24 Western Scheldt: Tidal water rafting between metal marine giants

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Summer sunrise over the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe.

A few days ago Yves and me went to the Western Scheldt estuary to make an interesting packraft day trip. The Western Scheldt is the funnel shaped mouth of the Scheldt river where the sea tides of the Northsea reverse the water flow in the river twice a day, making the water levels rise and drop every time by 6 meters. Many sandbars emerge above the water line in the estuary at each low tide and mudflats and salt marshes surround the estuary on many places with the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe being the biggest brackish marsh in Western Europe. What is more unique is the marine traffic that is continuously taking place through the estuary between the Northsea and the seaport of Antwerp, which is lying 70km inland from the sea as the crow flies. The Western Scheldt is a very interesting packrafting destination but at the same time the most dangerous place to do some flat water packrafting seen the strong tidal currents, all the ships passing by and the winds that can easily blow you away from the shore into the sea lane where the marine ships are passing through and guess what, no they don’t give way for a mortal packrafting soul! The weather forecast promised us weak winds staying ashore and sunny weather with temperatures up to 30 degrees Celsius. Now, don’t stay dally with such circumstances!

Wednesday evening we headed to the small town of Paal along the southern shore of the estuary and searched a place to spend the night in our bivy bags. That we found on a dyke between the fields. At five o’clock in the morning, the sun even didn’t show up yet at the horizon, we took our stuff and headed for the brackish water. We had to start so early to profit from the current going inland before high tide was reached, otherwise we couldn’t make it to the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe as the currents in the estuary are stronger then the speed one can paddle upstream with a packraft. And so we made a nice day trip on the Western Scheldt and through the many creeks of Saeftinghe. The pictures tell the story.

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Continuing towards Antwerp along the shore with the rising tide after crossing the Speelmansgat creek.

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Giant marine ships pass through the sea lane.

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A seal in the distance. Unfortunately I didn’t succeed taking a closer picture even though they came a lot closer than this. We saw about 5 individual seals.

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Rest stop at high tide after crossing the Ijskeldergat creek.

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Yet another container ship heading for the seaport of Antwerp.

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Rest stop at the mouth of the Hondegat creek with the seaport of Antwerp at the horizon.

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View over the mouth of the Hondegat creek and the bend in the Scheldt bearing the name Nauw van Bath.

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Sea mollusks living in brakkish Saeftinghe.

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The water levels are dropping quickly and we get stuck in the Van Zandegeul creek.

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The drowned land is surfacing again.

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Dragging our packrafts in search for navigable water.

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The pulling hike takes us to the next shallow creek.

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A stranded boat on a sandbar.

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Going ashore on the sandbar.

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What is he doing here?

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Two people in a stranded boat half a day waiting for next high tide. They even didn’t show up out of their boat.

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Never ending marine traffic.

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Giant buoys mark the sea lane for the marine ships and lie tilted in the flow between the tides.

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Briefly playing in the wake of the buoy. The current is so fast we just drifted away from the buoy no matter how hard we paddled.

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This giant took us by surprise as about one minute after I took this picture it pulled all the water out of the shallow Speelmansgat creek where we just had arrived and all of a sudden we just were stranded at the bottom of the creek until a wave train with up to 1,5m high waves quickly invaded into the creek again. Luckily we did not capsize but we sure were impressed. After that we stayed playing in the waves with every other ship passing by.

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At the end of our trip in the shallow Speelmansgat creek.

24 Grensmaas : 4 packrafts – 5 people

The Belgian packraft scene is ever growing. Steve & Katrijn and me agreed upon packrafting the Grensmaas from the Borgharen dam to the village of Maaseik at the last weekend of June. Then came Yves, telling us he had just bought a packraft. And then Michael Jackson could join us too at the last end (no this one is still alive). That would make 5 packrafters in 4 boats! Wait! Does that mean that one of the team had to swim? No! Steve & Katrijn like the honeymoon style.

