Sunday, June 25, 2017

The best laid plans

The best laid plans, as I've mentioned before, are made to be altered.

Just to explain, we have started our faring adventures for this year and are going south, not north at all. Why? Well, not actually because I was a wimp about crossing the Westerschelde, but because I was even more of a wimp about the prospect of sharing the waterways with an army of small cruisers all hell-bent on gaining the next vantage point (being the best mooring spots) before they are all taken. Given that this is a national sport during the Dutch summer and we who own old and very slow barges are always at a disadvantage, it all started to sound a bit too stressful for me.

The new plan was then to go through Belgium by way of Bruges/Brugge and then take the canals that follow the coast down past Nieuwpoort and Veurne. We thought we might go to Ypres/Ieper too before slipping into France at Dunkirk and then going to Bergues, a place that's long been on our wish list. After that, we would head for Calais, and then the Somme. I was even developing this idea of writing a travelogue based on WWI history.

Well, the drought has dispensed with that plan. After a lovely day's faring in hot sunshine on Thursday, we spent the night moored below the quay of a factory at Aalter on the canal from Ghent to Bruges. It was a wonderfully peaceful spot and just up our street as we like informal moorings the best. As we were settling in a Belgian liveaboard spits cruised past us. A man waved enthusiastically and called out to us, but we couldn't see who it was or hear what he said. A few other commercials came by and all of them slowed down as they motored past us, which impressed us no end. Such kindness is always appreciated!

 The next day, Friday, we set off under blue skies and intense heat and continued on to Bruges. We were amazed at how quiet it was; in fact there were more commercial barges than cruisers. We had to wait for the bridges into the city and as one opened, the woman on the cruiser that came through called out to me: "Is that Val?" she asked. "Yes," I called back. "It's Margaret!" she waved, smiling broadly. Of course I was thrilled. Margaret is one of the lovely members of the Facebook group, Women on Barges, to which I belong. I kept waving until I couldn't see her anymore. What a special and exhilarating surprise that was. It's funny how uplifting it is to see people you've connected with on the net, even in passing.

The first day in shorts! Can't be bad

When we arrived at the Dampoortsluis, the lock in Bruges that leads into the sea canal to Ostend, we discovered why it was so quiet on the waterways. We couldn't go any further. Apparently, there isn't enough water in the canals for the locks, so they were only operating the one in Bruges for commercial barges and pleasure craft could only go through with them. Even then, we wouldn't have got further than Nieuwpoort as the waterways are much too low beyond there, so we'd have had to come back again anyway. I learnt this last piece of news from Margaret who told me later on Facebook that they'd had to turn back themselves. They'd wanted to do the same route as us. We also discovered from Facebook that the man on the spits who'd called out to us was none other than old friend, Frederic from Bruges. His barge is moored some distance beyond the lock, so we didn't get to see him, which was a real shame.

Resigned to yet another change of plan, we spent the night in Bruges and explored the town in the morning. It is a beautiful place with inner city canals and bridges that would rival any Dutch city. After a few regulation visitor snaps, we headed back to the Hennie Ha and set off back the way we'd come, this time in a chill wind with drizzle most of the way.

After three hours, we stopped again at our first night's mooring, happy to be back and away from the city noise. Again the commercial barges were kind and considerate to our little Shoe. There was even a 110 metre passenger river cruiser that was just as kind. It looked massive on this quiet and not particularly wide waterway.

On Sunday morning, we took it slowly. We've had niggles with a leaky oil cooler and water pump for some time now, and they are still requiring vigilant attention, which Koos is giving them. I did the house mouse thing and cleaned up inside before we cast off again at twelve. It was fresh and windy, but thankfully dry. A few sunny spells kept me from getting too cold as we fared back towards Ghent past calm Flemish scenery with equally calm cows lying on the banks of the canal. Then about twelve kilometres before Ghent, we turned right. South now by means of the Afleidingskanaal van de Leie. Around three o'clock, we arrived at the turning to Deinze and again decided to call it a day. Mooring up in the town centre meant we could easily access shops and caf├ęs with Wifi, something I needed to finish off a course I am still busy teaching. Still, it cost us dearly. Belgium is much more expensive than the Netherlands when it comes to having a cup of coffee on a terrace! The sun came out as we did our necessary communicating and we spent a pleasant evening pottering. Maybe we'll go further on Monday, but maybe not. We'll see. We have time and Flanders is gentle and peaceful. I'll keep you posted!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The busy life of coots

I have a fascination for water birds. I love watching the swans, ducks and coots in the harbour as they go about their busy lives. They live in a community like us only in their own parallel world and the moment I stop to just watch and stare (a bit like the watery version of smelling the roses) I become transfixed by their activities. Watching the mums teaching their chicks to feed; seeing group conflicts being resolved; laughing as they dash across the harbour after some titbit; being amazed by their swift and graceful diving skills when they disappear below the surface after a submarinated snack.

