translated by Total Croatia News https://www.total-croatia-news.com/travel/33289-canoeing-on-drava-river

The Drava river is one of the last naturally preserved lowland rivers in Europe. This mainly refers to the section of the Drava from Legrad downstream, where the Drava follows the border between Croatia and Hungary, and, in the section from Donji Miholjac to Aljmaš, between Slavonia and Baranja. The fact that during the socialist period the Drava was the location of the iron curtain, the border between the Warsaw Pact and the non-aligned Yugoslavia, contributed significantly to the preservation of this part of the Drava river, undisturbed, with many river branches, islands and islets. More and more tourists are visiting this part of Croatia, including many who opt for canoeing on Drava river.

One of the largest river islands on the Drava is located at Bistrinci, which is, along with Nard, one of few Slavonian villages situated right next to the Drava. The island is about two kilometres upstream from Bistrinci, opposite the St. Anna shrine. Although it is one of the largest river islands on this part of the river, it is funny that everyone calls it “Adica” (meaning “small river island” in Croatian).

However, unlike other river islands, Adica is separated from the main river by a narrow semi-circular canal, so at first glance, it does not seem to be an island at all. The western and the eastern entrance to the Adica channel initially look like an inlet, and you have to pass the entire channel to see for yourselves that it is actually an island.

The usual starting point for canoeing on the lower section of the Drava river is the kayak club in Belišće, located right next to the 107th Brigade Bridge, which was only the second bridge to connect Slavonia and Baranja, after the one in Osijek which leads towards Bilje. Belišće has a long and rich sporting and especially canoeing tradition. The most-well-known athletes from the area are the most decorated Croatian (and Yugoslavian) Olympian Matija Ljubek and the world champion in long races Ivan Šabjan. They were initially partners, later rivals, and stories about them are still told today and represent an inspiration for young kids.

For those who want something more from canoeing than just the sports, there are tourist canoes, which, in addition to recreation, also offer the possibility of relaxed enjoyment of nature, birdwatching, and above all, a pleasant experience. You perhaps not know that sporting canoes are designed so that you have to kneel in them, and the paddling itself helps the canoeist to maintain the fragile balance. In sports, the imperative is for a canoe to be as fast as possible, which means it has to be as narrow as possible, so at the very bottom a sporting canoe is wide just enough to fit a knee holder.

Tourist canoes are more like excursion boats. In additions to enabling tourists to sit in them, they also include plenty of equipment needed for one-day or multi-day excursions. Still, they are no less mobile than sporting canoes and provide easy access to otherwise inaccessible parts of the river.

One of these hidden parts of the Drava is the Old Drava, located on the left, Baranja side of the river. Whether you can enter the Old Drava depends on the water levels. If the water is too low, it is impossible or challenging to enter it because of metal obstructions that arise from the water. If the water level is high enough, then you can enter it without problems. Still, the route includes two obstacles, small bridges, so again everything depends on the water level. If the water level is optimal, then you can pass below the bridges in the canoes, but sometimes it is necessary to get out of the water and carry the boat over the bridge. If the water level is extremely high, you can even cross above the bridges in a canoe, but this is rarely the case. The waterway to the Old Drava is relatively long, and at its end, the rowers hit a “jungle” of reeds and sedges. After all the obstacles are passed, you arrive at the former section of the river, which is now a marsh.

Because of its connection with the new Drava, the old branch does not dry out like some other similar branches. The old Drava is home to a colony of swans. The branch is semi-circular, and the former Orešanci Roma village is located along its banks. After the major flooding, all Orešanci residents migrated to Bistrinci, so today Bistrinci is the largest Roma settlement in Eastern Croatia after Darda. Reeds and sedges, waterlilies and swans – this is the best description of the Old Drava.

If you do not turn into the channel at the kayak club, but instead continue to paddle upstream on the main river, you will soon reach the Bistrinci beach. Depending on the water level, it can be an extensive sandy beach, or it can disappear completely. The championship of Pannonia in “picigin” game called Bistrigin takes place every year at the Bistrinci beach. Organisers always fear that high water levels might create problems, but so far, they have never had to find an alternative location.

If the water level is low enough, you can almost walk from the Bistrinci beach to the Bistrinci island. It is a large river island that also has a beautiful sandy beach. The “summer camp” of the five-member Zanoški family is located there. To them, the Drava is like a home during the sunny months, while the island is like a living room.

In the last couple of years, two more islets have emerged at the top of the canal that divides the bank from the island. They used to be just vegetation that grew out of the water. Every year they are getting bigger and bigger, and there is a danger they might block the channel, which means that the island would become a peninsula. This is the best proof that the Drava is continually changing and that the change is the only permanent feature. This is a beautiful part of the Drava, with many lagoons, sandy beaches, shallows…

From the island, you can proceed towards Adica. When the water levels are low, there is a beautiful sandy beach in front of Adica. Ahead of the beach, on the left Baranja bank, there is deadwood – a cluster of trees protruding threateningly from the water, and it takes superior rowing skills to pass between them and not to overturn. The Adica channel divides the island and the mainland. At the very mouth of the channel, the water has broken the earth and vegetation barrier, so there is also threatening deadwood there. By paddling further upstream, you reach a high bank, which is the best proof of how the Drava is “eating away” the river bank, with tree roots protruding from the bank.

There you can leave the boat and head towards a hiking rest stop, one of the points on the Belišće Podravina hiking trail that follows the Drava River. From that rest stop, it is very easy to reach Jugovača, a marsh similar in origin to the Old Drava, but which did not have the luck that the canal feeds it water from the main river and has therefore slowly vanished. It is a habitat for a large number of birds, and a birdwatching house has been set up next to it. It is a pity that hornets have occupied it in the meantime.

If you continue upstream from Adica, you will reach a channel which connects the Drava with Karašica in Gat, and further upstream from there are two Drava islands – Duck Island and Venus Island. The Venus Island includes a “Robinson” accommodation made by the kettle master and hunter Josip Delač. After “occupation,” Delač, just like any proper conqueror, has given a new name to the island – PRC – Psycho-Recreation Centre.

Sounds ambitious, but there you do not need much of anything, just as much as it is enough. Enough to sleep if a river storm starts. And storms are not an unusual occurrence. The author of this article once spent 20 minutes under a canoe on the Bistrinci island beach, hiding from a spring hailstorm. Also, he went to the Venus island to bring mosquito spray to a group of friends but had to spend a night there due to a thunderstorm. Fortunately, there is no better experience than seeing a lightning strike over the Drava while you are in the middle of the wilderness, in pure nature. If I were to write about what lies upstream from the Duck Island and downstream from Belišće, places like “hagla”, Valpovo beach, Nehaj and so on, this article would be even longer.

Summer is ideal for multi-day adventures, and spring and fall for expedition rowing; however, the winter canoeing among the icebergs also has its charms. The locals are the most common visitors to the Drava, but they also welcome tourists like Mladen Tutavac, who shot the photos in this article. The Drava is an undiscovered gem and is an ideal destination for an urban getaway, while “spending time on the Drava” is a lifestyle. It is enough to spend one day with the Zanoški family, and everything will become apparent to you.

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