Czech kayaker on crossing Europe

Jiří Oliva, photo: archive of Jiří Oliva

Nearly four years ago, in April 2015, Czech adventurer Jiří Oliva set off on a journey to fulfil his dream: travelling around Europe in a kayak. Originally, he planned to cover over 20,000 kilometres, but after three and a half years "on the road" he decided to make a shortcut and return back home.

Jiří Oliva,  photo: archive of Jiří Oliva
Jiří Oliva spent altogether 1,357 days paddling along the coastline and rivers, passing through 18 European states and covering over 11,500 kilometres. He set out from Prague in April 2015 and returned nearly four years later, at the end of October 2018. When I met with Mr Oliva in our studio in Prague, he told me the trip was a fulfilment of his childhood dream.

“I got the idea to travel around Europe when I was still at school. I kept pushing the idea into the future, telling myself that it was not the right time yet and that it had to wait.

“I kept postponing it for about ten years, and then I spent another five years working in Switzerland, where I had an accident on a motorbike. And at that moment I realised that if I kept postponing things into the future, they might actually never happen.”

That was in back in 2014. Jiří Oliva spent the following year getting ready for the trip: preparing the boat and all the necessary equipment, but first and foremost, he head to learn how to kayak, something he had never done prior to the journey:

“I taught myself how to kayak during the year of preparations. I learned everything about rescuing and navigation. It was something new for me. A lot of people travel around Europe or around the world on a bike or on foot, but I never heard of anyone travelling on a kayak. So I wanted to try it.”

“A chair and a table is something you really miss when you spend all the time on the beach.”

In April 2015, Jiří Oliva finally lowered his six-metre kayak onto the Vltava River in Prague and embarked upstream.

“My first idea was to make a circle around Europe and I found Prague an ideal place to start and finish the trip. From Prague I set off upstream on the Vltava River to Austria, then along the Danube down to the Black Sea and then along all the different European states.

“Originally I wanted to travel across all of Europe to Germany and come back along the Elbe. But after three years, when I was almost in the middle of the journey, I realised I needed a shortcut.”

The decision to return back home came in Sicily, but instead of hopping on a direct plane to Prague, Jiří Oliva manufactured a special trailer to carry his kayak and cycled from southern Italy all the way to Hamburg.

Covering up to 150 kilometres a day, he reached the German city after only 20 days. From Hamburg, he paddled 700 kilometres upstream the Elbe River, arriving in Prague 45 days later.

Oliva says the journey upstream the Elbe was perhaps the most physically strenuous part of the whole trip. However, the only moment he actually thought of giving up came much earlier on the way.

“There was one tough moment, around the third day of my journey, when I was some 50 kilometres away from Prague. It was a difficult stage, because I had to cross a lot of dams and I had to cross the dams carrying all my equipment, which took me around two to three hours.

Jiří Oliva,  photo: archive of Jiří Oliva
“And in front of one dam, I just thought: this is really crazy. But then I realised I had all the time I needed to fix my problems. So it was only this one moment.”

Apart from paddling, Jiří Oliva occasionally stopped on the way to take pictures, write entries in his blog or to repair his kayak. He also spent a few weeks in Egypt, working as a diving instructor. Among the many places he visited on his way along Europe’s rivers and seas, he says the most memorable one was Greece.

“It was really a special place because I visited many of its islands. But I also loved the trip along the Danube. I covered 2000 kilometres on one river, passing through several countries, seeing all kinds of different cultures.”

“I was really surprised, because people were really amazing everywhere. Everyone tried to help me. The hospitality was great. Everywhere I went people would stop me and asked if I needed help.”

When Oliva set out on his journey, his kayak was packed with equipment and weighed over 100 kilos. However, as he progressed, he gradually reduced his load, discovering that he actually didn’t actually need that many things:

“I think I learned a lot about myself but the most important thing was to be humble.”

“When I set off, I had a lot of equipment, around twice as much as I needed. Every day and every month I put something away and it was still super heavy. So it was not easy to travel with all the equipment. I tried to be independent but at the same time I was quite comfortable.”

Spending over three years on the road, most of the time on his own, Jiří Oliva says his life was reduced to the basics: eating, sleeping and paddling. He says the ascetic routine allowed him to learn a lot about himself:

“I think I learned a lot about myself but the most important thing was to be humble. It is really difficult to be on water all the time and if you are not humble, you may get into dangerous situations.

“I also learned that you need much less than you think. Now that I am back in town again, I see that we have so much staff that we don’t really need and that we collect around us.”

Nevertheless, he also admits there were a few things he missed on his journey, most of all, perhaps surprisingly, a table and a chair:

“Most of the time I slept on the beach or in a tent and I was OK with that. But a chair and a table is something you really miss when you spend all the time on the beach.”

Jiří Oliva,  photo: archive of Jiří Oliva
Apart from covering thousands of kilometres and visiting countless places, Oliva also collected over 1,492 piece of rubbish along the way:

“During the trip I realised there was so much rubbish everywhere. The beaches are full of it. I decided I can help by collecting a piece of rubbish every day. So I started collecting one piece of rubbish each day from the beach or the sea. And I have tried to maintain this habit until now.”

Jiří Oliva says settling down after nearly four years on the road hasn’t been easy, and he is already restless to set out for another adventure. His plan is to acquire a sailing boat that would provide a bit more comfort than a kayak, but would still enable him to travel freely from place to place.