Being the tale of Our Man falling in with Sportovni Klub CZ.
Well now, it all began a couple of years ago, when Our Lass and I were camping at Podhradi on the Moravice river. We had bagged ourselves a nice piece of campsite next to the river, not too far from the bar but far enough that we had a bit of peace and quiet and we had a nice fire going. Our Lass was sharpening some sticks to roast sausages on when a boat appeared. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, it was on a river and boats had been going past in ones, twos, dribs and drabs for most of the afternoon. Most of them were Canadian style canoes or inflatable 2-man affairs. Nothing wrong with an inflatable 2-man affair you might think, not in this day and age and maybe you would be right but this appeared to be an inflatable family affair. It was the nautical equivalent of a monster truck and as it drew into the bank, I saw that it had a 50-litre beer barrel strapped into it and a young crewman of about 5 was waving a tankard and calling out ‘Beer! Fresh beer! Fresh beer on tap!’.
|The family-sized floating bar, complete with under-age barman.|
This was my introduction to a Czech-style river run and given the way Czechs do everything else I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Over the next couple of hours, the campsite began to fill up until our little piece of prime real-estate was surrounded by cold, wet and hungry paddlers. They joined us round the fire, brought more wood, got the guitars out and turned it into a party. By the time Our Lass and I had staggered off to bed, we had been invited to join them on the second leg of the trip the next day and that’s how I met Sportovni Klub CZ.
Fast forward 2 years and I was driving towards the biggest thunderstorm I had seen in many a year. Lightning flashed from one horizon to the other, illuminating the insides of the clouds in a way that would have been a lot more beautiful to the eye had the beholder not been bound for a river which lay directly under the storm. Twisting and turning along pitch-black country roads, trying to read a hiking map and not crash, I realized that I was within a kilometre of the camp and hopelessly lost. The road signs had stopped a long time ago and I found the place in the end by doing a U-turn in what I thought was a lay-by and finding that the blackness beyond wasn’t a forest but a road. Not a road marked on the map, of course, but a road nonetheless.
The rest of the sport club were deeply involved in someone’s birthday celebrations and had been for some time by the looks of them but with typical Czech hospitality they passed me a bottle of something claiming to be rum and started firing questions at me thick and fast. Living with the natives might be the best way of learning a language but trying to follow half a dozen conversations with people who have been drinking for several hours is the perfect way of getting a headache! I mean, how can a person with one mouth answer questions from 6 different people? In any language, let alone one as ‘interesting’ as Czech??
‘Hi! Hello! I’m from England… yes please, very kind of you… rum, you say…. don’t mind if I do… you’re 30? Congratulations… oh, go on then… just a small one… what’s that? Not rum?… oh, the EU… what? You can’t call it ‘Rum’?… well I realise we’re not in Jamaica but… why not? Thank you… no, the Czech Republic certainly isn’t famous for its sugar plantations… rum is rum, surely?… well, if you insist… so you said but what else can you call it?… Tuzemek?… thank you… so rum is protected by the EU?… Really?… bottoms up!… Like Champagne?… hang on, I haven’t finished this one yet!…but Champagne is a region… thank you, certainly tastes strong!… only 35%?… oh well, I’ll have another one then, cheers…so why do you have to call it Tuzemek?… there’s no sugar in it?… no, it still tastes fine, thanks… sorry, I’ll drink fashter… nonono, ‘sall right… how do you make rum withou’ sh, sh, sugar, then?… ah, I see… yesh thanksh, top it up, why not?…so rum without sugar is Tuzemek?… you’re 30, you say? Congratulationsh! Here’s mud in your eye!… What? Potatoes?… No, not actual mud, not actually in your eye… thanks, cheers!… What’sh that about potatoesh?