In April 2018, Anna Blackwell and Kate Culverwell set out to tandem kayak from London to the Black Sea in Romania, a distance of over 4000km through 11 countries and five capital cities across Europe. The expedition, which took five months, saw the two girls overcome storms, illness, broken kit and busy industrial rivers to have the time of their lives.
The truth of it is, I ended up on this expedition by accident. It was an average Monday evening at the beginning of October, I’d just got home from work and had stumbled across an advert online. Kate was looking for someone to join her on an expedition, kayaking from London to the Black Sea in Romania.
I didn’t hesitate before replying to the advert, briefly expressing my interest. Eight minutes later, Kate’s response popped up in my inbox. By the end of that evening, we had established that we both lived in Oxford and had attended the same school, where Kate had been five years below me. By the end of the following evening, we had spoken on the phone, a conversation that dissolved into unintelligible giggles within minutes.
And so it was that within 24 hours of seeing an advert on the internet, I was fully committed to kayaking across the Europe with a stranger.
Planning, prepping and paddling
From that fateful day in October, we had only six months until our departure. During that time, we had the gargantuan task of sorting our route and logistics, sourcing funding and equipment, fundraising for our chosen charity Pancreatic Cancer Action and, of course, starting to train.
This was no mean feat, but Kate and I threw ourselves into it wholeheartedly. Naturally, there were moments where we doubted whether we could pull it off, but the friendship we had formed in a short space of time was enough to pull us through and keep the smiles on our faces… Even as we trained through one of the coldest winters in memory.
The adventure begins
Before we knew it, the day of our departure had arrived. We were leaving from Westminster Bridge and had arranged for friends and family to come and wave us off. It was such an honour for us to have so many smiling faces there to wish us on our way, and that combined with the spectacularly good weather made for one of the best mornings of our lives.
The buzz and excitement in the air was palpable; Kate and I had felt ready for weeks and had been itching to get started, so it felt almost surreal that we finally could. Weirdly, I didn’t feel particularly nervous; if anything, I was more worried about falling down the slimy steps into the water in front of an audience than I was about the journey Kate and I were about to begin. Ignoring those thoughts, we clambered into our kayak, Benji, gave a final wave to everyone lining the riverside and bridge above us, and pushed off.
Immediately, the outgoing current of the tidal Thames whipped us away, barely allowing us time to take in Parliament, Big Ben or the London Eye as we raced by.
This smooth cruising continued for the next few days as we followed the Thames out to the Kent Coast, where the conditions took a turn.
The challenge of the Kent coast and the English Channel
We already knew that the Kent coast, our only open water section of the expedition, would prove to be a bigger challenge than the rivers and canals we would follow for almost 4000km. On the sea, we faced tides and waves, but we had trained and prepared for this. What we couldn’t have predicted was the gale force winds that accompanied us as we battled our way around the coastline; winds so strong and unrelenting that we were forced to seek shelter in our tents for a whole day.
It was therefore with immense relief that we landed on a beach near Folkestone after a stressful morning paddling past intimidating white cliffs, the waves crashing into them unforgivingly and a seemingly impenetrable thick cloud preventing us from seeing far ahead.
People are often surprised to learn that the next step in our expedition, kayaking across the English Channel, was not that big a challenge for us. Having survived such ferocious conditions around the Kent coast, the Channel was very straightforward. We had to have a support boat to guide us across (the only leg of the whole 4000km where we had support like this) and we could make the crossing only when the conditions were completely calm.
After almost a week of waiting for the gale force winds to die down, we finally had the go-ahead from our support crew. Carrying our kayak down to Folkestone Harbour on that Friday morning in early May, Kate and I reflected on how incredibly relaxed we felt.
So much so that the group of kayakers we met at the waterfront, out for their casual morning paddle, couldn’t believe that we were about to paddle over to France.
Leaving England behind, we pointed Benji into the completely smooth sea. There was no sign of France in the distance, instead just a hazy pink horizon of nothingness. Five hours, 18 minutes later we landed on a beach south of Calais, an audience of French locals watching bemused as Kate and I leapt out of Benji to hug, and my dad – who had been waiting for us in France – popped a bottle of champagne.
From Calais, our route wound along a network of canals and rivers through France, Belgium, back into France and down to Strasbourg. Almost all these waterways were industrial or popular with holidaymakers on yachting trips. For them to be navigable by water traffic, the rivers and canals featured a vast number of locks, over 250 in total, and in France and Belgium there were often several locks in a 10km stretch.
