The campfire snaps, firing up bursts of orange into the night sky, throwing shadows across the dark outline of our teepee and the woods behind. A short distance to my right, through a curtain of trees, I can hear the white noise of the beer-brown river flowing downstream. From somewhere there is the sound of a guitar being strummed.
“Rafting is strange, isn’t it?” Says Martin, an English student from Prague as he pours himself a drink and stares into the flames. “My muscles hurt because I’m not used to the movement, but on the other hand I’m totally calm. I’m exhausted physically, but relaxed psychologically. Do you know what I mean?”
I reach for another beer and nod. I know exactly what he means. We’re in Kamp Branna, halfway along a journey down the Vltava river. Despite only being on the water for a day, there’s already a feeling of being in a totally different gear, tuned to the river’s speed. Little wonder that rafting or canoeing down this, the Czech Republic’s iconic ‘mother’ river, is regarded as something far bigger than a holiday.
As I’ve already been told numerous times by fellow rafters, a trip down the Vltava is more like a rite of passage, one that draws legions of paddlers every summer keen to experience its unique river culture, history and jaw-dropping natural splendour.
It hadn’t taken long to see its appeal. Arriving earlier in the day at the pretty Renaissance town of Český Krumlov, perched above a series of the river’s winding bends, my co-rafter and I had been met by Honza from raft hire company ‘Rafting Krumlov’.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” He’d said immediately, gesturing towards the South Bohemian town’s chocolate box skyline, framed by a bright October sky. “When I was young we came on a boat here every year. Twice sometimes. It was a traditional family trip. Whenever possible we all came rafting or canoeing.”
As directed, we climbed into the back of a battered van with a large red and black inflatable raft strapped to the top. Pulling out of town, we were soon heading upstream towards our place of embarkation.
It turns out that deciding exactly which stretch of the river to raft is down to the skill of the paddlers. The Vltava is enormous; it runs, roars and meanders 430km from the Šumava National Park in the west of South Bohemia to the mouth of the Elbe beyond Prague, giving it a reputation as a river of many personalities. Fortunately there’s one to suit any level. While more serious paddlers might frequent the higher and more challenging white water reaches found in Šumava, others – like us – plump for a more well-paddled path: the two-day trip from the village of Vyšší Brod downstream to Český Krumlov.
After swerving along country roads for half an hour, gaps in the thick woodland began to reveal an impressive spire and tumble of quaint orange roofs. Vyšší Brod may now be a somewhat forgotten spot, but the spire forms part of what was once a large Cistercian monastery built by South Bohemia’s powerful and influential Rosenberg family, and it dates back to the thirteenth-century. Following a tumultuous history that saw it requisitioned for a loot store by the Nazis and its monks being turfed out during communism, it’s now a monastery again, exuding a stately feeling of serenity. With the river looking similarly gentle, Honza pulled in and released the raft from its moorings, sending up a cloud of dust.
Loading it with our kit – paddles, sleeping bags, sun hats, food, water, cameras packed in waterproof bags and a slab of Budweiser Budvar – Honza gave us a scratch lesson in tackling the river’s many weirs. “Look for the arrows pointing you to one side or the other, and do what they say. Then point the raft down the channel and go for it. Don’t go over the main weirs or you will capsize.” Then, with promises to call him to organise a rendezvous as we approach Český Krumlov, he put his foot on the raft’s stern, gave us a hefty shove, and we were adrift.
I say adrift. The first weir was only a few paddle strokes away meaning that we were soon being pulled into its current, approaching the surging channel of white water stern first. Being seated at the back, I took evasive action and turned us around using a paddle against the bank just as the raft’s prow disappeared down the slide of water ahead. A strong drag, down, and we were pulled through to jolt back up into the river’s heart, arms aloft, whooping with joy.
Adrenalin subsided and we were carried off along with the river’s gentle central current. The Vltava widened; the world slowed. Thick forest rose all around. The sun flickered over the water in flashes of silver and the river slipped us through a shallow gully that rang with birdsong and the occasional ‘splosh’ of feeding fish snatching flies.
We soon mastered steering – one paddle stroke at the back was worth two at the front – meaning we could soon drift elegantly around the river’s wide bends and not look too amateur among the other rafters. These ranged from determined families in orange canoes sweeping past at pace to sunbathing couples spinning lazily in the current, occasionally slipping into the water to swim and cool off.
The high season for the Vltava is June and July when the river is alive with all manner of multi-coloured watercraft. From historic waterside inns and floating bars specially constructed for the bustling river life, to silent stretches of natural splendour, the river offers whatever you are searching for – as Honza had confirmed: “Some come for fun and to drink beer; others because their parents did. Others come every year for the nature, like a pulse in their life. There are different reasons, I think, but all do it to relax.”
Our first port of call was ‘U Tri Veverek’, which means ‘The Three Squirrels’ – a pull-in refreshment stop on a bend in the river with bar and café hidden among the trees. An old man sat alone playing guitar. Kids ran about and sprayed passing canoes with water pistols. At a table, a big group of friends raised pints of cold beer, toasting their journey so far. We followed their lead and watched the water for a while, a cold Budvar in hand, when Jaroslav, a local from České Budějovice, appeared. “I’m a true Budweiser too!” He said, pointing to our beers and giving us the thumbs up.
