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Alone on the Waddenzee: the Netherlands by bike

I never thought it would be possible – to be alone, entirely alone on the Waddenzee. Having dismounted from my bicycle, I stood on the northern dyke of Friesland in the Netherlands, looking out over the sea towards the Wadden Islands. Not a boat was in sight. After a few moments I looked landwards, down into the fields and realised no one was there either, not even a village in the distance. How was this possible in a tiny country with almost 20 million people? I had always imagined that the Netherlands would be full of people wherever one went, much like China where people feel comfortable in the presence of human breath. But no, here I was, entirely alone. I drank in the feel of the place, holding on for a little longer before setting off on my bike once again.

It was the second day of two weeks of cycling the length, breadth and depth of my ancestral home back in 2004. Finally free, I had bought a new bicycle, a fold-up tourer, and arrived by train in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands. From there I rode long, long days, often more than 100 kms, running until the last light at about 10 pm. Beginning in the north, I left Groningen and criss-crossed the country for the next two weeks.

Daily Rhythm
After a few days on a bicycle, a rhythm develops and life becomes extraordinarily simple. Soon you wonder at a world full of clutter and crap, when all you need is what can be put in a pannier. Each night I slept long and hard, dead to the world as my body recovered from the day’s ride. The morning began with a huge breakfast. I could never eat enough: pancakes (pannenkoeken), breads, cheeses, chocolate hail (or shavings), buttermilk, rusks and more, much more. At any other moment in life I would have raced to 150 kilos in no time, a vast blob on a fold-up bicycle, my seat disappearing into my arse.

Dutch food doesn’t quite have the mix of art and simplicity that one finds in, say, China, but it is the result of a long history of making the most of what is available, along with a few obvious traces of the Dutch Empire, when it had colonies in Indonesia, India and parts of South America. For example, Indonesian food, adapted in its own way to Dutch conditions, is a staple. And these items have become so much a part of Dutch food that you could grow up believing they were quintessentially Dutch. Which is precisely what I did in Australia: as a child I had come to believe that fried rice my mother cooked was a traditional Dutch dish and that the spices in speculaas (a delicious biscuit) were grown in the Netherlands.

But on my ride other, more traditional foods turned up, especially the ubiquitous fish, often grilled or fried and plied with a sauce. Of course the bitter pickled herring, the rolmops, are a standard, particularly since they formed the basis of the wealth that led to the impossible expansion of the empire. Even now the outcome of that wealth may be seen in the neat villages and houses, the well-developed welfare system and the absence of vast swathes of poverty. Other humble items of Dutch cuisine brought back the intimate tastes and textures of my childhood: gehaktbalen, or meatballs, prepared and cooked in a bewildering variety; often large and spiced, one gehaktbal is a meal unto itself. Oliebalen, or ‘oil balls’, a standard at my grandparents, are simply balls of flavoured flour fried in fat or oil. But the karnemelk (buttermilk), cheeses and breads are enough to make you cry. Far better than ordinary milk, a litre of buttermilk is enough to keep you pedalling for hours, and the breads are heavy and full, hardly needing spreads to make them edible as in so many other places. The cheeses? Without the slaughter of bacteria that takes place with pasteurisation, cheese is allowed to develop as it should – full of taste and texture. Although I must admit that the cheese factories are another story.

When I was visiting Gouda, a festival of cheese was underway, centred on the old factory in the middle of town. Free samples were aplenty, handed out by well-endowed women and men in traditional costume. But when I pedalled out of town I caught an almighty stink on the wind. What the hell is that? Soon enough the immaculate stainless steal tanks of the real cheese factory came into view. No wonder it is out of town, I thought.

After breakfast, a smoke or three followed (yes, I did smoke the whole way, a legacy from a stressful year) while I checked my bike over – very carefully. Tyre pressures, spoke conditions, clean chain, oil, a wipe down with a rag. The bicycle was my steed and needed the love and care any rider should show his mount – a rub down at the end of the ride and a careful check in the morning.

Panniers loaded and I was off. The first feeling was as though sinking into a worn and very comfortable easy chair? A bike seat like an arm chair? Some time ago I had acquired a Brooks leather saddle. People constantly asked me whether it wasn’t too hard, whether I shouldn’t get one of those gel jobs, cushioned in those crucial sensitive places. Not at all, since the leather saddle moulds to your bum shape, fitting snugly into all those points, hollows and strange curves.

