find the docking spot of the ferry and snap some photos of the price and phone number. Back at our drying spot, I discuss things with Jonas, who says that there’s a sign not far from where we are that says that the small ferry is upstream and not downstream. I go and check it out and find a second docking spot.
Twin City Liner crosses back again from Vienna to Bratislava at 13:10. Again, its waves aren’t really big enough to warn people about them in dramatic YouTube videos. I’m even considering just staying in the boat the next paddle day from Haslau to Bratislava.
Arriving in Haslau an der Donau
We pack everything up. There are now more bugs around than before and it’s also quite warm. While I’m bending over to pack the paddles away, I feel something stinging in my chest. It’s incredibly painful. I look down and see a black and yellow bug stab me in the nipple. I freak out and drop what I was doing in favor of screaming. Jonas calms me down and packs up the rest while I check the damage in my shirt. It wasn’t a wasp… but maybe a bloodsucking mutant mosquito that thought black and yellow were soothing colors for its victims.
I’m in a mood. Jonas helps me put the backpack on and it’s incredibly heavy; 1.5 kilograms extra because of the new paddles. I start walking and the pain only increases. The worst news is that in order to get to our Airbnb in Haslau, we have to hike uphill. And it’s one kilometer away from here. Fuuuuuck.
I take up the first bench and improve how the paddles are attached to the backpack. It’s all on one side, which isn’t great, but spreading the paddles on two sides makes it much harder for me to pass through narrow or low areas. I hope Jonas will soon make a choice on which paddle he’ll keep.
The hike uphill passes through some secret neighborhood stairs that aren’t exactly well-maintained. I get stuck with my backpack in the overgrown bushes. I’m tired and my shoulders hurt a lot. By the time we’re on the plateau of Haslau, I’m completely done for. We stroll some more through the neighborhood while I’m vocal in my misery.
Checking In to the Airbnb
The house we’re staying in looks very different from all the other houses in the neighborhood. Jonas told me the host wrote to him that her husband doesn’t speak German. “But what language does he speak then?” I ask since it might be another language we know. “She didn’t say,” Jonas replies.
A man opens the door to his property. He points out we can put the kayak backpack in the garage. Oh, sweet baby Jesus what a fucking relief. Jonas follows our host upstairs through some skinny path on the outside of the house. The architecture is quite interesting. We enter a rooftop area and the man opens the door to our humble abode for the coming two nights. He takes his shoes off and there are house slippers for both of us, so we also take our shoes off before continuing. The man shows us around and then leaves.
We unpack, take a shower, and unwind. It’s still quite early in the day. After a few hours of relaxing, we get ready to hike 2.4 kilometers to the nearby town called Maria Ellend. That town has the nearest supermarket. I try to hitchhike to no avail but feel a bit silly because the distance is so short. My back still hurts from the agonizing hike up the hill. We also go out to dinner at the Wu Kitchen Asia restaurant where I eat some delicious tofu teriyaki with a wheat beer. It’s a celebratory meal and we’re both left very satisfied.
Despite the painful hike, I had a really great 28th birthday doing the things I love with my partner.
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