I am trapped in a caravan on the shore of Lake Balaton!!
A fierce thunderstorm is rampaging directly overhead. The air is electric from lightning flashes endlessly illuminating the sky while thunder constantly claps and rumbles, the caravan vibrating under its resounding explosions. Heavy deafening rain batters at the caravan’s roof and the air temperature has dropped dramatically from an oppressive sultry heat to a cold damp chill.
In front of the caravan, what had less than an hour ago been a dusty pathway busy with pedestrian holidaymakers is now a torrential river of mud, devoid of any traffic, drains and run offs long since given up trying to cope with the deluge. Everyone has fled, taking shelter in their caravans, tents and motorhomes and there is not a soul to be seen.
However, it is not the presence of the storm that has trapped me in the caravan. I am literally trapped!
But before I explain, let me first say that I love thunderstorms! Their dramatic presence excites me and this is the second one of the day! The first started early this morning but had been a little distance away. Nonetheless, the low rumbling of thunder and the pleasant noise of rain pattering on the caravan roof slowly woke me from a deep sleep and it has been raining on and off since, setting the scene for a lazy day spent resting and writing.
I am in a caravan park in Balatonfüred next to the shore of Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake with nearly 200 kms of shoreline and 600 square kms of surface area. It is in Hungary’s Transdanubian region only a couple of hours train journey south from Budapest and is a major European tourist destination.
By now I have pounded city pavements to death and long for a change of pace and environment. And if I am honest, the Croatian coast is now beckoning me and I am keen to start my journey south, so the idea of relaxing by a lake for a couple of days en route appeals to me greatly.
There are a number of popular locations along Lake Balaton’ s shoreline and I have read that the scenery and attractions change quite substantially between the north and south with each having its own attributes. But I need to take into consideration transport links for my onward journey to Croatia, so I have decided to stay in Balatonfüred in the north, an easy two hour train journey from Budapest Déli railway station and a short boat trip across the Lake to Siófok where I will eventually catch a train to Zagreb.
Lake Balaton is off the hostel world beaten track and being a popular destination with hotels charging a premium, the cheapest place I can find on the internet is this caravan set in an enormous and very popular camping and caravan park. But the park is right on the shore of the lake and I don’t mind the idea of staying in a caravan by myself for a couple of days.
The caravan is clean and well equipped, albeit linen is not supplied and I am relieved that I have my cotton sleeping bag linerwhich is sufficient in this heat, and my travel towel . Attached to the caravan is a spacious awning which houses a refrigerator, gas table top cooker (in addition to the caravan’s electric cooker) and a clothes drying rack. Outside it has its own little piece of lawn with an outdoor table and chair set and a sun umbrella. Toilets and showers are in a block only a short distance away and the caravan park has extensive amenities; shops, restaurants, bars and entertainment areas, so despite having to buy internet access, all in all, I am happy.
However, things haven’t been plain sailing since my arrival in Balatonfüred and this latest catastrophe is the final straw!
Arriving yesterday afternoon at Balatonfüred railway station amid scorching humid temperatures, I confidently set about searching for the campsite’s location with my now best friend, Google Maps, knowing from my research that it isn’t far from the station. However immediately I fly into a panic when Google tells me that the nearest “Gebetsroither Campsite”, the name on my booking confirmation, is nearly 300kms away in a different country and it will take me seventy five hours to walk there!
My initial thought is that I have accidentally made my booking for another location, but I check and double check the confirmation on my phone app which tells me it is definitely for here in Balatonfüred . However, Google search isn’t showing any listings for a campsite at all let alone a “Gebetsroither Campsite”!
Feeling extremely anxious I walk off in what I think is the direction of the town centre and lakeside where I hope things will become clearer. However, after twenty minutes I am in a quiet suburb and obviously heading in entirely the wrong direction. Retracing my steps back to the railway station I hope to find someone to ask for assistance but there is no one in sight. I then head off in another direction following the Google Map towards the street name where the campsite ought to be. Somehow I am still being misled and find myself walking out of town in the opposite direction, so I double back once more.
Sweat is pouring from me by the bucket load, my feet hurt, my pack is heavy; I am close to tears and am seriously asking myself why I am on this godforsaken trip!! However, after yet another check with Google, a campsite named Camping and Bungalow Fured miraculously appears on the map where it should be and I determinedly head there hoping for an explanation!
Finally arriving at the campsite an hour and half after disembarking from the train I am hot, tired, angry and in agony, but as I show the security men at the gate my phone app confirmation I am relieved that everything seems to be in order and they allow me to enter the site, pointing me in the direction of reception.
