The Magic Packraft Circle

Last weekend 19 outdoor enthusiasts gathered along the Semois river in the south of Belgium to take part in the first packrafting weekend organized by Hiking Advisor, a Flemish online social hiking medium. Willem and I were the guides on the water while Debbie was involved in all the camping related affairs. A few of us had our own packraft, while the rest of us had never touched a packraft before and now borrowed one from the European packrafting store or from Off-Trail.

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The Semois river near Lacuisine, our put in.

We had a lot of fun and the group learned what packrafting is like. For many it became clear that blowing up the raft for the first time is not so easy if you don’t know the proper technique, that putting in on a steep bank or with a fast current can use some help from another person, that it is possible to accidentally have your paddle blades reversed and that the river always asks for attention or the sooner or later you will hit a rock. The swans were also present and were not always happy with our presence now the breeding season had started. Kevin almost got a kamikaze attack on him.

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Paddling break at noon.

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Lunch.

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The Semois river from the vantage point near Roche Brulée.

At noon we put out in the forest to take a lunch break in the sun. Afterwards we hiked onto the ridge and visited a vantage point overlooking a meander of the river. Then we put in again and paddled passed the picturesque village of Chassepierre to Camping de la Semois, our stay for the night. After dinner we parroted with some strong Belgian beers at the local pub and when the pub closed its doors some of us could not get enough from the Jägermeister after party in the tipi tent.

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Let’s stick close together.

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In the pub.

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Debbie has some work to do tomorrow.

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Belgian beers for you to cheer.

Not surprisingly a few of us awoke with a heavy head the next morning, though that changed rapidly when we started paddling again in the fresh air. We amused ourselves with sticking close together and creating a long multi packraft raft. Then the idea arose to form a circle on the river with our packrafts. This didn’t look so easy to accomplish at first until Debbie found the key. Keep the butt of your neighbor further away from you! And so suddenly the magic packraft circle appeared!

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Putting in again after portage of the weir of Bois de Ste-Cécile.

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Again lunch break.

In the last kilometers on the river we had a small accident as someone accidentally ripped a long tear in the tail of its raft when hitting something sharp while coming down a weir. Everybody got worried when we saw the person fighting against getting trapped in the raft as it lost all its air. Fortunately everything went off well and the group learned to better never trust all human made obstacles in the river when packrafting.

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The magic packraft circle!

We put out eventually, folded and packed our rafts and then hiked out towards the nearest train station. The end of an enjoyable and successful packrafting weekend!

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.