… no, it’s an English expression, it means ‘Cheers’… ‘Mud’, like earth and water, yesh, that shtuff…oh, thanksh, that’sh hit the shpot… yes mud like what you grow potatoes in…. no, not potatoes in the eye, mud…MUD!…thanks, don’t mind if I do, chin chin!…look, I’m probably not translating it ver’ well…Happy Birthday! 30? Well done, sir!… gosh, have we finished another bottle?… well thatsh becaushe we drank it all ha ha ha… OK, look, potatoes grow in mud but that’sh no’ the point… I was born in England but I live in Ostrava now…you put potatoes WHERE?… nonono, my wife’s Czech… pardon?… another? Are you mad? well, go on then… you put potatoes in Tuzemek?… no, I can’t taste potatoes… let’s try another shot… oh, it’s MADE from potatoes?…why didn’t you say?… Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!….no, of course they can’t call it rum!… ‘uncle’, like your father’s brother… thanks, very kind of you…’monkey’, like a small gorilla… Good Health!… no it’s another English expression… we’ve run out?… ah, you have some plum brandy?… it means ‘I am very surprised’… nonono, mud in your eye means ‘cheers’, ‘I’ll be a monkey’s uncle’ means ‘I am surprised’,… JESUS CHRIST!!!!… oh, I see, it’s HOME MADE plum brandy!… bloody hell, you could’ve warned me!…should that guy be lying so close to the fire?… 50%?…Christ on a bike!… No, I agree, anything over 60% loses its taste… ‘Christ’, like Jesus Christ…. really, I think his shirt’s starting to burn… Skol!…I don’t know why ‘on a bike’… it’s just an expression… I think we should move him… good health!… that’s right, like potatoes in your eye… or was it mud?… just a moment, there, see? I TOLD you his shirt was starting to burn… oh why not… one for the road…no I’m not driving, it’s just another expression…’
So it was that I looked and felt my very best when it was time
to start the Great Moravice Descent. Like all convoys, the driver who knew the route went in front, took off like Lewis Hamilton and left the rest of us to work it out for ourselves. I was in the vehicle carrying the boats and gear so I wasn’t worried but it took a few phone calls to locate all the drivers and ‘talk them down’. It would have been quicker if the lead driver had just driven a bit slower!
|1 person working, 4 supervising.|
|The Van Rouge, back in the paddling game at last!|
For all the reckless drinking the night before, Sportovni Klub provided a very thorough safety briefing with detailed instructions on how to swim in moving water and how to use throw bags, how to recognise hypothermia, how to vent air from the boats if the sun got too hot, a comprehensive set of hand and paddle signals for use in emergencies and, because we’re dealing with Czechs on a healthy sporting weekend, an outright ban on smoking within 4 metres of the boats and no glass bottles… tinned beer only!
|Throw bag training.|
|The first weir and some drunken sailors.|
|Tea without rum.|
The upper Moravice, from Kružberk dam to Podhradi campsite, is ideal for beginners. It’s relatively flat and calm, slow moving and quite wide. It isn’t a particularly long section but it is ideal for relaxing on and admiring the view. Most people took a while to lie back in their boats and watch the sunlight through the trees up the sides of the valley, the beech and oak starting to bud, nest-building birds skimming the water with twigs in their beaks, all spring colours and smells so welcome after such a miserable, cold winter. Occasionally the idyll was broken by a raucous shout of ‘Ahooooooooyyyyyy!!!!!!’ from the owners of the many holiday cottages and chalets along the bank, or the sudden onset of a water fight, two crews using paddles to fling ever-increasing amounts of water at another crew until someone dug their paddle a little too deeply and turned their boat over. There’s one weir to test the skills of the novice, quickly followed by a free tea stall set up by the organisers. You have to provide your own rum, though.
|Derelict hotel at Jánské Koupele|
At Jánské Koupele, an old spa and bath hotel, now derelict, there is a weir, a chance to get a dunking and a nice selection of refreshments, i.e. beer and hot dogs. After beer, hot dogs and a good dunking the river returns to it’s relaxed state and you can enjoy the scenery all the way to the campsite. Now and then, there are some short rapids, most often near holiday cottages where kids have built up dams of stones at low water.
