I stood on the harbor trying to decipher my options, deficient of any Romanian language skill to help me unravel the logistics of making it around the vast wetland that stretched before me. I didn’t know any of it, had no definite destination and only one objective - to discover it’s wild heart.
Tulcea, a semi crumbling port city founded in the 7th century stands at the gateway to the Danube delta, the worlds third largest bio-reserve after the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos islands. At the end of it’s journey of 2860km through nine countries, the Danube, Europe’s second longest river enters the Black Sea on the eastern edge of Romania in an explosion of biodiversity. A Unesco Biosphere Reserve, there are over 5300 species of flora and fauna and 320 species of birds, millions of which disembark in the delta on their long voyage between the equator and the north pole. My life’s own interminable journey in pursuit of the vanishing wild had led me to it's heart. Surrounded by 600,000 acres of Europe’s largest wetland and the world’s most expansive reed bed my senses were pulsing with anticipation.
With natural habitats in crisis, wilderness areas reduced to as low as 4% of the entire European continent, industrialisation has left the continent largely bereft of intact expansive ecosystems. The European Union’s initiative Natura 2000 is looking to restore select wilderness areas through it’s Habitats and Birds directives and the Danube Delta is a jewel in it's crown.
A few hours later having tapped the essence of all exploration by embracing the unknown and the limits of my knowledge I was moving again. I sat at the bow as the large passenger boat full of Romanians and a few visitors, unmoored and began sliding downstream through the river’s green water towards the Black Sea coast. With it I had entered a veritable maze of aquatic and terrestrial nirvana.
Clementina tossed the pastry in the air and wrapped it around her rolling pin before stretching it out on the table in a thin round where she brushed it with a feather dipped in pig fat. She repeated this process over and over. Grapevines laden with fruit draped over the trellis above us as her son Theo and I looked on like kids at the circus. She was making a traditional Romanian bread cake known as Placinta cu Branza, a puff pastry stuffed with her own homemade cheese.
I’d been a guest at her house for a few days in Sfantu Gheorghe, a far flung old naval outpost on the Black Sea. Waiting out the heat of the day, Theo and I munched on fried sardines with garlic sauce and a host of squash and tomatoes from the garden. Earlier that morning we’d fetched catfish from the local fish market to be used in a traditional soup of the danube delta, the centerpiece of dinner that evening. On the table a bowl of walnuts also from the garden sat beckoning me to eat them before Theo pulled me away to go exploring.
Willows swayed about in the breeze gently brushing the water’s edge, their silver foliage shimmering and dancing in the September sun, seeming to exalt in their own vitality. Tall golden green reeds lined the channel brushing our little boat and heads as Theo steered through the lush maze. A flash of brilliant blue darted across my vision narrowly avoiding a head on collision with me as a Kingfisher busied itself with fishing and frolicking. When we got too close, frogs leaped from Lily pads in a chorus of plops, diving into the underwater forest below. Reaching his hand into the verdant water and turning over one of the lilies, Theo handed me a small white nugget he’d pulled from it’s roots. I bit into it, relishing the sweet tang of the pinkish white water chestnut. Nearby, a Dragonfly flapped his wings frantically with excitement or the pursuit of trying to catch his own tea. I couldn’t quite tell.
The relative isolation of the delta at the regions’ far eastern edge have sheltered it somewhat from the onslaught of cheap and crass tourism. However, it has not escaped unscathed from the effects of unfettered development upstream in the industrial heartland of Europe. Today the reserves faces extensive threats from upstream pollution of industrial, pharmaceutical and agricultural run off, numerous dams and poaching.
When I saw a Danube sturgeon for the first time I was lost for words in the face of it’s 200 million year old prehistorical beauty. I’d never seen anything like the fish before me as it’s diamond shaped scales glistened in the midday sun. An insatiable human lust for caviar has led to danube sturgeon being heavily overfished and the species is now listed as critically endangered. Like most of the world's fish we are eating it to extinction. The sturgeon I was being shown surreptitiously was dead and I was told in hushed tones that it had been caught ‘accidentally’ in someone’s net.
Hunting good light and bird sightings we’d left from the nearby village of Mila 23. The settlement inhabited mainly by Lipovans, ancestors of Russian orthodox exiles who fled persecution in the 18th century, sat remotely in the middle of the delta off the Sulina channel. It was exactly the place I had been looking for in the heart of Europe’s Amazon. Mihai’s boat moved slowly through the water, it's small engine ticking over as we cruised through a labyrinth of channels which I'd reluctantly given up trying to remember the names of. Hunting good light and bird sightings we’d left from the nearby village of Mila 23. The settlement inhabited mainly by Lipovans, ancestors of Russian orthodox exiles who fled persecution in the 18th century, sat remotely in the middle of the delta off the Sulina channel. It was exactly the place I had been looking for in the heart of Europe’s Amazon. Dipping my hand in the cool water I let it surround the shape of my fingers as they glided through it. As I gazed deep through my reverie I caught fleeting flashes of fish beneath the water.
Rounding a wide bend, Mihai, his stately Romanian face bronzed from months spent cruising the delta, pointed the boat back in the direction we'd come a short while earlier. High in the trees above us, pygmy cormorants stretched their necks from one side then another looking out like sentries from a castle turret. This was their kingdom. The sun had started it’s descent towards the horizon when I first saw Aurika standing on the far bank looking at us, shielding his eyes from the sun’s golden glare. Beckoning us towards him with a wave, the excitement for the spontaneous visit was palpable between the two friends.
As we stepped onto the riverbank, Aurika greeted us with handshakes and curiosity. It was obvious I was a sort of anomaly to a man who rarely saw visitors from other parts of the world. Hurriedly I was invited to sit under the canopy of his ramshackle old house, it’s white paint peeling and boarded windows. Scattered in heaps around us was some old farm machinery where chickens hid and laid eggs. Geese ducked and dived while pecking at the bare earth for whatever they could find. In the distance wild boars roamed the forest, apparently coming out only when they felt like terrorising the neighbour’s cows.
We drank Tuica, Romania’s homemade spirit made from plums and talked earnestly about our cultures and a changing world that seemed so far from where we were sat. Before dark fell our host ushered me to the garden where he generously loaded a basket of fresh vegetables for me. A non meat eater, I politely declined the offer of a freshly slaughtered chicken or pig, delicately trying to do so without causing insult. As night wore on and the local brew took effect, the moon rose bright and orange. The frogs and birds had gone to sleep and in the midst of the hushed landscape the only sound was our increasingly animated conversation and song.
As Mihai motored the boat towards home in the wee hours, my thoughts drifted. Around me was so much of what we have lost not just of ourselves, but also the place we call 'home'. Moving through the cool night air and the river’s still waters, my friend at my side, we were mindfully coexisting and connected with it all and with each other. This treasure of the earth gifting me a piece of it’s wild heart and a reminder of my own.
For more from the photo portfolio from the Danube Delta visit : https://www.michellemccarron.com/danube-delta/