A classic round trip railtracking and packrafting : L163A, Vierre & Semois

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The 1350m long Ste-Cécile tunnel has long been the longest tunnel in Belgium.

At the beginning of the 20th century a very controversial railway was built in the south of Belgium. L163A as is the name of this railway is undoubtedly a difficult feat in the history of the Belgian railways. First of all this railway should never have been built. It runs through the south of the Belgian Ardennes and the Gaume region and was built with the goal to connect the Belgian rail network with the French rail network to create a fast connection with the – at that time – thriving industry in the basin of the Chiers river just south of the border. The most ridiculous is that this connection could have been built rather easily near the village of Florenville. However due to local political interests the railway was finally built more to the west over a very difficult and hilly path. It then took 12 years to build the 26km long railway which finally contained 3 viaducts, 3 tunnels and 24 bridges. Eventually the railroad has never been very useful except for the German occupiers during both World Wars.

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The Ste-Cécile tunnel is closed to the public but real adventurers still now how to enter by climbing over the fence and wires.

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Lots of bricks fall from the ceiling in the Ste-Cécile tunnel and make for a dangerous enterprise.

Today the railroad hasn’t seen a train anymore for 4 decades. The railway itself has been broken down, but the track bed including the tunnels and viaducts are still there today, albeit in various stages of decay. Technically speaking it is possible to hike, or lets say to railtrack most of this ancient railroad, an interesting adventure as some parts of the route are changed into a jungle. Furthermore all the 3 tunnels are by law forbidden terrain, but that makes it an even more exiting adventure, isn’t it?

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Water was seeping through the ceiling of the Ste-Cécile tunnel at several places during this very rainy day, creating a stream of water over the bottom of the tunnel.

Luc Selleslagh is under the spell of this railway line and has throughout the years examined the history of the railroad. His work can be admired on his site trekkings.be. You will not only find the into detail history of the railroad on his site, but also handy tips to explore the railroad on foot with the latest updates of the situation at the critical points. If you ever feel attracted to go railtracking overhere don’t hesitate to sift through its pages.

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Conques viaduct over the river Semois near the village of Herbeumont is 38m high and 160m long.

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Entering the Linglé tunnel.

Now, what is so interesting for us adventurers with a packraft is the fact that this ancient railroad makes a very fast connection between the river Semois near the village of Herbeumont with the river Vierre near Martilly and so an interesting and very varied round trip can be made here in the south of Belgium, both combining hiking/railtracking over bridges, viaducts and through tunnels with packrafting over the rivers.

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A frog kept us company while seeking shelter from the rain under the trailstar.

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The St-Médard tunnel is the wildest of the three tunnels and is always standing under water over a short stretch, forcing you to wade through shin deep water and mud.

Last weekend tons of rain were forecasted and me and a friend were eager to go explore this round trip. I especially took some pictures of the tunnels, but not of the packrafting part. The rest is your imagination. The map below is the guide if you ever feel ready to complete this round trip. However, keep in mind that packrafting on the rivers in the Wallonia part of Belgium is regulated by law and is depending on the actual discharges. On this site you can check which river sections are open. We had 5,5m³/s on the Vierre at Straimont and 29m³/s on the Semois at Chiny.

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Putting in on Ruisseau de Grandvoir, a small side stream of the Vierre river.

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Hiking above the Semois river.

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6 thoughts on “A classic round trip railtracking and packrafting : L163A, Vierre & Semois

  1. Hey Joery, I was in those exact same tunnels last weekend. It’s a pretty interesting area to explore. How was paddling on the Semois? I met a local farmer who told me about a group of Canadian kayakers that had run into some trouble with sweepers on the river. One of them broke some ribs and another one crushed his foot when his kayak got stuck under a sweeper and he was swept out of the boat. The farmer said he’d never seen such bad conditions on the Semois.

    • Hi Yves!
      Pity we didn’t meet each other on the railroad. Did you explore the Ste-Cécile tunnel too? About the Semois, I packrafted almost the entire river 2 years ago from Tintigny to almost the French border. Upstream of Jamoigne the river is very dangerous due to many willow bushes blocking the river many times over its entire width. Afterwards there are no dangers anymore so these supposed bad conditions on the Semois sound strange to me or these Canadians probably must have done the upper Semois? However, could it be that these Canadians did run the Vierre instead of the Semois? We actually tried to packraft the Vierre also upstream from Martilly and further downstream from Suxy but were not successful. The Vierre was not so much fun in those parts because of the same reason as on the upper Semois and I would never do these parts again. Between Martilly and Suxy, the part that is legally permitted, we also had to portage around two sweepers.

      • The guy kept talking about ‘the river’ while we were driving along the banks of the Semois (he gave us a lift), so I just assumed he meant the Semois. He might well have meant the Vierre though. Anyway, good to know that the Semois is safe, as I plan to paddle it soon.
        We only walked through the Ste-Cécile tunnel and the viaduct, not the St Médard or Linglé. The plan was to pass by the fortress of Herbéumont as well, but eventually that didn’t happen.

  2. Looks like a marvellous trip. We’ve done both rivers ourselves many times. The Semois is still on the top of my list of Belgian rivers, and the area around Florenville is just marvellous.
    Pitty we didn’t know about those bad conditions ;-p Than again, we were in Germany and the dry-suits are being repaired as we speak.

  3. Thanks for posting Joery! Should do this in winter when the tunnels become an ice palace (cfr trekkings.be). And now I’m really wondering whether you have any videos of you two climbing over that fence! 🙂

    • Yeah, maybe we should explore the tunnels together one day in winter. Then I’ll take a movie of you while you climb the fence and wires. Deal!? 🙂

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