Shutterspeed: Holiday on Schiermonnikoog

I went on holiday to the island of Schiermonnikoog last week. Schiermonnikoog, like the other Dutch islands, lies in the Waddenzee, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list (as is the Grand Canyon, for example). What makes the “wad” so special is that it’s the world’s largest area of mud and sand that dries up during low tide. It stretches from the Dutch north coast all the way to the Danish west coast. It is also the type of soil with the biggest biodiversity in the Netherlands.
Schiermonnikoog was the last part of the Netherlands to be liberated during World War II; the last German troops weren’t evacuated until June 11th 1945. The Waddenzee provided a natural barrier for ships, so it was important for the Germans to own it and use it as a transport route to Scandinavia. The Germans built several bunkers on the island, among which is the Wasserman bunker, a radio station from which the whereabouts of Allied planes could be traced and communicated to the German fighter planes. Besides the ubiquitous razor clams, the beaches of Schiermonnikoog also saw plenty of bodies wash ashore. A great many Allied fighter planes have been shot down near Schiermonnikoog. The island has a graveyard, nicknamed “graveyard for the drowned,” because the graves are almost exclusively those of people washed ashore. There are some German graves belonging to men from the Kriegsmarine in WWI , lots of RAF pilots and wireless ops from WWII, and a handful of French and Polish servicemen.

Day 1
I had to pitch my tent in the rain, but I was pretty handy with it so it wasn’t long before I was stretched out under canvas, listening to the slightly disheartening patter of the raindrops above my head. In the afternoon it cleared up, though, and I decided to go on a walk that I’d read about in the paper on the ferry. It was about 7 kilometres and would take in all the different natural areas on the island. The threatening dark sky actually made my photos all the more spectacular, so I didn’t mind it. In the evening I had some seafood for dinner and walked to the beach to catch a beautiful sunset. Wild chamomile was blooming along the path, and the red lighthouse winked at the ships in the dying light.

Day 2
I set out early to rent a bike, and then cycled towards the old Wassermann bunker and the graveyard. After spending some time reflecting, I went on to the WWII bunker museum, but it wasn’t open yet. I walked to the beach, found a nice and quiet hollow in the dunes, and read my book (East of Eden by John Steinbeck) until it was time. The museum was excellent and filled to the brim with relics from WWII. There were big showcases with helmets, munition, weapons, flasks, and personal items recovered from the sea; entire airplane engines and bombs; videos of interviews with inhabitants of the island who had survived the bombing by Allies who thought they were in Germany already; newspaper articles about liberation day, and so on. There was even a replica of a German barrack, detailed to the copy of Mein Kampf on the bookshelf and a picture of Marlene Dietrich on the table. (Interestingly, though, Marlene Dietrich was firmly anti-Nazi and became a US citizen in 1939; from then on she toured to raise war bonds for the American army and even received the Medal of Freedom). After I was done at the museum, I cycled to the Kobbeduinen, in the middle of the island. It’s an absolutely stunning region; the biggest part is “kwelder”, meaning salt marsh. The sea floods it every year, which means the flora and fauna there are very rare and it’s a completely unspoiled piece of wild nature. Rabbits hop away before your feet, cows block the cycling paths, flocks of birds pierce the sky with their screams, and you’re probably the only one around. Amazing! It was getting late, so I had a hamburger in town and then cycled to the other side of the island to see and sketch another sunset on the beach.

Day 3
I got up early for a guided tour on the wad, which was a lot of fun! Our guide told us everything there was to know about it and kept pulling shellfish out of the mud left and right. The mud was really deep in places and it wasn’t easy not to get stuck! The rest of the day I lazed about and had too many iced coffees, then went to the Wassermann bunker to catch a beautiful sunset.

Day 4

On day four, I got it in my head that I wanted to walk to the easternmost tip of the island, the Balg, and on my way there I would stop at the Willemsduin beacon. It’s known for its seal spotting and extraordinarily large seashells. I had bought a schematic map of the island and the woman at the desk told me there wasn’t so much a road to the east, but a tractor track.
I parked my bicycle at the Kobbeduinen and started to walk in what I thought was the right direction, but I ended up in a meadow where it was swarming with horseflies, and could see no clear way to go on. I was on my way back when I ran into a woman, a sort of earth mother figure named Emma who doled out slices of wisdom like “If you’re going to be difficult about it, it’s only going to get more difficult.” It was her fifth time (in different seasons) trying to reach Willemsduin, and she said that the road was always flooded or muddy and therefore it was difficult going. I followed her through the meadow, braving the horseflies, over a bridge, until we reached a shallow river. We checked the map and tried to find a way around it, until we finally just turned around and went back. When we were back at the Kobbeduinen beacon I suddenly noticed a sign where the path was supposed to start – duh! So we gave it another shot and started walking to the east, meanwhile chatting away. She was so tough and determined to get there, she really inspired me! After a couple of hours of walking and swatting insects, we reached the beach, but to get to the Balg we’d have to walk for two more hours. I was running out of time because I had to return my borrowed bike, so we walked back to town along the coastline with our feet in the water. We totaled 18 kilometres. What a great day! I love walking alone but when it’s so hot and you have to keep yourself going, there’s nothing like a friend to walk with.
I caught my last sunset on the beach that night, and while sitting in a hollow in the dune, a TV crew approached me and asked me questions about “the island vibe of Schiermonnikoog”. I’m afraid I was a bit mean, but the interviewer couldn’t seem to wrap his head around the idea that I was there by myself! Earlier that day I talked to Emma about it and I was relieved to find a kindred spirit; someone who just wants a nature getaway, to walk and smell the clean air, and spend time by herself doing things she enjoys. Mister Interviewer found it hard to understand. I don’t think they’ll put me in the documentary.

The next day I was on the ferry, the bus. and then the train back to Utrecht. I couldn’t recommend Schiermonnikoog more – it’s absolutely beautiful and once you get away from the village you lose most of the families, old people, couples and groups of teenagers, and you can cycle for as long as 15 minutes without running into anyone. It’s bliss.

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