he Wadden Sea Ecosphere is a living, breathing, pulsating interrelated dynamic
of nature, politics, geography history and commerce. To call it a sea is almost
generous because at low tide you can traverse from the mainland to the islands
on foot – albeit a wet, muddy one. In any case, the ecosphere is not just the
sea, but also includes islands and mainland. The Frisian Islands are an archipelago
strung along the coast of north west Europe, guarding The Netherlands, Germany
and Denmark but belonging only to themselves, even though they are linked to
the mainland by channels, gullies ferries and the sea itself. Each has its
own dialect and cultural traditions; its own way of seeing the world, with
eyes tied to the horizon, searching for early signs of the storms that thunder
across the North Sea.
The Wadden Sea Ecosphere is a constantly changing, impermanent environment;
fickle, fearsome and frivolous in turn. Tidal currents either batter the
land ferociously or tease it beguilingly; removing entire islands or sneakily
moving the sea-lanes from where they used to be. The reason for this chimerical
complexity is the fact that the whole area is a river delta, wrested from
its natural state by human hands that built dykes and dwelling mounds. But
those who live there can never rest entirely securely because every now and
then the area explodes in a maelstrom of wind and rain, as violent in the
air as it is in the sea. Islands move constantly – and sometimes disappear
entirely. In 1287 the island of Griend was flooded and all but a handful
of houses disappeared. By 1720, there was only one house left and nowadays
it’s simply a sandbank where thousands of birds find sanctuary. It is no
longer an island. In fact, all the Frisian Islands are constantly being reshaped
and relocated. Rottumeroog, an island in the
mouth of the river Ems is on its way out, or rather on its way into the Ems
where it will disappear entirely. In 1965 there was still a Shipwreck Master
living there, but now the Government has abandoned efforts to save it, regardless
of its colourful history.
On the map above, after the first island on the left (Texel, which is
part of North Holland) the next four in order are Terschelling Ameland, Vlieland,
and Schiermonnikoog, the islands that “belong” to the provincial area of current
day Fryslân. For the mainlanders, these are holiday islands, the idyllic destinations
of summer ferry trips with school or family groups. Each August they are filled
with Frisian, Dutch, German and Danish holiday makers, who see the islands
as eco-refuges, primed for camping. They come to watch the seals and birds,
and each other, to wander through the charmingly and deliberately quaint villages,
to cycle along the many miles of paths that wind through wooded glades, empty
beaches and quintessential farmlands that you can find on each of the four
islands – and on the other islands in the chain.
All the islands have wonderfully rich histories, but nothing more stimulating
to the imagination than the wonderfully named Sea-Beggars, the loosely united
maritime resistance to the Spanish Occupation in the sixteenth century. Called
geuzen (geux in French means beggars) by the advisors to Countess Margaretha
van Parma to belittle them, they eventually terrorized their way to victory
in the 80 Year War. In the way of these things, the leader of the emancipatory
forces, William of Orange later distanced himself from their guerrilla tactics
when he was crowned king of the United Dutch Provinces. Those of the brotherhood
of resistance who sailed (the water-geuzen) often used the Frisian Islands,
including Rottumeroog, as safe areas. For every Frisian school-boy, the Sea-Beggars
were far more exciting than any buccaneer or pirate because they had a noble
cause: to overthrow the repressive yoke of Spanish Imperialism. Go, the Sea-B’s!
The ferry leaves from the handsome port of Holwerd. My Australian-born daughter
and I board to pursue an acculturation tour of her father’s ancestral domain.
Along with other family members and a sizeable hoard of tourists, we head
off to Ameland. It’s one of the places where I went as a boy on school outings,
a simple, inconsequential fact that allowed the trip to become a quest, an
odyssey, a pilgrimage of sorts. Both father and daughter have a propensity
to imbue the mundane with unwarranted but satisfyingly mystical importance.
As Adam Savage puts it: we reject your reality and substitute our own.
The island of Ameland is a giant tadpole, 27 kilometers long, with an
8K diameter head and a long tapering tail to the east. There are four towns;
from west to east they are Hollum, Ballum, Nes (where the ferry lands) and
Buren. The southern side, the underbelly is mostly farmland; the northern side
is one long beach with impressive dunes, marked off at every kilometer with
a numbered beach pole. The tip of the tail – from Het Oerd to De Hon is a sandy
nature reserve. The Google Earth photo below clearly shows the water channels,
the beaches, the woodlands and towns; not to mention the tadpole-ness of the
By any stretch of the imagination it is a beautiful place, and it is little
wonder that it is so popular. For the Frisians on the mainland, the island
is how Fryslân used to be, before the Hollanders moved in, either openly
through migration or surreptitiously through their Media. Funnily enough,
that’s what the Hollanders think about Fryslân too: quaintly backwards. The
islanders speak Frisian – of a sort, anyway. In summer, one mostly hears
Dutch, German and English, but many of the shops and restaurants have a sticker
on the door to indicate that Frisian is spoken there. Maybe it’s just a tourist
ploy – we didn’t hear it spoken anywhere.
