When travel writer Amy Aed was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at 15, she knew little about the incurable autoimmune disease. Getting to grips with her diagnosis and its day-to-day impact on her health was a struggle, but six years on, with dreams of completing an expedition, Amy hatched an epic plan: to become the first person in history to walk the length of the Danube River, from source to sea.
The 1770-mile journey takes in ten countries and sees Amy walk around 35km a day. Having started her journey on the 1st September 2021, she currently has four countries still to cross and is due to finish her challenge in February, although she’s currently resting due to a hip injury.
I caught up with her via email to find out more about her Danube adventure.
You’re walking the length of the Danube from source to sea. What does this entail?
The expedition covers 1,770 miles alongside the river Danube, passing through 10 countries. So far, I’ve traipsed through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia, with only Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine to go.
Typically, I sleep in strangers’ houses, either by using the Couchsurfing app or doing an old-school unsolicited knock on the door. In Germany and Austria, the walk was so beautiful, with rolling hills, the Danube always by my side, and sunshine almost every day. Now, in Serbia, everything has changed – the weather is freezing cold, the towns are all falling apart, and the cycle path is nonexistent. I have loved both extremes, although one slightly more than the other…
Where did the idea for this world-first walk come from?
I probably never would have thought about where the idea had come from was it not for this question! I think that the idea first came about when I was studying in Canada and only had a few months left on my visa. I knew that I wanted to become a travel writer, but I was also aware of how difficult it is to enter the industry without prior experience. I started writing a list of crazy expeditions that I’d love to do someday, with several of them being World Firsts that, obviously, no one had attempted before. I stared at it longingly, tried for the thousandth time to extend my visa, and promptly put the list in a notebook and forgot about it.
A year later, I scored my first ever paid travel piece, where I had written about working as a goat farmer in a rural Galician village. When I returned home to Wales, I tried publishing other articles, but no one was as interested as they were when I’d gone on this wild lil’ goating trip. So I dug out the old expedition dream list from my Canada notebook and began slowly working my way down to the Danube walk. I spent a couple of weeks making sure that no one had attempted it before (at that point, I didn’t consider WHY no one had tried it), and then when the Covid travel restrictions lifted in Wales, I was off!
You were diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2014. What symptoms do you have to manage, and what extra challenges do you face completing your expedition with Crohn’s disease?
I feel extremely lucky that I can now manage my Crohn’s with medication. When I was first diagnosed, I was put on all sorts of medication and underwent a whole bunch of experiments to figure out exactly what was wrong with me, and the years following that were extremely difficult. Now, I only have to deal with the skin problems, fatigue, dietary restrictions, stomach aches, diarrhoea, brain fog, and muscle aches on a daily basis. Of course, travelling with Crohn’s is a million times harder than travelling with a normal, functioning body, but it’s still manageable.
If there’s one thing that the walk has taught me, it’s that I am no longer poop-shy around strangers!
Did you have any adventure or physical challenge experience prior to this?
Absolutely zilch. Prior to the expedition, I would walk my neighbour’s dog for a few hours a day – but believe me, that does not compare to 35km days hiking alongside the Danube!
I thought that this expedition would be something I could train for en route, and whilst I have been able to pick up most things along the way, walking all day every day was not one of them. The beginning would have been a million times less painful had I eased my way into it for sure.
Physically, how are you feeling at the moment?
Exhausted! I’ve lost several toenails, my feet look like something out of a horror movie, and my hip seems to have exited my body. But still, the excitement hasn’t worn off, and I’m loving every day!
Logistically, how difficult has it been to organise a challenge of this scale?
I think that the trip has been pretty smooth sailing. To begin with, there was the Danube Cycle Path that we could walk alongside, which guided us through Germany and Austria. Then it seemed to disintegrate into nothing, so we’ve had to walk alongside main roads for most of Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia. We’ve missed out on some easier routes because of the sheer lack of research I conducted before jumping into it, but one day, I’m sure we’ll all laugh about it. Hopefully.
We also originally travelled with a tent, which in theory would have made it easier to find accommodation each night. But it was always a struggle trying to find somewhere to pitch, so we would instead rely pretty much on Couchsurfing, then when we camped for the first time and woke up with approximately a million ticks on our bodies, we ditched the tent.
Now, every day consists of walking for eight or so hours, reaching out to potential hosts for the next night, and praying that we find food along the way.
What has it been like relying on the goodwill of strangers for food and accommodation?
We have met some absolute angels so far who have spoilt us with ice cream and tea and given us whole bedrooms to unwind in. I will never regret relying on strangers, even though some absolutely pushed their luck.
On our first night we stayed in a farmer’s shed, and despite him not speaking a lick of English, we spent the morning chatting and laughing over breakfast and a cup of tea. He made a rather ominous gesture of a gun to the head when we told him that we’d be walking through Romania into Ukraine, but apart from that, it was a great first day.
