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-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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.