|Some crazy fools. The water was 4°C!|
|Severe lack of bouyancy aft, that man!|
|Our Man, making it look much harder than it really is.|
|Tramp’s Cigar (kind of hot-dog), ketchup and mustard for 40 Crowns, goulash and bread for 50 Crowns…|
|…or all of the above plus BEER!!!|
The rivers over here are all dammed and the Spring Opening is a tradition. The dam operators let out a calculated amount of water so that the reservoirs aren’t totally full after the spring melt. That way, if there’s a very rainy summer, they don’t overflow and flood the villages and towns downriver. Therefore the rivers are often a fair bit lower than during an opening and perfect places for kids to get some exercise by hauling vast amounts of rock around and trying to block the river. When the river is open, these piles of rocks provide good opportunities for practising basic surf skills or breaking in and out of the current.
|A traditional river-valley cowboy, fresh out of the pub.|
|Ferda, the bad-ass chihuahua.|
At the campsite, there is a nice easy take out point and a race to get changed, sort out a shuttle and go and retrieve the cars at the put in point. Back at camp it was a repeat of the night before… potato rum, home-made plum brandy and camp food boiled, baked or burned over the fire. As the evening wore on, I was surprised to find how many of my new-found friends had worked in the Britain or Ireland. Scotland was the clear favourite destination, with Ireland a close second and England third. No-one had been to Wales although all of them said they wished they had been. Another thing they all agreed on was that even after spending years learning English at school, it took them at least 6 months to learn to understand their hosts’ accents!
I retired early to avoid a repeat of last night’s appalling alcoholism and awoke bright and early. The dawn sun shone through the trees on the opposite bank of the river and it was bloody freezing. It was so bloody freezing that I couldn’t light the methyl alcohol for my cooker. I had to shove the bottle under an armpit for 15 terrible minutes before it was warm enough to burn!
I breakfasted on dehydrated goulash with fresh spring onion, had a nice cup of beef soup, got all my kit ready and then went back to bed because no-one else was awake. It was around 12 before we finally got moving and several people appeared to have had nothing but beer for breakfast. They seemed surprised at my surprise, after all as any Czech will tell you, beer is liquid bread.
The second section of the river is longer, faster and contains a lot more obstacles, like rocks, fallen trees, weirs and enterprising holiday cottage owners attempting to lure passing paddlers into buying hot-dogs and beer.
The first weir is un-runnable, with a nasty stopper at the bottom. It doesn’t quite suck the leaves off the trees but you’d be lucky to get out of it without a trained and equipped rescuer. All the rest of the weirs can be run and are good confidence boosters. I learned to paddle on the sea and have a limited amount of experience on moving water so for me it was ideal.
|The Forbidden Weir, looking deceptively runnable.|
Prostřední Dvůr Weir
The Mad Hatters at Prostřední Dvůr Weir
There was a lot more swimming on day 2 but mostly due to over-confidence during water-fights. Another good way of falling in is to play a game of swapping seats. Everyone rafted up and had a number, then Petr, the group leader, called out pairs of numbers and those people had to get up and swap places. The more people standing up and moving around, the more the boats wobbled and the more people fell in, which was very amusing.
As well as the weirs, there are many more sections of rapids and surfable waves. The only problem with trying to surf is that several dozen rafts are bearing down on you at any one time like out of control bulldozers and you have to be pretty nimble to stay out from under them. It’s a bit like playing live Space Invaders.
The last few hundred metres have some good surf if you can get into it. There’s no eddy at the sides because they are small weirs flooded out but if you float down backwards and paddle like mad you might catch a ride. The thing to avoid here is the rafts because the river is about 5 metres wide and 2 or 3 rafts coming in quick succession will leave you no room to manoeuvre.
Finally, as all the boats were out of the river and the trip was over, we had a chance to practice actually using throw bags. Michal, the deputy group leader, gave a demonstration of swimming feet first in moving water and 3 or 4 others threw the throw bags at him so that he got tangled in the lines and couldn’t swim.
So ended the Great Moravice Descent. The expedition members retired to a pub for food, with the exception of the drivers, who had to organise a shuttle back to Podhradi. I got a lift in an Astra with a ‘special’ passenger door… there was something wrong with the lock so it was hard to tell if it was shut or not until we came to a sharp left hand bend. As it turned out, it wasn’t locked so it swung open and I had to lean out and grab it before anything came the other way. All in all a memorable weekend with some great characters!