Borderlands: Bird Watching in Dobrogea, Romania

“In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”

— Henry David Thoreau – Walking

1. Across the River

We crossed the Danube at Braila on a flat-pack ferry like something you might find in the shelving section at Ikea. It had an embossed steel deck, shiny from years of being buffed up by the wheels of the vehicles as they loaded on and off.

Szabi waited in line with the van while Kinga and I waited on the jetty.

The deck was about seven or eight inches above the level of the jetty at first and the ferry would reel and judder as the cars and lorries lurched on board, dipping to take the load and then bouncing back once they passed over onto the deck. One of the crew was bent over on the jetty and watching as the wheels came in contact with the edge of the deck, making circling motions with his arms to show the driver when it was time to pull forward. He loaded the lorries on first and then the cars. Later, as more vehicles piled on, the level sank lower till in the end the ferry was seven or eight inches below the jetty, jerking about in the flapping waters like an animal on a leash waiting to escape.

After that, with a shout from the crew-member on the jetty as he unleashed the rusted steel cable and jumped on board, followed by a burst of smoke and a roar from the engine, the ferry broke free from the tangle of waters by the shore-line and was out into the open river, heaving its way through the dark heavy waves, making great sucking and slapping noises as the water hit the square-cut prow.

The river was a deep sea-green and the air smelt of ozone mixed with diesel-fuel. We stood on the prow to feel the welcome coolness of the wind on our faces as it scurried and raced along the Danube, chasing its tail down to the mysterious sea.

It had been a long, hot journey so far, and it was certain to get even hotter. We’d driven down from Transylvania in the heart of Romania, to Dobrogea, near the border with Bulgaria, between the Danube and the Black Sea, a journey of some six or seven hours.

I’d met Kinga for the first time at 4am that morning when they’d come to pick me up from the Pensiune in the Transylvanian mountains. She’s Szabi’s girlfriend, a very pretty Hungarian girl with shining eyes and a small stud in her lip. She spoke no English and I spoke no Hungarian, so hardly a word passed between us. But when I climbed into the van – which had two seats in the front and none in the back – she insisted that I take the passenger seat, while she sat on a little camping chair which she unfolded and set low down on the floor between the two fixed seats. Later on I had a go. It was very insecure. Every time the van veered one way or the other the little seat would lurch and you would have to catch hold of the chairs in front to stop yourself from collapsing in a heap. She spent four days in that seat – as a gesture to my extreme age I guess – and I am grateful to her for that.

Szabi is tall and dark with a hooked nose like a bird of prey. There’s something of the wild about him, something watchful and alert like a hunter. He would be our guide.

So – now – we were over the river, bouncing up a dusty road from the ferry-stop, and into Dobrogea, heading for the Macin Mountains. It was an expedition to scout out the birding in the area so that Szabi could take one of his groups there next week. He wanted to find out where the best sites were and had invited Kinga and I along for the ride.

As a consequence of this he was constantly stopping the van and leaping out with his binoculars to catch sight of some bird or another, which he would then name for me, while handing me a the binoculars. It didn’t take him long to realise that I was entirely ignorant when it came to birds.

“I think you not know what I am say,” he said, in that weirdly upside-down version of English of his. “But it not matter. I tell you anyway.”

So that was it: me Szabi and Kinga on a birding expedition in which at least two of us knew nothing about birds. But Szabi was right: it didn’t matter. Szabi’s enthusiasm made up for our ignorance, and there were plenty of other things to see and do while we were here….

Continue reading.

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