Kayaking in the Danube Delta

The Danube Delta is a vast labyrinth of canals, wetlands and lakes, which should not be explored alone and without prior experience. This is, however, exactly what I did this summer. I had just bought a Nortik Argo skin-on-frame kayak, so I took my camping gear and my phone and set off on a trip from Tulcea (port city, entry point to the Danube Delta) and wandered around pretty much aimlessly in the Delta to arrive at Sulina (port city where the Sulina canal of the Danube discharges into the Black Sea) after 3 days.

Here is my recipe. I am not suggesting that it will work for you, but it definitely worked for me. I had a little head-start as I been to the Delta some ten years ago in a canoe on an organized trip. I was therefore somewhat aware of what to expect there, but now I had to take care of my safety, navigation, food, drinking water, sleeping and logistics. Read about my plan to tackle all these aspects.

Safety

Safety-wise I didn’t have much to fear: the most fearsome animals in the Delta are wild boar (very low chances of meeting them), half domesticized/half wild bulls, jackals, mosquitos, humans with boats and maybe the cousin of the Loch Ness Monster. Of all the fauna, humans pose the only real risk to kayakers. Mosquitos are also a threat, and they have their own section down below.

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Boats

Boats passing on narrow canals can make some serious waves. Most boats slow down when passing kayakers but some don’t. There are also speed boats (water busses) connecting the villages and towns of the Delta, which never slow down out of courtesy. They only use the three main canals of the Delta (St. George, Sulina and Chilia). These canals are pretty wide, but kayakers still need to paddle near the shore to avoid getting too close to the speeding boats. In my personal opinion, these boats have just too much horsepower for the complete disregard of water traffic rules and courtesy that you can see here.

To be safe of boats, you need to know how to fall in water, empty the water out of your kayak, and get back into it. I was new with my Argo, so never attempted these feats, but I was sure I could pull them off if needed. I will do an SIV (simulated incidents) with the kayak soon to genuinely feel safe when doing sea kayaking.

Weather

Weather can also be a safety issue: you need to protect yourself against the heat, sunburn and dehydration. Severe weather, thunderstorms and cold fronts can also be an issue, because of the heavy rain, hail, strong wind and cold air associated with them. You need to feel comfortable paddling in the rain (a raincoat and a kayak skirt did it for me) and also handle the cold, strong wind and waves. While paddling comfortably in the rain, I saw fishermen in their open rowing boats wrapped in blankets in a pretty miserable condition. This is their terrain, and they were much less prepared than I was, so no need to panic too much about weather. Just be prepared and take as it comes.

Navigation

The Delta is huge and complex so navigation is pretty much a challenge there. However, all I used was my smartphone with a navigation app (Backcountry Navigator Demo – big thank you to them) and Open Street Map loaded onto it. I had cellphone signal pretty much everywhere in the Delta, but downloading the map for offline use was still of critical importance. Using the app and the map, I always knew where I was and where I wanted to go. For my phone to work, I used a 21-Watt solar panel. It gave me more than enough power to charge my phone and my camera.

The canals and lakes are properly mapped in Open Street Map (most of them). Clogged canals created the only surprises. Narrow (2-5 meter wide) canals can easily get clogged by drifting logs. Fishermen don’t clear them if they don’t use those canals, so logs can create pretty unexpected surprises to the kayaker. Next time in the Delta, I will take a hand saw with me (with a 25-35 cm long blade) to clear my way. I managed to push my kayak and myself over some logs, but I had to turn back and find a different route more often than that.

Searching for a way out of this lake. As I made this screenshot, I saw that there is a canal out of this lake on the upper left side of this image. Next time I will check the satellite image too for finding my way in tricky cases.

For proper navigation, flow direction is a pretty important factor to consider. You can paddle against the current on smaller canals, but it is pretty difficult to do for long stretches. On the main canals, I don’t advise paddling up-current for more than 5 km. You’ll get bitter and exhausted. In the Delta, water flows from west to east. Water flows eastwards even if the canal is oriented to the South-East or to the North-East. On canals perfectly perpendicular to the main flow direction, water is mostly still.

Logistics

Having all the navigation aspects in mind, you can start your kayak trips in Tulcea and reach Crisan, Sulina or St. George (Sf. Gheorghe) downstream. Then take a speed boat or a water bus of Navrom Delta back to Tulcea. Being transported back to Tulcea, I felt like a sack of potatoes with all my pride lost, but it worked. Round-trips by kayak are possible from Murighiol to Crisan and back.

