Daybreak on Thursday 6th July was very welcome indeed, it had been a difficult night. Contrary to the weather forecast, strong winds (up to force 5) had developed at around midnight. We were anchored in a shallow bay at the edge of a large lake-like section of the river which meant that the winds created significant waves. The anchor alarm went off at regular intervals throughout the night as we were being pushed around in ever-increasing circles. The sound of the wind, and the waves slapping the boat and the motion, felt like being at sea again. This did not make for restful sleep. Cy was awake most of the night on anchor watch, managing brief spells of napping. I slept a little more, but not much. Mercifully, the anchor held and we made it through the night, tired but unscathed. The winds did not drop in the morning either, so unsurprisingly, we opted to make an early start.
With a lot of effort, the anchor was heaved up and we made a bee-line for the gorge. Once inside, it was as still as can be and, in the early morning, a haze hung over the water.
Despite our tiredness, we were blown away by the dramatic nature of the scenery as we made our way along. Our depth gauge recorded 68m at one point, the deepest water since being at sea. It’s almost impossible to describe, but we went through steep narrow sections, which would then widen out into huge lakes. The cliffs were steep and high and greenery abounded. Spectacular!
At around 3pm we reached the sculpture of King Decebel at km 967 of the Danube. It is a modern sculpture, on the Romanian bank.
For the entire gorge, Romania is on the left bank and Serbia is on the right. Due to border controls and customs procedures, we could only stop on the Serbian side as that was the country we were cleared into. Otherwise it would technically be necessary to clear out of customs in one country and into the next. Conveniently, there is a charted anchorage on the right side directly opposite King Decebel and that is where we opted to stop. It was a gorgeous evening – warm, sunny and still. After a swim and dinner, we both slept very soundly indeed.
After our lovely peaceful night, we left the anchorage at around 8:30. Hefting (weighing..?) the anchor up was a lot easier in the calm weather! Shortly after leaving, we passed the Tabula Traiana which is a memorial plaque built by the Romans to go with a bridge constructed in 105 AD. The tablet was raised to its current location in 1972 when the gorge was flooded for the building of the Iron Gates 1 Hydroelectric Power Station.
Speaking of which, we arrived at the dam and lock (Djerdap 1) at midday or thereabouts. There are two locks, one on either side of the river operating on alternate days or weeks or something, we never found out which… We were able to figure out from ship movements on the AIS that it was the Romanian side operating that day, so we found a suitable waiting quay and tied up. It was not too long before a large barge arrived and there was a little room for Doris to squeeze in next to it. Once we were secure in the lock an official requested a crew list, which I was delighted about as I had lots of copies of one I had prepared before we left the UK and no-one had asked for it yet.
The locking took a while as there were two sequential chambers giving a total fall in height of 32 metres. Once out, the landscape started to flatten out again. We started looking for somewhere suitable to stop at around 5:30 pm, but didn’t have much luck. A couple of places looked promising on the chart, but in reality they were too shallow and clogged with weed. We spotted a barge tied up at what looked like a builders merchants and had I just managed to persuade Cy that we could ask to tie alongside when they moved off the spot, oh well.
A couple of hours later we spotted an old loading quay at a small town called Brza Palanka and made fast (another yachtie term…) there for the night. It was not possible to get ashore as the quay was designed for much bigger boats and was too high for us to climb off, but we had all the essential supplies necessary, so it didn’t matter.
There was a large group of young men jumping into the water and swimming nearby so we would have been wary of leaving Doris anyway.
Against the odds, a 6am departure was managed and by 8am, Doris was secured and waiting to go into the Djerdap 2 lock. Once again, it was the Romanian side that was operating. There were fun and games on the lock approach as there was no suitable space for a small boat to tie up and wait and no response on the VHF. For a while we wondered if we should have been on the Serbian side, which would have been a nuisance as it was on the other side of an island and required going a few km back upstream before we could turn about and get into the other channel. After a few minutes of uncertainly bobbing about, we noticed a man waving from the end of a pier section. He directed us around the end and we were able to throw lines up to him. This would not have been possible without his help due to the height. He was incredibly friendly and apologetically explained that we would need to wait an hour or so for the next boat and we could go in behind. He kindly asked if we needed anything and offered us water. When the time came, he was on the quay inside the lock and directed us in and showed us where to attach our lines. On leaving, we got the cheeriest wave imaginable.
