Last update on August 20, 2019

Our cultural blogger Graham Jackson tries out the Dutch pastime of strolling on the mudflats and finds that even a persistent sea breeze cannot dampen his enthusiasm.

With the oncoming of spring I’ve been contemplating what typical Dutch activities are on offer to enhance my experience of living in the Netherlands.  Having recently celebrated a year of residence in the country, it’s reassuring to no longer feel so constrained by the limitations of my Dutch.

Slowly, the language is becoming more and more a part of my character.  Less inhibition has made me realise that there is so much of this land that I’ve yet to explore.  Sure, I’ve seen most of what Wageningen and the surrounding Veluwe has to offer; I’ve wandered along the winding streets of Amsterdam and Delft; I’ve camped in ‘mountainous’ Limburg; I’ve learned about the history of Dutch civilisation at the Openluchtmuseum in Arnhem; I’ve seen how people still live by traditional methods in Marken.  But what are the traditional Dutch pastimes?

So far, the standout Dutch experience has been traipsing across the soggy terrain of the mudflats of the Wadden at low tide.  The beauty of protected nature reserve provides a rich backdrop to the walk; participating in the activity of wadlopen is a peaceful yet physically strenuous example of outdoor Dutch culture.  Receiving the opportunity as a birthday gift last year, my girlfriend and I incorporated the day of wadlopen into a short holiday spent discovering the northern most reaches of the Netherlands.

Wadlopers op de Waddenzee bij Pieterburen.

 Photo: Waddenzee wadlopers by Pieterburen.

The recreational side of wadlopen dates back to the early 20th century.  For those unfamiliar to this pastime, wadlopen consists of a lengthy (13km in four hours) and often demanding stroll across the mudflats – in our case it was towards the small uninhabited island of Rottumeroog.

The positioning of the coastal islands results in the emergence of vast mudflats at the lowest tide.  This provides enough time to cross over the banks of sand deposits and through the sea channels on foot and reach the islands.  The return leg is markedly easier–due to the incoming tide the group must return by boat.  This journey lasts longer than the walk itself, as the captain must carefully navigate a winding path through the narrow and shallow channels, in order to reach the port.

Walking through water

Wadlopen is definitely a full day’s expedition.  Having departed from the stately home of Menkemaborg in Uithuizen at  seven in the morning, a short bus journey later and we were standing on the bank of the foremost sea dike.  Following a brief explanation regarding what we should expect, how to keep safe and what sights to look out for, we began to head for the sea.

It’s certainly a bizarre realisation that you’re heading deliberately out into the North Sea, to walk ‘through’ the water!  What followed was a series of different terrains – from the initial sands of the beach, to the squelch of mud a foot deep and then, most of the walk spent with your feet in 10-20cm of water.  Yet we only encountered deep water on a couple of occasions and this was never any higher than up to my middle.  I had the initial impression that this was all complete madness, that there would be some troublesome challenges on the route ahead.  Of course, the walk was never too daunting and the whole occasion proved to be hugely engrossing.

Photo Flickr © BK59
Moddergat aan de Waddenzee Sommer 2008 © BK59

Walking for most of the morning without ever reaching land was a minor point of frustration.  As the wildlife on Rottumeroog is protected by law, no-one is allowed to set foot on the island.  Although this is understandable, it still left me with a sense of injustice–having walked so far without attaining a real reward for our endeavours.  There’s also very little time, upon reaching the endpoint of the walk, to truly take in your surroundings.  Yet sitting atop the boat on the return leg does provide some interesting views of the islands, and the route home ensures that you can really take in this scenery.  Most importantly, there were plenty of hot drinks on board to warm tired limbs.

The day was extremely well organised and the informative guides were open to any queries.  Group sizes can reach up to seventy people and this is perhaps too great a number.  Because of this, the guides were widely dispersed and it was not always possible to ask questions about the surrounding nature and wildlife, with which we came into contact.

“..the sound of seventy pairs of feet sloshing through the ankle-deep water…”

What is there to see? The tranquillity of the nature reserve lends a soothing tone to the adventure.  It’s a liberating experience to head straight out to sea and I can vividly recollect the events of the day –the feel of the wet sands and mud under foot (and in my boots), the sound of seventy pairs of feet sloshing through the ankle-deep water, the flocks of sea birds shimmering in the distant haze, the sight of hundreds of laborious seals bathing in the occasional bursts of strong summer sunshine.  It is a stunning location.  Once you’re soaked by walking through the first deep channel of water, you swiftly become accustomed to the cold—the temperature really isn’t too bad in the summer—and the strength of the wind should help to dry your clothes out.  Instructions about what to wear and further information about the area are all provided on booking the walk.

Free spirit

As we ventured forth after a food break, a man (who had apparently forgotten his clothes) and his dog jogged merrily out to one of the neighbouring islands, perhaps half a kilometre away to the west – the chill summer breeze pursuing them.

Photo Flickr © FaceMePLS

On the beach © FaceMePLS

I presumed that at that moment I’d encountered the very essence of the Dutch free spirit!  Complete enjoyment of the wadlopen experience is obviously dependent on the weather – we were fortunate that, although the skies overhead were ominously gloomy, it remained dry for the entirety of our journey.  Despite a persistent sea breeze beginning to dampen our spirits as the day drew to a close,  the sense of achievement, the wildlife and scenery all added up to an intriguing and fun day’s excursion.

Whatever the weather, this is a fine and unique way to discover more about the region of Groningen and its inhabitants.

Graham Jackson
British expat Graham Jackson has lived in the Netherlands since  February 2008. A budding writer, he has a passion for music, film and literature.

Photo credits: BK59FaceMePLS