Sunday, July 29, 2018

Toasting in Thuin

To follow on from my last post, we spent two very pleasant nights in the Thieu Port de Plaisance, a relaxing stay that was much needed on my part. Unlike many boaters who like to pile on the kilometres, I find it quite tiring and love spending a few days in one place. That way we can explore the area too and find many hidden gems we wouldn't otherwise have discovered. However, with Thieu, it was more a case of taking trips down memory lane and I found it quite an emotional stay as well as enjoying it thoroughly. The last time we were here was when our dog, Sindy, was still alive and all my memories of this beautiful area are bound up with walks we did with her.

On Saturday, the 21st, however, we decided the marina costs were a bit high to spend a third night, so we left Thieu with a last look at the old lifts at 09:30 and made our way down the lock and out onto the big Canal du Centre. Going down was much smoother than going up, I have to say. There were no problems or frayed nerves as this time we knew what to expect. Within minutes, we were in sight of the great Strépy Thieu lift, and with a green light ahead of us, we could go straight in to the left caisson. This was the moment I'd been waiting for and I felt like a child going to the fair for the first time. Much to our surprise, we recognised one of the other occupants of the caisson (there were only three of us). The Dawn Marie was a cruiser we'd met on the Canal de Roubaix last year and her New Zealander owners greeted us warmly. They told us they were heading for the other great engineering marvel, the Inclined Plane at Ronquières, but I'm afraid they probably didn't make it as we'd heard it was closed for repairs to a leaking caisson. It sounded from what we'd been told that there'd been quite a nasty accident, but nothing we've read since has confirmed this.

Anyway, back to the lift, it was all over in record time and we had risen the full 73,1 metres in what seemed like a few minutes. It was an amazing sensation to be rising so fast and so high and I took as many photos as I could as well as a short film clip, so I'll have to see if I can publish that when we get back to civilisation again. To see the doors opening at the top and to motor out at such a high level over the aqueduct that connects the lift to the main canal again was such an experience. The view is breathtaking and of course, the weather was perfect.

On that note, (as I've mentioned before) it has been incredibly hot for most of this trip and this past week has topped everything and seen us wilting in temperatures of between 35 and 38 degrees. I love the heat, but when there is no shade to be had at the moorings, it can be tough to cope with being in a steel box with no air conditioning.

By Saturday night, we were on the southern side of Charleroi at a free mooring in Marchienne au Pont. The pontoon was good and we had no trouble or interference, but it's a sorry area; very run down and dilapidated with a sad air of hopelessness. I was afraid we'd be stuck in Charleroi itself, which has no good reputation, but we managed to get through all the locks and make it to this spot on the Sambre. We shared the mooring with another family on a cruiser. I don't think they even left their boat, such was the lack of appeal in the environs.

On Sunday, we started off up the Sambre and after the first lock, the only commercial sized one on this section, we found what we'd been looking for. The Sambre is absolutely stunning. It winds its way through steep banks of the most beautiful woodland trees and scenery and every kilometre was a feast for the eyes.  We spent a very hot night in the attractive town of Landelies, but fortunately the Port there had a lovely shady picnic area beneath some tall trees. The following day, we continued along this truly magical river to marvellous, historic Thuin, where we have been ever since; the reason being I made a quick dash back to the Netherlands to fetch a visitor of the four-footed variety, but more on that next time. I think Thuin deserves a post all of its own; it's such a special place.