Small-scale logistics

After getting to Tulcea by car (I was too tired to catch the train early in the morning), I had to find a place where I could reach the pontoon by car, assemble my kayak in the shade and have access to the water to launch. I could find a single location which met all these criteria: right next to the Tulcea train station. Stealing is pretty common in the Dobrogea area (region between the Danube and the Black Sea), so I made sure to have all my gear under my eyes at all times.

Food

Food was the simplest aspect to consider. I took two kilos of cherries and peaches. I love fruit, and it gives me water, sugar and a good taste. I also took a few bags of mixed dried fruit and seeds to save space, weight and eating time. To balance out all the fruit, I had a big chunk of cheese, baguettes and olives. It is pretty hot in the summer in the Delta, so I didn’t feel like eating any meat. (I do eat pork, especially in winter, when temperatures drop below -10 C.)

Water

I took a small water filter and a two-liter plastic bottle with me. Every morning I filled the bottle with water filtered from the Danube. I drank this water for three days without any problems. On previous kayak trips, drinking water and electricity were the main limitations to where I could go. I solved these issues now with the water filter and the solar charger.

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Sleeping

I had a small one-person tent, a foam mat and a sleeping bag. It was a lot of gear, but packing space seemed endless in my Nortik Argo. Finding a dry spot in the Delta to pitch the tent was pretty difficult though. As a general rule, when two bigger canals meet, there is some high ground between them. Sharp bends of bigger canals are also promising spots to search. After the experience of searching for high ground every afternoon, I will try to use a hammock with a mosquito net next time. Hanging it on a tree from the kayak seems like a real challenge with high risk of falling in water. If it works, though, it will remove the only limitation from roaming wherever I like in the Delta.

 

Regulations

The entire Danube Delta from Tulcea to the oil refinery at Medgidia at the Black Sea is a huge nature reserve. You must buy a ticket at Tulcea to enter. It is around 3.5 Euro per person per week. Officers from the Danube Delta administration or the border control police may check it. There are some strictly protected scientific areas in the Delta marked in green on maps. I advise against entering these out of respect for wildlife and maybe science. Wild camping is also prohibited in the Danube Delta. On kayak trips, however, you need to camp out in the wild, because you cannot reach populated areas every day. As a true East-European, I disobey the law in this respect, but I try to have as little impact on my environment as possible.

Mosquitos

They are the most fearsome predators in the Danube Delta by far. They come in swarms and start ferociously feeding on you at nightfall or at any time during the day in rainy weather. The only real protection against them is clothing covering all your body (including your neck and toes) and maybe staying out on open water. In bushes or any place with dense and tall vegetation, there is an abundance of mosquitos at any time of the day. When reaching a campsite with thick vegetation, just get out of your kayak, take on some clothes to cover your legs, arms and head (long trousers and a raincoat), pitch your tent quickly and get in as quickly as possible.

Purpose

The Danube Delta is extremely beautiful and wild. Organized tours using power boats only show a fraction of what you can see in the Delta on a kayak trip. I wouldn’t advise a complete beginner to get into a kayak and set off on a multi-day trip in the Delta though. You need to build your skills, equipment and confidence gradually and systematically to get to a level where you can navigate the Danube Delta on your own. You need to push the boundaries constantly not to become a bag of potatoes transported from A to B. Just make sure not to bite off more than you can chew.

Bulgarian Black Sea coast by kayak – Day 1

The Black Sea coastline in Bulgaria is a very wild region with around 80-90% of it completely undeveloped. The coastline is generally rugged, there are only narrow strips of sandy beaches and long sections of cliff faces where you cannot get off the water. In the summer of 2017 three friends: Pali, Barni and Tiha set off to explore as much of it as possible by kayak.

Two of us were in our late thirties, and we had quite fast inflatable hybrid kayaks with an aluminum keel (Air Fusion by Advances Elements). Barni has never kayaked before, I was at my third sea-trip. Pali is a 67-year old retired adventurer with a 20-year-old 3-meter long whitewater kayak with a rudder fitted to it.  It was a mixed team, but we got along extremely well. We went by car to Krapets, the first village right next to the sea; left the car there at a restaurant 10 m from the water and set off by kayak.

