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Wadden Sea, the Netherlands. Get Ready for an Adventurous Walk

Wadden Sea, the Netherlands. Get Ready for an Adventurous Walk
Wad Walk 2012

A unique area in the North of the Netherlands and Germany is the Wadden Sea. The Wadden Sea is an unusual type of nature and shines on the Unesco’s World Heritage list.

The area is essential for a lot of birds, seals and aquatic plants and is very vulnerable. That became all too clear in 2019 when the ship MSC Zoë sank North of the Wadden Sea, the Netherlands, and a lot of plastic and consumer products ended up in the sea and on the islands.

The Wad Walk of 2019 (I explain what a Wad Walk is later on) was dedicated to cleaning up part of the sea shore of Wadden island Schiermonnikoog. But the effects of this environmental disaster are not clear yet.

An unexpected adventure

Wadden 1996, Tom and one of the guides
1996, Tom and one of the guides

My 43rd birthday was nearly my last one. As I slowly sank into the Wadden Sea I saw in my mind a tombstone with twice the same day and month on it. Funny how the mind works at a time like that.

I wasn’t the only one in trouble, our guide who had a 20-kilo backpack to attend to, had a hard time as well swimming against the waves. A friend rescued him. My husband rescued me, the doll.

This happened on my first Wad Walk and it didn’t stop me from going back year after year to this beautiful part of the Netherlands.

Mudflat hiking, we call it the Wad Walk

Wadden: walking on water

In 1996 one of our friends asked us to come along on a tour of mudflat hiking. We were going to walk from the coast of Groningen to Schiermonnikoog. And we really called it a Wad Walk, in English, although this is not the proper name, because of our friend’s English wife.

Our group of 20 joined the regular commercial tour to Simonszand, a sandbank between the islands Schiermonnikoog and Rottumerplaat, from where we would go on with our own two guides.

At one point we would cross the fairway by boat. The rest of the walk was supposed to be a piece of cake.

Clean basketball shoes
The best footwear is basketball shoes because they are tied above your ankles
Muddy business
You will not stay clean for a long time
Resting while getting instrcutions
On some tours the first 500m is sucking mud that is difficult to get through

Nature’s own will, you’d better be careful

Usually the purpose of Mudflat hiking is to keep your feet in touch with the sea bottom at all times. You might go chest deep through a gully but swimming is out of the question.

That weekend it was spring tide with a northwestern wind coming in. Two factors that pushed the water with great force from the North Sea into the Wadden Sea. On top of that we left late so the tide was against us.

After we were transferred by the boat and walked in the direction of the island, we suddenly encountered another deep gully. We didn’t mind and wanted to swim to the other side, but the guide Mark was against it because of the regulations.

He tried time and again to feel how deep the gully was with his stick, making us lose several more precious minutes in which the water kept flowing in.

My belongings on my head

Eventually the guide had to give in and we were preparing to swim. Most of our belongings were in a plastic bag in the backpack and I was going to hold my sweater and my brand new camera on top of my head.

I am a good swimmer, but at one point I felt everything sliding from my head and I was really afraid my new camera was going under and would be lost. That’s why I forgot how to swim and began to sink to the bottom.

Those were exhilarating minutes, but I survived!

How to behave on the Wad

Should you ever have the possibility of going on a Mudflat Hikingtour don’t let this story prevent you from going. It is absolutely great and an amazing experience.

Walking on water, who doesn’t want to do that?

You are not allowed on the Wad on your own, only accompanied by a certified guide. Tours are from April until October and individuals can participate. A group consists of a maximum of 150 participants.

The rules are simple:

  • Never go on the mudflat on your own;
  • Alcohol and mudflat hiking do not mix;
  • Always strictly adhere to the directions of the mudflat walking guides;
  • Pack valuables such as watches, wallets and cameras waterproof;
  • Do not leave waste in nature! Mudflat walking is a nature-friendly sport;
  • Participants must have a minimum heigth of 1,40 m;
  • Provide warm and windproof outer clothing;
  • Bring something to eat and drink with you during the mudflat walking tour;
  • On sunny wading days, coat your face and arms with water-resistant sunscreen;
  • Dogs cannot join the mudflats!

Can everyone do this?

It’s not required that you are a top athlete, but you do need a certain amount of stamina. Most tours will be around 3 hours of walking with some rest included. Resting means ‘not walking’, there are no benches on the mudflat. 🙂

With the boat trips and the waiting you’ll be on your feet for around 8 hours.

I have a couple of experience based tips for you:

  • Waterproof packing is best done with a garbage bag in your backpack;
  • Wear high basketball shoes that can be tied well enough around your ankles;
  • Wear a swimming suit instead of underwear;
  • Except in high summer, the outside temperature in the Netherlands can be cool. So on the mudflats in only your bathing suit is not recommended. Sweaters and jackets do not get wet (officially) and keep you nice and warm. For pants, I recommend wearing three-quarter tight quick-drying sports pants.

