Oldenburg - Bremen

Today’s leg of the trip was most amazing. The total distance from Oldenburg to Bremen is approx. 57 km. Under ‘normal’ circumstances (i.e. on a canal with no current) that would be a 9.5 hour trip at 6 km/h. Now enters the tide.

I left my tight parking spot approximately an hour after high water and went down the lock onto the tidal river Hunte. The current helped immediately and the top speed on the ~23 kilometers to the confluence with the river Weser at Elsfleth was a shocking 11 km/h (compared to the usual 6 km/h).

At Elsfleth I waited for an hour for low water to pass and continued upriver on the Weser. And again, the rising tide pushed me towards Bremen with up to 11 km/h! That was somewhat unexpected for me. I arrived in Balkonia’s (new) home port after less than 8 hours of traveling.

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Surwold - Oldenburg

Today was quite a long leg so I started early, around 7am. When I left the harbor the sun was just rising and there was some low fog over the canal. Nothing too bad, visibility was still good. However that changed after a short while and especially the side of the canal not yet reached by the sun (‘my’ side) sometimes disappeared completely. I wasn’t sure whether I was in fact allowed to drive without radar… But what could I do? Stopping (and mooring) was neither possible nor allowed, so I pushed on and after a couple of hours the fog was gone.

The rest of the day was almost uneventful though beautifully relaxed cruising. Boat and engine performed well and I made it to Oldenburg lock by 4.30pm. I decided not to go down onto the river Hunte yet, and instead to leave Balkonia on the Küstenkanal over night, just above the lock, in the smallest possible parking slot ;) (almost).

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Haren (Ems) - Surwold

Exactly at 8am the bridge keepers were back at their post (the traffic light at the water side of the bridge went from off to red) and a few minutes later I was on my way through Haren. At the end of the Haren-Rütenbrock-Kanal I dropped down onto the river Ems through the Ems lock, and paid the fee of 5 € for using the canal. Then I moored just outside the lock and went to town to get some breakfast and coffee…

On the other bank the skippers of the passenger ship Amisia took some interest in Balkonia and we chatted a bit. In the end they gave me their booklet about the canals and rivers in the area, with detailed information about locks etc. Thanks! My Dutch ‘guidebook’ ends here at the Haren-Rütenbrock-Kanal.

Then it was down the river Ems. There isn’t much of a current here due to weirs and locks, and obviously no tide either. Everything went fine and near Dörpen I turned to starboard onto the Küstenkanal.

I made it to Surwold where I stopped at the local marina for the night. The harbor master gave me some hints for the next leg to Oldenburg tomorrow, and there’s supermarkets and petrol stations just around the corner.

On the Küstenkanal
Mooring in Surwold
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Stadskanaal - Haren (Ems)

After a well-deserved Sunday break I returned to Stadskanaal this morning. Luckily, Balkonia was still where we had left her on Saturday.

I called the number of the local bridge keeper (coordinator?), who told me that someone would be with me to open the next Bridge (Eurobrug) within 10 minutes. And indeed, I had just finished preparations for departure when the lights went red/green at the bridge.

From then on traveling was again a blast, along Stadskanaal, Musselkanaal, and finally Ter Apelkanaal. I was ‘handed over’ from one volunteer lock/bridge keeper to the next without delay. Unlike on Saturday, where the two bridge keepers operated all 20 or 30 bridges and locks (or more?) on Leinewijk, Kielsterdiep, and Grevelingskanaal, these guys here only did a few at a time.

Just after Ter Apel I turned into Haren-Rütenbrock-Kanal, which connects the Dutch canal network with the river Ems in Germany. It used to be part of a bigger German canal network east of the Ems, but most of those are no longer navigable (with the exception of the Ems-Vechte-Kanal a bit further south which is a dead end and not rated for Balkonia’s length anyway). Bridges here are remote controlled from the Ems lock in Haren. Sometimes the bridges were just 10 or 20 centimeters too low, but they were always opened completely and stopped traffic over it for much longer than I needed to get through. Perhaps a technical limitation?