Kate and I portaged the first 20 or so of these. Portaging means carrying your kayak and equipment around the lock to the other side, which sounds deceivingly simple. This involved us hauling over 150kg of kayak, equipment, food and water around each lock, sometimes walking several kilometres before finding somewhere with access to the water.
What made the whole process harder was the bad luck we had with the vital wheels for the kayak. Several sets collapsed on us and another set were stolen in Belgium. Trying to replace the wheels delayed us for several days to over a week each time, which was incredibly frustrating.
Crossing into France from Belgium was an absolute game-changer, as we were unexpectedly granted permission to go through all the locks we encountered. This sped up our progress and made life infinitely easier, but also brought with it an extra challenge. From Germany onwards, where we joined the Rhine, we kayaked on huge industrial rivers. The traffic on these waterways was primarily gigantic shipping barges, often up to 200 metres long. Gone were the little locks we’d got used to in France. The locks we now faced were hundreds of metres long and up to a terrifying 25m deep.
Settling into a way of life
After a few months of struggling to camp along the industrial canals through Northern France and Belgium, we were glad to approach Germany. We were now on much friendlier canals and often set up camp next to moorings for holidaymakers.
For our final few weeks in France, almost every day someone would invite us onto their yacht or barge for drinks, a meal or a shower. Before we knew what was happening, we had become part of a wonderful community.
From Germany onwards, our camping became increasingly wild. We were able to pitch our tents on beaches alongside the Rhine, Main and Danube, the passing barges an occasional reminder of where we were. By now, we had fallen into a routine of waking up early, having a leisurely breakfast in the tent and paddling into the early morning peace and calm. We kayaked for as long as we could into the evening, only starting to look for a suitable patch on the bank for our tents when we started to lose light.
At the beginning of August we finally reached the Danube, our final river, which we would follow for the remaining 2000km to the Black Sea. We had been so excited to arrive at the Danube; we had imagined a powerful river that would carry us to our final goal without too much exertion on our part.
It didn’t take long for us to discover that this would not be the case. Yes, the Danube is an incredibly large river, up to 5km at its widest, but the spring and summer had been so hot and dry that the water levels were at record lows. The resulting flow was significantly slower than we had anticipated, to the extent that we had to confront the unpleasant reality that we may not have time to reach the Black Sea. It had been necessary to commit to a finish date, and this was now looking unrealistic.
Instead of giving up hope, Kate and I worked out how we could cover the distance. We couldn’t speed up the flow of the river, nor paddle faster without risking injury, but we could find more time in each day to be on the water. Our 6am alarms were pushed to 5am, we were on the water at sunrise, and our snack and lunch breaks became regimented.
We immediately reaped the rewards of this new-found discipline. Our stricter routine had the desired effect and each day we were able to cover up to 75km, over twice the distance we had achieved in France and Belgium. In mere weeks, we kayaked through five countries – Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and into Serbia – and four capital cities; progress that was extremely rewarding.
While Kate and I had been planning the expedition, we had patiently listened as numerous people warned us about the dangers of kayaking through parts of Eastern Europe. Poverty and a turbulent history apparently meant we were daft to paddle through these areas unaccompanied.
Taking these concerns with a pinch of salt, Kate and I decided to go anyway and form our own opinions, something we did not regret. Remote parts of Serbia and Romania were my favourite sections.
There was so much beauty in the sparsity and relatively untouched landscape, and the sandy beaches that stretch along the river provided some of the most memorable wild camping spots I’ve found.
The people here – as had been the case for the entire expedition – were wonderfully kind and generous. Wherever we went, we attracted attention, something that was unavoidable in an almost 7-metre long expedition kayak. As we neared the Black Sea, this attention came in the form of huge breakfasts cooked for us by Serbian fishermen, chilled ciders on the riverbank in the evenings with a group of Romanian friends, and donations of fresh fruit and snacks from families enjoying a day out by the river.
The Black Sea
Kate and I had become so accustomed to our way of life on the river that reaching the Black Sea almost came as a disappointment to us. We didn’t feel ready for our adventure to end, to give up our daily routine of kayaking, camping and making friends. However, there was no avoiding it.
On another remarkably sunny and calm day, Kate and I paddled out of the Danube Delta and into the vast expanse that is the Black Sea. Members of our families were bobbing along in the background in a few boats, there to celebrate the achievement with us.
Kate and I sat in Benji, our ever-faithful kayak, allowing the small waves to gently rock the boat. It felt almost impossible to believe that we – two former strangers who met on the internet – had accomplished what we set out to do. Not only that, but we had the most incredible time in the process and had formed one of the closest friendships in either of our lives.