Sunday, November 22, 2009

HITCH HIKING WITH COBBER!

Entering the Black Sea

HITCH HIKING WITH COBBER

How many more trips can I make and see the sunset going down on beautiful beaches?
With how many more trips can I see the rain showers coming towards me and hitting COBBER with a sound like ‘knocking on heavens door’?
Two questions I can never answer. If time will come I have to accept and live my life without the clear blue sky. Instead a cloudy mist will take over….The Foggy Dew will appear and never go away again.
Those two questions lead me to paddle to Moldova. And that was before all the dark days will appear…

The first month of the trip was cold and the weather was harsh.Going upstream and passing by 70 locks did ask most of my material and physical condition. But as temperatures rise I started to feel more comfortable: The rhythm of the blades, the wind whispering…COBBER enjoying the scenery.

Saltwater again
It was the beginning of August when I arrived in Tulcea, in Romania. Tulcea is the starting point to go into the Donau Delta, the largest water lands from Europe. It took me four months to reach Tulcea and I did enjoy the different landscapes and cultures along the way. Passing by numerous countries through the heart of Europe. It was time to see some wide open space again: The Black Sea was only a few paddle strokes away…Yopie…!

I headed for Sulina after saying good bye to my friends from the Polica de Frontera in Tulcea.
Brathul Sulina is the water-highway of the Donau Delta. Motorboats and catamarans loaded with tourists and fishermen were passing by in high speed. A vessel from Istanbul was slowly overtaking. It took me the whole day to come to Sulina, the last port from Romania. Half way of the day I stopped in a little village called Gorgova and eat for the second time in my life sweetwater fish. It was sandy and overcooked with a lot of bones. Not my kind of fish. The taste was still in my mouth even many hours afterwards. Terrible!
But this time no fisherman to save me with his home made Vodka.


Basalt blocks were on both sides of the river and it was boring. The kilometers signs were replaced by mile signs. And an empty vessel was coming towards me, this would be the last one today, I thought. The weather was comfortable and in the early evening I arrived in Sulina. I was looking for the border police station, but it was on the other side of the river and not in Sulina town. Stray dogs were welcoming me and El Capitano said I can camp on the premises. An old factory, decayed houses and numerous rusty cranes were accompanying me. That was one of the last nights on Romanian soil. As always the border police officers were friendly and accommodating. They have been a great help along the Donau. And since they are part of the EU, the old canon boats were replaced by top gear equipment.

The next morning I had a day off and prepare myself for the Black Sea. I passed by the Sulina Port Authority and asked them for help for a weather forecast. After asking many persons I was finally led to a stair where a woman was welcoming me. On the wall was a
Fred Flintstone VHF with crackling disturbing noise.
The language barrier was as always around and making myself clear was easy from my side. The lady on the other side was speaking not much English, or nothing at all. I had to look for an alternative to get information. Internet cafés do not yet exist in this remote town and after half an hour discussion I gave up.
I decided to ask the team in Holland to update me by SMS for the weather forecast.
The rest of the day I relaxed on the Boulevard and bought my latest supplies. Horse drawn carts and dusty back roads make you go into time again. In the evening little boats arrived with loads full of melon and the whole town was buying. Including me!

The next morning I had to report at the Pilot boat and get a stamp for exiting the EU. It took ages before they let me go. For most kayakers Sulina means the end of their Journey: the last port of the Danube River. For me it was just a stop-over and have to go North to Moldova. For this I had to pass by the Ukrainian coastline that took me to the river Dnjester.

Mind the gap
I paddled for a while along the pier to find a gap. There must be a gap on the portside so I can make a shortcut and do not have to paddle all up to the lighthouse at the end of the pier. Just after an anchored vessel is the gap. Here I carried COBBER over the stones and had a look into the unknown.
I found my way and then the Black Sea was revealing itself to me.
For four months I have been paddling on rivers and again on saltwater. I felt good. No more forests or towns but a wide open sea. All I wanted at that moment.

The wind was N/NE3 and I paddled through vast fields of lilies. Now and then they wanted to keep the paddle but it saved me from a wet exit. The water was brown and with a light scent of salt. It was quiet and half a mile away a little fishing boat was passing by. Wow!
After a while I left the bay behind me and the lighthouse was slowly fading away. Little sandbanks appeared and the water was getting choppy now and then. Although there was nothing to worry about tide, the rivers spitted out large quantities of water and with the wind coming from the North it gave some "strange" patterns. I paddled in the brown surf and decided to go a little further off the coast: Chocolate with a head of yellow cream.
There I found a nice large swell. Wind was increasing and it got colder. Once around the cape I had to work hard to keep up the pace.