At the outskirts of Haren I was forcefully stopped at a bridge because the lockies/bridgies had gone home for the night. Unfortunately, the only option to moor didn’t have access to the shore. Luckily I had some timber with me and built myself a bridge so I could meet my friend Andi for dinner and a beer.

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Zuidlaardermeer - Stadskanaal

We had planned to leave at 7am but only managed 7.45. The first bridge over the Leinewijk was too low but the map said this and the following bridges and locks could be passed on request in a convoy and would be operated by personnel (volunteers?) op bemande scooters. I called the phone number posted at the bridge and explained our route in English. The reply was a lengthy speech in Dutch before the other side hung up. I hoped the reply was something along the lines of “I’ll be there in a bit”, so we waited.

40 or 50 minutes later I called again and the guy was clearly on a bike or something. We got further with German than with English before and he told me he’d be there in a bit indeed. And so he was.

They (he was joined by a colleague at the first lock) then accompanied us on their scooters along the entire Leinewijk, Kielsterdiep, and Grevelingskanaal (about 15 kilometers in total – a distance that took us probably 3 hours at 6 km/h) and tirelessly opened bridge after bridge for us, many being of the manually operated swing variety. Quite an impressive service.

After their good-byes we were on the Stadskanaal, the canal, and soon had to stop at yet another low bridge. This and the following bridges could be passed in a convoy (i.e. accompanied) twice daily in low season (May and September). I phoned ahead to let the coordinator know that we’d like to take the next slot at 3pm (no other moving boats in sight all day so far) and was told that someone would be with us in time. The guy was there after only 10 minutes or so (well before 3pm) and opened the bridges until we arrived in Stadskanaal, the town. Here our journey ended for today and will be resumed on Monday when the following bridges and locks are operated again.

We left Balkonia well moored and locked and went home for the weekend as well.

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Groningen - Zuidlaardermeer

A friend of mine, Julius, was joining me today for a couple of days on this trip. I woke up to a txt from him letting me know that he’d be in Groningen at noon. So I had a leisurely morning, got some more diesel (just in case), and some helpful advice from the local harbor master, who also ‘booked’ me a passage through the various remote-controlled bridges in the city of Groningen. That is, just before my departure she phoned the control station who would then track my progress on their cameras and open the bridges upon my approach. And that worked indeed beautifully! The only time I had to wait for ~10 or 15 minutes was at a railway bridge which, of course, could only be opened when schedules allowed.

Despite the good progress I didn’t make it to the railway station in time for Julius’ arrival because the lockie of the handful of manually operated bridges in central Groningen decided to have his lunch break a quarter of an hour early (officially from 12 to 1pm). So I cycled over to the station to pick up Julius and we had lunch as well.

Exactly at 1pm the lockie was back and opened the bridge I had been stuck behind, and once it was lowered again he hopped on his bicycle and raced ahead to open the next bridge for us, and so on. Very nice service. We drove through a lot of duckweed and, once we’d left the low bridges behind, we stopped in Groningen’s Zuiderhaven to clean the engine’s water filter. It was completely clogged and water flow had almost ceased.

We then continued on the Eemskanaal and turned into Winschoterddiep to leave Groningen to the southeast. After a short while we also left the Winschoterdiep behind and turned into Drentsche Diep, a lovely winding canal river that brought us into Zuidlardermeer, which is quite a big lake. We moored on the eastern shore, at a public mooring near Meerwijck. Our map showed a bridge to a restaurant but it didn’t exist anymore. So we had to take the boat and drive over there for a beer and dinner. I need a dinghy.

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Wide Ie - Groningen

The wind had picked up a bit during the night and swung the boat closer to the shore. The anchor had held well according to the GPS, but my gut feeling told me that it had dragged a few meters. Not sure.

I left my anchorage after a morning swim and continued on the Prinses Margrietkanaal past Burgum and through the Burgumer Mar, another lake-like extensions on the canal.