All Frisians know and love their islands – even if it is only vicariously.
As children, everyone in our family devoured Cor de Bruijn’s novel Sil de strandjutter (Sil the Beachcomber). It tells the story of a farmer on Terschelling called
Sil, who dares to question God for taking away his new born baby girl shortly
after she was born. The vengeful, harsh God responds by making Sil’s wife,
Jaak, unable to bear him any more children, let alone the longed-for daughter
to complement his two sons, Wietse and Jelle. We loved the book because these
were names and attitudes we knew. And the beautiful drawings by Anton Pieck
filled in any gaps we had.
In the middle of a thunderously black night, Sil is called to a brig in
trouble at sea: a storm is raging and those on board obviously don’t know what
to do. Sil and a knot of other farmers peer into the rain and wind through
slitted eyelids and watch helplessly as the life boat is stupidly lowered into
the raging seas on the seaward side of the ship. On the one hand, the farmers
know that any jetsam that washes up on the beach is theirs, but on the other
no one wants to watch people drown.
They know all too well how pitiless the sea is when she rages.
The soul of every man on the beach is whipped by both the wind and an indescribable
sorrow as they stand on the wet barren sand, swathed in an empathetic helplessness.
Impotence courses angrily through their veins. Some of them stride, pushed
by the wanting to do something, determinedly up to their waists into the
sea. They come back drenched but no one notices. In this whirlpool of the
elements they are all wet and the cold has cut them to the bone. In their
fling a passionate, fervent plea up to the Heavens, whilst with their bodies
they wave furiously but it makes no difference. (Translation: A. Onsman)
That was Terschelling in the nineteenth century, and this is Ameland in the
twenty-first. It’s daylight and there is no storm. The sun is pleasantly
warm and the breeze is deliciously cool on our skins. The clan hires bikes
with the intention of circumnavigating the island. With twists, turns and
exploratory forages, it will be about 60 kilometers, which isn’t too bad
for a day’s pedaling in this kind of weather. First we fill the fuel tanks
with iced chocolates – which seemed like a good idea at the time. Then we
were off, a cluster of bikes on dykes; a family convoy on a mission of discovery.
Starting at Nes, in the middle of the island, we coast through the farmlands
that lie to the west, to Ballum in the head of the tadpole. We chose to avoid
the main road so that we can, whilst we still have the energy, have a look
around at the various farmhouses. Farming was ever subsistence at best, often
augmented by fishing, beach-combing and sea-faring. We won’t mention smuggling
because all Frisians are upstanding, God-fearing people who would never think
of breaking the law. The onset of tourism has been the great reviver. Eco-tourism
resorts have sprung up all over the island. I wish I could bring my daughter
here in winter – even in the chilliest of weather there continues a steady
trickle of mainlanders, determined to get away from it all. In winter, when
the freezing winds howl down from the Artic circle, forcing hands into pockets
and heads into up-turned collars, there are few people on the northern beach.
We’d walk without being able to talk over the wind, and that’s often the best
way to experience nature together. As it is we shout to each other over the handlebars of rented
bikes. It’s another great way to talk.
Although there are some beautiful old farmhouses, dating back to the 17th,
18th and 19th centuries (at least that’s what the wrought iron numbers built
into their walls suggest), most of the houses in the towns aren’t very old.
Nonetheless they still look interesting and somehow “islandish”. We peak down
driveways as we float past, seeking a glimpse of real life and finding the
ordinary to be fascinating. On holiday, having time to spend, we decide that
what the people do is worth a look. As the moving circus of rubber-necking
tourists flows past, the farmers get on with things. The cows don’t seem to
care at all, chewing their cud and fulfilling their function in the landscape.
It is a beautiful day.
All the family members in this little caravan today speak English so that
my daughter doesn’t feel excluded. I listen, fascinated by both the things
they want to know about her and the things she wants to know about them. Mostly
she asks about me, when I was growing up, to verify the tales I’ve spun about
an idyllic childhood of long summers spent with an army of siblings, cousins
and friends. They don’t disappoint: their embellishments make mine sound tame.
This is the other journey she is on. She makes plans to return, to come and
stay as requested. She accuses her father of not bothering to teach her Dutch
or Frisian. She pushes her bike into the slight headwind. She ties the various
elements together into her own roadmap. She is a member of this family.
