The boat was scheduled to leave at 4.30pm but they started letting people on at 4.10. It occurred to me that getting on now to bagsy a good seat would probably be a sensible thing to do. The seats at the front had already gone, but I don’t think they’re the best ones anyway for a river cruise, where the interesting stuff tends to be happening on the banks, ie on either side. In the lounge I found a seat by the window on what would (I hoped) be the right-hand side once we got going. Also in the lounge, I found a bar. I had just drunk my final mouthful of water, and was still terribly thirsty after my frantic journey from the wrong Wien railway station, so I bought a Sprite, which came in a can clearly marked 0.49 euro, but cost 1 euro 20. Still, this meant I now had lots of change for the bus in Bratislava.
At 4.30 prompt the engines started, and ghastly stinky fuming engines they were too, while we were moving into position (ie, putting the boat so that I was sitting on the right-hand side of it facing forwards). The last time I was on a catamaran was when Kerry and I were returning from the Isle of Wight, in such dreadful weather conditions that I paid keen attention to every detail of the emergency evacuation demonstration, because there seemed every likelihood we would shortly be doing it for real. This trip was much less scary; they didn’t even bother with an emergency procedure. And we went at a cracking pace, past posh hotels and container depots and … oh. We’ve slowed. There were no scheduled stops – were we dropping off one of the crew? Had something gone wrong?
Not at all. We were in a lock. A huge lock. I have seen, and expect yet to see, many amazing things during my adventure, but they are all going to have to work pretty damn hard to beat the lock on the Danube. It was enormous. Our boat wasn’t tiny – it could hold over 100 passengers, and we were next to the biggest dredger ever – if it was going down the motorway, it would need a police escort and take up all three lanes, that’s how big it was. And we weren’t the only two boats in the lock, there were others in front and behind.
The next bit is tricky to describe because unfortunately I lack the necessary nautical vocab, but I’ll do my best. Our … rope. Painter! that’s the word. Our painter was … moored … hoist … hooked around … one of those bollards, metal knobby thing, you know what I mean. Our boat started to sink (ie, because it was in the lock and the water level was dropping, not because of a Major Incident requiring a Proper Emergency Procedure). And as our boat descended so did the metal knobby thing. It took a while for me to notice, because I thought we were going down, but then I thought we couldn’t be, because the crew member didn’t seem to be letting out any more rope, which generally they have to do in a lock. And then I realised that there was a special vertical channel that the metal knobby thing (please somebody tell me what it’s actually called) moves down in, so it stays alongside the boat.
I was not the only passenger to find this absolutely fascinating, and the crew member seemed pleased with the arrangement because instead of having to let out lots and lots of rope he could just stand there having a cig.
After about half an hour, we moved out of the lock, and on down the Danube. My bank was populated with sheds on sticks. Fishing huts I suppose. Lots of them had weird net things at the front, sort of but not quite over the water; like a square hammock, but I’m sure that’s exactly what they weren’t. Eventually the sheds on sticks became less and less frequent until they were replaced by fallen trees, which looked as though they’d been damaged or washed up (or both) by floods.
After that it was just trees. Like sailing up the Amazon. No roads or paths or signs of civilisation: just trees. Quite big trees, too, because when finally there was a solitary person on the bank, either he was a matchstick model man or the trees were huge. Mostly they had silvery-grey, feathered leaves, but some were bright and autumnal, and some were just green and enormous (I really don’t feel I can stress this enough).
In fact it was all very Lord of the Rings and Peeder Jigson might just as well have shot those bits on the Danube, rather than helicoptering everybody into remote bits of the North Island. I had to edit out all the other passengers but once I’d done that it was perfectly possible to pretend I was in a canoe with Boromir and Legolas doing the paddling, and the sun slowly sinking behind us.
All good things come to an end, of course. Sheds on sticks started to reappear, then a fortress on a cliff, some buildings, and – goodness – a bridge; the first since Vienna. This was Bratislava.