Welcome to the Ukraine!
After a while it was time for a break and I went to the coast. The wind was increasing and the surf was long, very long. It took a while before I had Ukrainian soil under my feet. I celebrated with traditional Hungarian salami as lunch. Welcome to the Ukraine, I said to myself.
It was becoming colder and I put on my anorak, off we went again. The afternoon took away all my energy. I had to Paddle to the Metal to make some progress. Seagulls were passing by and played in the wind. I had to think about "The Lonesome Boatman" from Davey Arthur and The Fureys. Are there also war pipes in the Ukraine?

Then I heard the sound of an engine behind me. Two people were passing by in a motorboat and wanted to know where I am going and where I am sleeping. Question one I can tell, question two I never tell…Snoops around at night I never like! According to them it was protected area. Derzavnayj Zapovednyk.
Then I told them I am on the way to Moldova, a big smile appears on their face and they wish me good luck. Crazy Dutchman!
The rest of the day I was alone and in a far distance I saw a ship. It was heading to Odessa or further way to Jevpatorya? Who knows?
The horizon was first a stripe and then it changed into a forest and later on trees that transformed into branches and a beach. I had enough, I stopped. It was cold and I felt tired.
It was a tough day, that first day on the Black Sea. But I felt satisfied. The mud in my veins will be replaced by salt again, I was thinking.
Paddling at sea was different from being on a lake or a river.
My thoughts were changing again. You have to be more concentrated and alert. I love it:
“My camp will be near the dunes and don't know what to expect tonight?? Soldiers or will there be some smugglers around: Vessels full with illegal vodka finding their way in to the EU…”

Dawn was early coming and I was out of my tent before sunset. The wind was still sleeping and the sea was tranquil. “This is the beginning of a perfect day,” I thought.
Last night I made a decision. If the wind will be strong I will register in Prymorske, otherwise I will cross 15 miles to South Saheny. But first breakfast: A cup of tea, bread, salami and smoked cheese were my starters. The cheese was from goats and smells like it has been on the Barbie. The bread was nice the first day, the second day it was getting dry and the third day it all fell apart. The kayak was full of crumbs. But it kept you going.
I packed and started paddling North again. As expected, the wind was not leaving me alone and Prymorske will be my destination.
After a few hours a shipwreck was having my attention and time for a break. I could not see her name anymore, all rust and beaten up by the waves. Now I just have to go around the cape and paddle westward for a while and then I will arrive and register.
No problem…..

When wrong comes right and right comes wrong
After my break it was only two hours more. Suddenly the brown color of the water was replaced by blue water. No more mud and dirty water from the rivers. The Black Blue Sea.
Upon arrival I am surprised to see so many people. Prymorske is only a spot on the map but the beach looks like a colony of ants. Many Ukrainian and Russian people are coming here to spend the holidays. Natasha and Nikita were getting a suntan, while a woman with one tooth was clapping her hands.
Many people….and nobody spoke English.
Before I started with my trip we made translations in every country COBBER and I would pass by. Explaining why I do this trip and my motivation. In a few minutes there are a dozen of people around me: shaking hands, giving advice and offering a shot….all in the Russian language.

The translation helped a little bit and two Moldovan people came to me and spoke some German. They helped me to a camping and I got permission from the owner to stay there for the night and register at the border police.
Then suddenly things changed quickly and the two people were told to go off. I still said to them; "We will have a drink tonight…”
Police appeared and I had to leave COBBER behind. Still a minute was reserved to change my clothes. I was directed into a LARO (Russian landrover) and armed guards were sitting beside and behind me. No possibility to escape.
We were going to a caserne and told I was arrested, for being illegal in the Ukraine.
I protested and said I just wanted to register….the coming hours were spent with explaining, not agreeing and signing protocols. A poor speaking German translator was trying to do his best although he was not objective. When I wanted to go to the Lou, I had to leave the door open and armed guards were enjoying the smell. Just call it Dutch Comfort.

