A mountain-chain, pierced through from base to summit—a gorge four miles in length, walled in by lofty precipices; between their dizzy heights the giant stream of the Old World, the Danube.
There aren’t any finer words to describe the Danube Boilers than Jokai Mor’s introductory lines in his masterpiece, The Man with the Golden Touch, also known as Timar’s Two Worlds. As were most of his readers, I was enchanted ever since I first opened his book and I found myself daydreaming of a lost paradise on Earth. I promised myself that I would see these amazing lands for myself someday and search for Timar’s ownerless island, which now lies on the bottom of the Danube, somewhere near the Boilers, flooded decades ago and all traces lost, all but one, Jokai Mor’s depictions.
At Orșova, a naval city in southern Romania, the Danube opens up in front of us in its immensity. From this point on, moving upstream, we drove along the blue Danube. On the other side, the Serbian banks were only a stone’s throw away. Everything seemed peaceful and the waves of the Danube were dancing slowly in a waltz. But there it was, a sudden ninety degree turn and the banks are close to be reunited once again, as they were once before, at the dawn of time. The Small Boilers were right ahead, one of the two deathtraps on the course of the river, the place where the blue Danube turns into a brisk waltz.
Did the pressure of this mass of water force a passage for itself, or was the rock riven by subterranean fire? Did Neptune or Vulcan, or both together, execute this supernatural work, which the iron-clad hand of man scarce can emulate in these days of competition with divine achievements?
After gathering water from ten countries along its course, the Danube reaches its most treacherous crossings at the southern borders of Romania, just a few hundred kilometers before flowing into the Black Sea, at a series of traps known as the Iron Gates. In these places, the river narrows for the first time along its course. Millions of years ago, the Danube made its way through these limestone massifs, thus separating the Carpathian Mountains from the Balkans. It left behind some of the wildest and inaccessible gorges in the world, the Boilers.
The Small Boilers (Cazanele Mici) and the Great Boilers (Cazanele Mari) spread over 9 km in length. In the past, many sailors lost their lives and boats in the cunning vortexes which demanded their share of human sacrifice. The Danube at the Boilers was a great challenge even for the most skilled sailors. It took over 60 years of blood, sweat and tears to remove the large and pointy cliffs from the riverbed and make way for a waterway that would allow larger ships to pass through at the end of the 19th century. The Great Boilers are the most imposing and the narrowest gorges along the river, the place where the blue Danube turns into a whirlpool for 4 km and the water reaches a speed of 5m/s. Here, only 150 m separate the steep slopes from one another and, implicitly, the Serbian banks from the Romanian ones. At the base of the limestone walls which flank its left banks, the Ponicova Cave opens up as a large cleft in the mountain which allows a little bit of the Danube to enter its dark tunnel.
The Small Boilers are 3 km in length. Here, the Danube reaches its maximum depth along its course, 120 m, in a place dominated by the Statue of Decebalus. The 55 m high statue was sculpted between 1994 and 2004 in a limestone cliff and it’s the largest stone statue in Europe. It is only six meters shorter than the Statue of Liberty, but it is eight meters higher than the Monument of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. Decebalus was the last ruler of Dacia, the ancient state on the territory of current day Romania. Nowadays, he watches over the Danube as it flows restlessly, carrying ships and boats on its shifty waves.
The series of steep gorges carved by the ever-flowing Danube spread along 134 km. The greatest obstacles on its course, the Boilers, are the place where the river reaches both its narrowest and its deepest points. Further downstream, the Iron Gates Dam was opened in 1972. As a result, the water-levels upstream rose by 35 m and many small islands were sacrificed in the process. Ada Kaleh, a Turkish enclave near the Small Boilers, was the main victim, once a notorious free port and a nest for smugglers. Timar’s island, a lost corner of paradise, was flooded as well and now lies somewhere on the bottom of the river. I’m sure we passed it by at some point on our way along the Boilers.
Here, it has carved islands out of the stubborn granite, new creations, to be found on no chart, overgrown with wild bushes. They belong to no state—neither Hungary, Turkey, nor Servia; they are ownerless, nameless, subject to no tribute, outside the world. And there again it has carried away an island, with all its shrubs, trees, huts, and wiped it from the map.