Who pays the ferryman pays the price
As we make our way along the Danube there are sometimes possibilities to ride on either side. Where there are no bridges ferries ply their trade to help you cross from one side to the other. If you’re lucky. But while criss crossing can help to break up the journey, sometimes there is a price to be paid….
Are you waiting for the ferry?
A large black 4WD with tinted windows pulls over and a cool Austrian Crocodile Dundee lookalike hangs out of the window, waving at us.
“Are you heading for the ferry?” he asks, first in German, then in English.
10 minutes before, we had no intention of taking a ferry but in a moment of haste, bored of cycling along the infinite dam through the Donauauen East of Vienna, and hoping to cut 10km off the ride to the nearest campsite, it seemed like an interesting and useful diversion. A sign said the ferry ran until 7pm so we figured half an hour was plenty of time to catch it.
But the ferryman was obviously on his way home.
“If you want the ferry, I come back,” continued the man in the car, “but I have to take my kitten home first.”
He motioned us to continue on down to his boat.
“Go on down, it is the white boat. Wait for me there.”
Is this the right boat?
Down at the banks of the Donau, the river is flowing furiously, large waves breaking on the bows of barges cruising upstream. We find the only white boat, what appears to be a floating restaurant with people on deck eating meals. A sign outside suggests this is the ferry, but it doesn’t seem likely. Would a restaurant really double as a ferry? Do people really go back and forth across the Danube eating dinner while the ferry carries occasional cyclists to the other side? It’s a ridiculous idea. Or is it?
A moment later Crocodile Dundee returns and hops out of his car with a kitten in a basket.
“Look we do it now,” he explains, “I bring kitten with me.”
He strides down the gang plank onto the restaurant and motions us to follow quickly. It’s clear he wants to get this job done and get his kitten home. With no time to think we wheel our bikes down the gangplank and onto the lower deck of the restaurant, diners watching with interest. Then the ferryman opens a gate and motions us to load them onto a small power boat moored the other side, rocking in the waves.
It takes five minutes to unhitch trailers and load all the bikes and kids onto the bouncing launch. The trailer, Hannah and Cameron sit next to open gates, six inches above the river. I try to close the gates to keep everyone and everything on board during the crossing but am instructed to leave them open.
The ferryman announces the fare. “17 euros please.”
Inescapable extortion. We pay up and hold on tight as he opens the throttle and we bounce out into the current.
The kids giggle and scream as the launch bounces on the waves.
“This is way better than the big wheel Dad,” laughs Cameron as he’s thrown off his seat towards the open gate.
Kirstie looks horrified. I hang onto the trailer.
Hannah is wide eyed, “This is way cool.”
Two minutes later and it’s all over. 17 euros well spent.
Paying the price
Except it’s not all over. We’re tipped out on a cobbled road in some muddy woods and it’s not obvious which way to go. 15 minutes ago life was boring and we knew exactly where we. How quickly days can turn on the road. Still at least we have two hours of light left.
“Go right for 300 yards then turn left,” shouts Crocodile Dundee as he powers back into the current. “Camping is 15km, maybe 17.”
We pushed the bikes along the stony track, up a hill and into a tiny village where we stop to regroup and refuel. In the space of an hour our world has changed. It’s like we’ve already left Austria, despite picking up the reassuring Donauradweg signs again. An hour later and in the quickening gloom, we’re off our map blindly following little EuroVelo 6 signs along stony tracks, hopes kept alive by occasional signs which include a picture of a small white tent. Grasshoppers chirrup noisily, we sweat in the remnants of the heat of the day, and I’m sure everyone is silently cursing my decision to take the ferry.
On and on we go, 10km, 15km, still no camping, darkness descending, towards Slovakia. I become sure the universe is trying to break us in. We’ve become comfortable and complacent in Austria and Germany. It’s time to toughen up for our foray into Eastern Europe. I know Matthew’s been preparing himself for the High Tatras by cycling up the few hills we’ve come across in 7th gear, but Kirstie and I have been holidaying. Now,we’re on a little adventure.
Windmills in the night
In the blackening night we ride towards a field of red flashing lights; like entering an alien landing zone.
“What are those?” asks Hannah innocently.
But truth be told I do not know. As we get close they reveal themselves as a wind farm, their giant aerofoils cutting through the sweaty night air around us.
“If I get hit by a windmill will I get a black eye?” asks Hannah, expressing her anxiety in the way five year olds do.
I try to reassure her how unlikely this is but she’s a step ahead with some preventative measures.
“If I wear my glasses then I won’t get a black eye will I?”
“Yes, but your glasses are made of glass and if they break all the glass will go in your eye and damage it,” says Cameron, rather unhelpfully.
Into the black
We pedal on in the black, picking out reassuring camping signs in the faint glow of Matthew’s dynamo lamp. How different things seem in the dark. My sense of concern and urgency grow as I sense tiredness in the troops. Confidence grows as we stumble upon illuminated Roman ruins that can only be those of Petronella-Carnuntum, close to the campsite. Whacked we contemplate wild camping beside the ruins and send Matthew to scout for a possible site. He disturbs a campervan lying in the gloom, probably with the same idea. Everyone gets twitchy. The campervan starts doing manouvres around the car park with its lights off and we all agree it’s probably better to carry on.
It seems like the early hours when we roll into the town of Petronella. An all night party appears to be in full swing at the football club and the rest of the town is ghost like. At the official town campsite, the owner has just closed up, but thankfully snaps a light on to let us in. We pitch our tent by torchlight and fall exhausted into our sleeping bags.
“I’m so tired Dad, I was almost cycling in my sleep,” says Matthew.
I’m pretty sure we’ve done 25km on stony track circles since leaving the ferry, and feel like in a few short hours we’ve left Austria far behind and ridden into rural Slovakia. I’m sure it must be 1am but my watch says it’s just 9.30.
“Will there be windmills tomorrow?” asks Hannah as she snuggles down ready to kick everyone to sleep. “Because I think I will wear my sunglasses as they are made of plastic.”