Reception is a large and spacious area and is incredibly busy with a steady stream of campers coming and going. There are a number of receptionists working hard at different stations and several supervisors are toing and froing between them frequently helping and trouble shooting. They are all tirelessly and pleasantly dealing with every type of enquiry in many different languages and it is clearly a hectic environment. I wait patiently in the queue relieved to be unburdened of my backpack and happy to have the time to calm down after my ordeal before it is my turn to be served.
Eventually I am in front of a receptionist and I show her my booking confirmation. She works on the computer for a few minutes, checks my confirmation again and then spends a considerable length of time staring intently at the computer screen. My heart is sinking as I surely recognise the expression of a perplexed receptionist! Something is wrong with my booking and I am beginning to suspect I should be walking seventy five miles to get to my caravan after all! And as I feared, after the receptionist talks to a supervisor who takes over the computer and after a few moments develops the same perplexed expression, they confess that they can’t find my booking!!
But not all is lost I am told! I must follow the supervisor, a tall young Hungarian man with dark hair who speaks reasonable English, to talk to “the German man!” Obediently, leaving my backpack behind, I trot after the fast paced supervisor as he swiftly takes me half way across the immense campsite to a small corner where a “Gebetsroither” flag is flying and a group of about a dozen caravans with identical awnings are pitched. A little man, perhaps in his mid-sixties, appears at the entrance of the first caravan’s awning. He is wearing only a pair of shorts and sandals and his skin is deeply tanned and leathery. A lady, around the same age, who I guess is his wife, also appears and is as equally casually dressed in a singlet and shorts: her body tattoos are exposed by her skimpy singlet but almost hidden by her own leathery tan.
The couple are the caretakers for “Gebetsroither” who have sublet a plot within the campsite for their dozen caravans and now I understand why its name didn’t come up on my campsite searches.
The supervisor talks in German to the couple for a few minutes, pointing at me and the caravans. I don’t understand what they are saying but I am guessing my booking should be for one of these caravans and I am extremely relieved when the German man, talking loudly, nods vigorously and confirms they are expecting me! Somehow my booking has bypassed the main receptions system, but luckily has made it to the Gebetroither system.
The German man only speaks very basic English but it is apparent his greatest concern is that I must pay a thirty five euro cleaning fee, which I know is stated in my booking confirmation, but I cheekily suggest it could be waivered if I clean the caravan myself! The very suggestion seems to send him into a complete flap and he begins ranting loudly. I quickly ascertain that this is not going to be an option and as the supervisor and I leave him to return to reception he is still ranting, frantically flipping through a brochure which he has picked up from a Gebetsrother marketing stand in front of his caravan, presumably looking for the clause that states “You VILL pay the cleaning fee!”
Walking back to reception I ask the supervisor what had been said and he tells me “I don’t know! He speaks dirty German!” Pondering this I decide that he means he has a strong parochial dialect and I respect the supervisor’s efforts to manage the situation in two foreign languages.
I am really looking forward to getting settled now and can’t wait to get back to the caravan, but first I must complete the check in and frustratingly my ordeal is still not over. I need to send the confirmation from my phone to the campsites email address for their records since they haven’t received the original, and with no free internet available the process becomes incredibly complicated and is finally only resolved when I am allowed access to one of their computers. After an age I am checked in but I am gritting my teeth by now as I have to get into a queue at another receptionists station to pay my accommodation tax!
At last, an hour after arriving at the caravan park and two and a half hours after arriving in Balatonfüred I am finally in my caravan having been let in by Mrs Gebetsroither, who speaks no English, but is pleasant and welcoming! Mr Gebetsroither isn’t anywhere to be seen and I imagine he is sulking in his caravan, still flicking through the brochure searching for the cleaning fee clause!
I am so hot and frazzled and just want to relax but first I want to see the lake which after all is the whole purpose for my visit. I quickly drop off my backpack and head towards the lake. It is only a few minutes away through the park and I am rewarded with a beautiful breath taking view across a milky turquoise glass smooth expanse of water that stretches as far as the eye can see. In the distance, numerous yachts are in full sail skimming across its surface, the furthest are merely white dots on the horizon and in the foreground happy campers splash and swim sharing the shoreline with ducks and other water fowl.
This is exactly what I have been waiting for and I rush back to the caravan to put on my bathing suit excitedly anticipating the waters refreshing therapy on my weary body. However as I am preparing to get ready Mr Gebetsroither descends upon me and is desperate to secure his cleaning fee, obviously worried that I will abscond without paying it!
