Water world

Untamed, unspoilt and undiscovered, the Danube Delta is one of Europe's last great wildernesses. Rory Ross explores its wonders - and incredible wildlife - from Romania's first luxury eco-resort
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The Independent Travel

In 2000, Diwaker Singh, an investment banker on a telecom assignment in Bucharest, was invited to go fishing in the Danube Delta. A nature lover, he eagerly accepted. Not knowing what to expect, he vaguely assumed that he was in for an all-frills five-star fishing experience, 400km north-east of Romania's capital. Instead, he found an ungainly concrete hotel on an island in the middle of the delta, oozing Communist-era charm.

In 2000, Diwaker Singh, an investment banker on a telecom assignment in Bucharest, was invited to go fishing in the Danube Delta. A nature lover, he eagerly accepted. Not knowing what to expect, he vaguely assumed that he was in for an all-frills five-star fishing experience, 400km north-east of Romania's capital. Instead, he found an ungainly concrete hotel on an island in the middle of the delta, oozing Communist-era charm.

"There were no facilities for visitors like myself," Singh tells me. "There were no boats, or, if there was a boat, there was no one to show you around." What Singh did discover, however, was one of the most beautiful and pristine expanses of Europe - 5,640 square kilometres pullulating with wildlife, especially birds. He also discovered that hardly anyone knew about the delta.

A year later, his assignment completed, Singh returned to the area, determined to create the sort of resort experience he felt was missing. He spent three months scouring the region for a site overlooking the myriad waterways.

Singh bought a fleet of specialist boats and hired experienced locals as rangers and guides, led by Virgil Munteanu, a former governor of the region. He chose a plot on a hillside facing north over a vast sweep of the delta, with Ukraine and Moldova in the distance. He gathered a group of investors, among them Ben Goldsmith and Michael Radomir (M&S family), and building began. The result was a £3.5m, 30-cabin resort in the local fishing village-style, which opened last month.

Which is why, at 6am one flaming May morning, I was rattling along a road heading east after an overnight flight to Bucharest from London. A Romanian spring dawn is a sight to behold. Either side of the poplar-lined highway, wheat fields stretched to the horizon, forensically dusted with poppies and interspersed with the occasional concrete turd of a Communist-era factory. Tableaux of bucolic Romanian rush-hour life flashed past: a school "bus" hauled by a tractor; sheep herded by a man throwing stones; wobbling hand-painted donkey-drawn carts filled with beaming toothless farm hands heading for the fields.

It took four hours to drive the 300km from Bucharest airport to the delta - not bad going for a country in which what might ordinarily be considered a road hazard is in fact the road. And there, suddenly, it lay unfolding before me, a great dovetail the size of Suffolk attached to the end of the longest river in Europe. As I ate breakfast, the delta filled an entire 180-degree ocular sweep. Not only is this triangular motley of land and water the same size as Suffolk, it also looks like Suffolk, except that it is underwater, which is even better. The distant thrrm-thrrm of marine engines indicated a ship gliding along the main body of the Danube.

Despite Singh's regal and substantial frame, he exudes boyish enthusiasm. He has a photographer's eye for the tiniest detail, and the patience borne of eight years of conducting business in an emerging post-Communist country. In one hand, a mobile phone bashes out Chopin's Minute Waltz every few seconds; in the other, a cigarette smoulders. Everywhere he goes, he takes a bag of photographic equipment with him.

His influence radiates hereabouts in many ways. Aide-de-camp of presidents, knighted by the Romanian government for introducing foreign investment, a friend of Ilie Nastase, Singh has fingers in many pies. In Transylvania, where he owns a spa hotel, he is restoring country estates while chairing an "organic" food project with Goldsmith and Radomir. "'Organic food' is a tautology here," he explains. In a country that can't afford pesticides, everything is organic. "In the West," he says, "'organic' is a lifestyle. Here, it is life.

"Romania is Europe's best-kept secret," adds Singh. "And the delta offers the best short-haul nature experience in Europe. The nearest comparable experience would be in Africa or South America."