I'd love to post more photos, but that will have to wait until WiFi connections are possible. I'm especially sorry there are no photos of the lift yet. I don't exactly know where they are on my camera, but I'll post some soon. For now, from a very warm and sultry Sambre, have a great week allemaal!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Hit by the heat on the Hennie H

Firstly, my apologies for not keeping up with comments or answering questions. This holiday, we decided we would avoid the internet as much as possible as we wasted so much time last year looking for hotspots. I must say it’s been much more relaxed in that sense. We’ve both been reading a lot and Koos has been practising his guitar. I keep meaning to start learning my Ukulele chords, but haven’t got round to it yet; nor have I done any writing, which I promised myself I would do. I have one excuse... the heat. It really has been blistering and much of the time we have been moored up, we have been trying to find ways of keeping cool. One solution has been to buy a heap of old white cotton sheets from a local charity shop and cover all our windows with them. It helps a bit, especially when we spray them with cold water. The temperature inside is just under 30 degrees instead of the 34 that it is outside!

Anyhow, since last Sunday (that means ten days ago, not three), we have completed our trip up the Dender and the Blaton-Ath Canal. What a lovely waterway it is. Imtimate and very pretty. What amazed us, however, was the difference when we crossed the language border into Wallonia. On the one hand, the service stepped up a couple of notches: we had a whole team of lock assistants helping us through, all with uniform T shirts although the French being thus, they each had their own style. On the other, we had the waterway virtually to ourselves. Gone was the struggle to find a mooring and we had perfect spots in both Chièvres (Lock 15) and Ath, complete with electricity and water, and at the former there was even a shower. We paid just €5 for the night there and nothing at Ath as the Capitainerie was not open, so our lock keeper, whom I dubbed Gerard (he was a shoe-in for Gerard Depardieu if ever I saw one) shrugged and smiled and that was that. On the subject of Gerard, he really was a character and told us with great pride about his beautiful Russian wife who could speak 5 languages and was a complete Francophile. When he first met her, he was bowled over to find she knew more about his history and culture than he did. A lock keeper with a difference for sure. One of the other lock keepers on the Blaton-Ath section sported a ponytail and blue-lensed mirror glasses, while his colleague wore a straw Fedora and had a cigarette perpetually hanging from his lips as he zoomed between the locks on a moped. As I said, their own style. We spent the last night on the canal in the penultimate lock, whose gate refused to close. By 8:15 the next morning, it was fixed by the official electrician who probably just flicked a switch, officially of course, and off we went down the last two locks. I must say, the locks on the whole canal were easy for us. Very regular and not too tumultuous. I liked that.

After leaving the Blaton-Ath, we moved out onto the big highway canal, the grand gabarit as the French call it, but not for long. For years, I’ve wanted to go by boat to Pommeroeul, to the disused lock that I wrote about here. It only took us thirty minutes or so to reach it, and there we stopped for a couple of precious hours. It was largely deserted and we walked around in the hot sunshine enjoying the space, the open vistas and the peace. We chatted to the security man/lock keeper who watches over the lock and serves any commercials who want water. His was a sad story. He suffers from glaucoma and can no longer do the more responsible security jobs, so he works here. We found him collecting up litter. He was bemoaning the lack of rain; everything was so dry, he said, that not even the bees could get nectar from the flowers. A lock keeper with an environmental soul. He was right, though. The ground is parched, the grass is simply brown and the wild flowers are shrivelled. We walked to the other side of the lock and I was astonished to see how deep the drop is on that side. I’d never noticed it before, but it must be at least 10 metres.

The next leg of our journey took us through two big locks to our destination for the night. In fact, it was the destination of the whole trip for me because we finally arrived at Strépy Thieu, at the great boat lift that I’ve been longing to go through for years. But I think I’ll write about that in my next blog or this one will go on forever. Needless to say it was with a big smile that we approached the final lock of the day into the marina. However, the grins were short-lived as we couldn’t figure out how to go through it. The automatic rod that operates the system is so far from the entrance we didn’t see it. I’d been up through the brambles, scratched myself silly and watched the last official driving away from the office before going back and finding that a camper on the quay had shown Koos where to find it. Then we managed to push it the wrong way, so by the time we got into the lock, our tempers were collectively frayed. Of course, the lock held its own challenges. It was deep, there were only bollards on the ladders and they were too far apart, or at least that’s what we thought. At last we were up and through and found our way into the marina. We were greeted with shouts that there was no room, but the harbour master, a kindly Englishman, directed us to what has always been our dream spot. We had to moor up alongside a rather neglected looking empty barge, but it was at the back of the marina where we had always wanted to be. He was relieved that we were happy, so it was with revived smiles that we tied up, settled down and finished what had probably been our longest day so far.