Occupants of the Wad

We didn’t see any seals that first year. There had been a disease among the seal population and lots of them had died.

In Pieterburen is a seal crèche and thanks to the good care of those people the seals are back nowadays in large numbers.

2012, just when you think mud is awful, it turns out Beach grass and Salicornia is just as difficult
2015, our tours were different every time
Because we always went in September we rarely had sunny weather

When Mark read my story he send me this:

We walked to Simonszand and were on the west side of the eilanderbalg transferred by the Noordster. We were dropped on the eastern part of Schiermonnikoog, the Balg. 
NorthWest wind was Beaufort 6. 

This meant that the Noordster was wobbling enormously. Skipper was the 16-year old son of the usual skipper. Our group walked westward on the Balg and after half an hour we came to a deep gully running through Schiermonnikoog. 

Because of the NW-wind the water was heavily pushed up into that trench. My information from other guides was that you could easily walk through that canal. In hindsight you can conclude that information was not accurate, and it certainly was not accurate at that moment. My lesson was not to trust information that I hadn’t explored myself first. 

After a few attempts trying to find a way to walk to the other side we decided to swim. We had to get over that gully somehow. I was relieved everybody knew how to swim.
 

My backpack was on my stomach and I swam on my back to the other side. But the backpack was getting heavier and heavier soaking up water and pushed me underwater more and more. Someone in the group that made it to the other side came back to help me.

Mark, on the left. The red stick is the guide’s tool

Eventually everyone arrived in the village Schiermonnikoog safely. It is still the talk of the town and called the ‘mother of all trips’!
 What struck me immediately after the swimming was that some participants were ecstatic that I had planned it this way and that they really had to swim. 

At the same time it had scared the shit out of me. 

I have been a guide for 48 years on the mudflats. And I’ve had three really anxious and life-threatening moments.
 

Today, nothing unexpected happens anymore, everything is so regulated. But if I am talking with the older guides, we all have stories like that. It has made us good guides. We have faced danger and we survived.

My addition to Mark’s words

It is true that most of our friends were delighted we had to swim that year (that never happened again on any of the later tours we did).

But one was furious. As if everything went wrong especially to bully him. As soon as we got to the other bank, he stamped away and didn’t want anything to do with us anymore. He walked alone to the island Schiermonnikoog. That night he even went to sleep somewhere else and left the next day with the earliest boat from Schiermonnikoog.

Oh well.

What do you think?

Would mudflat hiking be anything to your liking? Tell me in the comment box.

12 thoughts on “Wadden Sea, the Netherlands. Get Ready for an Adventurous Walk”

  1. Hi Hannie.

    Well, I can definitely say that mudflat hiking would be my sort of thing.

    I love the great outdoors, I don’t mind getting dirty and wet, and I love a bit of adventure (but not too adventurous mind).

    With that said, I’m not the strongest swimmer in the world, and I’m pretty sure if I would’ve gone through the same experience as you did on your first Wad Walk in 1996, I’m not sure I would still be here (Tom to the rescue or otherwise).

    Nevertheless, this looks like great fun, something that’s extremely exhilirating, and certainly an adventure story you could talk about for years to come.

    I was going to call it a “once-in-a-lifetime adventure”, but it appears you have the Wad Walking bug and this is now a regular thing for you.

    It sounds awesome, plus Mark’s story over the years added even more excitement to the Wad Walk for me.

    I’m in, when are we going? LOL.

    Partha

    Reply
    • For the last years we haven’t joined the yearly WadWalk, Partha, because we now live in Spain. And this year it clearly was cancelled because of the virus. But yes, we were certainly infected by the Wadden-virus while we were in the Netherlands. 🙂

      I surely would guess you are someone who would like this. And I’ll warn you if they are organizing their walk next year September. Whenever you are in the Netherlands on a different time, you can always join a regular tour, which will be between April and October.

      We always went in September, because the water still has an agreeable temperature. In April and May the sea still is cold. June, July and August are too crowded. And October is a bad month in the Netherlands, weatherwise. Although we too rarely walked on sunny days. The weather certainly is nothing compared to the weather over here 😀

      Reply
  2. Now that sounds like a great adventure. I would definitely love to go on a “Wad walk”. It sounds very similar to something we have here in New Brunswick, Canada. The southern shore of New Brunswick is on the coast of the Bay of Fundy which is world-renowned for the “world’s highest tides”. There is a place called “Hopewell Rocks” where when the tide is out you can walk on the ocean floor. It is quite an experience. When the tide is in you see plenty of islands with various vegetation growing. When the tide is out the islands look like flowerpots and wit is quite amazing to be walking on the red mud of the sea bed. If you google it you will see pics. Anyways I want to try this “Wad walk” once international travel is safe again. Take care.

