For the last four days of this week the wind has lessened and we were able to make good progress. I call it a week, though it was, in fact, ten days long and by the time we reached Vidin we were well and truly shattered. Now we are here and I can reflect on the last four days, they were more about the people and the places than the river; canoeing was just a small part. It ends up with a long old blog post despite that fact I feel I've left a lot out!
The day after our last blog was day 105 and we left the Danube Gorge via a large hydro electric dam. We paddled up to it, expecting to get out and walk around, but the Serbian security waved us away. We sat in the water while he radioed his bosses and, despite telling him we had passports only for Serbia, he told us we should go over to the other side of the river. We canoed over to the other side of the river. There the Romanian security waved us away and told us we should go over to the other side of the river. We told them that this was exactly what the Serbians had said and, after looking at the high cliff road, waiting around and telling the security guard about our expedition, he radioed through to an incoming cruise liner and ushered us into the lock.
With photos of us being taken from atop the giant cruiser, 'Atriums Classic', we were lowered down through the lock, then moved into its second chamber to be lowered some more. The whole process took over an hour from our entry to us leaving the dam, but we were back out on the water with the first hurdle overcome.
We had lunch 10 kilometers on and went to fill up our water in a cafe. Since it turned out to be a fish reatraunt, and we told them we'd already had lunch, they gave us two coffees, a bunch of grapes, two apples and a plate of biscuits. All for free. We chatted to the friendly owner, Stevan Stanojlovic, who was impressed with our efforts and left in good spirits, grateful for the free gifts he granted us.
There followed a stormy night where booming thunder and lightening passed directly over us and kept us in the tent for an extra hour the next morning. The rain eventually stopped and we paddled to Brza Palanka where we planned to have lunch. After being pursued by dogs from the canoe to the village we decided to do some quick shopping then move on to a nearby beach. For the second day in a row we had lunch in a great spot, then went to fill up our water in a cafe and had two coffees for free, again courtesy of the friendly cafe owners!
We paddled some more on the still lake we have been on all week, water now trapped between the giant dams. By evening we were in sight of the second dam and found a great camp spot that looked suspiciously like a fisherman's cove. To make sure, we popped our heads into a next door cabin and asked if it would be alright to camp on the grass we'd found. The two young guys were perfectly happy and as we pitched the tent they came over to say hi and invited us over to their cabin when we were ready. As we continued to cook dinner they re-emerged with a wheelbarrow full of chopped wood and an axe to make a campfire. We thanked them and, as we started to eat our dinner, they wandered over a third time with a large bag of apples for us to take away.
Having eaten we went up to their house and chatted about our trip, showed them pictures, asked about Serbia and talked about fishing. We drank strawberry juice and tea, since they knew the English love to drink tea, and headed back to our tent in the darkness feeling like we'd had a good few days of meeting and speaking to good Serbian people.
With the split firewood to burn, we had a breakfast campfire before paddling off to the hydro electric dam the next morning. We got to the banks, removed our gear and hauled the canoe up onto the shore. There were a lot of people about and we knew it would not be a simple case of walking around, but with our canoe on show we had made our intentions clear and, dumping our bags by the riverside, we wondered how long it would be before those people got involved.
First someone shouted to us from a window but our efforts at conversation were halted by us knowing no Serbian and they no English. Then a security man with a gun on his hip came over and told us to wait by the canoe. The man from the window emerged and spoke with the security guard. Then a third man arrived in a car and the three of them made some phone calls with plenty of nodding. I walked, with the friendly security guard by my side, to the bags where he poked around and allowed me to get our documents out. Back at the canoe another man had arrived, a policeman, and all four men looked at our documents and nodded some more. They wrote down our names, passport numbers and birthdays before allowing us back on the water, telling us things about the border we'd been told a hundred times before.
Half an hour later we were in Prahovo where we aimed to check out of Serbia. Yet again we met a variety of people keen to help, mainly through them talking and us nodding. We walked first through an industrial site, stained red with iron ore, under cranes, past reversing lorries and over railway lines following a worker who knew where the police were. The policeman told us to go to the shipping office. We found the shipping office and had our boat documents signed before being sent back to the police for them to do the final checks. After a bit more faff we were on our way and heading out of Serbia with yet more controls dealt with and another hurdle passed.
Having that day spent more hours dealing with borders than in the canoe, it was with some reluctance we disembarked a few hours later to look for the Bulgarian border police in Novo Sello. After accidentally walking into someone's house and finding no police station, we gave up on the village and decided to wait instead for the Vidin customs point.
So we camped illegally on a Bulgarian beach that night before arriving here in Vidin the next day at around lunchtime. The border police were friendly and welcoming and when we told them we were stopping here to rest they allowed us to lock Dora to their pontoon, where she now resides securely among police boats. We ate lunch in the warm and dry of a tourist office and then found a cheap hotel where we're staying for two nights.
It has been four days, then, where people have been the major headlines. At borders and locks we always seem so unusual that everyone wants to consult a range of different authorities before we can pass, but in each case the reception has usually been friendly. Our friendly fishermen and welcoming cafe owners have each perked us up and given us a taste of Serbia; hopefully the Bulgarians and Romanians will do the same.