Magical Worlds of the Danube Marsh
Many people spend their lives in a nearby town, two or three kilometers away, and for them this forever remain an unknown land. They never learn that in their neighborhood live wild boars, wild cats, foxes, jackals, rabbits, deer, nutria, otters, gray and white herons, night herons, black storks, pheasants, white-tailed eagles, owls, wild ducks, cuckoos, coots, cormorants... To discover these beautiful and exciting worlds one does not need expensive tour packages and long preparation. All they need is a beautiful day, good will, and comfortable shoes, then straight to the Pupin’s Bridge

Text and photo: Josip Šarić

The birth and growing up of a man in a city on the river banks is a special privilege or some kind of a life awards. And while those who are deprived of that privilege often fantasize about living in such an environment, many of those ”awarded” do not know what kind of wealth they have. Their life takes place on asphalt, which covers the path from birth until their last breath. An occasional escape from the city center to the landscaped coastal promenades is only a small indication of the experience that awaits them in immediate vicinity, and yet out of reach just because of ignorance or personal disinterest. View from Zemun’s loess plateau of the Danube, which lazily rolls along the peripheral parts of the Pannonian Plain, is an image is that every traveler will take with themselves. And we, the locals, in our primordial quest for new environments, will often arrive to other continents, while the mysterious and undiscovered micro world on the outskirts of our hometown, the Danube Marsh, on the left bank of the river, will for many remain the terra incognita – an unknown land.


The story of the Marsh as it exists today, off that still insufficiently known world, starts in the second half of the 19th century. With the loss of the status of a frontier in 1873, Borča and another twelve villages was included in the Pančevo district of the Torontal County. Already in 1876, Ovča and Borča, constantly at risk due to high waters of the Danube, through the newly formed association, requested the from the Hungarian Treasury to build an embankment. Namely, the Hungarian Treasurer as the owner of the swamp land was required to build defense embankments, by investing the revenues generated on that that land into that construction. Another eighteen villages in Banat and Srem joined the initiative of Ovča and Borča. This was followed by years of litigation with the royal Treasurer who was avoiding this obligation, and this was followed by the outbreak of World War One. The initiative therefore ceased, and was revived only in 1924, due to the need to connect Pančevo and Belgrade with a railway. The works on the construction of the dam embankment started in August 1929 and ended in October 1933.
Along the outskirts of the Marsh, parallel to the Danube and Tamiš, an embankment of almost ninety kilometers length was built, into which thirteen and a half million cubic meters of earth was embedded. With its width of five to six meters and a height that was calculated based on the highest water level of the Danube near Pančevo measured in the 19th century (level 67.27), the embankment finally provided a secure protection of settlements from seasonal flooding. Draining the water that remained within the embankment was resolved with a canal in total length of 320 kilometers. Due to the slight inclination of the ground, in immediate vicinity of the river a system of pumps was established, which helped in drying the area. After the protective embankment, the railway one was built with tracks, as well as the bridge over the Danube.
The settlements for centuries jeopardized by the high Danube waters and seasonal flooding wert finally safe, and the land connection between the two cities was also established. However, this great engineering venture had some negative consequences. A large part of the former marshland was drained, which greatly reduced the surface of these specific environmental niches. Only in a narrow space between the embankment and the Danube remained the so-called Forland - flooded, marshy area, which is actually an image of what a large area of low left bank of the Danube River looked like before the construction of the embankment. With a little imagination, we can imagine that the entire Pannonian Plain looked like that about 600,000 years after the withdrawal of the Pannonian Sea and the formation of today's hydrographic network dominated by the Danube with its tributaries.


