At the heart of Europe, on the border between Austria and Slovakia, one river has resisted centuries of attempts to tame it: the Morava.
For the last sixty kilometres before it flows into the Danube, the Morava largely remains a wild, unpredictable current that fundamentally shapes the wetlands that surround it. This is also a result of 20th century geopolitics: the Iron Curtain followed the course of the Morava, and the resulting military installations and security considerations ensured that the river was protected from excessive construction.
The erratic fluctuation between high and low water levels is the very life-force of the ancient current. The land along the river’s banks can be dry and dusty for weeks, then suddenly find itself submerged below masses of water.
Over time, efforts were made to subdue the river. Banks were shored up with large rocks and tributaries and branches were separated from the main watercourse. People hoped to turn the Morava into a shipping waterway but the attempts were a failure. These days, the Morava is too shallow for ships – a result of the exploitation of the river, excessive water drainage, decreasing precipitation and a changing climate.
Despite the challenges the river has faced, the Morava has maintained the wonderfully unpredictable character that gives life to its surroundings. An incredibly diverse animal kingdom exists at the intersection of floodplains, riparian forests and the river itself. Among its inhabitants are a wealth of herons, deer and wild boars that wallow in the soft mud, as well as innumerable fish, ancient crustaceans and small, furry semi-aquatic animals like beavers, muskrats and nutrias. And then there are perhaps the most irritating of creatures that flourish in damp environments: the mosquitos.
The land that surrounds the Morava wetlands couldn’t be more different. The steppe landscape is flat and dusty. The driest region in Austria, the Marchfeld, lies on one side of the river. On the other side is Záhorie, the Slovakian continuation of these plains. Here the soils are dry and sandy, and the flora and fauna are able to withstand high temperatures. Shortly before the Morava flows into the Danube it passes Devínska Kobyla on the Slovakian side. The hill marks the beginning of the Little Carpathians mountain range.
The steppe landscape and the dry grasslands and forests contribute to the incredible diversity of plant and animal species found in the Morava’s catchment area. Europe’s most colourful birds, the bee-eaters, cross back and forth across the border unimpeded, while foxes and badgers build their burrows in the sandy soils. The regions is also home to insects that thrive in the warm climate, including dung beetles and bush crickets.
In recent years water levels have appeared to sink, but efforts are underway to restore the Morava to its former glory. The stones and structures intended to fortify the banks of the river are being removed and old tributaries and branches are now being re-connected to the main current. In the neighbouring steppes, conservationists are hard at work revitalising once-overgrown areas of sandy soil by removing the bushes, shrubs and trees that have taken root.
Two documentary filmmakers with decades of experience spent around 250 days and nights hidden in tents in the landscapes around the Morava, capturing the area’s erratic majesty: Tomáš Hulík, a 47-year-old Slovakian who lives nearby, and 66-year-old Kurt Kracher, who grew up in and around Vienna’s Lobau floodplain forests not far from the point where the Morava meets the Danube.
The film is an authentic depiction of the Morava and its surroundings and relies on actual footage from the real locations to tell its story. There are no animal actors, no sequences filmed in animal enclosures. With one (very) tiny exception: the branchiopod crustaceans were temporarily placed in an aquarium to allow the filmmakers to capture their strange, prehistoric beauty.
A co-production of Terra Mater Studios and Cosmos Factory in association with ARTpoint and Rozhlas a televízia Slovenska