For bird-watchers, this place is heaven. The delta's own Big Five - pelican, pygmy cormorant, white-tailed fishing eagle, little cormorant and red-breasted goose - is backed up by a raucous 300-strong chorus-line including herons, ibis, egrets, spoonbills, rollers - liquorice all-sorts on the wing - bee-eaters and kingfishers. It is also home to mink, foxes, otters, turtles, wild horses, boars, water snakes and sturgeon. Close-up, the delta is a fretwork of creeks, waterways, canals, rivers, backwaters, marshes, swamps, lakes and lagoons.

The best way to get about is by boat. That afternoon, we sped off along one of the narrow waterways that crisscross the delta. Beautiful compositions of lily, willow, reed and water whizzed past. Herons, cormorants, ibis and egrets emerged from willows and flew off ahead of us, our avian escorts. Telescopically lensed, Singh fired away at anything that moved.

We arrived at a massive cormorant colony. Every branch of every tree in sight teemed with heraldic cormorants enjoying quality time with the chicks in a Hitchcockian cocktail party of cheeping, clucking, squawking and cawing. A pungent guano aroma filled the air. As we delicately nosed our bow deeper into the colony, the skies rained rotting fish. The first thing an attacked cormorant does is hoist the white flag and empty his larder, as if to say, 'Here, take whatever you want'. Cormorant chicks learn to fly the hard way: by falling into the water and flapping like mad until airborne, which takes about four hours. "There's always a parent watching," says Singh.

And a white-tailed fish eagle or two. There are only nine breeding pairs of eagles in the delta. We saw one half of a pair emerge rather hurriedly from attacking a nest of chicks and flapping off heavily into the distance. "Cormorants are the best fishing birds in the world," says Singh, barely pausing to remove his eye from his viewfinder. "They work in tandem with pelicans. The cormorants dive in and bring the fish to the surface. The pelicans round the fish up. In Asia, there is a species used for hunting. A ring is tied around its neck to prevent it swallowing."

The Danube is a breathtaking sight: by the time it has reached the delta, it is a kilometre-wide green meniscus. Beginning in the Black Forest in Germany, it meanders 2,810km through nine countries and four capital cities: Germany, Austria (Vienna), Slovakia (Bratislava), Hungary (Budapest), Serbia (Belgrade), Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. Its basin covers an area the size of France and Germany combined.

Shortly after entering the delta, the Danube splits into three channels: the Chilia, the St George and the Sulina, this last being the main shipping channel that begins at Galati, 120km upriver.

The river was at its highest level since 1970 due to a late winter thaw. Curiously, it was almost empty of traffic. I had expected a stately procession of freighters, yet saw just a couple of barges and the odd Viennese cruise ship. The Bosnian war discouraged a lot of shipping. Then, a decade ago, the Ukrainians, who have * * always been frustrated that none of the three Danube channels passes through their territory, did something wicked. A ship laden with iron sank in the middle of the maritime channel in an alleged act of sabotage. Attempts to remove the wreck have so far failed. Now, the Ukrainians want to dredge a fresh canal through their own part of the delta, to predictable green-lobby outcry.

Romania is rich in natural resources, and fertile, too. But every time it has looked like translating those resources into wealth, its neighbours have spoiled the party. Since the Romanian "race" was founded by Romans marrying into local Indo-European tribes, the area has been continually invaded or occupied, notably by Turkey. Right up until 1877, one half of Romania was held by the Turks, the other half by the Habsburgs.

After the Great War, Romania prospered despite European recession, and reached its economic zenith in 1938, when the Romanian currency, the lei, was even welcomed in Paris. This brief sunny interlude was snuffed out by the Second World War, followed by Communism, culminating in Ceausescu's dictatorship.

We set off into the delta again the following day, speeding along waterway after waterway, dodging fallen logs and skirting branches, emerging on to mirror-flat lakes paved with water lilies, and then plunging down more narrow waterways. We paused to take in an ibis colony, before arriving at a tiny island. A wood fire and a seething cauldron indicated a delta lunch on the go. After shots of palinca - potent plum brandy - we tucked into bowls of hearty Danube fish soup, or "fisherman's borscht", the delta's culinary pièce de résistance. It contains whatever fish you can catch - ideally, catfish, carp, pike, mackerel - simmered in Danube water with wild mint, tarragon and rosemary. You eat it with mushdai (wild-garlic paste) and bread.