The 1960’s... childhood fantasies about the pirates’ adventures on a ship that cuts the high seas, among a group of kids from the northern outskirts of Zemun, much more prosaic end. Accompanied by adults, we crossed the Danube in a dilapidated boat made of dry planks, and the last few dozen meters before landing on the opposite bank was marked by feverish draining of water with an old and battered, blue enameled kitchen pot. We were not aware of the extent to which this harmless boat ride was a dangerous adventure, especially in moments when passenger ships would come close, which then moved down the river much faster, creating huge waves that would often overturn and smash the boats anchored along the coast . Arrival on a river island, opposite Surduk, known as Goveđi Brod, was the highlight of this river trip. All the desire for exploration ended with the beautiful sandy beaches, playing and swimming, and the Marsh, a few dozen meters away, remained undiscovered and mysterious. Years have passed, we grew up, river crossings became less frequent and at the end fully stopped, and the Marsh was still patiently waiting in solitude for some new generations to explore and get to know it.
Half a century after these rides on the dilapidated boat, after the construction of the Mihailo Pupin Bridge, the Marsh has finally become much more accessible to the fans of walking and cycling, but also to us, the former would-be explorers and adventurers, and maybe a little tamer. Discovering this mystical world close to the city center today requires only little free time, goodwill, comfortable shoes and some fitness. Just the crossing of the bridge on foot provides a new point of view to the second longest river in Europe, and this is already a nice introduction to the exploration of the unknown bank. After getting off the bridge, it takes some skill to find an unmarked crossing over the drainage channels, in order to reach the embankment itself, and this leads to free access, for kilometers upstream and downstream along the bank of the Danube, to this beautiful world over the river.
Wild boars, wild cats, foxes, jackals, rabbits, deer, nutria, otters, gray and white herons, night herons, black storks, pheasants, white-tailed eagles, owls, wild ducks, cuckoos, coots, cormorants, swans... these are just some of the residents of the Marsh that the most persistent visitors of this urban ”Amazonia” would encounter sooner or later during their walks.


A special experience is watching the change of the seasons that change the colors of the Marsh from day to day, creating an enchanting impressionist color spectrum. Early spring brings drops of morning dew on a meadow and marsh plants, wisps of fog that lazily twist over the water, slowly rising up through the branches of marsh willows. Rippling of water under the gusts of wind and the sound of the leaves on the branches of poplar trees are hypnotic and relaxing. Chirping of songbirds is mixed with screeching of seagulls heralding the summer.
Deep green of the flourishing vegetation, psychedelic fly of many species of butterflies, the heat that hovers in the flickering air and buzzing of invisible insects depict summer days. Autumn brings the first cooler mornings, and the sky over the Marsh is conquered by flocks of migratory birds that go south, where they overwinter. The Marsh changes color from green to yellow, orange, reddish, purple... As if a painter spilled on the branches all the excess warm colors that remained in his studio after painting imaginary landscapes.
The winter comes. Morning dew is replaced by the first frost, turning the Marsh into a magical white environment from which the Snow Queen could emerge on her sled. And then come the cold winds which, sweeping over the surface of the Danube, create icebergs. One cycle is completed and we are on the threshold of a new one.
These idyllic images could soon become a thing of the past recorded in the memories and photographs of nature lovers. The Government of Serbia has been preparing, with its Chinese partners, a development project – a strategic port on the Danube, exactly in the area of the so-called Forland, upstream from the Mihailo Pupin Bridge. It is a part of the environmental network of international importance, protected by international conventions and national legislation. The significance of this zone was recognized by the League for Ornithological Action of Serbia, and based on its research, it has produced a study on birds, butterflies and plant communities and has forwarded it to the City Secretariat for Environmental Protection. The Secretariat has accepted the initiative, realizing the need to put this area under protection. An invitation was sent to the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia to further develop the initiative. The Institute has committed serious efforts into this, and proposed to the Belgrade City Assembly that this area is proclaimed the ”Land of exceptional attributes - Forland of the left bank of the Danube”. However, the proposal for declaring a new protected natural area has not received official confirmation. It has never been put to vote, because during the parliamentary session the proposal was withdrawn from the procedure in 2015.
The needs for economic development are undisputable, for creating new jobs and expanding the city whose population is growing year after year. However, many cases have been reported in the world when inadequately or incorrectly developed projects brought more harm than good. Will anybody, in the case of the planned new city port in the area of exceptional environmental importance, remember the folk proverb which says that it is wrong ”to slaughter the bull for a pound of meat”? Will the new generations of urban kids have a chance to go exploring the worlds across the river?


Laboratory in Nature
Except being nesting place of numerous bird species, this area is also a great hatchery of fish. Thanks to this, the Danube is full of life, and Danube fishermen never go back home from the water with their nets empty. A variety of marsh vegetation and insects can attract the attention of entomologists and botanists – this laboratory in nature they is right within their reach.


Traces in the Snow
In winter, at first glance, life in the Marsh dies and as if the entire area falls into hibernation. But traces in the snow tell us something else – the resident marsh birds, wild pigs, deer, jackals, nutria and others are still there…


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