They had to explain everything ten times and I can not agree with the plan to repatriate me back to Romania. I had to act stubborn: In order to continue my trip. Hours were passing by and they told me I would be prosecuted.
That same night I had to appear in court. The judge was having a good mood:
I got an oral warning and had to leave the country within 24 hours. No fine and no Siberia! Lucky me.

COBBER goes hitchhiking
The next morning I was on the way to the border. The original plan was to let me go back to Romania, meaning I would be further and further away from the original trip. They agreed I could go to the Ukraine/Moldovan border Bohlrad.
Bye bye Ukraine
A kayak in the hinterlands: people were scratching their heads when they saw me. All they can say: Baidarka, the English word for Kayak.
At the border I was lucky to meet some people from a border assistance team from the EU. They gave me good advice and a couple of bob to buy a dinner. Frank, the one from Germany said: Travelers are a special breed and a little bit crazy. I nod my head. How right he can be.
I did get a stamp and turned around towards the Ukraine again. A guard was annoying me for over two hours, always repeating: “Gave me money, gave me money”. Meaning he wants money, a tip. After two hours I gave in and gave him a small Euro bill: I got a chair and a bottle of water and a shed of his cabin. The next hours he said: “You’re a good man, you’re a good man, sweating in the sun”. While I enjoyed the privilege of his shed, money talked and repeated as well. I called him the Ukrainian Parrot.
Then I had to wait for a lift from a truck. The first one I refused. He wanted to tie COBBER under the truck, but I feared for all the pebbles on the road. I didn’t want the kayak to be a strainer. After five hours there was another possibility. Not knowing where to put the kayak with this truckload full of scrap. So soon I was told. He had to go into a cylinder. Strange things were happening in the Ukraine!
Not knowing where I would end up, I took the ride and spent two days with COBBER and a Moldovan trucker on the Southern "Pothole Highways" from the Ukraine. Yee Haah!
With hands and feet we communicated and we had a lot of fun. We shared the meals with fresh cucumber and tomatoes and the always appearing melons along the road. Yummy Yummy.
He dropped me on a highway and I ended up in Bolhorod-Dnistrovskyj. This place is also known as Akkerman. The waters of Kyllyman. Turks, Mongols and many more have been here ruling for periods of time. The white fort is a silent witness, where blood was coloring the Black Sea. I met with a sailor who spoke fluent English and the coming two days I was part of the Akkerman Gang. They have tattoos from their hometown on their arms and acted as bodyguard. We spent hour after hour with talking, fishing and drinking. Ukrainian hospitality!
This water of Kylluman is connected with the Black Sea and a day paddle from my last part of the journey: Dnjester river, or Nistro as the locals call it.
So I was back on the track. I crossed to the other side towards Ovidiopol and am surprised to see a boy with big table tennis bats paddling a big inner tube from a truck…a mile of the coast. Crazy Ukrainians!

As my truck driver said: Ukraine, Always Problem!
I agreed. When I was already paddling upstream the river Dnjester the border with Moldova was closed. Soldiers were telling me full of aggression: I had to go away.
I don't give up. But it's useless. Again I had to paddle back to Hellyman, passing Crosna Cosa and then took another route over the road where I passed by the Starokozace border. Trucks, cars and a tractor did take me back in the right direction. The Grande Final would begin.

The weeks before heavy flooding did strike in Romania and Moldova. Also the river Dnjester was infested. Houses were swept away and vast areas of land had been and were still under water. Dikes were raised to protect towns from the flooding. And I had to go upstream…
The last part of my trip was the hardest. The river was stinking and smelling like a sewer, mud all over and the mosquitoes were whole day around: Moldovan Midges, related to the one from Scotland, only with a Russian Mentality.
The last day I paddled 21 hours in a row to get rid of the terrible surroundings. I made it, after almost five months and over 4000 km of paddling.
My slogan was: Two faces, a world of difference.
I did ask attention and raised money for the SmilesforMoldova foundation. We raised almost 30000 euro to help people with Maxillofacial Prosthetics in Chisineau, the capital of Moldova.
Later on I found out that one of my favorite artists died when I was on the way…
Ronnie Drew from "the oldest boy band in the World", the Dubliners passed away. How many times did I sing his song while paddling towards Moldova?
Don't give up till it's over
Don't quit if you can
The weight on your shoulder
Will make you a stronger man.

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