new travels ... and a changing world

 

During our early years together, George was still living in Yorkshire;  I had moved to Cambridge following my father's death so that my mother could be near my sister and family.  While there I took advantage of the nearby airfield to part-fulfill an old ambition of learning to fly, though in this case it was a glider.  At the time George was still teaching and in his 'spare time' lecturing to societies when he wasn't climbing mountains or on some expedition.  I was still travelling though for shorter periods, though we tried to combine our travels when we could.  By that stage, following my return from Finland, I had been full-time freelancing for a while, slowly building up markets but increasingly concentrating on travel rather than fiction.

I quite soon came to share George's enthusiasm for camping, even though he did not believe a tent was a tent if you could stand up in it.  Some of our camp sites were truly idyllic, but on others we found ourselves on the edge of a communal rubbish dump or surrounded by inquisitive children and, at far more, we arrived immeasurably wet and cold, our mood to be transformed by warm sleeping bags and mugs of hot tea.  Our availability to the local population could at times act as a limitation on privacy, but also meant that we were often invited into people's homes.  This was especially true in some parts of eastern Europe which then rarely saw Western visitors.  And then George's circumstances changed, his three sons had grown up and we decided to make our lives together.  We put a pin in the map and settled for Steeple Aston, north Oxfordshire. 

Soon after our move, still suffering from the effects of a bug he had picked up in Africa, George joined the gym at the leisure centre in Banbury.  He had always been a fitness freak.  Drinking hadn't improved my health and I took up yoga being more interested in mobility and balance than muscle and strength.  The interest in yoga stayed with me and has certainly paid off in terms of both mobility, balance and focus in old age.

One of our more idyllic camp sites in North America

George, of course, never lost his love of the mountains and continued to join his climbing friends at every opportunity.  I soon became familiar with the members of his club, the Yorkshire Ramblers' Club (which did anything but 'ramble') and his other climbing friends.  It was one of the greatest, Tom, who introduced him to long distance canoeing as a result of which we bought an aluminium canoe and joined a canoe association with which we did canoe-camping trips on the upper Thames.   It was good to meet like-minded enthusiasts among whom we made friends for life with Moira and Graeme Hammond.

Tom's enthusiasm for long distance canoeing could have been better timed as it coincided with George's and my first summer in Steeple Aston.  However, Tom had persuaded George that they should take on a major adventure together:  in this case retracing the paddle strokes of a small British expedition canoeing expedition of three men fifty years earlier in northern Canada.  All three men had perished so I was not so keen on the idea.  However, they had not survived because the reindeer migrations had failed that year, leading to the men's starvation, and Tom and George would not be dependent on that, so off 'my man' went while I settled in north Oxfordshire during the hottest summer on record.  Happily we all survived this, including me as it also coincided with my first 'dry' summer.  Indeed George's absence was perhaps fortuitous for I was not in the most amenable frame of mind while I learned 'not to drink' a day at a time.   When George returned  I  announced that next time I'd go with him, not assuming he would take me literally until a couple of years later he suggested we should canoe the full length of the Danube which crossed most of Europe, at that  time in the middle of the Cold War and divided between East and West.

By then I had some knowledge of East European countries, at least for short visits usually in the company of a local guide.  Travelling by our rather less orthodox mode of transport and camping in places that would be difficult to schedule in advance was clearly going to be a very different matter.  I left George to do the planning, as far as our timetable was concerned, and concentrated on extracting from the local tourist office directors as much as I could on river regulations, camp sites, and when and how far ahead we needed to apply for visas.

I suspect some of friends thought we were a little odd undertaking this journey, but with approaching middle age, and though I had some doubts about my canoeing capabilities (and stamina), it was good to know there were still options and challenges.  Through our canoe association friends, we learned there was an annual canoe gathering travelling down a section of the river from Germany and hoped to coincide with them along the route.  Additionally we had one or two acquaintances we planned to included on our itinerary.  Plans were a little complicated by the fact that we did not get permission from the Romanians until the following year.

The official source of the Danube near Donaueschingen in Germany

Practicing the loading of the canoe on our front garden  in Steeple Aston

We decided to take the canoe on the roof of the car and drive to the river's source, then continue by car to Ulm when the river became navigable with the aid of locks and dams,

Even with all our planning, we were still destined to cope with a lot of the unanticipated.  One of the earliest was the difficulty in finding a camp site, mainly because of the river's banks which might be reedy, marshy or consist of a  high bank topped by a footpath.  And not least of our unexpected events was the considerable dampening of our possessions, including passports, by the spray of pleasure boats which gave us far more problems than did the much larger cargo vessels.  When presented to the Czech Embassy in Vienna we were informed that not only were our visas unacceptable, but nor were our slightly buckled passports.  We repaired by expensive taxi to our Embassy where the Consulate seemed quite unsurprised that two of Her Majesty's citizens had dampened their passports.  He told us to return to the Czech Embassy next day and all would be well.  We did and it was.

For some time it had rained prodigiously, the river had risen and all traffic on it had been stopped.  "Including canoes," I told George firmly, noticing his expression.  Our next unexpected event was the crossing  from Austria into  Czechoslovakia.  We managed to miss the Austrian frontier post but were immediately provided with a military escort once we crossed the border.  The young Czech soldiers appeared no end amused to be accompanying a middle-aged British couple through the Iron Curtain by canoe.