More soon allemaal. I’ll catch up with you all when I can but forgive my absence these weeks. We really have no internet on board at all. Bliss!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Faring in Belgium again!

The faring has begun and today we’ve arrived in Geraardsbergen on the Dender river in Belgium. It’s the last town in Flanders and tomorrow we will be in Wallonia, the French speaking area of Belgium so I will be able to stop struggling with the Flemish accent and switch to struggling with French...haha. It’s been a lovely trip so far. We had a bit of excitement when we left Gent. We’d noticed the cooling system on the Hennie Ha had been acting up, so when we were in the first lock taking us onto the tidal Schelde river on Friday morning, Koos decided to investigate the water pump impeller, a part with a known limited life. Luckily we had a spare, because it transpired the old one was in a bad way, a VERY bad way. Still replacing it in the lock was a bit nerve wracking and he didn’t finish in time, so we had to pull ourselves out of the lock and tie up to the wall until The job was done. That also meant we missed much of our advantage on the ebb tide. We’d wanted to leave at 7:30, but the lock in Gent didn’t open until 8:30 (owing to the Gent festival) and then we had to sit in the big lock onto the river until 10:30 while a huge passenger boat filled with water; hence Koos’ decision to change the impeller. High tide was at 8:30 and we only got going at 11:00. Luckily, the current helped us do the 33kms to Dendermonde in 2,5 hours (normally, it would take us about 4hours to do that on a canal) and we arrived at the lowest of low water). I was fascinated to see the mud flats and banks. They looked as if they’s been sculpted into shape by a huge pallet knife. It was also interesting to see there were no ducks or coots on this tidal section; only seagulls. How do they know? I shall have to look this up!

Geraardsbergen Square, where I’m drinking coffee as I post this blog

The first lock on the Dender is massive. It’s 168m long and very wide. We were the only ones going through. I expected to see huge 2000 tonne barges on the other side, but there was nothing — not a thing anywhere. It was also interesting to see the different water lines on the lock wall. If the tide is very high, the farer will go down to the Dender on the other side; there is a distinct high water mark on the lock wall, but it was quite dry. Normal tide is visibly at the normal level of the river and then there is the low tide mark. Because of the dry weather, we did not rise very high even though we were there at low water, but at high tide on the Schelde, we would probably have gone down to the Dender a bit, even though we were heading upstream. We spent our first night at Aalst at a gorgeous free mooring that announced ‘For a chat and a smile, you can stay for a while’. It was lovely and very peaceful. The river is too beautiful, and is picturesque in a typically Flemish pastoral way. There are reeds, bushes, wild flowers and trees along the banks, and the coots and ducks were back. The baby coots were just adorable scooting along after their mums. They haven’t yet got the hang of walking on water, so seeing them hurry after their mothers was both funny and sweet. The next day, we headed further upstream through Aalst to Ninove. We did all the locks and several low bridges with an English couple and a German couple on their cruisers. It wasn’t very comfortable in the locks as it was a tight fit for the three of us. The German man was a really boys’ own type and while he was cheerfully yelling commands to his long suffering wife, Koos was yelling at me too. What with the noise from the lock gates, the pouring water and the general cacophony, neither of us could really hear what our respective skippers were saying, so we just turned to each other and shrugged. A nice bit of cross cultural connection.