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We started Friday evening. Calm weather and so was the water. We reached the mouth of the river Geul at sunset where we met a perfect spot to put our tarps and shelters. An intimate camping night around a campfire with numerous beavers that circled around splashing on the water nearby. The water level of the river rose for 70cm overnight, enough to swallow our campfire, luckily not enough to invade into our shelters. Upstream dams always cause a source of concern when camping low to the water line. The next morning the water had well retreated.

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On Saturday we had a welcome 4 Beaufort in our back. The water was warm so I even made a few swims with the packraft lined in my hand. The rapids were a good school for the less experienced among us. At the ferry crossing passed halfway we couldn’t resist the local Belgian “frituur” to fill our stomachs with a meal of delicious Belgian fries that made our last stretch to Maaseik pass effortless. Such a big river is always more fun to paddle with congenial companions. Certainly something we should repeat in the future.

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Idyllic waterfalls and fairytale rock corridors – hiking the Müllerthal trail

Müllerthal Trail, trail number 2

Thursday and Friday, May 14-15, 2009.

Mullerthal 200905The Schiessentümpel waterfall.

In the evening I arrive in the Müllerthal valley and walk a bit around along the Black Ernz including a visit to the Schiessentümpel waterfall. Tomorrow I will make an early start to hike trail number 2 of the Müllerthal trail, a famous marked hiking trail in the east of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. This region bears the name Little Switzerland and is characterized by countless rock formations and picturesque wooded valleys with romantic creeks, even though the comparison with Switzerland is a bit strange to me.

Mullerthal 200905 The Eulenburg rock formation.

At six out of my bed and at seven on the trail. Along the Black Ernz river I walk to Schiessentümpel, the famous waterfall which show off proudly on post cards in leaflets everywhere around in Little Switzerland. The place still looks picturesque after 18 years, the last time I have visited the Müllerthal valley as a kid. Has it been that long? Then I had only eye for building dams in the river.

The trail runs straight up into the woods. It will become boring for a while I’m immediately thinking by myself, but nothing less seems to be true. The trail winds itself around and sometimes literally through corridors of calcareous sandstone rock formations, wearing fairylike names like Eulenburg, Goldfralay and Goldkaul. Near the mill of Consdorf someone is emptying buckets. The trail crosses a traffic road, lined with dense low fence along both sides. Every twenty meters a bucket has been put in the ground before the fence. I peer in each one I pass along but they are all empty. Workers along the road ask to our natural friend in the Luxembourg German dialect: “Und was gefangen?” Unfortunately no frogs have jumped into the traps today.

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The Déwenpëtz corridors.

Along the Haerbaach creek I’m walking uphill again towards the rock formations of Deiwepoetz (also known as Dewenpëtz). The trail immediately runs into a narrow corridor in the rocks. I’m getting stuck with my backpack. I need to take it off and wring through the corridor while pushing my backpack ahead of me. After this first small corridor a second much longer and deeper one follows. At the end of the tunnel it gets so dark that I’m first thinking I must have missed the trail as the corridor seems to end in a dead point. While returning it still seems to be the right route. I get back into the corridor, now with my head lamp shining ahead. The corridor keeps going. It looks more lake caving what I’m doing. This is perhaps the finest passage of the Müllerthal trail. Passed the long corridor I leave the trail for a while to explore the underground circuit of the Kuelscheier cave. Yes, it’s not only corridors to explore here, there are small real caves too!

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The longer and darker one of the Déwenpëtz corridors.

Through relicts of the Neolithic stone quarry of Haerdbierg I arrive on the plateau south of the village of Consdorf with wide meadow views. It doesn’t take long before the trail dives into the woods again where smaller rock formations line the valley. Shortly after noon I pass the village of Scheidgen and continue through the woods and the Deisterbaach valley towards the medieval town of Echternach.

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The cave of Houllay.