On the Van Starkenborghkanaal, near Gaarkeuken and somewhat unexpectedly for me, I had to go through a lock. On my approach the lock gates were opened but the signal remained red (no entry) and a Dutch announcement was made through some speakers. I didn’t understand a word, so I veered off and made fast at a mooring a bit to the side. I went over to the lock’s control tower where I met a very friendly official who explained that I had to give way to the two big cargo ships that were also approaching the lock. I could then enter last. I went back to the boat and was back at the lock gate when the last of the cargo ships had just went in, but I went in a little too early and they almost squashed me against the lock’s wall when their stern suddenly swerved off towards my side of the lock. I just managed to avoid a collision by going backwards.
The lock took me up a whopping 40 cm.

Coming through Zuidhorn next, I decided to stop to get some fuel. I still had plenty but wanted to play it safe and get an extra jerrycan filled. I knew that mooring on the side of the canal was forbidden here but I saw someone else park their boat on the side of the canal and figured it would be ok for a short stop. I got the diesel from a petrol station near by, then went to town on the bike for some quick lunch. When I came back half an hour later I saw something big and neon-yellow approach my boat – Rijkswaterstaat! (Not exactly water police, but still official maintainers of the Dutch waterways.) Oh crap.

I went back quickly, unsuccessfully hoping they’d go past, composed myself, and stepped on board of Balkonia where an officer was already waiting. I explained the situation (need moa deezel!) and the very friendly officers let me get away with a gentle warning. Had I come back any later they’d have towed the boat away, they said. Phew! They also gave me some tips for the route after Groningen.
The other boat moored a few hundred meters back was less lucky. The Rijkswaterstaat ship was still stopped next to them when I lost sight of them driving away.

On the approach to Groningen I turned off the Van Starkenborghkanaal at Dorkwerdersluis (lock) and went into Reitdiep. I stopped at Reitdiephaven at the edge of Groningen for the night.

I had not gone through many locks before on any boat, and never done any single-handedly, but they turned out to be easily manageable.

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Franeker - Wide Ie

So I happen to have a boat that goes by the name of Balkonia. It needed to be transported from Franeker, in the Friesland province of the Netherlands, to Bremen, Germany. Since both places are located at some kind of waterway the obvious mode of transport is to cruise her along the Dutch and German canals and rivers. The total distance is about 300 km, and the top speed will be 6 km/h.

The day of departure had been delayed by some technical problems but today everything was solved and fixed and I finally set sail left Franeker at 2pm, short-handed (on my own).

The route goes mostly in an eastish direction, first following the Van Harinxmakanaal to Leeuwarden. On an earlier attempt last week we had moored in the city for one night, but today I sped past with still a few hours of sunlight left.

A few kilometers after joining the Prinses Margrietkanaal I decided to anchor in the Wide Ie, a lake-like extension on the canal, near the shore and well away from the navigation channel of the canal. Earlier in the afternoon I had seen another ship anchor in the middle of a lake so I figured doing so would be ok.

The cruising had been easy today. All bridges were high enough for my little boat and there were no locks. That is going to change tomorrow.
I was still a bit stressed over those problems that delayed my departure, but that is slowly fading away.

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Hiking in Andorra

I happen to be in the French Pyrenees for some hiking with friends. Due to some knee trouble I decided to chicken out and let the others finish the hike on our planned route. I, on the other hand, took train and bus to Andorra yesterday, that tiny landlocked country between Spain and France, to have a look at it and try my luck with a day hike without backpack.

So today I left Pas de la Casa to the north to follow the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP), a hiking trail along the entire length of the Pyrenees, for a few hours. It took me an hour to climb out of the valley and leave the noise of the city behind. ‘City’ is a bit of a euphemism here. There are three things prevalent in Pas de la Casa: hotels, duty-free shops, and ski resorts.

Anyway, from then on it was beautiful walking over grassy slopes and the occasional scaling of a hill’s summit (e.g. Pic de Maià, 2615m). The HRP was joined by La Volta a Andorra, a circular trail around Andorra, and I followed both for a while, not without coming across the occasional marmot. Before the trails separated again they led me into a most beautiful valley, that of the Riu Siscaro. I can’t describe it in words, and the photos won’t do it justice either. The same goes for the following traverse, to the valley of the Riu de Juclar. They looked almost wild and unspoilt, except that the nearest road and settlement was never more than 1 or 2 kilometers away, of course.