Warming up, I stretched fingers, arms, shoulders and back, while my legs began the next ten thousand revolutions. And I saw the country as only those on a bicycle know how – intimately, slowly, full of smells, sights and sounds. I could ride where no car, train, bus or plane could go, experience those quite corners that always draw me in. There were moments of deep historical significance, like when I crossed the Rhine for the first time. Appropriately it was by a tiny passenger ferry and not some massive bridge. As I boarded I felt like Caesar crossing the Rhine on his way north. But as soon as I set foot on the other side I was busting for a crap, so I had to scramble to find a quiet corner behind some bushes (public toilets are very few) and leave my own historic marker.

I followed the Overland routes (Landesfietsrouten), the green ones on the map that went for hundreds of kilometres through the length and breadth of the Netherlands. With no specific plan for my ride, I would opt to pick up another Overland route should I feel like it, decide to head in another direction if there were too many people (as happened on the coast). I travelled from Groningen along the coastal route, gradually veering from west to south, through the ancient fields and villages of Friesland, crossed over the massive Afsluitdijk that holds in the Ijselmeer (which used to be the Zuider Zee), pushed further south through the holiday coast of North Holland and then decided to go inland, through Amsterdam, Utrecht and Eindhoven to Maastricht in the far south. From there I crossed the southern provinces, heading west through Brabant, Limburg and Flanders, to Zealand, before finally turning north, up the coast through Rotterdam and back to Amsterdam. Not a bad way to see the country of my parents, a place
I had resisted visiting for more than forty years (for all manner of complex reasons that are common to children of immigrants); more than a thousand kilometres on my bicycle. I rode through startled sheep and their shit, through neat villages perched on the dykes to keep free from flooding, forests I never imagined existed in the Netherlands, massive cities with their endless pelotons, and along endless canals.

On a ride like this you begin to wonder whether we all of us belong to the same species. Surely there are more types of human beings than homo sapiens on this planet. Take my first stop at Anjum, a village in the north of Friesland. In a little ‘bed and brodje’, as they call them up there, with its distinctive thatch (each region does such things in its own way), the woman who ran the place greeted me with glee. But her face soon turned to disappointment when I said, ‘No English, please’ I’d like to practice my Dutch’. ‘Damn’, she said in Dutch, ‘I want to practice my English!’

Her father was another species altogether. Next morning, as I was checking over my bike, dragging on a smoke and replacing a spoke, he shuffled up to me and said something I couldn’t understand. Through his rattly throat and grizzled beard I made sense of two things: he wanted a smoke (I did check his nicotine-stained fingers to make sure) and he was speaking Frisian (Fries). So we sat down, I passed over a cigarette, and we tried to communicate. He taught me a few words of Fries, we examined the bike together, and he managed to scrounge a small stash of cigarettes from me before I set off.

Much later in the ride, two Polish men on bikes broke my quiet reflections, mesmerized as I was by the spinning spokes. They were hopelessly lost and produced a map. Did they speak Dutch? No. English? No. French maybe? No. Polish and German – yes. We did our best, which was not so successful, so they decided to follow me for a while. I was soon to encounter their preferred mode of navigating. It involved riding through a town, spotting someone sitting and quietly sipping coffee or perhaps standing at a bus stop, and shrieking repeatedly for directions – in German. And they did so while still riding. No wonder they were lost.

Then there was the garrulous, elderly Dutchman. I made the mistake of asking him for directions in the outskirts of Eindhoven. By the time he had helped me the tiniest hotel room in the heart of town – up those impossibly steep Dutch stairs (they used to have to pay tax on stairs) – he had talked me into a stupor. I heard of his 200 km ride, pedal by pedal, last Thursday, the great value of traditional Dutch bikes, his 180 km ride on Sunday, again pedal by pedal, his favourite foods, clothes, a detailed guide to every spot in the Netherlands, and his 210 km ride on Tuesday.

The Netherlands has some great cities, steeped in history, tolerance, shipping and the seedier sides of life – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Maastricht – but I soon became smitten by the countryside and villages, far from the madding crowd. I began to hunt them down at the end of the day’s ride. Weary from the sun, sheep shit coating my tyres, and my nose full of the rich country smells of animal piss and lanolin, I tracked down another village on my second night. Kimswerd’s claim to fame was that Grote Pier was born here – a giant of a man who plundered shipping in the Zuider Zee and fought for the freedom of Frisia. The story goes that once a man came up to him while he was out ploughing the fields. ‘Can you tell where I can find Grote Pier’, asked the man. Pier picked up the plough and pointed with its tip: ‘he lives over there’, he said, ‘and he stands here’. With that he felled the man with one punch.

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