Over the next few weeks, we would meet villagers who recognised us from the beginning of the walk, and they would always call out to us and support us. For the first time, it made me feel as though the expedition was actually worth something, and the super lovely hosts that we would have over the next few months would only solidify that feeling.
Have there been any tricky moments?
We have also stayed with some people who have been… unhelpful, to say the least. One day, we had been walking all day only to have the heavens open up and soak us from head to toe. We were near Beuron in Germany, so naturally, we tried to seek refuge in a monastery. We attended service and learnt that whilst they had several priests living there, the majority of the rooms were vacant. So, along with another traveller who was on a traditional German pilgrimage, we explained to one of the priests that we would greatly appreciate the opportunity to seek refuge in the monastery. Frankly, I was so exhausted from the walk and slightly miserable from the rain that I was on the verge of dropping to my knees and begging him for humanity. But then, he shooed us all away without a second thought.
You’re burning around 3000 calories a day. How have you been fuelling your trip?
Badly, to say the least! Usually, our host will give us breakfast and dinner, but this usually isn’t substantial and never guaranteed. We almost always carry snacks like peanut butter and fruit with us, but there have been some occasions where we have gone 30km without an ounce of sustenance. I have no doubt that we’ve all lost weight from the walking, but I’m hoping that we can get it back whilst breaking in Belgrade. Did you know that you can get a three-person meal in Serbia for less than £5? Eating in Belgrade is a lot easier than in Vienna, let me tell you.
Of course, it has also been more difficult to hit my daily calorie goal due to Crohn’s – there are about twenty things that I physically cannot consume – but for the most part, I’m getting there.
So far, what have been the highs and lows of your trip?
A lot of the lows have been from physical things – such as being yelled at by a waitress in Germany, being scammed in Bratislava, and being yelled at by a security guard also in Bratislava (Bratislava was TOUGH) – but surprisingly, the worst of it came from the sheer amount of time I had to reflect.
My friends know me for having an Existential Crisis every few months or so, where I dwell on a particular aspect of my life, let it consume me for weeks, and then figure out how to solve it until everything’s golden again. But on the walk, this cycle was only intensified. I have gone through a helluva lot of emotions on the road, and whilst I feel as though I’ve overcome a lot of internal turmoil, there have been some especially dark days.
Saying that, the majority of the expedition has been made up of highs. Along with the ‘hurrah’ feeling that comes with overcoming an Existential Crisis, there have been a lot of internal triumphs. I feel so proud to have actually walked most of the Danube (1/3 left to go!) on my own two legs and with my pathetic little body. Along with that, I’ve made some great friends along the way.
Have you learned anything about yourself (or humanity as a whole) from this challenge?
In general, I feel as though this expedition has taught me just how *nice* people can be. There have been several occasions when strangers have invited us into their homes for food just because they have seen us hobbling along the road or probably heard our stomachs growl from the next town over. Just the other night, we stayed with this guy who seemingly funded the livelihoods of every single homeless person in the city, and he seemed to relish in helping people.
I’ve also learnt that people can be real jerks. I’ve gone to people needing really basic things – such a glass of water, access to a toilet, or Wifi to navigate my way – and they seem to relish in the pain that refusing me causes.
What have been your must-have items of kit, and are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I am super excited to announce that, yes, I am sponsored! For my first-ever expedition!
Firstly, I have been wearing my Sherpa Adventure Gear fleece every single day for nearly three months, and whilst yes, that’s disgusting, it has also been so vital to my wellbeing. It is super cosy and warm, and I feel like a teddy bear when I wear it – plus, it was part of the *first-ever* sponsorship that I secured, and I love showing off the brand. Did you know that when you wear Sherpa Adventure Gear, you provide a child in Nepal with a school day?
I have also been sent a few pairs of 1000 Mile Socks, which have significantly reduced the amount of blisters I’ve been getting. They go nicely with the fab walking boots that Salomon sent out to me.
There’s also Leatherman, who sent me out a sick knife which I use for cutting mango and locking dodgy doors on communes, and Nuun sent me some delicious little energy tablets, which I pop in my water each day as a reward.
One of my favourite sponsorships has been from a lass called Lyndsey Currie, who runs a knitwear company (Lyndsey Currie Textiles). She sent me out two snoods which she knitted herself, and honestly, I love wearing her products.
Natracare sent me a bunch of their wonderful eco-friendly sanitary products (organic, natural, AND sustainable!), and Nordvek sent me a divine (and fabulously warm) pair of gloves. To be honest, there’s not a lot that I’m carrying that isn’t sponsored.
In regard to unsponsored must-haves, it’s literally just suncream. Even in the winter, I burn within the hour, so I physically could not live without it. At the moment, I’m wearing a funky suncream by Bioré, and I’d probably rate it an 8/10.