On a trip down the Danube Delta, a writer absorbs the wetland’s beauty and history while learning about its role in the economy of Romania.
The narrow channel opened out into a large lake, stretching away to a tiny border of reeds in the distance. The boat slowed down and we began to float very gently through the thick mesh of lily pads. Close by, two pelicans flew up from where they had also been floating moments before.
Mihai, who sat stock still next to the engine, told us that it was not uncommon for the narrow entrances to these lakes to close up. On those days, his boat had to cut its way back out to the main access channel, hoping that the reeds would not overcome the small outboard motor first. Mihai has lived and worked on the Danube Delta in south-east Romania for over 20 years and has a knowledge of the man-made channels and natural tributaries, intricate and ever-changing, in keeping with the landscape.
The Danube Delta sits on the edge of the Black Sea in the Dobruja region of Romania. It is one of the biggest wetlands in the world and the best-preserved delta in Europe. Some claims have put it as the third highest region of biodiversity in the world.
Once we had passed the mass of lilies, Mihai gradually increased our speed. We bumped across the empty, wind-furrowed water until we were on the other side of the lake and slinked once more into the silence of a channel. Here, the trees overhung on both sides, shading the narrow stretch of water. Fisherman’s huts built of reeds, cut and dried on the riverside, rested on the banks. Handmade, conical nets were drying in the afternoon sun.
The men who fish in the delta do so seasonally, moving into the huts for the summer months and often not returning home to their families until the winter. From the way that Mihai talked, a wealthier member of the community who fishes purely for sport and subsistence, I sensed a certain level of distrust for these semi-nomadic commercial fishermen.
He described how the government had tried to ban the use of the small, traditional wooden boats we saw in the hollows. The pitch they use to coat the bottom, to seal the wood and make it watertight, leaches into the water and pollutes it. They tried to encourage them to move to plastic boats, he said, but they refused. They knew the wooden boats and the way they behaved, the way they moved in the water. He grimaced as we passed one, freshly coated in black and nodding against its mooring on a nearby tree.
Around the entrance to the next lake, we moved past more nets in the water. They had been anchored to wooden poles, buried into the sediment below the water. A black cormorant watched us pass. “In the Delta, bigger fish eat smaller fish,” explained Mihai, in his matter-of-fact manner. “They don’t worry about what type of fish it is. If it is smaller than them, they eat it.” We moved on further in silence. “The birds do the same.”
Cormorants are just one of hundreds of bird species that rely on the delta’s unique ecosystem. Almost the entire global population of red-breasted geese migrate and settle in this region in the winter, as well as pelicans in their millions. The bird life in the delta is immense and shifts with the seasons. The scale was most notable in the shallower, wetland regions where wading birds moved as a bustling mass, burying long beaks into the thick mud.
Prior to the fall of communism in 1989, ambitious plans saw this area of the delta undergo a series of intensive development projects. This included ‘reclaiming’ a vast area of wetland to turn it into farmland, forcing generations of fishermen to become farmers. In the past 15 years, a counter-project has ‘reclaimed’ the land again, flooding the farmland and attempting to restore its original ecosystem.
A wide, deep highway was also cut into the natural web of smaller channels during Ceausescu’s dictatorship, creating a canal that would allow large ships to travel up from the Black Sea and reach further inland. It still remains today. The dimensions and scope of the channel is undeniably impressive but jars after the gently curving natural waterways.
The local town of Mahmudia, accessible by dust road from Mihia’s cottage, was quiet when we returned home in the twilight. Children on bikes gathered at the main crossroads, and the older residents sat on benches, watching the evening movements of the town. Two small food shops served the town with produce that they do not grow, keep or catch themselves, largely alcohol, crisps and chocolate.
Many towns and villages further into the patterns of the Delta are only accessible by boat. Every house has a small jetty in front and the waterways act in place of roads. These villages also include guest houses where hardier holiday makers, unfazed by the swarms of mosquitoes that descend at dusk, can be seen lounging or fishing directly from the jetty.
Mihai and his wife Elena run a very small guesthouse, built in the traditional style with a reed-thatched roof. They live in a more modern house next door. Elena made us fish for dinner in the evenings, baked simply with a thin cornmeal coating to crisp the skin. On the side was an earthenware dish of ‘mujdei,’ a punchy garlic sauce, made simply with garlic, water and salt. This sauce is pervasive throughout Romania. Sometimes ‘smântână,’ a thick sour cream, is used in place of the water to make it richer, but it does not take away from the intensity of the crushed garlic.
The only large hotel for miles sat at the end of the main street in Mahmudia. Its balconies and white washed walls were incongruous with the rest of the town. For the sake of variety, we ventured there one night. The food was awful and the staff rushed and rude. Around us, the sound of panicked spraying and the acrid smell of mosquito repellent came in waves from the other diners. We quickly snuck back to the warmth of our cottage. The residents and dogs watched us pass with curiosity.
Whilst there is a tourist trade in this region, it is rare to have visitors from outside of Romania. The Danube remains a surprisingly well-kept secret. We met Mihai on the recommendation of a friend’s parents, who make the long journey from the north of Romania down to the Danube in the far south every year to fish with him.
They also have a freezer full of fish, bought especially for the purpose. Many of the frozen shapes are completely unfamiliar to me; the inhabitants of the fresh-water, micro-climate are completely different to what I am used to. Perhaps this unfamiliarity is partly what keeps many international tourists away.
When we visited our friends before driving home to Sibiu, they gifted us a hunk of catfish or ‘somn’ in a freezer box. Face to face with the defrosted catfish the next week, I tentatively considered how to cook it. I thought back to the dark waters, the occasional flip of something beside us as our boat disturbed the long-resting residents under the weeds. It took a while for me to admit to myself that the catfish intimidated me.
I settled on ‘catfish creole,’ a recipe from the other side of the world that promised to bring spice, shrimp and tomatoed familiarity to this slightly unsettling lump of flesh. The unceasing skin, which completely resisted the cut of the knife, did not help to allay my fears. Nonetheless, after just five minutes of simmering, the thick stew had enveloped the chunks of catfish, cloaking them in a rich sauce. They became tender, tamed and delicious.
The waters of the Danube delta and the communities there live a life dictated by the ebb and flow of the waters and the seasons. They subsist off the delta and adapt to the political manoeuvres that act on the landscape around them, learning the new waterways that appear or are constructed, changing course when an old route becomes unexpectedly blocked. To first-time visitors, it feels unfamiliar and remote — the territory of the mosquitoes, the migrating birds, the catfish, and an occasional, unnamed ripple in the water.