    Reply
    • OH wow, Deb, this place Hopewell Rocks looks amazing! Very different from the Wadden, which adds to the charm of course. Do those rocks ever top over? I know from that place in Australia – the 12 apostles – that occasionally one comes down. And these Hopewell rocks sure look like they are top-heavy.

      It reminds me of the Enchanted City near Cuenca. There is no more water in sight, but the forms of the rocks is similar. Definitely a place you can add to your list. As well as Cuenca itself by the way. Which reminds me I can write a great article about this topic. 😉

      Reply
  3. I’m planning a long-term trip across Europe and was looking for cool things to do in the Netherlands 🙂 You gave me an awesome idea here! I’ve never heard of Wad Walk, but I’m more than interested in joining the group and doing this at least once. It seems like a ton of fun and quite amazing actually. Thanks a lot for sharing this post!

    Reply
    • I definitely have more ideas for you then, Ivan. Touristy or off the beaten track.
      The WadWalk definitely is fun, because it is so extraordinary. There are of course similar places in the rest of the world, but I have always felt special during these walks. The nature, even this flat and mostly under water, is impressive and calming at the same time.

      Reply
  4. Hi, Hannie,

    Oh, no! I can just imagine what it was like! I’ve never been close to drowning, but I can imagine the desperation one feels.

    The mudflat hike sounds like an interesting activity to do. I’m not a fan of hiking, especially the mountains, but I think this is something I could try.

    I imagine you leave early in the morning and come back in the afternoon? Is it a one-day thing, or can it last more time?

    Oh, and the poor guide lol! It’s not easy being in charge of a group. I know from experience.

    Thanks for sharing those funny anecdotes.

    Reply
    • If you don’t like hiking, you might not like this either, Enrique. It is at times really tough to walk through the sucking mud or wade through kneedeep water. It might seem very flat, but don’t underestimate the required effort. 🙂

      It is a one-day event. We made it more days, but that was divergent from the regular tours. Usually you will walk to an island or a sand plate in the sea, picked up by a boat and brought back to the coast of the main land.

      Our group of friends always made the island Schiermonnikoog our finishing point and booked a hotel there or slept in a camping shed. So we could have dinner together on Saturday evening and on Sunday we would roam the island by bike or on foot with a lunch picknick.

      The departure time for the tours depends on the tide. There have been years we couldn’t leave before 1pm or even 2pm. Other years we had to get up very early to be there in time.

      Reply
  5. Hi Hannie!
    This is a really breathtaking post, wow! Yes, you survived a very scared moment, you are brave! I swimm pretty well, but I don’t know how I would behave in that situation. But despite of this, I would go to such adventure for sure! I didn’t know about Wadden sea at all, and this is such a discovery for me. In what city does the tour begin? Or is it available from different places? I have been in the Netherlands on the North Sea coast only and it was wonderful. How much is the coast of the tour?
    Thank you for sharing your story!
    Alex

    Reply
    • Hi Alex, it’s highly unusual you have to swim on a Wadden tour, so don’t worry. Most tours are offered in Pieterburen. This is a small village in the county Groningen, where also the Seal Creche is housed.

      To be honest, I have never looked what a regular tour costs. Since we always went with our group of friends, one of them would arrange for everything together with guide Mark. The whole weekend would cost us about 150-200€ each. Prices will differ each year, I suppose, so the best thing is to look at the website of Pieterburen and contact them.

      There are arrangements from the tourist offices as well that will include more activities. But if you only want the walk and nothing else I would contact the ‘Wadloopcentrum’ Pieterburen directly.

      Reply
  6. Hi Hannie,

    What a great adventure! I heard of the Wadden Sea and its famous wad walks. Never experienced it myself though. My partner and I love to go on a hike. So I think this would be a nice way to spend our vacation.

    Is it necessary to have a good condition? I can imagine it’s still a whole other thing than forest walking…
    Thanks for sharing!

    Wish you all the best,
    Catherine.

    Reply
    • Hi Catherine. You don’t have to be an athlete, but a certain level of condition is a plus. That first time we went, we had to struggle through sucking mud for the first 500 meters. 500m doesn’t sound like a lot, but once the mud comes to your knees it is necessary to keep on moving or you’re stuck. One of the participants of the regular tour didn’t have the best of conditions and was pretty overweight. She had such a hard time.

      It was such a pity that after 450 meters she decided she wanted to go back. One of the guides accompanied her back to the coast and caught up with us later. But in reality it meant she had to wade through 900m of mud, and since the rest of the tour wasn’t that difficult, it would have been better if she had done the last 50m as well. The guides did tell her that, but she didn’t believe them.

      Reply

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