Pali hauling his kayak to the shore.

Barni with his banana right before their maiden voyage.

We were incredibly lucky. The sea was flat and motionless. There was just some very light wind. It helped us a lot because the other two were at their first sea trip so they badly needed a generous accommodation period. But we were cruising in a big motionless pool. Confidence levels rose.

The large-scale meteo wind pattern was from west to east (from the shore), so it effectively canceled out the sea breeze from sea to land (from east to west). I am still a beginner in sea weather, but it seems that meteo wind opposite to the direction of sea breeze can result in calm air and sea. Please comment below if you are more knowledgeable about these issues.

For the first few kilometers the shore was rather flat and dull. We cruised by Shabla, the first village along our journey.

Shabla seen from the water.

The terrain started to get higher after Shabla. First there was a 10-20 m high clay wall, then there was an 2 km section north of Tyulenovo with a 10-20 m high vertical limestone wall facing the sea. This section was full of caves cut by the sea into the limestone face. Some were narrower, that you could not turn around with the boat in them and went as deep as 15 meters in the cliff, some were much wider, up to 10 meters high and wide.

The big caves were full of cormorants and pigeons nesting in them and plunging and diving deep or shooting out in the open when we arrived. They had obviously very few visitors before us. The caves were the best natural shelters because they were completely inaccessible from land and only accessible by kayak or canoe when the sea is calm. We were extremely lucky to have reached there exactly when conditions were perfect.

It was the most beautiful experience I’ve had on the water. Check out Pinocchio above on the third picture from behind. The caves were located in a pretty small section of the shore, 2 km north and 500 m south of Tyulenovo harbor. Tyulenovo harbor is squeezed into a small (approx. 50 m wide) crevasse in the rocks without any sandy beach, just a steep drop to the water with slides for the boats of local fishermen. There is a hotel, restaurant, and terrace overlooking this small bay. Great place for snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, but definitely not a place for a family vacation.

My track around Tyulenovo. There are caves where the tracks gets close to the shore and there is a sharp turn.

Tyulenovo harbor

There are still some 500 m of rock formations south of Tyulenovo even with an arc or bridge you cross under by kayak.

Next to Tyulenovo in the south.

From there on the cliff face got higher up to 50 m, but without the spectacular rock formations. The composition of the rock changes too. There is still some limestone but mixed with sedimentary rock and maybe travertine. It is very scenic but no place to get out of the water for around 8 km.

By the end of Day 1 we reached the first sandy beach to finish the day and set up camp near Rusalka. We covered 27.2 km in almost 5 hours with an average speed of 5.6 kmh. Not bad for the first day.

Our overnight camping place near Rusalka.

Bulgarian Black Sea coast by kayak – Day 2

Day 1 was epic, so we just passed out in our tents at 9 in the evening with aching muscles. The next morning was similar. Everything was damp, we had a wet kayak, sore and stiff muscles, we were shivering in B minor. But as soon as we got ready, broke camp and set out on water, all was shiny again. This pattern actually repeated itself every day: getting up, getting ready and setting out on water was difficult and chilly. But no later than ten minutes of paddling, and our upper bodies were working like clockwork and spirits were high again.

This morning we had strong north wind pushing us from behind. The wind was at around 25-30 kmh at ground (water) level already at 9 in the morning. It gave us a constant 2 kmh extra speed, but 1 m high waves in the same package. We had to adjust the direction of the kayak constantly with the paddle to keep the direction. We headed towards Kaliakra Cape, the tip of a narrow stretch of land with 70 m high vertical cliffs. The plan was to reach Kaliakra, make a sharp right turn, and paddle along and close to the coast in calm water protected from the wind by the high cliffs.

Pali heading towards Kaliakra in the distance.

But things did not go according to plan. We were already paddling for about 40 minutes with Kaliakra in the cross-hairs when Pali capsized. There was no time for pictures or video because we had our hands and mind busy trying to keep our kayak straight and us out of the water. We could not afford yet another one of us getting in trouble.

At first Pali was at 5 m distance from us, we were holding his kayak and kept still downwind of him, but the wind was blowing us faster than he could swim to reach us. We regrouped after a while, bu he could not get into his kayak.  After some deliberations, I grabbed his kayak full of water, kept it close to mine and paddled with one hand on one side towards the shore. Pali was hanging on the stern of Barni’s kayak as he tried to paddle and tow him to the shore. It did not help that Pali was holding his paddle in the water. Barni was advancing some 10 cm with each stroke of the paddle while towing.