He is also thrusting a form in front of me and wants me to sign it to agree that the caravan’s appliances have been explained to me and that I agree its inventory is complete! I try explaining to him that I have neither had anything explained, nor have I had time to take breath never mind look through the caravan’s cupboards, but he doesn’t accept this and raises his voice ranting in “Dirty German” while I raise mine, ranting back in “Dirty Scottish.” Now I am just being belligerent and refuse to sign the document while he demonstratively opens cupboards for me to look in and slams them shut when I don’t, all the time he is ranting! Eventually we find a middle ground and I pay him his precious cleaning fee and sign the document ensuring I mark it with great big question marks where I should be ticking a yes and he happily leaves!
I do eventually make it back to the lake and as its cool fresh water soothes my physical and mental aches I feel all the frustrations of the day begin to wash away and I start to look forward to my short break at Lake Balaton
But that was yesterday and now I am trapped in the caravan and as I hang out its bedroom window vainly hoping for a stray camper to dash past so I can be rescued, I wonder again about the merits of this trip!
As I said before, I love thunderstorms and so I have spent the last hour wandering in and out of the caravan, sheltering in the doorway of the awning as I watch the lightning flash all around us and smile sympathetically at drenched people caught in the storm as they rush past, trying desperately not to slip in the muddy stream.
Only a few minutes ago I returned from one such trip to the entrance and as I settle back into my writing a sudden loud cracking and crashing noise just outside makes me jump out of my skin. This is no thunder clap and when I go to investigate I discover the entire awning has collapsed under the weight of the rain pooling on its roof!
Now twisted and broken metal poles barricade the doorway of the caravan with the heavy tarpaulin crumpled over them. I try to lift the tarpaulin but it is impossibly heavy under the weight of the water and there is no way I am going to be able to move the obstacle from the doorway on my own.
I realise with rising panic that I really am trapped and the feeling is absolutely terrifying! For the first time in my life I am experiencing only a small glimpse of what it must be like for the victims of real disasters; of people genuinely trapped under the weight of collapsed buildings and so forth, the images that we watch so often on TV as we feel emotions that we think is empathy.
Very quickly however, I rationalise the situation and reason that I am not completely trapped and I can clamber out of one of the windows if I need to, my biggest concern with that being the image of me flapping and flailing as I pull my hefty body over the flimsy caravan window sill! But that will be a last resort as someone is bound to eventually pass and notice the collapsed awning. In the meantime I have enough food and wine to get me through the storm!
Sure enough, as I patiently hang out the bedroom window a couple of young girls eventually come running past and I yell “Help!” Shocked, they quickly stop in their tracks and realising my situation immediately rush off to find Mr Gebetsroither.
Within minutes he appears, ranting from the path as he waves his arms at me and then at the awning and finally in the air! I think he is blaming me for the catastrophe and defending myself I rant back from my precarious position over the bedroom window! As he works his way through the crumpled mess, managing to prop up a couple of poles enough to give me an exit, he still rants and I rant too! Eventually as we meet he shakes his head and says “Ah, my English no good. Never since ten years working caravans seen this, I worried about you, so glad you ok!” Finally I realise his ranting is only his manner and at last calling a truce, we both laugh at my predicament and lucky escape!
Mr Gebetsrother and his wife spend the rest of the evening replacing the poles in the awning while I stay inside the caravan writing. They often check to ensure I am still ok and while I have no privacy I appreciate their concern. I am still reeling from the initial terrifying feeling of being trapped and realise that if I had spent a little longer looking out at the storm on that last trip to the entrance I could have been crushed under the weight of the awning’s collapse. Thinking about this I give thanks to my spiritual protectors, recognising that this is the second close encounter I have experienced in only a matter of weeks and pray that this will be the last one.
This part of my trip has been a complex mix of emotional and physical challenges, of cultural misunderstandings and a new appreciation of the meaning of empathy while I face the reality that the limit of my own mortality is as precarious as spending a minute too long in the wrong place.
The following morning the storm has cleared and I am moving on to the small village of Tihany. It is only a few miles along the coast from Balatonfüred but is renowned for its Abbey and its lavender and I read that it is a quaint place to visit. I bid my farewells to Mr and Mrs Gebetstroither, who I am sure, will never forget the ranting lone traveller with the collapsing awning and as I check out of the campsite I ask the receptionist how to get to the bus station to catch the local bus to Tihany She points directly up the hill towards town and tells me the bus station is next to the train station an easy twenty minute walk up the hill!