At Ninove, there was nowhere for Koos and I to moor up, so we had to find a shady bank with some trees to fasten our lines to. There really was nothing else to be done. Sadly this also meant there was nowhere to go. Ninove is not the most appealing place in Belgium, so we stayed on board. I read while Koos played his guitar with his brand new birthday amp. On reflection, it was probably as well that we weren’t at a real mooring. This morning, we started late. The cooling still leaks and there are another few leaks that are niggling, but even after trying to fix those, we still left before anyone else. We suspected they might have been nursing hangovers celebrating or commiserating over the football. I’m sad England lost the game, but happy for Belgium that they won. 

The river to Geraardsbergen is, if anything, even more beautiful. It winds its way theough stunning scenery and we saw real hills for the first time too. What a gorgeous stretch of country this is. We’ve done three locks and a bridge with delightful lockkeepers to help us and are now moored up at an informal spot...once again, no room for us at the inn. Still we are in the shade of some trees; there is a path nearby; we are comfortable and at rest. Have a great week, allemaal!

Our informal mooring today in Geraardsbergen

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Interim musings

What a strange week this has been with all the furore over the World Cup. Then there's Wimbledon and the Formula 1 as well. I don't know about you but I am not much of a sports fan although I've always enjoyed motor racing and I just love cricket (of course). Despite this, I haven't been able to avoid being caught up in the tension over the football and also the F1 championships which I used to follow quite closely, but less so these days.

The thing I don't get is how so many people are critics first. People can be so mean about their own sides and the sportsmen and women they follow. If they could do better, why aren't they out there doing it themselves? How about being an encourager and not a destroyer?

I was so pleased for Belgium that they got to the WC semi-finals. What a great achievement for a small country. They played so bravely, and it's such a shame they lost to big brother next door, France, but they did an amazing job. And as for England, I am listening to the match now and it doesn't sound hopeful for the land of my birth, but heck, they made it this far which is further than they've done in close on thirty years. Well done guys!! I, like thousands of others, am thrilled for what you have done even if you don't make it any further.

All the same, the whole competition has seen some major upsets, which has made it quite interesting for a non football fan like me.

Then when it comes to motor racing, it seems that the top drivers can never do anything right. Lewis Hamilton is either 'too nice to be real' or a 'bad loser'; the press have a go at him whatever he does. The same goes for Max Verstappen, the young Dutch driver. He's a real go-getter for sure, but isn't that what you're supposed to be at that level? The media never seem to give him a break and I find that a real shame.

Lastly, there's Wimbledon, which has been a bit submerged by all this World Cup fever, but even there I hear some upsets have occurred and Roger Federer lost to a South African player I've never heard of before. Who would have expected that? Still, Mr Federer's had an amazingly good innings (sorry for mixing my sporting metaphors) and it's great to see someone else coming up.

Well it will all be over soon and we can get back to normal life again; in other words, I can go back to my boats and my cricket again, but I'm going to hold on to that 'encouragement' idea. I think there's far too little of it about these days. Whatever makes people smile and gives them a lift is surely more rewarding for all concerned, isn't it?

On a more local note, we've had quite a busy week socially too. Last weekend was my elder daughter's birthday celebration. We had a great family gathering at her house and a delicious vegan meal. Of course, the 'boys' had to watch the football.

Here they are watching whatever match it was on a smart
phone...modern life!
Meanwhile, we girls made our own fun. My younger daughter took photos of the birthday girl and me making silly faces....well, what else can you do when everyone else is glued to a tiny screen?

I might be a bit more rare in my blogging appearances than usual in the coming weeks; it's fair weather, so it's faring weather, but whatever you all are doing, have a great summer/winter allemaal. I will be here, but just a little more sporadically.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Oily bits are best and I now officially have an OM

My view from the crumbly cottage. I'm missing it1
It's been a strange seven days. Yes, I know that's a week, but I always think of a week as being Monday to Sunday. You'll notice, though, that this post is a bit late and my seven days have run from Wednesday to Wednesday...oh dear, why am I rabbiting on about this? Well, the thing is, our routine is all upside down. Normally, I spend the week days in Rotterdam on the Vereeniging and the weekends in the crumbly cottage, but last week, Koos was also in Rotterdam and we stayed for the weekend as it was his birthday...the big seven oh.