A swan family on the Canal de L'Escaut in France

At the moment, I have a coot couple as tenants on my rowing boat - or maybe I should say squatters as they didn't ask if they could occupy my property, they just moved on, built a nest and proceeded to multiply. But I love them and find them a constant source of entertainment when I'm cleaning on board.

They're pretty smart, actually. The nest is positioned in the corner at the stern of the boat, which happens to sit under the stern of my barge. They've clearly chosen this spot as it's nicely protected. When it rains, they are under cover and when it's very hot, they have some shade. The nest itself is a masterpiece of recycling, compiled as it is of bits of plastic, old packets and twigs to keep it all together.  Mr Coot spends days selecting suitable decor to bring back to his wife, often to have her reject his offerings as unsatisfactory or not in keeping with her design plan.

The Vereeniging's stern; my rowing boat's stern sits under it
The only problem arising from all this is that Ma and Pa Coot have become singularly (or maybe doubly, seeing as there are two of them) attached to their home and woe betide anyone who comes near. Mostly, it's only me, and I'm sure their possessiveness is just as much about protecting their developing family as it is about defending their nest.

The thing is I have no intention of disturbing them. It is of course very inconvenient as I can't use the boat until they've finished with it; neither can I empty it of rain water. Fortunately, it hasn't rained much in recent weeks, so it's not been a major issue yet, but I've been missing out on some fun spuddling, which has made me sigh once or twice. But despite my good intentions, Mr Coot is determined I am evil incarnate, an intruder of ill-intent, and he treats me accordingly.

Whenever I am outside, cleaning the exterior, he charges over from wherever he's been in the habour, his wings beating an angry tattoo on the water. He is all aggression, mean eyed and menacing; ready to attack my evil broom as I dip it into the water. It's too funny. He follows me around the barge and pecks at the brush fiercely when I lower it for a rinse. As for my water bucket, that is an obscenity up with which he will not put. I'm just glad I don't need to get down into the water too. I think I'd be mincemeat if I tried.

Mrs Coot is more docile, thank heavens. When she is taking a break from her nursing duties, she also follows me around, but as long as I stay away from her nest, she just observes me with mild interest. I'm sorry I will miss the babies when we go faring, but I'm sure there will be plenty of birdlife to observe along the way. Ducks, coots and water birds are part of life on rivers and canals and I can rest safe in the assumption they will be living equally fascinating lives wherever we go. I'd love to know if they quack with a different accent, though! Have a good week everyone!

Baby coot, nothing more cute!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Preparing to go

In the coming two weeks although I'm not exactly sure when, Koos and I will be setting off on another adventure. The reason I'm not certain of the departure date is that much will depend on the weather. Our aim is to head north and from there, into Germany. But that will mean crossing the mighty Westerschelde, the tidal estuary that leads from the Channel (or Het Kanaal, or La Manche, depending on who's talking) to the huge harbours of Antwerp. I will admit to being terrified of this prospect and Koos has promised me that we won't do it until it is like a millpond, which could mean waiting a while. 

Terneuzen is under the sattelite icon. We have to
head for Hanweert, a distance of about 25kms

You might well ask why I am terrified. Well, there are several reasons: one is that it is essentially the sea, with waves and currents that inevitably make me sea-sick; the second is that the last time the Hennie Ha did this crossing, the steering broke - I really dread this happening again as you might imagine; the third is that it is a very busy shipping lane and if anything, but anything, happens to Koos, I am neither licensed nor equipped to deal with such an emergency. That said, I have a deal with myself that every year I do something that scares me, so I guess this is it for this year. And it's a biggie. The photos below are of barges and ships that come from the Westerschelde through the locks at Terneuzen on their way to Ghent.

