Wadlopen, literally mud-walking, is this thing where the combination of tides and landscape off the northern coast of the Netherlands (also Germany and Denmark) are such that it’s possible to walk over the muddy ocean floor to the string of islands about 10 km off the coast. It’s not a straight shot, though. There are trenches that are quite deep and you have to know exactly where they are so you can wind your way around them. This is why it’s highly recommended to go on a professionally guided tour, and there are several companies in the area that provide this service.
I had heard about wadlopen from some friends in Groningen, and I was originally going to go with a slightly larger group, but the morning of the tour, I found out it was canceled because the water was too high – which seemed like a good enough reason to me. There was another tour scheduled the weekend my brother Patrick was going to be here, so I told him about this thing where you can walk through 10 km of mud, and he for some reason agreed that this was a good plan. Jasper, a Dutch friend from the university, also enthusiastically came along. The departure point is about an hour drive from here, so we took a Greenwheels (car-sharing company) car to get there. The first thing that surprised us was how crowded this place was. I was expecting maybe 10-20 rugged, bearded outdoorsmen milling about an otherwise empty beach in a disorganized manner. Instead, after finding a parking spot, we found maybe 100-200 people of all ages, including dogs and babies in strollers, milling about a seaside restaurant in a disorganized manner. After squeezing past the crowds, we were able to find our tour company among the several that were there so we could register and pay for the tour.
Back outside, every few minutes a throng of people would purposefully break off from the core without any announcement, and it was hard to tell if we should follow them, but after a couple of unsuccessful tries, a very large group broke off, so we followed that one and that turned out to be our group. I was somewhat puzzled that we started out back through the parking lot, directly away from the coast and the islands, but it turns out you can’t just high-step-it on a straight line to the island. As I mentioned before, you have to take a winding path to stay on higher ground and away from the trenches, so the line we followed initially took us parallel to the shore for quite a ways. First, the guide gave us a briefing in Dutch, of which I understood maybe 60%. Most of it was about the wildlife that we could expect to see, but he also gave us some pointers on technique. Now we were especially glad to have Jasper along with us to interpret any potentially life-saving tips that I might have missed. The beginning of the tour was not unlike walking through a very muddy and slippery hiking trail. It was slick and awkward enough that I was surprised not even one person in the large group fell, at least not that I saw. I should mention at this point that the babies and dogs were no longer with us, but the pack was still pretty diverse from ages 12-60 or so. And the pace was fast. I felt like the three of us were doing well, but we were struggling just to stay on the back of the 30+ person pack.
One interesting sight along the way were the lines of posts sticking into the ground in a large square grid near the shore. We were told that this is land reclamation in progress. I did not realize that the Dutch were still reclaiming land, or that all you needed to do to accomplish this was to stick a few posts in the ground. You can even see this from the google satellite view, which I think is pretty cool. I’m not sure how much more land they’re planning to claim though.
As we started to get away from the shore, the mud turned a bit lighter in color and became sandier and squishier. The texture is not easy to describe. If you stood in one place for a few seconds, you would sink in ankle-deep or so, enough that you had to pull hard to get your foot out. It was also goopy, and splattered over your clothes. We had been warned not to wear anything we were too attached to. I bought a new pair of shoes though, because I didn’t really have anything appropriate that I didn’t mind throwing out. Patrick happened to have a pair of oldish basketball shoes with him that he didn’t plan on keeping for much longer, so that worked out well. But I wasn’t the only one wearing new shoes. The website recommends wearing high-tops, preferably converse all stars for some reason, so lots of people followed this advice. I found it amusing to see so many people tie on pairs of brand new converse all stars, only to plunge them repeatedly into fishy-smelling mud.
Every once in a while we passed through shallow parts of the trenches – the deepest water we had to wade through was just above my waist. We also made stops every 30 min. As you might expect, the mudflats are scattered with oysters, crabs, mussels, and other sealife, and the guide was telling us all about them, but I was having more and more trouble understanding him, due to a combination of loud wind and fading mental focus. At one point, a Dutch girl must have overheard us speaking English because she asked us if we were from the UK. She was even more surprised to find out that we were American. Her name is Marion and it turns out she is a writer who was there to write about the experience of wadlopen for an English-language news site. She ended up staying with us for the rest of the journey, and it was fun to have her along. She even brought extra pannenkoeken (Dutch pancakes) that were very tasty and much appreciated by the hungry and unprepared Americans.
I wasn’t really keeping track of time, but after roughly 3 hours, we had reached the island. It was a relief to be on firm ground again. Before we started out, the guide told us we would arrive a good distance away from where the boat departs to take us back to the mainland, and that we had two options for getting there: walking an additional 10km, or riding a tractor-pulled trailer. As the hike went on, it was pretty obvious that we were going to choose the trailer option. First, after crossing to the far side of the island, we washed our feet and quickly changed into the dry clothes that we had brought with us, also on recommendation by the tour company. Patrick predicted a European-style public changing situation, which it very much was. Unfortunately, we must have taken just a bit too long, because the two large trailers were completely full. The driver told us he was sorry but that we would come back for us. Left with the option of sitting in the sand for however long that would take, we decided to start walking to hopefully shorten the return trip for the trailer. This did not work out exactly as planned because other groups that were stranded did not make the same choice we did. Anyway, we ended up walking something like 5 km further through a strong, sandy headwind, before we finally saw the tractor again. After riding the rest of the way down the beach, we were somewhat shocked to find out that we had to walk another 40 minutes to get to the boat. So it was definitely an exhausting day, but I think everyone enjoyed it, and it was quite the unique experience.
We didn’t really want to risk taking cameras/phones out on the mudflats, so unfortunately we do not have any pictures from this adventure, but Marion took a bunch of pictures (see her article for a much more accurate and professional account of the day’s events), and was nice enough to share them, so here are a few of hers.