For 2000 years, the Dutch have been battling the sea for control of the land. Since the first dikes were built in Friesland in the north of the country, the Dutch have slowly been reclaiming land from the North Sea. Today, approximately 27% of the Netherlands is below sea level, and much of that is the reclaimed land that has been won through determination and ingenuity. Now, although the battle wages on, the Dutch – and visitors – take time to appreciate that fragile balance between land and sea with a pastime known as wadlopen or mudflat hiking.
Mudflat hiking through the Wadden Sea in the northern province of Friesland is a fascinating way to experience nature and her enduring force. On specially guided tours, you can walk across the sand- and mudflats and their crisscrossing channels during low tide, heading out to the Frisian islands and then returning before the tide returns. Once the high tide is in, the mudflats are covered and can no longer be walked. This thrill of the risk is just one of the elements that makes wadlopen so appealing to so many people.
There are various routes that can be followed, depending on your preference and what is offered by the various tour providers. Typical destinations include Ameland, Engelsmanplaat, Schiermonnikoog, Terschelling, Simonszand and Rottumeroog.
In most instances, anyone walking out into the Wadden Sea is required to be accompanied by a licensed tour guide, because of the inherent risks involved if the proper route and timing is not followed. Additionally, properly guided tours do less damage to the coastal environment. Fortunately, there is no shortage of licensed tour companies, which include Wadloopcentrum Fryslân, Wadloopcentrum Pieterburen, and Dijkstra’s Wadlooptochten (in Dutch), just to name a few.
When you book your trip, you will receive detailed information on any clothing and other gear you may need for your walk, since you will be walking through mud, sand, and water in weather that can easily change from sunshine to rain. Wadlopen isn’t for the out-of-shape, but as long as you’re relatively healthy and fit, you should be able to manage most of the routes. Many of the tour companies list detailed descriptions of each particular tour to help you best understand what is right for you.
A typical wadlopen experience sees you starting off across the salt marshes that were created to help reclaim land and reduce coastal erosion. This area is fairly muddy, making it slightly more taxing. However, once you’ve cleared this section, you’ll be on to firmer ground. This is also where you’ll start to gain an understanding of how the sea flows in and out, as you are able to take note of the many channels that funnel the water in and out with the tides. These channels, called prielen in Dutch, meander and cross, looking like fine veins when seen from above. Occasionally, you will have to cross some of these channels, which can range from shallow to waist deep. This is yet another element that makes wadlopen so much more than just a fun walk.
At the end of the walk, depending on your destination, you will find yourself at one of the many islands ringing the mainland. Some islands can be physically reached; others are protected nature reserves that don’t allow you to fully reach them. Depending on the location, you may walk back or you may be taken back on a boat, depending on the time and tides. Fortunately, the boat ride back usually has warm drinks and offers a nice rest for mud-weary legs.
The walk isn’t just a barren, muddy plane. There are seabirds and seals, crabs and mussels, sea plants and much more to be seen along the way, and tour guides will point out sights of interest and are happy to answer questions. Many people who make the trek find it to be a tranquil and fun experience unlike almost anything else. If you’re planning a trip to the Netherlands, consider taking in a landscape short on tulips and windmills but rich in wildlife and wonder.