Down the River in an Inflatable Boat

Who hasn’t stood by a river and thought what would happen if you just let yourself float downstream? The thought has run through my mind countless times. And now, here I was, sitting in a train from Berlin to Wittenberge, the quickest route to the Elbe river. Previously, while perusing a map, I noticed that the region between Hamburg and the German capital is, oddly enough, one of the most sparsely populated areas in Germany. This conjured up images of seclusion and an abundance of nature. Yet, before managing to embark from the shore, my little adventure already appeared to be dead in the water. After two hours of trying, I finally had to admit that the pump that came along with my cheap inflatable boat wasn’t working. A construction worker, who had been watching me with some amusement the whole time, suggested that I try getting help from the fishing shop around the corner. A short time later, I sat in my inflatable boot and turned myself around. I could hear the worker call out to me from the shore in disbelief, “So you want to go to Hamburg? Good luck!” Luck was something I could use, I thought as I clumsily tried to paddle into the waterway.

boat trip watching berlin

My plan was simple. The Elbe river has a flow rate of 4 kilometers an hour. In principle, that would mean I could easily travel 40 kilometers a day without any physical exertion. However, it wasn’t that easy. Without a rudder, the boat wouldn’t stay on track. Every gust of wind would blow me into the next embankment and it required a great deal of effort to escape from the surrounding eddies. After some time, I discovered a technique that allowed me to stay on course. Then came the rain and I sat soaking wet in a deep puddle. My boat had transformed into a swimming pool. Evidently, there is no such thing as an easy beginning.

watching river bank from boar

On the other hand, I truly was rewarded with solitude and nature. Not a single boat crossed my way on the first day along one of the mightiest German rivers. I could hear the chatter of wild geese and saw a white-tailed eagle swoop down to catch a fish. I spotted a flock of cranes flying in formation high in the sky and caught sight of wild horses on the shore, the existence of which I had not even been aware of until then. I had arrived at the “River Landscape Elbe” Biosphere Reserve, which is recognized by UNESCO as a natural world heritage site.

boat rip flying birds

The trees along the shore were bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun and my eyes were dazzled by the sight. I realized it was time to find a place to set up camp for the night. I pulled my inflatable boat onto a stretch of sandy Elbe beach and pitched my tent. I had managed to navigate 28 kilometers on the first day. It was so perfectly tranquil here that even the sound of a woodpecker in the distance seemed on a par with a jackhammer.

The next morning, I was awoken by the grunting of wild boars near my tent and was treated to an incredibly beautiful sunrise. It didn’t take long before I was off drifting down the river again. This time without wind or rain, and I could confidently have breakfast and take a snooze without the risk of drifting into an embankment. While floating downstream, I found myself being ignored by some deer drinking along the banks of the river. Even the herons took no notice of me while on the lookout for prey.

boat trip down the river elbe

I returned to shore upon reaching the town of Mödlich. Trudging through the dewy grass alongside some storks, I made my way across the marsh to Café Elbeglück. I didn’t want to start a campfire in the nature reserve, but I still felt like having a hot coffee. I met a hiker walking along the German Green Belt, the nature reserve stretching across the former border that separated East and West Germany. He had served as an East German border guard while in the military and now wanted to see his homeland with new eyes. We spoke about the absurdity of the inner German border, but we both had to admit that it resulted in this section of the Elbe being what it is today. Nature had reclaimed the “no man’s land” between the East German watchtowers, and wildlife now thrived here.

The Elbe still seems to form a natural border here, although I could effortlessly overcome it by drifting from shore to shore in my inflatable boat. So, I continued my journey downstream to the small city of Dömitz, where I could indulge in some major nostalgia. After downing a sausage covered in ketchup, the archetypical East German fast food, I treated myself to an East German-style soft ice cream. A picture of Erich Honecker, the former communist leader, looked down from the wall and observed the changing times. An older woman sitting on her walker nodded kindly in my direction. “It tasted good back then, and it still does today.” She wasn’t wrong there. And after four days of weaving between villages along the waterway and passing through unspoiled wilderness, I arrived in Hamburg.

manolo ty boat trip

I certainly learned something by taking this slowest of adventure trips close to my home. The Elbe is a unique river that allows you to lose track of time. Time means nothing here. And that is just what I came here for.

All pictures by Manolo Ty