This was the final lock of the journey and it was great to have such a pleasant experience. According to our logbook, we have been through 323 locks. It was another significant milestone on the journey.
Shortly afterwards we reached Prahovo, which is where we had to check out of Serbia. We clambered off Doris, onto the dock and up to the customs hut. There was no sign of anyone about, so I timidly knocked on the door. Eventually, a bleary eyed fellow in some sort of uniform answered the door. He did try and wave us away, but by this time I was half way across the threshold, so we were reluctantly allowed into the office/bedroom. After a bit of muttering and rummaging through paperwork, our exit document received the official stamp and off we went. After all our wonderful experiences in Serbia, this was a slight anti-climax, but at least there had been no difficulties.
The temperature increased throughout the day, and cooling off measures became necessary….
We reached the port of Vidin in Bulgaria later in the afternoon and tied up on one of the police docks behind a large tug. The formalities for clearing into Bulgaria were sorted within half an hour and we were welcome to stay overnight where we were but advised that caution was necessary going ashore. The low water levels meant the walkway did not meet the concrete steps, requiring a climb through a barrier, stepping across a gap and onto a small set of metal steps. We had managed worse.
There are a couple of restaurant barges that offered water and electric, so we thought we would check out that option (over a beer). As it happened, there was no space so we opted to stay put.
The restaurant barge was lovely, so after a stroll around town later in the evening, we returned for dinner.
We wanted to see more of Vidin, so stayed on the police pontoon another day. There is a large fortress which we had a look at early on Sunday morning and then headed to the market to top up on fruit and veg. By this time, it was mid-morning and already 29 degrees. In these circumstances a fountain is always welcome.
The evening arrived (after an afternoon spent hiding from the sun and purchasing groceries) and with it a fabulous moonrise.
We left Vidin at 8 am on Monday 10th July. Bulgaria marks a new time zone. This had caused us some confusion as our mobile phones had locked onto it a day or two earlier, but now we were officially in Bulgaria, we were a bit more certain about the time. It was definitely 8 am when we left, or possibly 7, or 9.
The heat was becoming difficult to cope with. We took turns to drive Doris and snoozing under the shade awning throughout the day. We arrived at the town of Oriahovo in the late afternoon and secured to a pontoon. I went ashore to check it was OK to tie there. It took a bit of detective work to find the office and then the services of Google translate were employed to tell me it would 15 euros to stay plus another 5 if we wanted water or electric. I think there may even have been additional per unit charges, Google translate was a bit sketchy on this point. I returned to discuss this with captain Cy and we both agreed this was a bit steep and the town didn’t look to be anything remarkable. I returned to the office and apologetically typed in that we would not be staying, sorry.
Around 20 km further downstream, we found a lovely anchorage and that is where we stayed.
It was a slower start the next morning, with a few jobs before departure. I had a quick swim, but the current was so strong that Cy had to haul me in using the throw line as I couldn’t get back to the boat myself (told you so…).
The river is much wider now, but the scenery is less dramatic. With the heat, it felt like a long day. At around 14:30 we passed what had been a fuel barge.
Later in the afternoon, we were passed by the guys from Vienna.
It took a while to find an anchorage for the night – the low water levels make it more difficult as lots of otherwise suitable places are just too shallow. There was a bit of a tangle with a submerged tree in one place we looked. In the end, we opted to stop in an area designated as an anchorage outside the town of Shishtov, tucked in amongst some big barges. It wasn’t pretty but there was plenty of depth and the weather was thankfully calm. We slept well which prepared us for the adventures ahead…