A happy Koos with his birthday gift
A small amplifier for making a big noise!
Rock on Koos!

But to back track, while he was here, we did a very good deed that turned out to be a very dirty job. I don't know if I've mentioned before that the Vereeniging had the dreaded diesel bug? Well, for anyone who doesn't know what this is, it's a bacterial infection that the modern bio-diesels get if they've been sitting a long time and condensation has occurred in the tank. It seems this creates an ideal breeding ground for the most horrible fungal growth and it gets into the systems and ultimately stops the engine from running. It can be quite catastrophic.

Well having solved this problem and had the engine running again, we still noticed that it smoked too much, so I'd asked our favourite diesel man to look at it. His first suggestion was that we take it out, get it to his workshop and let him overhaul it. As you might imagine, I was not so eager, mentally seeing the euros skyrocketing at just the process of removing and replacing the motor, let alone the costs of overhauling it. He must have heard my alarm bells clanging (or else saw the look of frozen horror on my face) because he then relented and suggested we first change the oil and use V-Power diesel (a sort of super fuel that apparently burns more cleanly) and just go faring to see what happened.

A not very clear photo, but you can get an idea

Now, owing to the fact we haven't really been anywhere in the Vereeniging since this engine was installed, I confess we've never changed the oil. I know, I know, but with only a few hours running time, why should it have needed it? But oh my! Was it ever necessary! For those not interested in oily bits, you might want to skip this bit; I actually found it fascinating.

My engine doesn't have a sump plug for draining the oil; it has its own hand pump which unfortunately wasn't working as the rubber gasket that creates the suction had perished. After spending a morning trying to find one, we ended up making our own, and that was the first major achievement. A real thumbs up woohoo feeling that we'd creatively overcome such an obstacle.

With the oil out, Koos then opened up the side cover on the engine to remove the filter. That was our second shock. The gauze of the filter was completely blocked with muck and the only reason it had worked at all was down to the holes in it. Awful. There was also a thick layer of black sludge at the bottom of the block. What a horrible mess! I was amazed the motor had run at all and very glad we hadn't tried faring anywhere. No wonder it smoked so much.

Koos, bless him, cleaned out all the ghastly gunk from the bottom while I cleaned the filter with turps. We then bought some new steel gauze to replace the old and put everything back in place. With about six litres of fresh new oil, we got the engine running again, and were delighted to see the amount of smoke was massively reduced. Now we just have to try the super V-Power diesel on a trip out and see if that eliminates it altogether. Go us...or something like that! We are at least significantly closer to that dream trip to Utrecht.

Anyway, that was before the weekend, and then on Saturday, we celebrated Koos' other achievement (that of reaching 70, which is quite something) with family and friends at our favourite Rotterdam pub. I can now officially call him my old man, or OM as social media would have it. It was a lovely, cheerful and happy occasion.

Some guests found it all too tiring
Our intention was to head down to the crumbly cottage on Sunday, but when we arrived home after the party, the car refused to start. On Sunday morning, it still refused, so we called the ANWB (the Dutch road rescue service) who obligingly came and diagnosed a fuel pump problem. They towed the poor old Opel to the garage for us, but of course it meant we couldn't leave and we've been in Rotterdam since. I must admit, it feels like ages, even though it's only Wednesday. I'm so used to my weekends in the country, this has upset my body clock as effectively as jet lag. What's more, this coming Saturday is my daughter's birthday celebration, so we will be here another weekend to compound the strangeness.

Missing my garden too

Never mind, it will all get back to normal again soon, I suppose, but then of course, we'll be off faring to France...

Here we are on the Vereeniging, though. From the inside looking out

Have a good week allemaal. Enjoy this glorious weather we're having...long may it last!