Drifting Through Europe
One Man and His Dog On A 1,777-Mile SUP Expedition Down The Danube River
"If I saw someone drowning while I was on my paddleboard, I wouldn't figure out if I had enough food or shelter for them – I'd just save them."
This is British paddler Joshua Sivarajah's take on the Syrian refugee crisis, which he saw firsthand during the first six weeks of his epic 1,777-mile SUP journey down the Danube River. While in Germany, the adventurer served sandwiches at a shelter that provides meals to Syrian refugees, and talked to many of the asylum-seekers fleeing Syria's brutal civil war.
"All this fear about radicals is completely misplaced," Sivarajah said. "There are a few bad people everywhere, but most of these refugees – many of them kids – are easily assimilating into their new lives in Europe and are just grateful to live without fear for the first time."
Such are the life lessons the 34-year-old is learning as he experiences Europe up-close-and-personal with his five-year-old border collie, Nero, his touring companion. Over the next six weeks, Sivarajah, who is currently in Hungary, will paddle through Serbia, Croatia and several other countries until finishing his journey where the Danube reaches the Black Sea in Romania.
This is not the intrepid Englishman's first long expedition. In July 2014, Sivarajah recognized that despite having solid friendships, a good job and a menagerie of animals, "I was really bored."
So, he quit his job and set out on a seven-week cycling tour around the British Isles with Nero. After a couple of weeks on the road, he realized that seven weeks wasn't going to be enough time to fully immerse himself in the experience. Living on $450 a month from savings, Sivarajah and Nero – who sat on the back of the bike on a platform fashioned by a blacksmith in Whitby – spent a total of four and a half months touring England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and outlying islands.
The British press went crazy for the "one man and his dog" story and he was featured on BBC television and in a whole host of newspapers. The resulting sponsorship from UK outdoor chain Blacks was enough to pay for a 100-day ride through Germany, Spain and France. Then he started looking for a fresh challenge.
"You should cycle the length of the Danube – it's the Amazon River of Europe," a friend suggested.
Sivarajah liked the idea but wanted to try a different craft. He soon settled on SUP and though he had only logged four hours on a standup board, he reached out to several potential paddleboard sponsors. They all responded and he chose to partner with ULI, because they "hand-make their inflatable boards in California and were the most enthusiastic about helping me."
After finishing his Euro cycling tour in Portugal's Algarve region, Sivarajah hitchhiked back to England, picked up his board and some more gear, and started his Danube odyssey within a week. While many endurance paddlers are trying to beat records, Sivarajah takes the opposite approach: he wants to drink in the varied scenery and human interactions along the way. That includes serving sandwiches to refugees, having a few pints of beer with locals in Budapest against "one of the most stunning cityscapes anywhere in the world" and getting help from unexpected sources.
"The river disappeared into a sinkhole and I had no way to get me and Nero five miles down the riverbed," Sivarajah said. "Within minutes a German family stopped, loaded me, Nero, my board and all our gear into their car, and were driving us to where the river was flowing again. The generosity of complete strangers has been profoundly moving."
In addition to learning to paddle as he goes along, Sivarajah has been forced to develop his skills as a writer and photographer, posting daily updates to his Nero and Me Facebook page and Instagram feed.
"When I first started writing about my adventures, I was determined to only write about positive experiences because there's so much negativity online," Sivarajah said. "But after a while I realized it's more authentic to reflect on how I've dealt with troubles in a positive way. People have responded to that and the encouragement I've got makes it feel like there are 9,000 people on the river with me."
Nero has been the other constant source of support for Sivarajah, even on days when "I've been so tired that I wanted to call my family and quit, but have been too exhausted to even get the words out." Sivarajah's experiences on bike and board have shown him the importance of training and bonding with his dog when he was still a puppy.
"If your dog is nervous the first time you take him or her on the water it's not the environment that's the issue – it's that they don't trust you," he said. "But if you train them well, your dog will do anything you ask. Rapids, eddies, bumping off rocks – Nero's completely comfortable on the water."
As Sivarajah begins to think about more expeditions and group tours in Florida, he recognizes that Nero has not been his only companion on the Danube descent.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the sea, but I'll be sad to leave the river," Sivarajah said. "It has become a central character in my story and I've developed this relationship with it every day. It will be hard to say goodbye. But then there's always the next river to look forward to."
Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with Joshua Sivarajah upon completing the 1,777-mile expedition and find out what adventure he and Nero are planning next!
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