Friday, 14 August 2015

Silver Linings

Its been nearly a month weeks since we returned from our SUPing adventures, giving some time for the dust to settle and to reflect on the good, the bad and the ugly.

At first glance, our trip was a failure. We failed to complete our aim of travelling from Belgrade, Serbia, to Severin, Romania by SUP.

This was not the outcome we had expected or hoped for but equally, in reality, our exped was no less of an adventure than we'd dreamed of. In fact, I'd go as far as to say we learnt more from our 'failure' than we might have done if we'd continued without issue.


Arriving in Belgrade airport, we caught a taxi as far as the nearest stretch of River Sava (a tributary of the Danube), planning to paddle the few hours through central Belgrade to our hostel. We were grateful for easing ourselves in with a half-day - our initial set up of gear was chaotic, and the heat hit us hard! The following day cycling round Belgrade in search of camping gas let us taste some local delicacies (meat and feta pie for breakfast, served with drinking yoghurt - yum) and finalise kit prep. The lovely owners of Arkabarka hostel were very welcoming and happy to store our SUPs and Aquapac dry bags. As well as a jammy playlist to pack up to, they also gave us a cheery send off into the unknown (enjoying their cool beers from the water's edge).

Preparing to leave down the Sava

Our second day of paddling took us from the hustle and bustle of central Belgrade beyond its fringes into the surrounding countryside. We made sure to greet the funny looks of passers by with a big grin, and even attracted the attention of several boats eager to rescue us (we declined). Towards evening, getting hungry and ready for sleep, however, we feared we'd met our first disagreement with locals; shouts and calls from the waters edge demanded our attention, which we cautiously gave. To our delight, the shouts weren't demanding money, tedious paperwork or warnings but instead offered us our first Serbian beer! With only a handful of words in common, including 'Manchester City or United', we managed to negotiate Yugoslavian politics and (we think) invite all five of our new friends back to London to taste some British ales instead.

   Alex with our new Serbian friends

After refusing our fourth drinks, we left - with Rosie wearing her new Serbian sun hat that had been graciously donated to protect her frighteningly pale skin - to continue our search for a campsite. The beer seemed to relax our search criteria; within an hour we were cooking up cous-cous and tomatoes on the bank of a field. The setting was more beautiful than we expected, for sure, but it seems we'd also underestimated the midges. Ideals of peacefully watching the world go by from the water's edge were quashed as we retreated to hide away in our tent, still suffering too many mosquito bites to count.

Campsite at the end of our second day.

The morning finally brought relief from the insects and heat of our tent. After breakfast we were again excited and ready to tackle our first full day on the water! What a day it was; SUPing down quiet forested valleys, past small towns nestled in hillsides and alongside barges and reeds. Only a few of larger boats moved past us all day, and nearly all were keen to see what we were doing and, again, ask if we needed rescuing. The river was much wider than expected, over a mile in places, with some crossings at river bends taking half an hour. We also didn't expect to suffer such a ferocious headwind, all day. Combined, this made our progress more difficult, but fortunately the SUPs are extremely versatile so a combination of sitting, kneeling and standing helped beat the wind and any numbness from being in the same kneeling position.

   Photos from our longest and final day paddling. 

After more than nine hours paddling, we'd accomplished approximately 35km - more progress than we'd expected to make even without considering wind factors - taking us as far as Smederevo. Although elated, we couldn't ignore any longer the problem of Alex's shoulder; an old injury had flared up while surfing before we left for Belgrade, and several days of SUPing was already taking a huge toll. At the maximum regular pain relief dosage, we decided we needed professional medical advice. A pizza the size of a tyre, an ice-cream each and comfy bed partly made up for our unease while we waited for morning.

Advice the next day from our UK medical team, Dr Chris Press of Wilderness Medical Services, was sound but disappointing; Alex's shoulder was certainly not going to improve with more paddling but was likely to worsen. Confirmation of this by a local Serbian doctor made our decision for us: being less than half way through the trip and about to enter a much wilder and more remote area, the only safe option was to stop here.

Obviously frustrated and exhausted, we spent a day licking our wounds and considering options. It was clear we needed to stop and get Alex examined by a physio asap, but that didn't mean the adventures had to end here. Within a few hours, we were back in Belgrade for a proper look around - more Serbian beers, pie and yoghurt drink, mmm - before boarding a sleeper train bound for Budapest.The train ride was an adventure in itself; watching the lights of Belgrade fade into darkness as we sped away into a rocking sleep, only then to be woken many times in the night for never ending passport controls, and finally creeping into Budapest early the next morning before most of the city was awake to enjoy it. The adventures continued exploring Budapest and a couple of days later on the Isle of Wight, where we retreated to for cycling, fish and chips, chilly swims and sleep. It was so disappointing and frustrating to stop our original plan after months of preparation, but we managed to find so many silver linings. 

View of Pest from the Buda hills (Budapest, Hungary)

While we didn't get the prolonged physical and mental challenge of a long and continuous exped, we were pushed in other unexpected ways - the difficulty of recognising when to say 'no'; dealing with difficult decisions, especially when other stakeholders and sponsors were involved; and compromise. We were very fortunate to have the support of our fantastic sponsors, Origin Paddleboards and Aquapac, in coming home early in the interests of safety. The advice of our medical support at Wilderness Medical Services was invaluable in giving us the tools to make the right decision - from physio examination back in the UK, it seems stopping was definitely the right decision. Alex's injury has left no damage that is not recoverable but continuing may have changed this.

