woensdag 25 juni 2014

Mudflat hiking

Last weekend I went mudflat hiking. I always wanted to do so and now - just before leaving the Netherlands - seemed like the perfect time.
Since mudflat hiking is a typical Dutch activity, I thought it would be nice to write a little blogpost about it, to give my international readers an idea of this recreation :)

Ready for take-off! You have to admit that my purple
raincoat is the pretties one you've ever seen...

In the sea that adjoins the north side Netherlands lie 5 inhabited islands; the Dutch Wadden islands (named on the picture below). These islands consist mostly of sand dunes and are (compared to the rest of the Netherlands) relatively quiet. Most of them have a couple of small towns, but that's it.
The Wadden islands form the border between the North Sea and the Wadden Sea, which lies south of the islands (between the islands and the Dutch main land).

There's something special about the Wadden Sea...it's a so-called intertidal zone (yup, I'm getting a bit nerdy here ;) Don't worry though, this won't become a geography class!). An intertidal zone is the area that is above water at low tide, and under water at high tide. At low tide, when mud is deposited and the sea draws back, muddy flats will form. These are also called tidal flats or 'mudflats'...and you know what? Dutch people like to walk on these flats, all the way from the mainland coast to the Wadden islands! Now this is called 'mudflat hiking'.

Clean shoes...but not for long!

Mudflat walking should be done with the aid of a tide table and preferably under supervision of a guide. The guide will lead you onto organized routes on which you are allowed to traverse the seabed (mudflats are important ecosystems, our guide even called it the 'birthing room' for a whole bunch of sea creatures!). But beside the possible dangers for wildlife, there are also other risks. Even though the tides change in very regular cycles, without a licensed guide it's quite easy to misjudge the situation and you might find yourself quickly surrounded by rising water on all sides, far away from the beaches. Eehm...no, thank you!

So, last weekend was my own very first mudflat hiking experience (something that usually takes place in the childhood of every Dutch person...mom, dad, did you miss something here?). Mark and I went for the full deal (there are many different hikes offered by the guides, some of them relatively short and easy, others a bit longer and tougher) and signed up for a route of 13 km starting in Holwerd going all the way to Ameland, the fourth Wadden islands. The map above shows how we walked. You might wonder why there's such a silly curve in our track...well, that has to do with the deeper tidal trenches (or 'tidal creeks') you will come across. Not all parts of the Wadden Sea become dry when the tide is low, it's called 'wetlands' for a reason. Some areas are still relatively deep under water, not suitable for walking!

Still, even though we didn't swim...we had to wade through water that came up to our belly buttons (as you can see on the little video above...please ignore my stupid grin!). Backpacks high everyone!

Tiny shrimps!

Other areas we crossed were formed of mud cracks, salt pans and zones with lots of crabs and mollusks. Our guide picked up all kinds of slimy sea-creatures to show us (yikes!) the things that live there and tell us about the environment. These little pauses were perfect to catch a quick snack and drink some water...the 13 km route took us almost 4 hours!

Expect to get dirty when going mud walking...

The last part of the hike was definitely the hardest. You think you're almost there, the island is clearly in sight and seems to be oh-so-close...but it's kinda misleading actually, and hard to estimate the real distance. To make it worse, the last 2-3 km's (more or less) we had to walk through clayey silt in which our feet sunk 30 cm deep with every step! Believe me, that's hard on your muscles (and pretty strange when you finally reach the shore and walk on normal ground again!). By the way, you need to wear tight-fitting shoes when you go mud walking, otherwise there's a chance they will be sucked into the mud and slip off your feet. You really don't want to have to dig them up again...let alone trying to put them back on, standing on one feet in the slimy silt!

Arrived at last!

Once on Ameland, we had to walk another short distance to a farm, where we could wash our feet and legs and put on clean and dry clothes, that we brought with us in our backpacks (all safely sealed in plastic bags!). After that, it was time for a bit of island exploration. It was my first time on one of the Wadden islands and I really loved that 'island-feeling'. It was so quiet compared to the rest of the Netherlands! It's not the high season yet though; in just a couple of weeks the number of people on the island will rise from 4000 to 40.000(!)...I guess the Dutchies just have some kind of talent to make small places crowded.

Many sheep live on the Wadden islands.

At one point, Ameland made me ponder about New Zealand. Which is wáy bigger of course, but also quiet and calm and with lots of nature. I have no idea if my comparison makes sense at all, maybe it will sound totally ridiculous once I've really arrived in New Zealand. But I think it's safe to state that Ameland at least shares more resemblances with New Zealand than the Dutch mainland. And you can't blame me for my current habit of constantly incorporating of New Zealand in everything I think and say and do :P

Mark and I explored a small part of the island by bikes. We went to Nes (one of the four villages on the island), where I saw houses that were built back in 1625...my goodness, can you imagine?! We went to the beach on the north side of the island (facing the North Sea) where we had a beer and 'bitterballen' (a typical Dutch snack). At the end of the afternoon it was time to head back to the mainland again, luckily not by feet again (pfew!). A ferry goes back an forth between Holwerd and Ameland several times a day, so this time we had a relaxed transition in the shining sun with our heads in the wind.

It was a lovely day, for sure. I believe there are many things I won't miss about the Netherlands...but this day I saw one of its beautiful sides :)

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