As we camped illegally on the Bulgarian border the other night, I got to thinking. And I thought, being here is pretty much just like being back in Leamington Spa, those days we spent 'training'.
You see after a long day where we'd got past the four guys at the giant hydro electro dam - the guys talking in quick Serbian with one of them tapping a gun he had holstered at his hip, and then after that the border police where we went back and forth getting our documents signed and leaving the country. After all of that stuff, we were camping in Bulgaria but hadn't actually checked into the country yet. We didn't have our passports stamped and so we kept low, tucking ourselves under some trees on the banks and talked quietly all evening, hoping no one would find us.
And there, I thought, that was just like in Leamington. That time where we canoed up to a oil drum barrage across the river Avon and a sign that read "National Trust. No Entry". We pulled the canoe over the barrage and paddled through anyway. Heads low and paddling quickly, we glided past the front of an old Manor house where a couple looked out the window at us in surprise. Quickly through, we hauled the canoe over the barrage on the other side and paddled away. There, just like here, we were in the thick of it out in unauthorized territory. On the river Avon, just like the banks of Bulgaria, we were hiding from the long arm of the law - the National Trust.
Now it's true the river Avon was a quiet country river and here in Bulgaria we've got tankers. Most emphatically was the day we paddled into Mainz in Germany and had to cross the fast flowing Rhine at one of its busiest points. There were tankers moving in both directions and one performing an overtaking maneuver in the centre of the river. We surged across the Rhine as smaller leisure boats zipped around us churning up the water further. And, as we thought we'd made it to the other side, a cruise liner moved out from its moorings on the shore sounding its horn loudly. A man in a clean white hat stood at its bow, yelling at us and shaking his fist.
That, right there, wasn't overly dissimilar to Leamington either. Sure, not on the Avon. But on the canal in Leam I distinctly remember a man at the stern of his boat shouting at us. He shouted us over and as we drew up to his boat he asked us what we were up to. "Sounds mighty good fun!" He said and wished us luck on our trip. As his canal boat moved past we rocked in the wake that rippled from its rear as it adhered to the careful 6mph speed limit. We sat for a while to let the water settle as it rippled against the canal bank. Pretty dangerous stuff really.
And that rippling is a sound I've grown used to now as I sleep each night by the water side. Tonight I'm here on an island in amongst a network of confusing sand banks. To get here we had to check our maps regularly to ensure we didn't get lost. Checking the map for the fifth time, I realized that Leamington had sort of been the same.
There was this day where we tried going upstream on the river Leam. Although there were no real islands and no branching channels to confuse us, with the only real way being straight on; we had nevertheless been out for almost half an hour and were in a world of bother. We didn't know exactly where we were. We stopped in the shallow water and I clambered up the bank. I peered through the thick hedge and turned to Nathan.
"Can you see anything?" He said.
"Yeh", I replied.
"Yeh, you know the Leam Rugby Club?"
"The one the bus goes past? Where they always have that car boot sale?"
"Yup. We're just by that."
So there we are, canoeing the continent and canoeing in Royal Leamington Spa are not too dissimilar at all. We've even got dogs here! I remember a night on the Serbia/Romania border where they howled and howled for ages. And I remember the countless e-mails I had from people telling me to be watchful of stray packs of rabid dogs. I remember getting a big old rabies jab thrust into my arm as the nurse said, "careful, lots of dogs in Romania." Ha! I thought, yeh, but there's actually a lot of dogs in Leamington too. And there were. There was one day on the canal when we saw four dogs being walked and I reckon one of them might well have had a limp. There was also this small blonde woman walking two dogs and then one, this chocolate brown Labrador, growled at me. And it growled for a while too, so I reckon its a possibility that he might have had rabies.
So, there you are. Leamington kind of has it all. Come to think of it, it seems mad I'm even out here! If you want to experience canoeing across Europe, just visit Royal Leamington Spa. It's pretty much, almost completely, exactly the same.