We finally reached Bolata bay after almost an hour of struggling with the sea. Fortunately both of our kayaks were stabilized with the load we had, but advancing and reaching the shore was extremely difficult and tiring. Once on the ground again, Pali dried all his gear and decided that he would push on and not quit.

Bolata Bay with Cape Kaliakra in the distance.

There is a clear freshwater stream running down a valley and into the Black Sea in Bolata Bay. It is extremely clear and cold. I will have to explore the springs feeding it in my next trip there.

After a few hours of firm ground, we regrouped and set off again. There was a 40-45 kmh wind now coming from the side, but we only had to endure it for 2.5 km until we reached the Cape, got around it and we were on the calm water again.

Hiding from the wind behind Kaliakra.

There is a huge cave 30-50 m high on the southern side of Kaliakra with bus-sized boulders in it.

As we passed the narrow section of the cape, springs started running down the cliff face every now and then with beautiful clear freshwater.

There were no more unexpected events this day. We were paddling in calm waters, relaxed and in high spirits. Some even tried out new paddling styles.

The next highlight was Dalboka mussels farm and restaurant. They grow their mussels at a huge farm at 500 m out on the sea and deliver it straight to a restaurant wedged in the rock face. It cannot get any fresher than that. We had the best seafood you can ever have.

Dalboka mussel farm and restaurant. They even have the menu in Romanian with sections entitled: Why we are here, For those who are not sure why there are here (non-seafood items) and similar. They are honest people with some honest food. We made another discovery on this day: two beers are more than enough for paddling. They make you feel rather liquid, which is not really productive if you try to get ahead in the water.

On the last leg of this day’s trip, we passed along golf courses next to the sea. Very weird to see perfectly trimmed grass besides the wild beaches. So we decided to desecrate one patch of green grass and set up camp on a golf course.

The idea was revolutionary, even Bolshevik, but the capitalist system retorted with the help of a sprinkler system installed in these patches of nice green turf. The sprinkler heads just come up and start sprinkling during the night, we found out. We had to settle for the rocky beach and spend the night next to our kayaks.

On this day we went from Rusalka to the Thracian Cliffs Golf Resort, covering a total of 24.8 km with an average moving speed of 5.8 kmh.

Bulgarian Black Sea coast by kayak – Day 3

We slept in the open air on the rocks so we were awake at 6 in the morning fresh as a sea cucumber. It was cloudy and damp; we could not dry the damp sleeping bags and clothes. Even if it did not rain, there was a heavy dew in the evening and even more at dawn. We were however fully compensated for he lack of sunshine by the calm sea. The sea felt like oil, the kayaks were gliding smoothly in it.

I could even take pictures underwater.

After a few hours of effortless paddling, we reached Balchik, a scenic historic town. It felt good to see something more historic than the hotels built in the communism or the period after that. The scene was peppered with Bulgaria’s current small entrepreneurs selling everything from ice cream, inflatable puppies, some private toilet time, shade of umbrellas in the sandy beach to sandwiches.

In Balchik there is a palace built in the 1930ies for Queen Marie of Romania, when this region was part of Romania. It draws huge crowds so we just checked it out from the water (see the palace above).

A side note on camping out in Bulgaria: you can set up camp practically anywhere, even on a golf course (we were spotted on the golf course, but nobody told us to move on). You can also go practically anywhere, nobody really cares. It is the freedom of a post-communist country not yet over-regulated and split up into parcels of guarded private property. It feels like freedom.

After Balchik we reached Albena, the first real resort in Bulgaria. It felt very touristy with the huge hotels, and the animator shouting in Bulgarian for some corporate event. Barni told me that kayaking here feels like a cowboy approaching a town on his horse in the wild west. Are we going in and grab’em by the…? Or just move on?

We headed for the last restaurant on this stretch of beach to be out of reach of the animator and his megaphone, and to meet people more down-to-earth or grounded as Barni put it. It was our strategy throughout the trip to search for places on the peripheries. It feels less formal and more adventurous.

We found out again that two beers are too much for efficient paddling, but it did not really matter. It started to rain anyway as we pushed closer to Varna, the first big city on the way with a lot of activity on the water. Huge hotels started popping up like the giant in the picture above. It felt like paddling in Dubai.

