After we reach the age of eight or nine, most of us regard mud as something to step over or walk around. I considered this as I slogged across what appeared to be an endless mudflat at Noordpolderzijl, in the north of Holland. I wasn’t alone – in the mud or in the not-quite-grown-up mindset that brought me here.
Wadlopen is the sport of walking across the mudflats on Holland’s north coast at low tide, and perfectly sane and otherwise normal people do it for a hobby. And they volunteer as guides to introduce others like me to the sport.
In Your Bucket Because…
- This is the only place you can safely walk through miles of nothing but mud.
- The Wadden Sea’s unique habitat was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009.
- Good for active travelers who’ve been there, done that: they haven’t done this!
If you think that mud is mud, you’ve never been to this southern edge of the North Sea. Here, where the Wadden Sea separates the mainland from a string of barrier islands, the Dutch have almost as many words for different kinds of mud as the Inuits are said to have for snow. And I’ve walked through most of them. Why did I do this? For the same not entirely original reason as the tall, bronzed Gert Schlepers, the lead guide, who, when I asked him that same question, answered: “Because it’s there.”
UNESCO World Heritage Site
In naming the Wadden Sea a World Heritage Site, UNESCO cited it as “one of the last remaining natural, large-scale, intertidal ecosystems where natural processes continue to function largely undisturbed,” noting that it is home to harbor seal, grey seal and harbor porpoise, as well as a breeding and wintering area for up to 12 million birds annually.
The World’s Only Mud Walking
This coast has a peculiar combination of tidal depths that occur only three places in the world (the other two are in India and the Mississippi Delta). But only here have the miles and miles of mud in infinite variety become the venue for a sport.
And here I learned that mud is not mere mud. Sometimes it’s thick and dark and gooey, like a bar of Dutch chocolate left in the sun. Other times it’s wind-riffled and fine, forming a sandbar you can actually walk normally on. Elsewhere it is perfectly flat and very slippery, riddled with the tiny holes left by mollusks lurking just beneath its surface.
So Many Kinds of Mud
Just as I thought I’d psyched out this mud stuff and figured out how to walk in it, I would step into a different kind of mud. Sometimes it was a thin layer over a firm base; sometimes it was mud covered by several inches of water. Elsewhere it was thick, clay-like stuff shin-deep and grabbing my shoes insistently at every step. I quickly learned not to stand still in that kind, where my feet continued to sink as I stood. Not the place to stop and take pictures.
Along the edges, not far from the giant dike where our walk began, the mud lay in thick squares cut by a pattern of deep fissures, like the rim of a parched pond in a dry summer. It looked as though I could walk on top of it easily, but despite its parched appearance, it was like walking in firm, but wet terracotta clay.
In places the mud lay waist-deep in channels, where only those with an exaggerated sense of adventure (and clothes they never plan to wear again) go.
I’m not alone in my lunacy. Each year more than 10,000 other people travel across the polder until it ends at the barrier dike, and tromp off into the squish. And they ruin their shoes in the process.
Mud Walking Boots
The subject of mudwalking boots dominated our conversation the night before we went wadloping. We’d been told to plan on leaving them there, and not to wear low shoes, because the mud would literally suck them right off our feet. None of our group had an expendable pair at home, so each of us had set out to find the cheapest pair of hightops available, and there arose a sort of one-upmanship (or was it one-downmanship?) as we compared how little we’d paid for shoes we were planning to throw away.
I almost won with my $14.99 black plastics, but was finally underbid by a man from Calgary who paid $10. He got stuck in mud up to his waist and had to be pulled out, but that’s another story, and it had more to do with where he chose to put his boots than with the boots themselves.
Would I go mudwalking again? Yes, but only with a small group like this one, not as part of the usual 40-75 wadlopers all hollering and giggling. To me, as to Gert, who has been mudwalking for a quarter century, the appeal of Wadlopen is being out there where the horizon is a straight line of gray/blue on blue/gray all around, with only the sea, the sand, the mud and the birds — and the silence.
That, as much as anything was why I chose not to return by the deep channel route where my Canadian friend came a cropper. I saw that the quieter wadlopers were going the other way, and I looked forward to slogging along in companionable silence, with only the squawk of gulls and the steady schloop-schloop-schloop of the mud reluctantly letting go of each step.
- To go mudwalking, contact the non-profit Stichting Wadloopcentrum, Post Bus 1, Pieterburen; tel. +31 0595-528-300, firstname.lastname@example.org
The website in Dutch, but guides speak English and will respond to e-mail enquiries in English.
- Mudwalking season lasts from May through September, sometimes longer; walks are scheduled based on the tides.
- Frequent trains connect Schipol Airport and Amsterdam Central Station with Groningen (about two hours) and local buses connect Groningen and Pieterburen. Driving in the Netherlands is easy.
- For more information on travel in Northern Holland, visit www.holland.com