A Few Thoughts after 2 weeks of Reflection
I’d like to think I set out without agenda and with an open mind (if such a thing is possible), my intention to respond to the immersive experience of cycling 3700km through the heart of Europe along the mighty River Danube. No preconceived agenda save to vaguely follow the rivers course and to react to and absorb the experiences along its course. As I now sit, 2 weeks after the 5 week adventure, contemplating the interaction, the overwhelming emotions are not what I expected, but the surprises was even more rewarding than I could have wished for.
I feel my thinking should be focused on the immense power and significance of the river and her total domination over a landscape, flora and fauna she has shaped across millennia. For she, the mighty Donau, has defined the very geography of half a continent, determined the boundaries of countries and empires and dictated the actions of man throughout history. Her powers link east to west, north to south and culture to culture. Her immense simplicity and mesmerising scale including the cycle of water and the weathering of time.
But as I sit alone and quiet for the first time in months my observations wander in other directions. For whilst she creates the slowly changing canvas and with flood and drought defines major events along her course, it seems in the day to day that it is man who paints the picture. The appearance of the land and urban scapes above the underlying geology. An ever changing picture in a constant state of renewal. Of forests felled and nature tamed. Huge expanses of agriculture feeding off vast alluvial plains. Dredging and reconfigurations to extract her deposits for our needs and desires. And of urban and industrial proliferation, decay and renewal over time.
In this regard I have an overwhelming sense that whilst historically the interaction has been in sympathy with the surroundings in more recent times man has increasingly sought to impose himself “on” the environment, serving short term desires with little regard of the consequences. As if competing with the natural forces. Huge levees and canals, immense hydro electric dams and massively expanding urban centres. Buildings left to crumble as their purpose has been superceded with more modern technology and ideas. And along her course how modernisation between countries differs as cultures develop at different paces.
With population growth and climate change she also bears witness to the ever increasing conflicts between the two. At the time of our exploration unseasonal rainfall combined with snow melt in her alpine headwaters have resulted in extensive flooding downstream in areas remote to the source, rendering huge expanses along her banks an unintended inland sea with literally thousands of “island” houses surrounded by water. Huge fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable energy generators to meet the souring requirements of a massively expanding population with its ever increasing demand for goods with the associated mass extraction of gravels, sands and limestone for building and industrial development. The squeezing of natural environments into smaller and smaller pockets.
The second observation that draws my thoughts is cultural, an area less obvious to the landscape photographer but unavoidable as you slowly cross half a continent and witness some of the immense justices and injustices we do to our fellows. Of how a modern community of nations along her shores is bridging historical divides and in doing so has brought about the longest period of sustained peace, stability and freedom in a region whose past has included such horrific actions of inhumanity. We have shown passports but twice across 10 countries (entering and leaving Bulgaria and the UK) and made to feel as a welcome neighbour throughout. Scars and differences remain and there is obvious evidence of increasing inequality, particularly in the “Eastern” countries. It certainly isn’t perfect. But its fragility must surely be worth embracing and protecting.
Perhaps, having once been a geography student, one of the most exciting ares of exploration was in the similarities and differences in town planning and architecture across countries including, in particular, the influences of the former Soviet Union – something never before witnessed in person.. At the time, in the 1980’s, the rhetoric was primarily negative towards the Eastern European countries though as we moved across the landscape I saw, aside from differing levels of renovation, dilapidation and ‘sanitation’ of the town and country scape, remarkable similarities throughout the journey. The new, the old, the ugly and the beautiful, the crumbling. The sheer diversity. And yet many common underlying threads, held together along and due to the rivers course.
A final realisation is how I have lived for 5 weeks with little more than a bike, tent, and two small kit bags of essentials. That and a very patient brother who accompanied me and provided the expedition glue. Desire for material possessions and to consume were irrelevant in favour of food, water and a piece of ground to pitch the tents, with our greatest treats a shower, sink to wash our clothes and a bed in a hostel. For the purpose of this adventure was not only to experience but to complete a “zero carbon” adventure. A slow, immersive, essentially carbon free form of travel allowing for observation, consideration and witness to the subtle differences between cultures and environments you simply cannot appreciate when landing and charging through by “modern” forms of travel as we do in the current age.
In this regard this trip turned out to be less perfect than my previous projects (see our website for more of our “Zero Footprint” projects) due to our restricted timeframe and remote starting point requiring us to book a plane, something I increasingly seek to avoid. I have learned a valuable lesson and have planted 500 trees at our smallholding in Scotland to help offset the environmental impact. In future travels I will seek to travel overland by public transport wherever possible, something I increasingly see as a positive challenge and part of the adventure rather than a burden. It is the journey that is the ultimate adventure, not the destination.
I will continue to ponder and I now have the almost childish joy of fully reviewing and processing the images taken on the trip into finished photos rather than the hastily collated images presented here, a portfolio perhaps and potentially even visual stories. For the photographer this is the ultimate treat and I always love this element of my work. But as I return to the familiar environment of home I hope I will be able to reflect on the wider observations I have been fortunate enough to witness and to incorporate a few of the lessons into my day to day thinking and lifestyle – and ultimately to then share these with others.
The Little Things
A one litre bottle of Coca Cola in Romania is about € 0.60. In Zurich a 0.3l bottle costs €3.60.
In Romania every garden is full to overflowing with delicious vegetables. Edible gardens. These spill out onto wonderful edible street verges. In Austria infinitely manicured lawns the norm.
As you travel eastwards peeling paint and plaster gives way to straight lines, immaculate plaster and consistent paintwork.
Every village had at least a shop (mostly open all hours) until Austria whereas German villages have few services and you drive to the supermarket 20km away.
We saw horse and plough still working the land in Romania. John Deere and friends the solution further west. I fear John will dominate throughout very soon.
I sensed a legacy of Ceausescu in Romania, the people quieter and more subdued when compared to the effervescent and gregarious Serbs.
Until Austria and Germany the pedestrian remains the prioritised form of transport followed by the horse and bike. The car comes last.
A smiling German seeing us wild camping offered use of showers and facilities without request or compensation.
Be Dammed – over 700 hydro dams stem the natural flow of the Danube and her tributaries, though together they provide some 30,000MW of electricity generation to her peoples. Coal, gas and nuclear power stations litter the banks in all countries, solar thermal (water) on roofs through though PV (electric solar) mostly in “the west”.
A few more snaps (iPad processing only!)