We did not check in here, but asked the workers renovating a small pub at the beach next to this one if they could give us some shelter against the rain. No problem, so we stayed overnight in a small shed.

We paddled for 35 km on this day at an average speed of 5.5 kmh. The result:

Bulgarian Black Sea coast by kayak – Day 4

Sunday in the waters of Varna was crowded. It was great. There was the occasional grumpy husband fishing in a small rubber inflatable, who just ran away from the wife, jovial fishermen doing their job and pulling in a net, two kitesurfers zipping around like crazy dragonflies and a majestic sailing boat competition. We were not the only weirdos on waves at last.

Varna has a large bay and ocean liners dock in its harbor too. I was afraid of crossing the waterways of the big girls, but we only had to give way to the Louise Marie, a smallish but classy yacht on our way across Varna Bay.

The scenery changed completely once we crossed the harbor. It was wild again and right across Varna bay, there was a very good-looking restaurant right next to the sea. We just had our cappuccinos on the beach on the other side, so did not bother to stop again, but this place is definitely worth a visit

HINT:  Look for Cape Galateja or Galata, Romantika restaurant across Varna.

We were in the wild again with lush vegetation and a narrow stretch of sandy beach almost without interruption for the next 20 km.

North of Varna wherever we stopped, they were used to and expected tourists to flood them, they even had the menu in Romanian at most restaurants and bars. South of Varna there was pristine nature and a rural atmosphere. There were a few fishing huts scattered on the coast and some bistros and restaurants but tending only to the locals. They knew little English, let alone any other language besides Bulgarian, but it felt great to interact with these “grounded” people again.

In the woods, we saw lots of small huts obviously built and used by locals as weekend or summer getaways. Some were more sloppy, others showing off their wealth more, but all very local and likable.

At the day’s end, we reached the village of Kamchya and stopped 1 km short of their main beach to take hold of our own and private beach. On this day we covered 30.5 km at a moving speed of 5.8 kmh.

Campsite at the end of day 4.

 

 

 

Bulgarian Black Sea coast by kayak – Day 5

Day 5 turned out to be our last day on this trip, but we didn’t know that at 8 in the morning when we broke camp and started paddling. The sea was quite agitated, 1-2 m high waves, with white crests even pretty far from the shore. Then the events of day 2 repeated again. Pali capsized after covering 3 km right in front of Kamchya beach, watched by 5 lifeguards keeping the empty beach in control. We were close to land so he just swam to the beach.  We received some scolding because swimming was prohibited and we had no life vests.

As a side note: the life vest makes me heat up while paddling to the point where I get sick, and it is just in the way if I fall in the water because it makes it more difficult to swim or get back into the kayak. Life vests are for people who fall in the water and wait until they are saved. We did not have this luxury of simply waiting to be saved, we had to save ourselves and the other one if we had an issue. The life vest would not really help with that.

Pali did not want to continue on the sea, and we agreed with his decision even if we had to cut our trip short. To our luck, we hit land 200 m from the mouth of Kamchya River. To finish our trip in style, we decided to paddle upstream to the main road leading back to Varna and finish our trip there. It was a very good decision.

Kamchya River emptying into the Black Sea.

 

There were some boats and huts for the first kilometer, but we were paddling in a wild forest from there on. There seemed to be no human activity on the river whatsoever, because there were trees leaning low over the water or even fallen into it, lots of branches and debris building up into banks.

It was gorgeous so we thanked Pali for capsizing and showing us the way into this green wilderness. After 4 km we met a guy on the shore all alone with his touring bicycle and playing his mandolin. He was Irish and was heading for India. He reached Bulgaria in close to two years because he was not in a hurry at all.

 

We had had a short intermezzo here because I found out that my drybag has fallen off my kayak from my back, so we raced back and found it already being washed by the waves. I kept the car keys, my ID card and everything of value in it, so I was pretty happy to find it.

The most honest moment of this trip was one of the last ones for me. When we heard the noise of the highway and got a glimpse of the bridge crossing the river all three of us stopped and we just sat there for a while in our yaks. There was no regret or anything else, we just enjoyed the last moment of our trip before getting back to roads-cars-deadlines and civilization.

The team.

We only covered 18 km on this day, but it was gorgeous.