After a few days of sailing on the Baltic Sea I spent a night in the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. I had Lutske with me, an inflatable Stand-Up Paddle board and new tender to Balkonia, and wanted to try and see how she would perform on some ‘long-distance’ paddling with light luggage.
I had picked a short canal between the towns of Bützow and Güstrow, aptly named the Bützow-Güstrow-Kanal, for the trial. The canal was built as part of a larger route between Berlin and the Baltic Sea at the end of the 19th century, which was – unfortunately – never finished. It is only 14 km long. The stretch I had picked for paddling was even shorter: 10km from Bützow to the historical draw bridge near Lüssow.
The canal is beautifully located and quiet. The weather was amazing. Lutske performed well. However, being new at SUP paddling, I certainly didn’t manage to release her full potential.
After 5.5 km the canal started to be quite infested with weeds which the aft fin got entangled in and subsequently slowed me down a lot. I removed it from the board. This helped with speed but not with directional stability. The experiment ended after 6 km and approx. 2 hours. In my defense, this included a few photo stops as well as two portages.
The return leg of the trip is getting even more boring. ;) I just rented a car for the last two days to get me back to Valencia. Nothing spectacular happened so I’ll just post a few pictures of the beautiful Andalusian countryside and towns I discovered on the way.
Entering Gibraltar over land is funny, as you walk (or drive) across the runway of the territory’s airport. You can see planes landing/taking off from close by if you’re lucky (or check the schedules ;)
I had planned to walk up to the summit, or at least up to the ridge of The Rock, but again the weather made me cancel my plans half way up (or so). The footpaths leading up along the cliffs where closed due to high winds and then, near Jews’ Gate Cemetery, torrential rains set in again.
In the morning I packed my bags and tried to reach the old fortress on Monte Hacho, a hill on the eastern end of the peninsula (which is really an island, as there is a connection between the northern port basin and the southern bay). On the way I came through a neighborhood with narrow streets pathways which was most lovely. My visit to the fortress was then swept away by heavy rains which set in all of a sudden.
In the afternoon I hopped on the ferry to Algeciras on mainland Spain, and took a bus to La Línea de la Concepción from there, where I found a bed for the night.
But before falling asleep I headed over to Gibraltar for an evening stroll and dinner.
An early start to catch the bus to… Chefchaouen Tetouan. I did the maths last night and realized that I won’t have time to see more of Morocco. So instead of staying in either Chefchaouen or Tetouan, in Tetouan I hopped on a Grand Taxi to the border with Ceuta.
Grand Taxis do inter-city trips and only leave when there are enough passengers. Which means that four people share the rear bench seat of the car (usually an old Mercedes) and two share the passenger front seat. This is far from comfortable.
The taxi dropped me off right in front of the border. I crossed on foot and Ceuta slash the EU greeted me with rain.
It was interesting to have a glimpse at Morocco. This short visit once more confirmed that my ‘usual’ way of travelling – by bike and far away from the touristy areas – is the best way to see a country. Immediately after arriving in Fez I was the target of the so-called faux guides. At every corner in the medina I was approached by (mostly) young men who, even if seemingly friendly at first, only wanted to sell hash. It quickly became difficult to distinguish between genuinely ‘altruistic’ approaches and ones that were pre-sale banter. Almost as quickly it became my rule to decline any approaches (in a friendly way, of course) even if I was interested in the matter. Which is a shame.
The hotel turned out to be a little nicer than I had thought last night, at least in some areas – the central patio and the stairways were beautifully tiled. However, the shared bathrooms were still extremely smelly and dirty, and my decision to leave the place asap was not shattered.
Had breakfast at a… bakery next to last night’s sandwich stand (both just holes in the wall) and was pleasantly surprised by the offer of another customer, a Moroccan lady in a group of three, to translate my order from my rusty French to Arabic for the baker.
A little later, when walking through the medina (or what I thought was the medina), another elderly guy, acting as if it was a casual encounter, recommended going this and that way to a ‘synagogue and beautiful blue houses’, then walked off. I happened to go in the same direction anyway aaand… behind the next corner he was waiting again, giving further directions. I didn’t fall for it, though, and went a different way. But while he was still talking to me another lady in his back looked at me and shook her head – no synagogue and no blue houses there, only another scam attempt ahead…
After finding the bus terminal and the real medina, and after the last drizzles finally stopped completely around noon, I decided to stay another night in Fez.
