If canoeing the continent was easy, everyone would do it. Honestly, the end of last week left us melancholy about heading east and out of France. In France after 6 weeks we felt comfortable. By the end of day 45 (the first of this week) we were ecstatic and had left France behind.
Day 45 was a roller-coaster. It began with the steady build up. We manoeuvred around the remaining two locks in Mulhouse with only the weakest opposition from the young lock keeper at the second. We then paddled the 16km with the rowers to the final lock and our desired entry into the Rhine.
It was at this point the day turned towards a major low. As we paddled towards our final lock on the Rhone Rhine Canal we spotted the chance to join a Dutch couple, their dog and their boat for an easy ride in the lock. All looking good so far. We paddled in and were happily inside the lock stroking the dog. Happy days we think. Then the shit hits the fan. The very nice VNF man asks us where we're going. We tell him in stages. A long way. Germany first. Then the Danube. Then across Europe. How? He asks. We tell him we want to get to the old Rhine. We know the canal is for shipping and that is fine. We're going to the old river Rhine.
Unfortunately his young man is pretty good at his job and it is his job to ask questions of everyone leaving France. In order to get to the old Rhine we would have to cross the shipping canal and this is prohibited. So I tell him that's cool, we'll walk until we can cross safely.
Its at this point our stomachs lose their usual location. He tells us that canoeing on the Grand Canal we will surely die. The VNF man was kind enough to repeat this explanation to the other boats we were now holding up. As we left the lock to go seek some authorisation in the VNF office we were given sympathetic goodbyes for the Dutch couple, now aware of our impending deaths.
So there we stood in the VNF office staring death in the face. The VNF man made several phone calls which I tried to understand while Jimmy prepared for diplomacy that Kofi Annan would be proud of. Eventually the man returned with a pragmatic response.
He tells us that he was young once, I tell him that so was I but his English doesn't stretch to sarcasm. He tells us that he has spoken to his boss on the phone but there is nothing he can do to stop us. He tells us that he takes no responsibility for us, he photocopies our IDs, and we shake hands and leave. We leave with smiles and good lucks but our mood is pretty low as we carry our gear around the lock.
So we then paddled straight across the shipping lane and sat on the other side for a belated lunch. We'd seen no other boats yet and believe it or not we were still alive. As we attempt to make sandwiches a bemused EDF engineer stops his car by us on this island between old and new Rhine. He is timid in the face of our hungry sandwich making, but it's pretty clear that we're not meant to be there.
Lunch eaten, I make my worst mistake of the trip so far and our day does another loop the loop. Spotting a possible route to the old Rhine, I tell Jimmy I'll be 5 minutes while I have a look.
I walk for 400m or so through forest and scrub following an irregular path. Not finding the supposedly parallel river, I turn back. Two minutes later, I'm lost. After a couple of minutes trying to run back through bushes, I start being sensible. I shout for Jimmy. And keep shouting.
It's not long before I hear a reply. Jimmy's not a fucking idiot like me and says he realised the danger as soon as I left. He was also shouting my name and its not long before I'm back with the canoe.
A little bit shaken, the ride continues. We look at our maps and decide to cross the next bridge when we come to it. Literally. Luckily, I soon spot a more obvious track to the other side. This time Jimmy checks it and it does indeed reach the other side.
As we prepare for the walk to the other side Jimmy breaks the second strap on the canoe wheels. Having broken the other strap myself last week and now reclaimed some composure, we again fix the wheels and walk with the equipment for 5 minutes to reach the old Rhine.
There is Germany on the other side. And, we're still alive. But Jimmy thinks that the boats in the distance might be white-water rafts...
Turns out its 20 kids messing around on a plastic dinghy and Jimmy needs to calm down. We paddled straight across to the other side. Celebratory photos taken, and both still alive, we start again on a new river. A couple of hours later, we're camped (on the German side of course), we've made good ground on a fast flowing downstream current and the world's a better place. The roller coaster's over.
Only thing is, it's left us with that sickening feeling. So for day 46 we decide to make for the first rowing club on our map and get some more information about the Rhine and our imminent death.
The nice German woman at the rowing club blushingly admits to only speaking school English, but her English is actually perfect. She looks over the map and says she has rowed on the Rhine for years. The other rowers we saw seemed similarly unperturbed by the canoe. The jet skiers who got in our way all day didn't seen worried about dying either. And neither did the three or four tankers who cruised past a safe distance from the canoe on those parts of the Rhine where the old river and new canal link up.
So we survived a couple of days on the Rhine. The water isn't flowing fast anymore and it's pretty hot. But the way for canoes around the wehrs are clearly signposted and the river is safe. More importantly, we should be in Strasbourg in a couple of days and Jimmy's finally fallen asleep as I finish this mammoth blog in our tent with the empty beer bottles outside.
Au Revoir France, we're camping in Germany again tonight.