Rafting the Vltava river to the sound of Czech "Ahojs"

Vltava river in Cesky Krumlov, photo: CzechTourism

A beautiful stretch of forest, a sublime morning mist, softly rounded hills, and here and the twists and turns and occasionally roiling water of the Vltava river - that is what awaited several of us last week on a trip to a friend's cottage in southern Bohemia. A chance to get away from the city, away from radio news and queues and streets filled with tourists and the cars and trams ringing their bells and rolling their way outside the window at all hours of the night. A chance to get away. It began with a bottle of Fernet bitter...

Vltava river in Cesky Krumlov,  photo: CzechTourism
In the old cottage not from the Czech town of Vyssi Brod, with its famous monastery, we whiled away the evening hours as outside a fog descended - and you heard the occasional owl's hoot. Then to bed, for we had an early rise, to go rafting on the Vltava river... Scratch that... then to bed, but just one more, because we had an early rise... okay, a final shot wouldn't hurt, would it? And then it was 3 am...

Still, we got up at 7 as planned, piled into two cars and headed to the pick-up spot where seven of us would clamber into a big blue inflatable raft and set out for a twenty kilometre trip that would see us finish the day in Cesky Krumlov. In my mind's eye I pictured Quebec's Riviere Rouge I had rafted as a teenager, real white water, the one and single time I ever experienced the undeniable power of the rapids in a kinky neoprene suit.

Of course our trip on the Vltava was of a somewhat milder nature - nothing like such fast moving water, and at times I had to wonder why the excited group that had set out before us had so diligently strapped on their life-jackets, when, it turned-out, most parts of the river were a metre deep or less. Here's the disclaimer: people do drown on the Vltava and other Czech rivers - and there are sections where you could easily break your neck. So take your life-jacket, lots of drinking water, a protective hat, and paddle safe. It's just that by mid-afternoon we were passing those same canoeists, lounging with their life-jackets behind their heads anyway, as the sun pelted down on them. A series of "ahojs", or Czech hellos, resounded as we passed. On Czech rivers its the appropriate thing to say. There is also a friendly rivalry between fellow rafters and canoers: as we overtook one couple that had grounded on a rock we hooted like American Indians, splashed our paddles flatly on the water, and shouted "zabari" - a taunting insult to amateurism. Around the next bend in the river it was their turn to cat-call as our big floppy raft got trapped and we floundered, well, like flounders.

Overall, rafting on the Vltava is a gorgeous experience. At times during the day we rocked up and down on the boat pretending we were on the Colorado, our jokes resounding off the water. At others we paddled our way through the man-made weirs and straits, which are fun and exciting. There were poignant moments too, scenes for contemplation. A quiet meadow of brilliant green and a breeze blowing through its grasses with a Zen-like whisper, a falcon circling the sky above with its occasional cry, and finally the playful, and mysterious homunculi, built by flat rocks set upon each other, always a tingling and mysterious surprise around some of the river bends. A signal one was in the "realm" of "nomad cultures". The beauty of the statuettes lies in the fact you never see anyone setting them up. They are there, perhaps as warnings, in your own Indiana Jones adventure.

The Czech experience differs from the North American because you never disappear in the wild - Europe is much too small for that. But it has definite advantages: if you find that the paddling gets too much for you - there are always a few pubs along the way one can cool down and relax. Certainly we did in the evening, with beer, fried trout, and yes, a little Fernet: our muscles ached even the next day, when we returned to Prague, beat-up exhausted, and ready to inhale the exhaust fumes again. After all, spending most of the year in the capital city, we are hooked on them. Like those fictional little characters from Jan Sverak's film debut, little monsters called "ropaci" who need car exhaust to breathe. We had had our share of healthy activities on the weekend, rafting and all, now it was time to get back to the fumes and inhalation of real city life.