Near the latter river’s source (?) is a refugi at an artificial lake, Estany Primer de Juclar, that I briefly visited before heading down along the Riu de Juclar towards Andorra’s main road.

Though impoverished until the 1950s, from what is left of old architecture and roads, Andorra must have been an amazing-looking country. Tourism brought money but spoiled the beauty. Quite a catch 22, eh?

Walked: 18.5km or so

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The End

I’m taking trains through Denmark today and I’ll sleep in my own bed tonight.

A pretty cool trip, if pretty expensive. Trains in western Europe are not exactly cheap, especially if not pre-booked. It is also slightly annoying to be limited by few connections per day, or even weekly or no connections at all, like in the Baltics and Belarus. Of course, buses to the rescue, if you’re into that mode of transport (I’m not, and they’re not necessarily cheaper).
I don’t think I’ll travel like this again.

The robbery in Minsk and yesterday’s experience in Sweden make for good stories to laugh about.

However, taking the bike – best decision ever. It adds so much mobility that’d simply be impossible to be had otherwise. Yes, it made things more difficult sometimes, but it was well worth the hassle.

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"Don't argue with me, I'm a female!" (Stockholm - Göteborg - Frederikshavn)

The nice thing about traveling by ferry with a bike is that usually I am the first to board and the first to leave.

So I had solid Swedish soil under my tyres and sped to the train station. I got a ticket for the last available seat on the X2000 to Malmö, took the bike apart (Hello Belarus!), and left Stockholm less than an hour after arriving there.

Then I had the chance to re-rank both Sweden and Belarus in terms of bike-friendliness and conductress-friendliness: The conductress, upon entering the car to check the tickets, got quite upset about the bike.

She said bikes were forbidden to be taken on board, unless taken apart and wrapped. I had asked in Stockholm when buying the ticket and had received an OK. She said that by buying a ticket I had agreed to SJ’s (the train company) terms of service, which state the wrapping is required. That is not entirely correct, because nobody had even shown me their terms of service, of course. She cut me off mid-sentence. She said that the bike was a safety hazard in case we had an accident. I pointed out that neither did I want to be hit by any of my fellow travelers’ hard-top cases. Tucking the bike in some corner or locking it to a spare table (for wheelchair users; none aboard) wasn’t an option for her either.

Conductress: “My highest priority is safety, safety, safety, safety. Next is that the train is on time. Service is very very low.”
Her words.

“Yes, I noticed.”

Then the discussion took a most unpleasant turn:

Conductress: “Would you argue with somebody else?”
“Err, yes, of course.”
“Would you argue with a police officer?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Or are you arguing with me because I am a female?”


“Are you making it more difficult for me because I’m a foreigner?” Unfortunately, I didn’t say this.

To make it clear again, I was ‘arguing’ because I had paid 750 Swedish kronor (~80 Euros) for a valid ticket, and I had checked in Stockholm whether taking the bike like this was ok. Now she tells me I have to leave the train and buy a new ticket if I manage to wrap the bike and take the next train. So I am losing both time and money. Instead of killing the conversation with such a ridiculous kill-all question she could have offered a solution. Because, is that really the standard we have reached in society? Do I have to obey every female now simply because they’re a female? This is a stupid and dangerous development.

Well, I had to leave the train at Norrköping, somewhere between the middle of nowhere and the end of the world (i.e., not far from Stockholm). When I was about to disembark, people came forward and apologized for the hassle. One suggested I throw the bike away to be able to continue traveling. Yes, thank you, I see you fully understood the problem.

What is wrong with this country? There are numerous cycle tourists traveling in Sweden every year, and it is impossible to quickly take a bike on a train??? Even a proper folding bicycle has to be wrapped in a ‘protective case’, whatever that is and whoever or whatever it is supposed to protect. And what’s with the weird attitude?

I was unable to find a suitable cardboard box in the sleepy town of Norrköping at 8.30 in the morning. It is also impossible to take bikes on SJ’s regional trains. So the only option was the bus. This is how I got to Göteborg, fortunately a port city with frequent ferry connections to Denmark. The original plan had been to be home tonight. I scratched that.