Beyond Echternach more rock formation follow with astonishing names like the Wolf chasm and the Devil’s breach. When I walk into the Aesbach valley I encounter fellow hikers for the second time on the trail. Beyond the Labyrinth and the Pear head rock (yes the toponymy goes on) the canyon like valley shows its most beautiful side. The little creek ripples through a deep gorge while the trail keeps following the creek through the bottom of the ravine. Deep in the ravine, the trail suddenly climbs away from the creek where I reach the Houllay caverns. Suddenly thunder is roaring in the distance and when it soon begins to rain I decide to search for a spot to make camp. Under a high cliff above the ravine I pitch my Akto. The overhanging rock face keeps everything dry in the thunderstorm. A strong downpour is falling through the foliage when I prepare and eat dinner. In the evening I descend into the valley under my umbrellas to watch the swollen creek, now filled with brown water from the rain. The rain continues the whole evening, so I decide to go to sleep early.

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The bivouac spot above the Houllay ravine.

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Aesbech creek in the ravine.

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A beautiful part of the trail along Aesbech creek.

I slept on roses, so I don’t know when it stopped raining yesterday evening. The trail soon leaves the forest and visits the village of Beaufort. It starts to rain again while passing the town. Passed the town, the path disappears into the woods again, descending down into another ravine. Here I take the time to leave the trail and explore the rock formations of Raiberhiel and Adlerhorst and their caves.

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The trail follows a stairway into the chasm at the Predigstull rocks.

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Endless trail…

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…trough endless rock corridors.

At the Binzeltschloeff rock formation the rain becomes a downpour again and I search for a protruding rock to have a dry rest stop for a meal. A second downpour follows at the Predigstull rock and I stop again to hide for the rain. The rest of the afternoon I stroll through the rain in the direction of the Müllerthal valley while becoming soaking wet. The rain does no less to the trip however. Along the Ernz Noir I reach the Schiessentümpel waterfall again, and the trail has been rounded.

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The Ernz Noir river in the Müllethal valley.

The Müllerthal trail is definitely one of the most and perhaps even the most beautiful trail in the whole of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Strong hikers can hike the 35km long trail number 2 in a dayhike but I recommend to do it as an overnighter as there are so many interesting spots to explore along the trail. A recommended visit!

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The Schiessentümpel waterfall once again.

Last packraft overnighters of this winter

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20°c and nothing like burning sunshine from dawn till dusk. The first light green leaves are already appearing on the branches. Water levels are dropping to unusually low values for the time of the year. Winter is long forgotten.

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How fast can nature show its other face? During the last two weeks I’ve made two packraft overnighters when the weather was yet cold and dull, one solo in Biesbosch NP and a 44km run on the Warsche and Amblève river in the Ardennes with Willem last weekend. Water levels were just high enough for relaxed paddling. Today we would get stuck.

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The Biesbosch looked dead and quiet on a grey winter day, but after paddling for some time it just seemed the wildlife is just most abundant this time of the year. Among them I saw a lot of buzzards, a deer trapped on a reed island and a few beavers. I made camp with the trailstar on the tip of a narrow peninsula. Reading a book till deep in the night next to the campfire was very enjoyable with curious rats visiting the bivouac spot and beavers regularly splashing loud in the nearby water. It was difficult to catch a sleep when you have a beaver family as your neighbor. But that made this short overnighter just so much more special.

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A snowshoe flip flop before the thaw

The first snow of winter over the Belgian Ardennes appeared last week. Today everything is melting away again. Luckily I found the time to make a dayhike on the Hautes Fagnes before the thaw set in, snowshoeing on the plateau and hiking on trailrunners on the snow in the Rur valley where the snow was only a thin cover. Beside a lot of people seem to have visited the area last weekend, I was breaking my own trail on virgin like snow deeper on the plateau. No single other hiker crossed my path. So I like it best.

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Snowshoeing on the Brackvenn.

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Descending to Monschau along the stream Klein Lauf.

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The Rur river upstream from Monschau.