Thursday 24 July 2014

The Iron Gates

Fear can strike us cyclists out of the blue. One moment the tandem is moving steadily forward, there is a cool rush of air, the scenery is enchanting and all is well with the world.

 The next, blind panic strikes.

Today the latter happened. We were riding along the Danube in Serbia, in an area known as the Iron Gates.

Emerging from one of the shorter tunnels. Most of them have a narrow footpath which can be walked or even cycled.

It's where the river - Europe's second longest - gets squeezed as it cuts its way through the Carpathian Mountains. Instead of flat land, dykes and swamps, the river speeds up as mountains close in on either side. The road, instead of the flat and sometimes featureless route we have become used to, begins to twist and climb and drop, and there are tunnels - we passed through 15 (we think) today. 

One of them was 256 metres long and there was a bend in the middle. We entered wearing our hi-viz. tops and with our red rear light blinking enthusiastically. Up front, I wore a feeble head lamp attached to my helmet. 

Serbian EV6 sign with a message: the white on red reads,"We should never be afraid to try something new. Amateurs built the Ark. Professionals built the Titanic."

Long before we could see the light at the end of the unlit tunnel we had lost the light from behind. It was pitch dark, and the beam from the headlamp was soaked up by the black tarmac and the rock of the tunnel walls. It was impossible to see.

The further we went, the more we wobbled. We wobbled because we couldn't tell which way was up, nor where the road went. If you can imagine falling through a black void, you get the picture.

This little owl was on the edge of the road, perhaps having been hit by a car. It refused to budge so in the end we left it where it was and hoped it would be ok.

Our only hope lay in the white centre line. As we wobbled, we saw brief flashes of it lit up by the glow of the headlamp. I swung the bike out to the centreline, aware that riding the white line on a bicycle in the middle of a pitch black tunnel was not particularly smart. But that white line gave us a sense of orientation - suddenly we knew which way was up.

It wasn't the time to relax. A gradual roar - the rush of air - could be heard from an approaching vehicle, but the bend in tunnel prevented us from knowing whether it was behind us or in front. 

Golubac Castle comes into view. Built in the 13th century by the Hungarians, it is regarded as the best preserved castle in Serbia.

We waited with the panic rising as the noise grew louder, and we moved right hoping like hell we wouldn't crash into the kerb, or even the tunnel wall. The vehicle was behind, so we squeezed further. At the same time we sensed there was a kerb somewhere in the darkness and we both reached out with our right legs, bouncing along it with a pannier absorbing some of the shock. Without a word, we leapt from the bike and threw ourselves against the tunnel wall. 

One moment we were finding our way out of Belgrade, a few hours later we were riding along a dyke with a path all to ourselves.

The car whistled past - unaware of the sense of terror it induced - and we walked the rest of the way until the light of day gradually crept into the tunnel.

The moral of the story - for this section of the EuroVelo 6, bring a powerful headlamp and nerves of steel.

Footnote: this was the only tunnel which had railings along a narrow footpath - so narrow we couldn't get the bike along it. Later tunnels had footpaths minus the railings and we were able to walk the bike through in complete safety.

Golubac Castle: fought over many times down the centuries.


New Members of  the 18,000 km Tandem Club : Judy the Stoker, Mike the Captain.
Distance this Trip: 1,841 km
Current Location: Donji Milanovac, Serbia.
Best Coffee east of Budapest (so far): restaurant at Lepenski Vir Archaeological Site.

Coffee at Lepenski Vir has to be a contender for Best since Budapest. Typically Serbian, it was strong but also hot and big enough to satisfy cyclists on a rainy morning.

Notes from the Road

It's been seriously hot since arriving back in Belgrade on Saturday the 19th. Two days of 35 degrees and we cycled but melted. On Sunday the 20th we found an easy way out and North of Belgrade, near Pancevo, where we got our first puncture of the trip. 65 kms to a cycling guest house right on the Danube. 

Then on and over the ferry to Ram to a "doggy" campground at a Serbian Danube sort-of resort area. Just got our tent up and listened to a major thunderstorm all night with rain on and off. It cleared, so off we went and oh, so stunning!

Lepenski Vir Archaeological Site. The remains of this Stone Age site were discovered during preliminary work on a Danube dam construction project in the 1960s. Rather than drown the site when the river level rose, it was shifted up the hillside and reassembled under the protection of a glass and steel shelter.

Finally in the Danube Gorge from Golubac East. Found the prettiest camp just West of Dobra on the water (only 2 couples there until later on) and took a wee cabin.  Looking over to the hills of Romania and so close. Today, very dramatic. Gorge narrowed, 15 tunnels, an amazing archaeological site, Lepenski Vir (inside a massive glass building just as a huge torrential downpour happened;  it looked like Milford Sound!) then on in sun to the prettiest village and to a devine room, 5 days old, 3rd story up, with windows overlooking the Danube and Romania. At Donji Milanovac.

This sandstone sculpture known as Danubius was just one of the finds at Lepenski Vir. It dates back to 6,300-5,900 BCE.

Tomorrow we pass the narrowest point of the Danube and may cross to Romania at the Iron Gates of Sip. We are loving this trip. People tough, friendly, big hearted but don't cross them and the learning is unbelievably interesting. Cycling is good. SE Asia was a great teacher for hot, humid and hills. The tandem2 mood is fantastic.

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