Tuesday 10th August: Belgrade

 

BELGRADE, at km 1169 on the Danube, is the capital of, and the largest city in Serbia, with a population of 1.7 million people. When I first flew in there in the late 80s with Qantas, it was the capital of the former Yugoslavia. If you look at the history of the place you can see it’s had the shit beaten out of it more times than you can count. The first world war began in 1914 when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. In the second world war Yugoslavia was invaded by German, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian forces which seems just a little unfair if you ask me. It must have been the central position of it on the continent, as from 1521 to 1815 it changed hands 9 times between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire. The list reads like the annual winners engraved on the FA Cup trophy. It got me wondering if maybe there is a trophy for this but I couldn’t find anything on Google.

 

With the recent scrap in the 90s when Yugoslavia was broken up leading to the current dislike between Serbs and Croats, I wondered how Otto would cope, being there in Belgrade. But he seemed ok and it appeared that he was something of a celebrity because of his jet ski world record, which continued to be mentioned at an alarming rate.

 

But enough of that, as even though this day was a day off, I had things to do. This included drinking coffee and not being in a hurry, eating a real breakfast, having a read to see if anybody had declared war on Serbia today, answering about 300 emails, catching up with blog writing, doing some washing, doing a nose hair trim and turning up for two television interviews.

 

War had not been declared so Otto and I went together to separate breakfast show interviews live in the studios. This was all good for publicity and I said a few things that were then translated and Otto did most of the talking. I hoped he hadn’t offended anyone and we all had a good laugh, even though I had no idea what I was laughing at, and at least they didn’t need to dub in the fake laughing tracks.

 

Later that day, we all went down to the White Yachting Club where Stuart the cameraman did one on one interviews with all the team. Then we checked the bit of maintenance that was being done on the skis in preparation for our departure the next morning. My ski had gone through a tank draining to get the remaining bits of plastic out that were blocking the filter, and all the skis had been given an oil change. One thing that was commented on was that the rear servicing hatches on the boarding platform were warping and not creating a full seal, just as Kevin Geard had predicted. We tried to line the seals with rubber strips to create a better seal but it was looking extremely dubious.

 

While we were checking out the skis, Otto discovered a major problem with one of the drive shafts and the jet pumps. This needed to be fixed and the parts would have to come from Croatia, so it looked like we might not get away until the following afternoon. There was no alternative but to go out for a few beers, and a few more and another bloody good feed.

 

Wednesday 11th August: Belgrade again

 

THE PARTS DIDN’T ARRIVE so we went went out for a few beers, and a few more and another bloody good feed.

 

Thursday 12th August: Belgrade to just past Moldova Veche 

 

AFTER TWO FULL DAYS in Belgrade we were ready to get on with the ride. Everyone we were involved with there had been very kind so we couldn’t complain about that. The Holiday Inn that we were staying at had given us free accommodation for three nights instead of the planned one and all the servicing on the skis had been done for free. But we just needed to get going as we were falling further and further behind schedule. This was a major frustration for me, as I had to keep updating the people that we needed to interact with further down the track with a forever changing ETA.

 

Later in the morning the parts arrived so we did’nt go out for beers, but it took just about all of the rest of the day to sort the problem and then crane the skis back into the river. We said thank you and goodbye to all involved and headed off at speed down river.  Our first stop was to clear customs out of Serbia at the appropriate spot, which was quick and efficient. Then we headed east to Moldova Veche, at km 1050, a Romanian port on the northeastern bank of the Danube.

 

Romania is a country located at the crossroads of central, eastern and southeastern Europe. It shares land borders with Bulgaria to the south, Ukraine to the north, Hungary to the west, Serbia to the southwest and Moldova to the east. It has a population of roughly 20 million people and when you enter it, it’s like taking a step back in time. It’s main claim to fame from what I can see is the legendary Count Dracula (and Adolina-see below). The Romanian scenery is spectacular and everything is different but interesting. When you drive the roads in Romania it’s common to see horse drawn carts.

 

We needed to clear customs at Moldova Veche. We were met at the wharf by some officers in smart grey uniforms. One was a woman. Her name was Adolina. I don’t know about you, but a good looking girl in a uniform does tend to raise my blood pressure a notch or two*. And Adolina was particularly ‘hot’ with her Auburn waist length hair, classic European features and her calf length black boots. The customs clearance process was dreary and old fashioned with actual entries being made in large ledger books the size of a briefcase. But somehow, it all just went too quickly and we sadly waved goodbye and hit the river again.

 

It wasn’t far off dark so we had phoned ahead to a small hotel about 30km down the river and booked a couple of rooms. We had no idea where the ground crew were and neither did we really care. Locating the spot on the river where the hotel was proved not too easy, but eventually we did. The only place we could find to moor was an old wooden jetty with half the planks missing. It was not ideal but it would have to do as there was no alternative, so we tied up there and walked to the hotel in the dark. 