There is plenty to see here besides wildlife and water: a couple of monasteries, for example. Far from being isolated communities, these monasteries are thriving commercial and touristic melting-pots. Substantial owners and cultivators of the land, they produce abundant food and wine, and exquisite honey. They also do a brisk business in religious icons. Lunch in the refectory of the Saon monastery was a feast of quails' eggs, lamb, chicken noodle soup and roast duck, washed down with monastic wine.

Another flagrantly beautiful day beckoned the next morning as we embarked for the village of Periprava on the island of Rosetti in the remote easternmost part of the delta. There are 21 villages in the delta: three Ukrainian, 13 Romanian and five that belong to the Lipovans, a tribe of displaced Russians whose ancestors settled here to avoid religious persecution. Flights of pelicans in tight formation escorted us on the 100km speedboat ride to the island.

After two hours, we reached Rosetti on the Chilia channel, the northernmost Danube channel that marks the border with Ukraine. We moored at a small hotel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

A children's paddling pool stood in the front, half-full of brown water. Something big lurked in the water, but I couldn't make out what. Not children. A man looking like a nuclear physicist came along, plunged both arms into the water and produced a metre-long male sevruga, or sturgeon. Hooped blue and white, the sevruga has something unnecessarily elaborate about its appearance, like an Art Nouveau submarine.

This was a sturgeon farm, and the man in charge was a leading Moldovan authority on the sturgeon.

The sturgeon is a natural wonder as extraordinary as the delta itself. The breeding cycle of these boneless dinosaurs of the Black and Caspian Seas makes the salmon seem suburban. There are three types of sturgeon. They reproduce every 15, 12 and seven years, respectively. When the urge hits them, they swim 1,000km up the Danube to Iron Gate where there is a hydroelectric station. Here, on the rocky riverbed, the female releases her eggs, which the male fertilises. After a few hours, the sturgeon swim back to the Black Sea and wait another seven, 12 or 15 years. Given how dull their sex life is ("Fancy a swim to a romantic little hydroelectric station I know?"), and what a delicacy their roe is, it's a wonder that sturgeon are still around. They live for years, weigh up to 1,000kg, and can carry 80kg of roe, which, at £4,000 a kilo in London, would set a local fishing village up for life. Poachers face a £18,000 fine or 10 years in jail.

After lunch (barbecued sturgeon), we boarded an old army truck and headed to the nearby Lipovan village of Periprava. Lipovan settlements look like something out of the Middle Ages: mud houses, tiny vegetable plots, chickens and cows wandering about, and staring families. All the window frames are painted blue, a colour that apparently keeps off mosquitoes. We lurched through all 150m of the village and continued towards the centre of the island. After a few kilometres, we stopped in a field along which an oak forest grew.

Unlike most oak forests, this one was semi-tropical, hung with Tarzan-style lianas and rooted in damp black soil. We walked 200m through the forest, and arrived at a three-metre bank of white sand. We clambered up it and saw, stretching before us, a desert with ridge upon ridge of dune.

To go from pasture to tropical oak forest to desert within an area of 200 metres feels very strange. But then, the Danube Delta is a very strange place.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The handiest airport for the Danube Delta is Constanta, though it is no longer served by charter flights from the UK. The main gateway to Romania is Bucharest, served from Gatwick and Heathrow by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), and from Heathrow by the Romanian national airline, Tarom (0870 162 4100; www.tarom.ro). The Romania Travel Centre (0800 132 973; www.romania-travelcentre.co.uk) is a leading tour operator to the country and organises bespoke trips.

STAYING THERE

Delta Nature Resort (08700 682798; www.deltaresort.com), 283 Calea Bucurestilor, Otopeni - Ilfov, Romania. Doubles from €428 (£306), for full-board accommodation. Transfer to and from Bucharest airport is €50 (£36) each way.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Romanian National Tourist Office (020-7224 3692; www.visitromania.com)

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