While our Danube expedition met an early end, we enjoyed every minute of travelling through Serbia (apart from 20 minutes of being mosquito food). Even after calling it quits, we stumbled upon other adventures that we would not otherwise have enjoyed. This might be the end for now, but we'll be back, and when we do we'll be better prepared than ever. 

Approaching the end of our paddle: hurting but still smiling


Another blog post will follow, including our kit list and 'things we wished we'd known' - we hope these might be of use to anyone considering a similar journey. In the mean time, we'd like to again thank our supporters and sponsors for all their assistance in our expedition: Origin Paddleboards, Aquapac drybags, and Wilderness Medical Services.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Cornish fun and sun

With a few days to go before the expedition I decided to get a bit of training on choppier waters whilst on a climbing holiday in Cornwall. Tentatively pumping the SUP up on the beach whilst looking at the rolling Cornish swell, I had a few second thoughts about taking the 12'6 flat water SUP out, but ended up having a whale of a time.

Whilst by no means responsive the SUP caught the waves well and provided an amusing afternoon.

Last minute prep has been going well, we've landed on a few days worth of army ration packs and the hammocks have arrived. All that remains is some final packing.

Rosie and Alex

Friday, 26 June 2015

10 Day Countdown Begins!

Coming soon: far from the Cam

Time is creeping by so that in just 10 days time we will be on the waters of the Danube River in Belgrade, Serbia, at the beginning of our journey!

From there, we're planning to stand up paddle board 300 km, mostly within the borderlands of eastern Serbia and eventually into west Romania as far as Severin. Of course, what we plan and what actually happens could be quite different things; the Serbian Met Office website suggests the river flow rate is reasonably strong this year, so we might get lucky and travel further than Severin, but equally we have lots to learn in the first few days and new river traffic to navigate (fewer punts, more shipping containers).

We've planned to try and ensure the first scenario happens, but some things are beyond our own control, so we'll just have to go with the flow (sorry, not so punny). Medical skills have been brushed up thanks to a session with Dr Chris Press at Wilderness Medical Services; WMS will also be providing medical and emergency support throughout the trip. Test runs using our Origin Paddleboards have helped build our confidence, endurance and technical SUPing skills, both on the River Lea under the instruction of Spike Reid, the mastermind behind the Paddleboard River Project, and during exam term on the River Cam.

And now in our last few days before leaving, amongst other university, work and travel commitments, we'll be doing final preps on kit and trying to get out for some more test runs on the boards. Oh, and eating and sleeping lots (Cambridge exam terms & May Week & Graduation have left us still feeling poooped), making the most of our beds and clean running water.

Rosie and Alex

Friday, 19 June 2015

Gear Sponsors and Testing on the Cam

We're delighted to announce that the Cambridge University Danube Expedition will be supported by two fantastic gear sponsors, Origin and Aquapac.

Origin Paddleboards are some of the best in the business; durable, inflatable and efficient in the water, they are perfect for international long-distance touring such as our planned trip. Origin have kindly provided two 12'6 Tour model boards for our expedition.

Aquapac are the proud makers of top notch waterproof bags in all shapes and sizes. Keeping camping, first aid and personal kit clean and dry will make our trip safe and much more comfortable than otherwise. We will be using a range of their bags, including phone cases, TrailProof dry bags and the 28L Tocca Daysack.

Now that exams are finally over, we have managed to put this new kit to the test on the River Cam in Cambridge. Navigating between the punts of tourists added to the prep of gear testing and SUP technique. But both the boards and dry bags performed fantastically - the latter being really put to the test by a couple of man overboard incidents...

Our phones remained dry and (bonus!) usable through the protective casing of Aquapac's phone bags - a phonecall after a wrong turn proved their usability without any issues of sound quality. The SUPs were light enough to transport them easily to our start point, but once inflated also sturdy enough to withstands a few collisions with punts. Having tried a range of paddle board brands on the River Lea training trip at Easter, we are sure the Origin touring board (12' 6) is the best around.

Our actual journey will be under different conditions but we now feel confident that we have the right tools to tackle those; both the SUPs and dry bags will be invaluable to the success of our exped. Many thanks to Origin and Aquapac.

Further gear reviews and updates coming soon...

Rosie and Alex

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The beginning

The date was set for our first taste of this mysterious new sport called Stand Up Paddle-boarding. Rosie had heard about the sport from one of her close friends, Spike, and put together a training trip down the Lee Valley River in London.

We set of early in the morning from central London, each of us carrying all the necessary gear on the crowded London train network.

We used Origin inflatable touring paddle boards which packed down small, kindly lent to us from Spike. This was a massive help and meant we didn't have to carry 12'6 boards through central London!

After a hasty debrief on how not to fall in from Spike, the rest of the team took their first tentative steps onto the SUP's finding them surprisingly stable. 

The team quickly got used to the rhythm of paddling through gentle scenic canals with the occasional portage over locks.  Whilst on this journey, we were struck by how many people were curious about our transport; few people knew what SUPs were and even fewer believed we would be using them for long distance travel (and without falling in!)

We arrived at our camping spot three hours after the sun had set, tired and pleased to pitch up our tents on dry land. After a good nights sleep and some SUPer porridge, we set of for ten more hours of SUPing to finally arrive at the confluence of the Lee Valley River and the Thames.