Well, I apologize to Belarus and all Belarusians for previously calling their country the most bike-unfriendly one. Sweden just took over that title with flying colors. And it is also the first country where I have been confronted with this new social mis-development of weirdly misguided feminism, even though I am sure society is just as f*cked up in other places as well.

I did get a full refund of the train ticket in Göteborg thanks to SJ’s unfriendly but fair José. However, that still leaves me with an additional ferry crossing and hotel to pay for, an additional day of traveling, and a lot of annoyance.

I feel like avoiding Sweden in the future, I am so fed up. But I guess that will go away after a good night’s sleep. I’ll avoid SJ for sure, though.

Göteborg is nice nonetheless.

I’ve crossed the Kattegat already and am in Frederikshavn, northern Denmark, now.

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Helsinki - Turku (- Stockholm)

Sunday morning in Helsinki… let me just say that Sunday morning coffee/café culture leaves a lot to be desired. :)

I went bouldering at Kiipeilyareena. They claim to have the highest rope climbing walls in Scandinavia, and indeed do they have some high walls! There are multiple storeys/levels, kind of stacked on top of each other, and there is one sector with a number of routes which cover the entire height. They also have some fancy auto-belay system installed on some routes that lets you climb without a partner. The bouldering area is not very big and almost all walls have overhangs, something I’m not too fond of. Also, there were quite a few children and beginners there who didn’t pay much attention to the simplest of rules: don’t walk under other climbers, and share the routes. Overall the experience was mixed.

Train to Turku in the afternoon, which is a pretty town.

I’m on the ferry to Stockholm now. The trip is almost over.

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Ivalo - Rovaniemi (- Helsinki)

The past week I spent at my friends’ place near Ivalo. All the grand plans of going on long skiing tours on Lake Inari and camping somewhere on the ice were drowned by the warmth and coziness of their place. Short trips had to suffice.

The weather was mild, just a few degrees Celsius below zero.
Interestingly, between the top-most layer of snow and the frozen lake, a layer of unfrozen water develops. This makes things very interesting when taking the snowmobile off of the established tracks, where ice and snow are very compacted. It also makes walking difficult, skiing is the best mode of transport. Cycling (with narrow tyres) didn’t work at all. Surprise. surprise.

And I saw my first northern lights. Amazing. Photographing them was a bit of a challenge and I’m not overly happy with the results.

Today I took the bus to Rovaniemi and am now on the beloved night train to Helsinki.

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Tallinn - Helsinki (- Ivalo)

Taro, owner of the hostel I stayed at in Tallinn, had the grand idea to send a letter to his 94-year old grandmother not by ordinary mail, but by other people. I am happy to be The First Bearer Of The Book, as it were, a notebook that contains the letter to his grandma, and into which every future Bearer can add their own page full of greetings, stories, or whatever, before passing it on to the next person who will hopefully carry it closer towards Japan.
It is made of a recycled book, see below, maybe you come across it one day. The title aptly translates to “Affections. Scenes of Time and People”.

Interestingly, I also started to draw after an interesting discussion which raised the question whether everybody could be an artist.

After the ferry to Helsinki today, I am now on the night train to Rovaniemi – the first on this trip that was supposed to be about bouldering and night trains.
I’ll be in Ivalo tomorrow, where I’ll stay with my friends for a few days.

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Tallinn's Paljassaare & the Ministry of Climbing

Spent the day out in the ‘countryside’, on Paljassaare peninsula at the northeastern end of Tallinn’s Bay. There are some old military structures there, and some can be accessed, but those I found/looked at weren’t very spectacular. There is a lot of snow there but cycling went well on footpaths with somewhat compacted snow and ice. It was a lot of fun actually.

In the evening I went to the Ministry of Climbing, one of the climbing gyms in Tallinn. It’s been more than a week that I last went bouldering (Minsk!). Ronimisministeerium is pretty cool. It’s not very big but the space is used well and the walls are laid out in quite an interesting fashion. The site is some kind of old factory (my wild guess).

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