This morning I hopped on a bus to have a look at the Frontera de Farhana, the border between Melilla and the Moroccan village of Farhana. I went to that particular place because it is easily reachable by bus from the city center… For some reason I didn’t expect there to be an open border crossing, and I also didn’t expect the border’s neighborhood to be densely populated.
On the road leading to the border there was a long queue of Moroccan men, each with a bicycle or some kind of moped, packed to the brim with all kinds of wares for export. Every now and then ten or so of them were allowed to enter the border post. That made for a bit of a funny sight, as many of the vehicles had been modified to allow for more luggage. The drivers either had no seat anymore or sat on top of their cargo and had to be pushed by others.
I crossed into Morocco at Melilla’s southern end, at the Frontera Benienzar – into the village of Beni Ensar. With the help of a police officer I quickly found a bank and got a wad of cash out of the ATM, then hopped on a local bus to the city of Nador for a fee that was disproportionate to said wad of cash.
Nador didn’t look particularly interesting and I wasn’t unhappy about having not much more than an hour (which was spent in the company of a mint tea) before the train for Taourirt left. I sat in a compartment with two guys, one quite quiet, the other quite chatty. The latter’s chattiness was directed at me but he didn’t speak a single word of Spanish, French or English, and my Arabic is still very non-existent either, so the conversation was very one-sided.
The train terminated in Taourirt and I still hadn’t made up my mind whether to continue east to Oujda or west to Taza or Fez. Taourirt, for some reason, didn’t look very inviting itself (though it also didn’t look particularly unpleasant or uninviting, if that makes any sense…) so I decided to take the next train, which happened to go to Fez (and onwards to Casablanca).
Of course I had read all the travel guide warnings about being approached by people who know a good hotel, or the best shop, or who can offer a good smoke. But surely the old man who walked just ahead of me when I stepped out of the Fez railway station wasn’t one of them! And he spoke English! And knew a good hotel, and cheap it was! And worked at a (different) hotel himself! And close by! And in the medina (any city’s old city)! He must be genuinely generous to show me the way! Can’t be fake!?
He was fake. Not only was the place a shithole and too expensive, it was not even in the medina!!! However, by the time we got there it was dark and raining heavily and so I didn’t feel like looking for an alternative. And that it wasn’t in the medina… I will only find out tomorrow.
I happened to be in Spain, near Valencia. I have a week or so off of the job there and decided to travel south, to see the Spanish exclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, and also to take a short look at Morocco and Gibraltar. Once again this is going to be a comparatively ‘normal’ trip, as I don’t have a bicycle with me and am limited to public transport. Also, I don’t have as much time (a week, probably, or ten days tops) as I would like. Then why public transport, why is the guy not flying, you may ask? Because. Me no likee.
So yesterday I spent almost the entire day on the train from Valencia to Almería. While the first part is a fast(ish) one, the second leg, after a change of trains in the sleepy town of Alcázar de San Juan, takes way longer in comparison. The countryside becomes hilly and the train crawls up and down the curvy track that winds through seemingly endless olive tree plantations. Those, by themselves, are an interesting sight and I had forgotten about their dominance down here in Andalusia. From the west the low-hanging evening sun cast a special light over the hills and villages in the east with heavy black clouds in the background. Soon everything disappeared in rain and darkness.
I didn’t see much of Almería last night, but when looking back at it from the ferry this morning, it made an interesting impression – especially the mountains around it and its fortress.
Today was spent on the ferry to Melilla. It seemed almost empty.
I’m in Melilla now, a Spanish autonomous exclave in Morocco. It is known to some for its part in the refugee crisis in recent years. Being Spanish-controlled, along with Ceuta further west, politically it belongs to Europe and its border to Morocco is basically the external frontier of the EU, and the only land border between Europe and Africa. Hence it is interesting for refugees from sub-Saharan countries, but also for those from Algeria, Syria and Yemen and many other countries. The former cannot easily claim asylum in the EU and many reportedly camp (or camped) outside the border on Moroccan soil. Every now and then groups of a few hundred people try to climb the border fence and overrun the guards. However, since 2005 the EU is pumping billions of Euros into the defence and fortification of the border, both inside Melilla and Ceuta themselves as well as into Moroccan pockets.
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. Enter 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.
Today was quite a long leg so I started early, around 7am. When I left the harbor/marina 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).
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.
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 each.
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.
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 bridges and locks ahead are operated again.
We left Balkonia well moored and locked and went home for the weekend as well.
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.
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 followed 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. Lesson learned.
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.