 

On arrival at the hotel, the owner said that they had no rooms as they had been booked by people who were arriving later. A discussion ensued where we mentioned that we may be those people. The owner didn’t agree with our logic. Rather than argue, we retired to the dining room and ate while we waited to see if the ‘people’ turned up, having determined that we would sleep on the floor under the dining tables if need be. Eventually the owner decided that we could have the rooms and all was well.

 

*For readers with other sexual preferences just remove the word girl and insert your preferred option and then I should have no complaints. Thank you.

 

Friday 13th August: Just past Moldova Veche to Kozloduy

 

I’M NOT REALLY the superstitious type and Friday the 13th had so far snuck by in my life without too much drama. I’m more aware of the number 14 as I’ve had some unpleasant stuff happen to me, sometimes as a result of relaxing with a sigh of relief after the 13th. When I skydived in my younger years my main shoot failed on jump 14 and I pulled the reserve and landed on Whenuapai Airport’s fire station roof. Later that afternoon which was the 14th, I was flying the drop plane for other skydivers when I had an elevator failure and did a semi-controlled crash landing onto the main runway. The fire trucks turned up to that and the firemen recognised me from the morning and said, “Not you again!” After that I gave up for the day and went for a few beers. It crossed my mind to get a taster to check for poison in the beer.

 

AS A NEW ZEALANDER I’m a bit spoiled when it comes to animals that might kill you for fun or for food. There aren’t any except the odd great white shark way down south. I know animal lovers and zoologists will right now be foaming at the mouth and saying that animals would never kill you for fun. But you would be ruining my story so go and get a cup of tea or something for this section. Anyway, one problem I’ve always  had with Australia is that just about every animal wants to dispatch you into your next life or make you part of the food chain, from snakes to spiders to sharks, and kangaroos that bounce out in front of your car. For some reason (ignorance) I had imagined that Europe might be free of all these pests and so I was blissfully unaware of the presence of snakes in Europe until we went to get on the skis in the morning, and there was one in the water right between them. 

 

On searching the internet now, it seems that there are ten species of snake living in Romania, of which three are venomous. One, the horned viper, is perhaps the most dangerous snake in Europe. 

 

Now the fact that snakes were lurking in the sand and grass along the Danube put a slightly different spin on things every time we came ashore outside of towns, and would affect my thinking later that day with consequences.

 

 Apart from discovering the snake, we did get some great news before departure by phone. We heard that the ground crew had slept in a paddock overnight. There are some that say that to get enjoyment out of the misfortune of others is wrong. I have never claimed to be perfect and here is a classic example of this, as I had a jolly good chuckle at that news. And if you are really honest with yourself, you would have too.

 

BUT ANYWAY, back to the journey itself. We needed to make up some time as we were nearly three days behind schedule. Full speed was the order of the day which was at best just over 90 kph plus 8 from the river so we could do nearly 100 kph of ground speed. However, the river was full of rubbish and we often had to stop and pull over on a sandbank to remove plastic bottles or rope or bits of snake from the jet intakes. This often wasted a lot of time.

 

It would seem that no love is lost between nations that share the Danube. For navigation and shipping it works well but there are always arguments between different countries about water usage and each country upstream seems happy to dump all their rubbish in the river to share with their downstream neighbours.

 

We continued on down for a while, enjoying the ride, when we entered a gorge of sorts just 30km or so up from the Irongate 1 dam. As we entered the top of the gorge it started to rain and the sky turned black and then shortly after, there was torrential rain. It wasn’t long before lightning started to strike the water within close proximity to us. Now I know what you are thinking, “So what, they had lightning protection on board.” Ummm, actually, no. Because the lightning rods were so heavy and cumbersome and we weren’t expecting thunderstorms much in Europe, the lightning rods were in Larry the landrover parked next to a paddock. 

 

I still remember how truly close to shitting myself I came that morning.  When you are on a flat surface of water, with lightning all around you, and you are the only things sticking up, you feel totally helpless. I really thought one or all of us were going to die. This is the sort of time as well, when you need someone like Barrie with you. Being much taller than me he would have no doubt been struck first. So in effect, he would be a sacrificial anode of sorts and a great friend to boot. And even if his head exploded from the strike he would still be taller than me and continue to provide protection……But he wasn’t there, so I was the tallest and it was with huge relief that the rain eventually eased and we came out the other side.

 

After our undies were cleaned out we continued on to the Irongate 1 dam and lock where we discovered that we would have to wait for two hours to go through. As Irongate is also a hydro-electric power station, they weren’t prepared to waste all that water just for us and were waiting for one of the many large boats that cruise the Rhine and the Danube between Rotterdam and Bucharest to arrive heading east.

