Going Dutch

Dirty Canals, Organic Farms and Mud Flats Offer Low-Impact Fun

Schlerrp. Schlerrp. Schlerrp.

Thigh-deep in rich brown mud, tourists in the Waddenzee note the salty tang to the air, the distant sea, and the shrieking gulls protecting a nearby nest. A guide, garbed in bright yellow, red and blue and leaning on a wooden staff, points to a nearby island where seals give birth to sleek pups.

1998 Tracey C. Rembert

These mud flats host bizarre adventures in northern Holland, in the province of Friesland. Each year, 45,000 “mudwalkers” come from every corner of the Earth to trek—for a few hours or a few days—waist-deep in the Waddenzee’s cold ooze. Terns fly overhead, as mud worms trail patterns on the soft ground and tidal secrets are explained by erudite guides. What brings tourists to the silty swells to tromp around in the mud and briny water? According to guide Gert Screpers, mudwalking, or “wadlopen” as the Dutch call it, occurs nowhere else on the planet, and tourists of all ages are eager to participate in the rare adventure that can include losing your shoes, being swooped upon by protective birds, or just falling face-down in the mud. “There are two kinds of mudwalkers: people that do it once and never come back, and people that want to come back every year,” notes Screpers.

Such is the charm and beauty of The Netherlands, where ecotourism is bringing out a bizarre sense of adventure in its visitors. While millions come for the tulips, canal rides and pristine bike trails, a growing number are seeking more outlandish destinations.
“In the summer, the mud is compact and you really have to pull your feet out,” says Wadlopen guide Hans Slag. “It becomes rubbery and tough-like shoe leather. It’s hard walking then.” Tourists don’t dare go out alone. The precipitous tide can leave mudwalkers trapped, and a number have drowned. Professional guides, like those from Stichting Wadloopcentrum Pieterburen, take groups out, and are trained in lifesaving techniques. They also impart lessons on the area’s tidal ecology and keep tourists from entering protected zones ($7.50 will buy a three-hour mudwalk; $22.50, a day tour).

“During low-tide, birds spread out and eat here in the spring. When you come by the isles on the boat, you see the seals, 1300 to 1400 of them,” adds Slag. The wadlopen season lasts from May through October, and though birds are plentiful, guides keep a short reign on wadlopers to protect the wildlife. “In many spots, these areas are protected with gates,” says Screpers.

For farm lovers, there are plenty of opportunities in the low-lying Netherlands for “farm-camping.” Scenic farms, many of them organic or biodynamic operations, offer “working vacations” where participants camp at night, and work the farms during the day—learning everything from milking cows and composting hay to collecting eggs and planting crops. At Farm de Appelhoek, near Wijdenes, camping is $8.50 per night, which includes camp site, electricity and showers. “Campers are showing more and more interest,” says Hans Geluk, of the European Center for Eco Agro Tourism (ECEAT). “We’re trying to attract attention to ecological farms, so farmers can stay in business, because it’s quite expensive and labor-intensive. Last year, we sold about 20,000 accommodation guides. Interest for ecotourism is really growing here. People are tired of tropical swimming pools and recreational parks, and want to return to their roots-to the countryside.”

And for the urban adventurer, there’s canal dredging. Amsterdam’s Water Management Department (Dienst Waterbeheer) allows pre-approved groups to accompany canal dredgers, and sometimes operate the boat’s crane, which sifts Amsterdam’s canal bottoms for abandoned bicycles, wrecked cars, shoes, building debris and whatever else might come up. “Dredgers” and on-lookers are fascinated by the crane’s findings, and contribute to cleaning up Amsterdam’s waterways at the same time. “The dredge boat picks up 90 boat wrecks per year in the canals,” says the department’s Eilard Jacobs. “Programs are also in place to renew water quality and lower pollution. Fish are increasing as we’re creating more natural habitats for them. In the canals, this is difficult, so ‘floating islands’ dot the canals. This increases green spaces, provides fish habitat and numerous bird-nesting sites.”

An island off the northwest coast that prohibits outside car traffic, Ameland takes visitors back to simpler times, where locals still race about on bikes, meander on weekend afternoons in horse and buggy or discuss politics in their well-tended gardens. The Long Dunes provide the best bird watching on the island, which abound with lapwings, oystercatchers and black-tailed godwits. On the nearby marsh, where salt and fresh water channels mix, terns, avocets, marsh harriers, wild rabbits, migrating butterflies and six species of birds of prey co-exist, to the delight of wildlife watchers.

But, if you’ve got your heart set on windmills and tulips, Holland has that too.