The first rest stop is at the lighthouse. It sticks up at the far west
of the island like a barber shop pole, literally and figuratively a beacon
for the home coming sailors. It was built in 1881 out of cast iron and is a
bit over 55 meters high, with the actual light sitting on top of that. It doesn’t
have a name like the famous Brandaris on Terschelling, but the locals do call
it Bornrif, after the sand plate that splits the strait between the two islands.
The lighthouse isn’t open to the public very often: in fact it is seldom manned
these days. But even around the base you get a good view of the ocean, the
woodlands, the dunes and town depending on which way you look. The road, de
oranjeweg, will take you past the lighthouse and onto the beach. It’s great,
windswept expanse of sand, sea and a horizon for beyond the sight of an ordinary
man. In Fryslân, there is a skyscape more magnificent than a landscape. On
the island, there is also a seascape. Leaning onto beach pole number 2, all
three conspire to make you feel small and vulnerable. It puts a quietness into your soul.
Unlike the manic rides of the lycra-clad latte-drinking weekenders in the
cities of the world, cycling on Ameland is non-competitive. Racing only
to the end more quickly, which entirely defeats the purpose: on the island
the aim is to get the bikes back to the shed and stroll onto the ferry
minutes before it leaves. There is no gain beyond moving in a relaxed manner
wheels. For no reason that makes any sense, my daughter and I decide that
we have to visit beach poles number 11 and 22. As we cycle along we agree
that these are especially important poles, possessing magical powers and
attracting obvious treasures. The others have no idea what we are on about
but humour us anyway, as if we are children or guests, even though we are
At beach pole 11 we find the first treasure. It stretches out past infinity:
a calm, gun-barrel grey ocean which centuries ago brought the raiders from
the North. Having paid their respects on the Holy Island, they beached their
long boats here, waiting for a chance to attack and plunder the mainland. The
Viking attacks were galling to the Frisians, who considered themselves children
of the same gods.
The Frisian farmers never spoke about their beliefs: they
mocked the stories of the cross and the kneeling humility. And therefore
it was a raw wound to
Wierd and his mates that year after year the Danish sea-pirates in their
small, dragon-shaped, red-sailed boats chose to invade this small corner
of the world
with their fire and iron swords … Woden’s children fighting Woden’s children.
They always came without warning, flung onto the coast by the northern winds,
muffled by the sound of the summer waves, a ruddy, freckled, green-eyed folk,
screaming loudly as they raped and pillaged, draining the blood from the
cattle, and laughing as they left the wounded to die on bloodied ground. (Theun de
Vries, Het Geslacht Wiarda. Translated by A. Onsman).
We stand on the Swan Water Dunes and scan the horizon but there are no
Vikings to be seen anywhere. Behind us is a picture perfect nature reserve
with sandy paths through a verdant growth of trees and bushes. Who would argue
that this is not a treasure?
Coincidentally, one of my cousins who joined us on this trip lives in
Camminghaburen, a suburb of Leeuwarden, the Frisian capital. From the 800s
the Cammingha family were the lords of the island. In the war between Fryslân
and Holland in the 14th century, Ameland was recognised as neutral. Later,
during the war between the Netherlands and England in the mid 17th century,
Cromwell acknowledged that Ameland was not involved. The Camminghas were resident
in Ballum but their castle fell into disuse during the 17th century and its
materials were re-cycled elsewhere on the island by 1830. Despite their desire
to keep their noses out of other people’s business, the Second World War insisted
the Amelanders get involved. The German army landed in 1940 and stayed until
after the official cease fire in 1945, mainly because the Allies didn’t consider
it worth liberating. We reckon that the German soldiers stationed here wouldn’t
have minded too much.
By the time we get to beach pole 22, we are getting saddle sore. Strolling
over the dunes onto the beach at the far end of the tadpole, more seagulls
than could be counted screech and squak their opposition to our intrusion. We have nothing to give them: no chips, crumbs or crusts. Fortunately they
don’t have any eyebrows to raise quizzically at our insouciance. We walk to
the other side of the island, barely a kilometer south, to the viewing platform.
Looking back towards the mainland we can see Holwerd in the distance and an
abundance of seals, birds and windsurfers in between.
With a little more than 10 kilometers to pedal to return to the bike rental
place, we can afford to spend a little time playing Lawrence of Arabia on the
sands of Het Oerd. Then we cycle slowly back to Nes, where we return the bikes
and treat ourselves to more hot chocolate and coffee, and declare that we have
well and truly squeezed everything out of the day that we could. The combination
of sea air, free time, exercise and beautiful countryside emphasise the fulfillingness
of family, the pervasive happiness that comes from being with those who love
you unconditionally. We agree that the second treasure, found at beach pole
22, was the best yet. Frisians may be argumentative and dour, but blood is
thicker than water.
Then it is time to get back onto the ferry, to go home, the mini-odyssey
over for the time being. There are only so many treasures you can collect in