A barge entering the harbour and locks at Terneuzen from
the Westerschelde

The Westerschelde - otherwise known as the sea

Sea-going ship on the Terneuzen-Gent Canal

Tugs needed to guide the ship safely through

I love these tugs!

 I just hope there will be another smally like us doing the same crossing. It would be great to have some company of the same size! After that, we will go through the locks at Hansweert, into the Kanaal door Zuid Beverland and then into the Oosterschelde. This too is a wide water, but it is only semi-tidal as it is protected by the amazing Delta Works project, meaning that it is not a sea lane. The Oosterschelde is actually my favourite place in Zeeland. I love its mud flats, oyster beds and sea birds. It is home to wonderful wildlife and it has a feeling of remote wilderness that appeals to me immensely. We will enter it at Wemeldinge and cross over to the lock next to the name Reimerswaal. We will then follow the canal up between Brabant and Zeeland.

The Oosterschelde

Koos at the end of a jetty on the Oosterschelde

The Zeelandbrug, a five and a half kilometre bridge
over the Oosterschelde

After this will come my nemesis in the form of the Hollandsch Diep (you see where I'm going with this), the third of the wide waters and the one on which the Vereeniging broke down in 2003 and before that, Koos' Luxor was nearly driven into the rocks during my first ever trip with him. After that, I can hopefully breathe a sigh of relief as we'll be back on normal rivers and canals as we head towards Utrecht and the north.

The Hollandsch Diep - we will enter it from the canal
at the bottom left hand corner and leave it at Willemsdorp
As you might imagine, there is a part of me that would much prefer to be going south to France, and indeed, if the weather turns bad, we might do that anyway, but I love the idea of going through Utrecht, a truly beautiful Dutch city, and travelling north to Groningen, which is where the Hennie Ha, a Goningen Snik, comes from. We will then head east into Germany and see what to do then when we get there.

Much of this plan is flexible and who knows, we might end up in France anyway, but that's the beauty of living in this part of the world. The whole of  Europe is just a canal or river away. Whichever way we go, there's still a lot to prepare for and I'll be sure to keep posting! The Hennie Ha will doubtless produce a few more stories for you all!

The Hennie Ha in Belgium last summer
Have a lovely week, allemaal

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Volunteers for the summer

The first months of this year have been tough for all sorts of reasons that there's no need to go into here. Then quite apart from losing friends and seeing changes that we'd rather not have in the Oude Haven, there have also been international events that have shocked and saddened us all. I think it's enough to say I am looking forward to faring forth in a couple of weeks for a good long break. This year we aren't going to France (although a part of me wishes we could do that too); this year we are heading north and east. The original idea was to go to Poland, but I have just three months in total, more than I can really afford but less than we need (as we've now discovered). However, not long ago, we watched a film about a young couple who cruised from Poland to Amsterdam and back. It took them seven we gulped, re-grouped and made a new decision. We would still head that way, but probably stop in Germany...somewhere. In truth I'd love to go to Belgium and France again, but sometimes it's good to 'ship' out of my comfort zone!

Anyhow, what will happen at home while we are so long gone? Thankfully, I never tell anyone where the crumbly cottage is, so I hope all will be well, and I hope that my daughters will make use of it while I'm away too. That said, my garden is likely to get neglected for much of the time, so I decided not to plant my usual array of annuals this year: no begonias, no geraniums, no bizzy-lizzies (or whatever they are called). I've let my garden do its own thing this year, and guess what? It's as if it's decided to put on its own show. This climber, the name of which I've never known, has bloomed properly for the first time ever. Isn't it lovely?

And then the foxgloves are putting on a wonderful show of their own. I never know when or where they will pop up, but this year, they are adding colour to my little patch at just the right time.

When they have gone, hopefully the hollyhocks will be in bloom. Being my favourite flowers of all, I'll be sad to miss them, but I know they'll be a gorgeously colourful display - as always. 

Anyway, in anticipation of our departure, we did a test run today in lovely warm sunshine. The Hennie Ha ran well, although there are a couple of niggles that need to be sorted out before we go. Next weekend I will start preparing and stocking up ready for the journey. We'll still have to improvise with showers and washing, but that's okay. I just loved our pared-down lifestyle last year, and now I'm really looking forward to faring forth to the north. Hey, maybe that's the title of a new travelogue? Now there's a thought - perhaps not going to France won't be so bad after all :)

Have a good week everyone.