Poland’s Elblag Canal offers gravity-defying cruise

Poland's Elblag canal is a gravity-defying waterway like none other, writes AFP's Mary Sibierski. Located in what was once East Prussia, it offers a boat cruise that is part San Francisco cable car ride through idyllic countryside.

“It’s unlike any other canal cruise in the world. Parts are in the water but on other parts the entire boat travels uphill on dry land between canals on wide-gauge railway carriages,” said Pawel Zastepowski, 38, the skipper of a canal boat who has spent 15 years cruising the waterway.

“It’s really quite incredible – not only is it 148-years-old but the hauling system is entirely powered by water,” he said.

Depending on the point of departure, boats are hauled nearly 100 meters (109 yards) up or downhill – about the height of a 30-storey building – over a near 10-kilometre (6.2-mile) incline using an ingenious system of hydro-powered cable tracks on five slipways, like steps between canals.

The Oberlandischer Kanal, as it is called, was built by German engineer Georg Jakob Steenke between 1845-1860 on orders from then King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, and was used to transport goods, mostly wood. “It’s the only hydro-powered technology of its kind in the world,” Zastepowski said with more than a hint of pride.

Water falls onto water wheels – like the kind in old mills – to power the system of cables that haul vessels perched atop special carriages along the tracks. The mechanism has required only minor repairs since 1860, the skipper said.

While the network’s up-and-down section runs for 9.23 kilometers, the entire cruise covers 82 kilometers, winding along the canal and a string of small lakes between the northern cities of Elblag and Ostroda. The canal can also accommodate sailboats and small yachts, many of which enter the lush waterway from nearby holiday spots like lake Jeziorak.

An engineering and natural marvel

The experience is both an engineering and a natural marvel. Flocks of storks, herons and eye-catching European Kingfishers with electric blue wings and bright orange bellies are among dozens of bird species populating the waterway. Yellow and white water lilies dot the waterway, and passengers are lulled by the sound of wind rustling in lush thickets of reeds.

“It’s just peace and quiet, marshlands, lakes and a nature reserve for water fowl,” said the skipper. “We have more than 200 species, including white-tailed eagles – there are about 20 here now.”

He said guests come “from all over Europe and the world really – Germany, Holland, Belgium, Danes, Japanese, Koreans and even Saudis.”

Most of the foreign tourists are German, however, often with family roots in the surrounding lake districts of Warmia and Mazurian. Prior to World War II, this picturesque northeastern corner of Poland was East Prussia, or Ostpreussen, an outpost of Germany where ethnic Germans comprised more than 80 percent of the population.

“It’s a present for my mum because her mother came from this area,” Hamburg lawyer Caroline Moeschel, 35, told AFP at a lodge in Galkowo, one of the stops on a sentimental road trip with her 72-year-old mother Renate. “For us it’s something the grandparents told us about.”

Long a holiday spot, the late pope John Paul II, an avid outdoorsman, kayaked along the area’s many rivers and marshland waterways – sometimes likened to the Louisiana Bayou – while still a priest in his native Poland.

Since the collapse of communism in 1989, yachting on nearby lakes, including Poland’s largest, Sniardwy, has gained in popularity for Poles and foreigners. But a sinister reminder of the past sits in what is now the Polish hamlet of Gierloz, where Adolf Hitler built his Wolfsschanze, or Wolf’s Lair, a massive concrete bunker he used as the command centre on the eastern front against the Soviet Union in World War II.

The site went down in history July 20, 1944 when the German colonel Claus von Stauffenberg staged a failed assassination attempt against the Nazi dictator. A film based on the story featuring Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg is currently in production.

For more information on the Elblag Canal, click: http://www.zegluga.com.pl/