IT WAS pleasant indeed to be rafting down the River Vltava in Bohemia in Czech Republic of a Sunday afternoon, so pleasant that some of us said that, one day, we’d paddle all the way to the Elbe and across Germany to the North Sea, writes Damien Enright
The day was perfect, sun on the river, the temperature about 22C; sometimes we paddled in sunlight, sometimes in the dappled light of the tall willows that overhung the water on both banks for kilometres at a time.
We were four rafts full of Enrights and Enright in-laws come together from Ireland, Britain, Spain, Canada and Czech Republic for our annual family reunion. This year, it was in the town of Ceske Budejovice in Bohemia at the home of a son, and at his old barn in the fields outside town. Last year, it was Manchester, the year before west Cork, and so on.
We have 20 years of reunion pictures, recording the newcomers to the family through birth and marriage, the passage of the youngsters growing into adulthood and the adults growing fatter year by year.
The upper Vltava is a gentle river in summer. At snow-melt in spring, it’s a raging torrent. We had selected 15km to paddle, assisted by a gentle downstream flow. Six hours, it would take, the gent who rented us the rafts (actually inflatable rubber boats) calculated, allowing refreshment stops at a couple of the isolated, ramshackle huts on the river bank selling coffee, beer and spicy sausages grilled on a spit.
Each boat carried five crew, the youngest four-year-old Toby, the eldest myself.
We changed crews at stops. We had mighty, if not always co-ordinated paddlers — sometimes we’d find the boat turning a 360 degree circle, sometimes boats collided like aquatic fairground bumper cars. A great time was had by all.
Mighty amongst the paddlers were Toby and his nine-year-old brother, Luca, and the pretty young women were every bit as powerful as the handsome young men.
They reminded me of the legendary women who would row in from the islands of Roaring Water Bay and up the Ilen River to bring goods to market in Skibbereen. One paddler, my wife, might have a drop of Ilen rower blood in her veins.
For kilometre after kilometre we followed the dark brown watercourse through avenues of deciduous forests, giant oaks and Scots pines, 25m (80ft) tall, towering above us, and saw no other craft or human being.
Then, rounding a bend — the rafts, for once, in a rough convoy — we came upon the surreal sight of a naked gentleman of pensionable age fording the river with a bicycle on his shoulder. The river was 30m wide but shallow; he was very white, obviously not a regular nudist. His wife (or perhaps his mistress) stood waiting for him, fully clothed, on the other bank.
It was a difficult situation. We had no way to stop the boats in the flow, and he had nowhere to hide; had the water been deeper, he might, perhaps, have dived to the bottom and held his breath. As it happened, he was forced to stand no more than 10 metres away as we drifted past, preserving his modesty with one hand, while waving mock-cheerily with the other.
Clearly, standing naked with a bicycle in the middle of a river while boats full of foreigners passed was not his plan for a Sunday afternoon. My Czech daughter-in-law told me the Czechs wouldn’t bat an eyelid at such a sight. Someone else said that naked bike-riding is a new sport.
Sometimes, the downstream flow hastened as it carried us over shallow rapids between broad stretches of slow, calm water which seemed as still as a lake beneath the gigantic oaks and Scots pines that edged the banks almost all the way.
Sometimes, at the rapids, the boat, glancing off a submerged rock, would throw a paddler overboard with the ensuing hilarity taken in good part by the victim. The water was never more than chest high and then only in the calm stretches. (Question: Why can’t raft-rental exploit suitable Irish rivers? Don’t tell me... it’s insurance, the spectre that strangles at birth so many natural amenities.)
We saw two white Pied Wagtails (not a contradiction, a sub-species), each with a beakful of flies, attending their nest inside one of the spit-roasting riverside shacks, and a flotilla of Common Mergansers, river birds, different than the sea-going mergansers seen in our inshore waters.
On our walk near my son’s barn, we came on small wayside shrines along country paths, and villages with maypoles 70ft high, Christian and pagan side by side.
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