Head over to the Border Park De Zoom-Kalmthoutse Heide for a rare glimpse of Flemish “wilderness”.
Located only a short car ride from Antwerp (or 20 minutes by train from Antwerp Central to Heide station), the Border Park De Zoom-Kalmthoutse Heide extends over six thousand hectares. Its combination of heaths, forests, dunes and pools makes it a great place to walk and recharge your batteries. The park is neatly bisected by the Dutch-Belgian border (hence its name), although not on an east-west axis as you would imagine. (Nothing about borders in Belgium is quite that straightforward!). Buy a map from the De Vroente visitor centre and you will see that the border lies diagonally north-west to south-east, with Flanders holding the eastern side. This means you can walk to the northernmost tip of the park where you will be still be on Flemish soil, yet will be able to gaze south over the Netherlands!
What I particularly like about the Border Park is that once you leave the visitor centre and begin to stretch your legs, you get a glimpse of “wilderness” – a rare experience in heavily populated Flanders.
Heathland takes up most of the area, and is classified as either wet or dry heath. Heather is the dominant vegetation for dry heath; bell heather for wet heath. Heathland needs to be carefully managed so that the purple moor grass doesn’t take over completely. So during your walk you will encounter friendly herds of grazing cows and sheep; they limit the growth of grass, creating suitable conditions for heather to germinate.
Thanks to reforestation, large forests can be found throughout the park, mostly of Scots pine, oak and silver birch. Again, the forests are actively managed to encourage biodiversity. Competitive exotics such as the American cherry and the rhododendron are removed in favour of indigenous species. Trees are thinned out to open up the forest canopy, promoting the spontaneous generation of the shrub layer. Dead trees are left in place to provide food and shelter for a variety of organisms.
You won’t walk far in the park without coming face to face with one of the many large pools. A key aspect of the park’s management is focused on preserving them – by closing drainage canals and controlling the ground water levels. The quality of the pools is also controlled. Surrounding conifers are cut down to prevent the soil from becoming acidic and dry. Nitrates and phosphates from surrounding agricultural land are kept out of the pools as much as possible.
In some places in the park, you will think you are at the coast, as your shoes sink into deep sand. Balanced management of the sand dunes is essential. Open dunes are encouraged because they are important for insects such as butterflies, digger wasps and bees. But unless they are protected from erosion by wind and from tramping feet, they will soon disappear. So you will see that the tops of the dunes are frequently planted with grass, and visitors are encouraged to stick to the footpaths.
A day of exploration
You might not have a full day available, but this route can easily be shortened to match your time and energy. Your starting point is the De Vroente visitor centre. Here you can buy a map, tour the nature exhibition, visit the beekeeping museum, and enjoy a coffee or snack in the café.
All the paths are clearly signposted with icons. I recommend setting off on the sheep footpath. This will take you to one of the larger pools, the Putse Moer, where you can look out for hobbies; impressive small falcons that are swift and clever enough to catch swallows and dragonflies.
Leaving the Putse Moer I was surprised to see blackened earth and charred remains of tree trunks. They are the reminder of the fire which devastated six hundred hectares of the Border Park. At the northern limit of the sheep footpath you could return to the visitor centre, or strike out north on the interconnecting footpath. This will lead you to the lizard footpath, where you will be in the heart of the Border Park, as far from the madding crowd as possible. In the spring and summer, listen out for the beautiful songs of nesting curlew, tree pipits and woodlarks. Cuckoos were also very busy in this region, going about their dastardly business. They are brood parasites; the females lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.
Don’t turn back yet! Keep going north-west and join the deer footpath. This will take you through the best of the park’s forests. I was delighted to spot four species of woodpecker here (lesser spotted, greater spotted, green and black) as well as crested tits in the pines and redstarts in the oaks. A word of warning: in the summer you may well be attacked by large and voracious mosquitoes in the damper forests. Protection or repellent is advised.
The combination of the three waymarked paths, plus the connecting footpaths, will give you a healthy 20 kilometre walk and enable you to experience the Border Park to the full.