While his kids played in the woodland, Jaroslav explained that he and his family raft this river religiously. “This is a specific kind of tourism – tramping or river-rovering, which has a great tradition in Czech lands. We have a lot of beautiful rivers and beautiful nature here but the Vltava is something really special. Vltava is our main, patriotic river so something like the Volga for Russians or the Mississippi for Americans. It’s our river number one, and there are many legends attached to it.”
That’s hardly surprising when you consider how long people have been rafting these waters. Written records stretch back almost a thousand years. And I do mean rafting. Originally, rope-bound logs provided the most effective way to move timber down from the tree-dense Šumava mountains. Navigating the river then was dangerous work and took true skill, but it was essential to an industry that brought an important source of wealth to the South Bohemian region and its ruling, aristocratic families.
Another hour of drifting and the thirteenth-century town of Rožmberk nad Vltavou provided a welcome spot for a late lunch. Lying on the curve of the river and watched over by its handsome castle, it again belonged to the House of Rosenberg who clearly had an impressive eye for situation and style. Mooring up and re-fueling on goulash and cold beer on a terrace overlooking the water, we stretched our legs a bit before climbing stiffly back into the raft. Passing under the town’s bridge we tackled another weir – this time riding the wild water with a little more panache.
From there it was some delightful paddling, slow and peaceful through the lush woods and hills, to reach the lights and woodsmoke of Kamp Branna. I’d be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t glad to see our overnight spot materialising through the trees. Twinges had definitely begun to tighten my arms and shoulders, and the glowing teepee entrances flanking the water’s edge looked seriously cozy as the sun began slipping behind the trees. We could see the outlines of other rafters setting up tents, collecting wood and sparking campfires into life in communal fire pits.
After mooring and finding our teepee, I’d been unsure as to how we might join someone else’s campfire, but there needn’t have been any reservations. Jaroslav had been right when he’d told us: “You have a freedom to stop everywhere. In the Czech Republic there is still the freedom to go anywhere on the river and in the woods. You can swim everywhere; you can drink everywhere! It’s a feeling of freedom and you will meet a lot of great people. In the camps there’s always a really great atmosphere.”
It’s how we ended up sitting in the flickering flame-light, sharing beers with two complete strangers.
OVERNIGHT AT KAMP BRANNA
I arch my back, rise and stoke the fire. Time to cook dinner. We’ve brought sausages, which we pierce with sharpened green sticks fetched from the forest. Martin, the student from Prague, retrieves a loaf of bread and after a hearty char-grilled supper of bangers in baguettes, we all wander down to the campsite’s covered bar where the drinks are flowing and a scratch band has formed. This is the real ‘Bohemian Spirit’ found on the river. Evenings see rafts moored up at different campsites and paddlers meeting, cooking and swapping tips, stories and songs.
Double bass, guitars and various vocalists come together in a jubilant mix. Czech folk songs, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and Eric Clapton blend into an unusual medley but one that does the trick, sending couples off dancing in the dark and stirring groups of mates into swaying and singing along. We take a table next to a grandmother and her granddaughter and soak up the show before weariness sends us drifting back through the dark wood to the quiet of our teepee and warm sleeping bags.
Restored by a full night’s sleep, a chorus of dawn birdsong and strong morning coffee, we are packed up and pushing the raft out again by 9:15am, bidding goodbye to our new friends as they snake off ahead at pace. Maybe it’s down to experience, but the paddling seems easier today as we wend our way around breathtaking bend after breathtaking bend. It’s picturesque South Bohemian country: weeping willows, occasional waterside villages, and thick, wild woods. Even the weirs are a doddle; each is an exciting, fairground-like burst of fun.
Then the approach to Český Krumlov begins, and it’s astounding – like flicking through a folio of historical paintings: rock sided gorges topped with houses; drooping trees reflected in the calm water; bridges and river bars where patrons raise glasses as we float by. There’s even an old wooden punt of sightseers, which we paddle around with our newfound skills.
Reluctantly we put the call in to Honza, as promised, and arrange a picking up point in town, near the old brewery. Then comes a wonderful reveal: Český Krumlov’s dramatic cliff-top castle on one side, the town’s cluster of colourful houses on the other and us drifting gracefully between the two, approaching a grand bridge and – spotted a little too late thanks of our gawping – the last weir on our trip: ‘weir u vozíčkárny’.
This one suddenly looks big. What’s worse is there’s an audience. People throng the bridge above, waving and snapping photos as we ingloriously get caught in a tail-spin and descend down it backwards, popping out and turning ourselves back around to laughter and cheers from the assembled crowd.
When we see Honza waving at us from the riverside, we pull in with a heavy heart and help him load our trusty vessel onto the van’s roof. There’s a reservation at a nearby Italian restaurant waiting, but we take the time to open a last can of Budvar by the water and drink in the views. Then, slapping the raft’s hull as a goodbye, we go in search of pizza, carrying thirty-five unforgettable kilometres of the Vltava River with us and promising that – just like everyone else who comes here – we too will definitely return.