Friday, 13 January 2017

Islands in the Waddenzee

I was woken at about midnight by sounds outside the tent.  I couldn’t figure out what was going on, half-asleep as I was.  Then I heard a clattering and clinking and I sat up and unzipped the tent.  Silhouetted against the faint glow from a light somewhere on the campsite I saw the shape of an animal, but I couldn’t be sure if it was a big animal far away or a small one nearby.  I pulled on some clothes and crawled outside to find that my cooking pots and one shoe were about ten metres from the tent. My carton of milk had disappeared and I never saw it again. In the morning I discovered that raids by the local foxes were quite common.

South of Vedersø Klit the road ran along a narrow spit of sand between the sea and Rinkøbing fjord.  The campsite owner told me that it was far more interesting, if a little further, to cycle inland right around the fjord, and I took his advice. I was glad I did, even though my hopes of finding a good cup of coffee in the fine old town of Rinkøbing were dashed. The route around the fjord followed tracks, then the road for a while, and then smaller tracks that led eventually into a nature reserve where two self-operated rope ferries carried travellers across the rivers that fed the fjord. Imported Exmoor ponies grazed the marshes and the sun reflected off the water and the white walls of distant churches beneath huge skies. The trip around the fjord is definitely worth making if you have the time.

On the path around Rinkøbing fjord

Rope ferry

The fjord

I ended the day on a quiet, friendly campsite in Nymindegab. As in every other campsite I stayed on in Denmark there was a special sink for cleaning your ‘fisk’, and there were plenty of notices telling you not to clean it elsewhere. The people I met here recommended that I should make the detour from Esbjerg to the island of Fanø.  They made it sound wonderful, so the next day I took their advice.  They also advised me that the road to Esbjerg was quiet and straight. This turned out to be true. I had a pleasant, easy ride into the city through countryside that, once again, could have been Norfolk. Wheat and barley grew in the fields; cow parsley and hawthorn in the hedgerows. Small farms hid in the trees. The only thing different was the smell of the pig farms and I have no idea why that might be.

In the outskirts of Esbjerg I started to see signs to the ‘England Ferry’, which made England seem very close, until I remembered that the Harwich-Esbjerg ferry was no more.  The last one ran at the end of September 2014, and now there isn’t a single ferry running between the UK and Scandanavia. Vast white statues look out over the sea where the ferries used to sail. Fortunately there is still a very busy service to Fanø.
"Man at the Sea" by Svend Wiig Hansen.

Esbjerg from Fano

I wasn’t sure what I thought of Fanø at first. It is very much a holiday island, low and sandy. I’d been recommended a campsite at the southern end but when I arrived it looked shut. There was another, much bigger campsite that was open, but it was very hard to attract anyone’s attention.  Finally, an old man with immense walrus moustaches and wild hair climbed off his mower.  I asked him if I could camp and he nodded and walked off, so I went and pitched my tent. It turned out that the site was huge, and mostly empty.  It had clearly seen better days and even had an indoor swimming pool, but everything was worn out. Later, I met my host trying to fix a leaky tap in the kitchen without much success.

Evening on Fano

Looking south across the Waddenzee

Being a holiday island, Fanø had very good places to eat. By the time I’d eaten my fish and drunk the red wine I was beginning to like the small town of Sønderho, so I took a day off there and spent it looking out over the vast expanses of sand, mud and water that marked the beginning of the Waddenzee. Small islands seemed to float in the distance, hovering above the sea. It was a strange optical illusion that I saw many times as I cycled south and west. I’d heard of the Waddenzee before I set out, and I knew, or thought I knew, about the Frisian islands but, as happens so often, the distances only became real when they were measured out with a bicycle wheel. By the time I reached the other end of the Waddenzee at Den Helder in the Netherlands I had cycled more than 800km around headlands and estuaries and islands. Most of that journey took place either on or behind the dyke which starts just south of Esbjerg and extends all the way to Den Helder.  Behind the dyke, most of the land is only a couple of hundred years old, won from the sea by endless labour.

Sønderho was a picture postcard place, with its thatched houses and quaint little streets, but it managed to be pleasant and friendly too, and a few hundred metres outside the village there were spectacular beaches and even more spectacular views.

Having visited one Waddenzee island I thought I’d try another one - or two.  I discovered that by crossing a causeway to Romø I could take a ferry to the German island of Sylt, and then a train back to the mainland.  It sounded like an interesting way to go, so the next day I returned to Esbjerg and headed south.  I knew almost immediately that my other gear cable was going to break, which it did, ten minutes later. The wind was behind me though, and I hoped I’d find a bike shop in Ribe.

Ribe is famous for being ‘the oldest town in Denmark’.  It had noticeably more mediaeval buildings than I’d seen together in any town so far on my trip, and it was full of parties of schoolchildren and tourists. I arrived in the main square and stood gazing at the cathedral. A man asked if I needed help, so I asked him if he knew of a bike shop.  He directed me back out of town and I found exactly the kind of bike shop I needed, bought my gear cable and went in search of coffee. The coffee was good, and the cake was interesting. I was baffled by the addition of a piece of melon and a slice of grapefruit.
Coffee and cake in Ribe

By the time I reached the causeway to Romø the wind had strengthened and it had started to rain. Somewhere around here I noticed that all the mapping information had vanished from my GPS, leaving only the turquoise line of dots that marked my track. It took me a while to realise what had happened.  I had downloaded the maps for Northern Europe and Western Europe. It hadn't occurred to me that I would need Eastern Europe too. Strangely enough, that thin turquoise line proved quite useful. I had good maps of the NSCR in this region and the trail was enough to warn me if I had strayed from the route. I don't mind getting a bit lost, but I prefer not to do it on the way in or out of towns and cities.

The small island of Romø has holiday stuff on the western shore, but I went south towards the harbour where the ferry sails to Sylt. I found a campsite next to a big hotel where the campsite check-in was in the hotel reception.  The site itself seemed half-abandoned, with outdoor shower and eating areas as well as good camp kitchens dotted around the site. It was cold, and hard to imagine anyone taking an outdoor shower. In the morning I checked out in the hotel and had to wander through a throng of breakfasting guests to find someone to return my deposit. I did wonder if I could have sneaked a breakfast.  I don’t think anyone would have noticed.

And that was the end of Denmark for me.  A five minute ride to the port and then I was aboard a very spruce German ferryboat zig-zagging through the islands of the Waddenzee to Sylt.

Maps are here: To Nymindegab; To Sønderho; To Havnby

  • There's an excellent cycle route around Rinkøbing Fjord
  • Don't leave food out, even inside your flysheet.  OK, I know it's obvious, but we've all done it! Foxes and gulls are bold and shameless thieves.
  • Did I mention this before? Replace all gear and brake cables before setting out on a long trip, and carry spares.
  • Depending on where you download maps from you may need bits of Eastern Europe.

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