 

THE IRONGATE 1 DAM is at km 943 on the Danube. To the north is Romania and to the south is still Serbia. The dam is the largest dam on the Danube and one of the largest hydro power plants in Europe. It produces 2,282 MW, which is approximately the same as two reactors of a modern nuclear power station.

 

For three and a half hours we lay around on the top of the lock in 35 degrees in the sun and finally the cruise boat appeared. Going through the lock with the cruise boat created great interest for the passengers on the boat and we were photographed constantly the whole time. I think we were all worried about fading from all the flashes so once the gates opened at the bottom we shot out like bullets from a gun and continued east at speed.

 

A few kilometers  down river we saw a tavern on the Romanian side of the river with a wharf of sorts alongside it. To my amazement the ground crew were there. So Otto and I pulled over and tied up alongside the concrete structure. Then Jed, who was slightly behind us, turned up and seeing a crowd of people in the tavern, decided to make some huge waves and thrash around a bit. This had the effect of making our skis bash uncontrollably against the concrete and Otto and I were mightily annoyed. The word goose comes to mind but don’t get to thinking I’m goosaphobic. Some of my best friends are geese and I’ve worked with many over the years. You know who you are too!

 

We got something to eat at the tavern while the crew went and got some fuel for us in the oppressive heat.  After a while the owner of the tavern got the shits because we were using his dock for too long, so I asked our cameraman Stuart to film him which he did (with the camera turned off) and everything calmed down. When all was done and eaten, off we went again.

 

At km 863 we went through the much smaller Irongate 2 dam and then at km 846, what had been Serbia on the south side of the river, became Bulgaria. About half an hour before dark we encountered another huge thunderstorm which whipped up a strong headwind and large chop on the river. We obviously weren’t going to make our target for the day so we started to look for a suitable place to camp at km 700.

 

We had just settled on a small island, about a 100m long and with a sheltered inlet, on the Romanian side and had sent Otto off to the nearest town for food when we heard him returning with another ski in tow. The new guest turned out to be another ‘George’ from Bulgaria who said that he knew of a safe place on the Bulgarian side of the river with a hotel right next door. It would be illegal to do this, but it was a small town and we thought, under the circumstances, that it was a pretty good proposition. Before you become judgemental on this, consider the options. Sleeping in the open on a sandy, bushy island, likely known to locals as ’Snake Island’, or a warm bed in a quiet hotel across the river. How say you now? 

The Danube is over a kilometer wide this far down, so the town was just visible in the distance. We followed George to the harbour, which was just to the west of Kozloduy, and tied the skis up to a large ship parked in the harbour, owned by two old Bulgarians who promised to look after them. Then George led us 80 meters to a cheap hotel, the Radetzky. We had a good feed and a beer and the waitress was gorgeous and the boys were all in love or lust or a combination of both. We went to bed content and happy that life was good.

Saturday 14th August: A bad day in Kozloduy

 

I WOKE THE NEXT MORNING at 6am and took a look out the window to see what the weather was like. We were hoping to make the Black Sea at Constanta by the end of the day so a nice day would help. As I scanned the horizon my eyes came around onto the boat that the skis were tied up to and I noticed that they didn’t seem to be where we had left them. I asked Otto to confirm this which he did. We hurried down to the boat and they definitely weren’t there. Maybe the old guys had moved them. We barged in to the boat and woke them up. They knew nothing. It was then that it sunk in. The skis had been stolen. I felt like vomiting. I could now see the possibility of the total destruction of everything I’d worked for over the last three years.

 

So what to do? There really was only one thing to do, call the police, which one of the old boys did now. Meanwhile I went walking down the river bank hoping to find the skis in the bushes somewhere just down stream. There was no sign of them.

 

A couple of policemen turned up fifteen minutes later but couldn’t speak English, so they phoned for an interpreter who turned up another fifteen minutes later. His name was Rosen Popov. Through Rosen, we communicated all the details and then I remembered that I had taken a photo of George who had led us over here the night before. I suspected he might have had something to do with it. You will know how sometimes you have runs of luck when you can’t do anything wrong and then other times when you are a perpetual shit magnet? George will attest to that because when we showed the photo to the policeman no ‘lights’ came on, but when Rosen peered over his shoulder he said, “I know him. He lives in my apartment building.” This in a town of 13,000 people.

 

The policeman made a quick call then turned to Rosen again and Bulgaried him. Then Rosen said to me, “He wants to know what you are doing here in Bulgaria and can he see your passports.” If you were paying attention in the last chapters, you would remember that we had cleared customs into Romania on the north side of the Danube and had snuck into Bulgaria for the night. If you weren’t paying attention it doesn’t matter because you are back up to date. I explained this to Rosen. 

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