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Paradise Lost - Island hopping the Dutch Wadden Islands

This story was originally published on Sidetracked Magazine and later included in the 'Bikepacking' Gestalten book

There’s a lot to be said for type 2 fun. This wasn’t about that.

Instead, we enjoyed three leisurely days of island hopping by bike at a pace solely determined by the catching of ferries and alternative water transport taking us to the next place in paradise.

Our days were filled with easy trail rides, beachside barbecues, local beers, and without-a-bib dips in mellow ocean waves. Believe it or not, the Wadden Islands in the north of the Netherlands offer up the best beaches you can find anywhere in the world. Endless, empty, undisturbed. White as the insides of your tan lines.

No towering boulevards with corny tourist shops, no frantic wave line-ups, no labyrinth of beach towels to navigate. