Belgium: The highs and lows

Our first week in Belgium has certainly proven to be a mixed bag.

We paddled across the border on a quiet, calm Sunday, alone on the water except for the occasional school of ducklings. For once, there were no fishermen or barges to avoid. We finished our first day in Belgium in the sanctuary of our tent, tucked away in a leafy forest, the evening sunlight casting dappled patterns on the roof of our canvas home. The peace and solitude of that day lulled us into a false sense of what was to come over the subsequent days...

By our third day in Belgium, things had started to deteriorate. During a long portage through an industrial area on a hot afternoon, we stopped to take a short breather. It was then that we noticed how uneven Benji the kayak was sitting on his wheels. Further inspection revealed that the plastic axel and catch holding the wheels in place had melted and twisted and was on the verge of snapping off. When this eventually happened, it would undoubtedly render our wheels useless.

At that point we were halfway between two locks. We had no choice other than to continue to the second lock, pulling Benji gently beside us so as not to further aggravate the wheels (though by now it was clear that the wheels would not survive the afternoon).

As we approached the lock and the promise of shade, two men appeared to help us push. Much to our embarrassment, the wheels chose that moment to fully snap. Thankfully, we had made it to the shade of a bridge, so we thanked our helpers and plopped ourselves down on the ground to work out our next steps.

It was not possible to move Benji without the wheels falling off. We had a day off planned four days away, somewhere we could have some replacement wheels sent to. However, there were ten locks before we would reach that city and portaging around all of the locks without wheels was out of the question.

We decided to call Jeff and Janique, the wonderful couple who hosted us for a night last week. We explained our predicament to them and they promised to drive to help us as soon as they finished work at the end of the day. We spent the afternoon kicking our heels in the shade of the bridge, reading, listening to music and playing catch with Kate’s massage ball (which very sadly met a rather watery end, bringing an abrupt conclusion to that form of entertainment).

In the evening, Jeff and Janique arrived, bringing with them an old set of wheels which they were happy for us to adopt. Though not designed for the weight of our double sea kayak, they would do the job until we could take possession of a more substantial pair. Jeff and Janique, thank you for once again coming to our rescue!

The following day it was back to business as usual. There were no locks to tackle so it was a very straightforward paddle to a campsite that evening. Overnight, however, our loaned set of wheels were stolen. Infuriatingly, we were the only ones to blame: in the excitement of finishing the previous evening we had left the wheels near the canal path, rather than bringing them inside our tent like normal.

Now we really were in a predicament: without wheels, getting around locks would involve fully emptying Benji in order to carry him past the lock - usually a distance of at least 1km - and then relaying the bags, without letting anything out of our sight. The ludicrousness of the situation was almost laughable.

Neither of us fully prepared to accept the situation, we scoured the bank, path and campsite a few times, to no avail. Finally sinking onto the grass, we looked at each other for a moment before bursting into a laugh of disbelief, comprehension beginning to set in.

Finally accepting the implications of being wheel-less, we weighed up our options. A fairly clear solution presented itself for that day. As we had accommodation booked in a city, we shipped all of our bags ahead in a taxi, leaving us with just Benji. We would come up with a solution for the following days at a later stage...

Reaching our first lock we quickly realised that we had vastly underestimated the locks we would deal with on this stretch of waterway. Until now, the canals and locks - though big - have had accessible banks. Portaging has always been doable, even if it sometimes involves clambering up nettle-covered slopes. Not anymore. Approaching the lock we kept our eyes peeled for any bank that we could scramble up. There was nothing, just steep concrete wall and the occasional ladder bolted to the side.

As we got closer to the lock, it became clear that these ladders would be our only way off the water and we somehow managed to haul both ourselves and Benji the kayak out of the canal. Up on the bank, things didn’t look good. We were faced with a huge lock with no way round to the water on the other side: our options were either walking down a busy main road, or edging our way down a set of perilously steep, slippery steps that were open on one side. One wrong-placed foot would lead to us swimming in the lock, somewhere we definitely didn’t want to be as the 80+ metre barges navigated in and out.

Moored to the bank next to us was a barge waiting to go through the lock, loaded up with scrap metal. Kate jokingly commented that asking for a ride through the lock might be the best option. We laughed briefly, then suddenly realised that this was quite probably the only way we would get past the lock. Tentatively, we approached the captain, working out how to broach the subject. It transpired that we didn’t have to overthink this: as soon as we asked if he spoke English, the man answered that yes, he did, and offered us a lift to Charleroi, our day’s destination.

We leapt at the offer. The light indicating that the barge was permitted to enter the lock was turning green so we had to act quickly. In a flash, Benji was safely stowed along the side of the barge. We piled on and within moments found ourselves within the lock.

For a while, we wrestled with the notion that we were “cheating”. We were here to paddle, not sit on the deck of a barge in the sunshine, with a playful 10 month old dog entertaining us. Despite feeling this way, we had to accept that our options were very limited, something that became increasingly apparent during the course of the afternoon. It seemed that each lock we passed through on the barge was more inaccessible by kayak than the previous one. We almost certainly would have been stopped in our tracks at every one.

Eventually, we arrived at the outskirts of Charleroi. Almost immediately after paddling away from our new friends, the canal passed into a vast, derelict factory site spanning both sides of the water. Rusted towers and bridges loomed over our heads, half-collapsed doorways giving glimpses into a now extinct world of industry.

Paddling further through the site it became clear that we would struggle to get out of the water the closer to the city we got. It therefore made most sense for us to get out of the kayak sooner rather than later, but being wheel-less, we decided to keep Benji on the water, opting to pull him alongside us on the end of the rope. Taking our kayak for a walk through what is best described as the real-life set of most zombie apocalypse films is almost definitely the most bizarre thing we have done yet!

Finally we were forced to pull Benji out of the water in order to carry him the final 850m to the secure car park he was to spend the night in. This was a steep learning curve for us: we’d been entertaining the idea of continuing for the next few days without any wheels, carrying all of our kit and kayak around the locks. Those 850m taught us very quickly that this was definitely not going to happen. Within minutes, our backs were aching from the awkward angle of lifting a 40kg, almost seven metre long boat. That evening, once Benji was safely locked up, we mulled over our options before finally enlisting the help of Anna’s dad, David, and his car.

With a day to kill in Charleroi, we started searching for the first suitable place from which to access the canal. Our fruitless search led us along the tow path for a few kilometres out of the city centre. The water was a 20m drop below the path for as far as we could see.

Determined not to accept defeat, we spent the following day driving along the canal trying to find access points. Once we’d found a part of the bank we could safely scramble down, we would then drive ahead to establish whether we’d be able to get out of the canal at the end of the section. Unfortunately, our perseverance and David’s patience with the constant back-and-forth was not enough. Out of the 48km stretch to the next city of Namur, we managed to paddle a total of 10km.

Though feeling frustrated and itching to get back into the full swing of our expedition, the setbacks we’ve faced this week have not dented our enthusiasm or morale. Anyone who knows us will be relieved to hear that our giggle fits have continued! As soon as our replacement wheels arrive we will be back on the water, heading back into France on the River Meuse, feeling slightly relieved to leave the challenges of Namur behind...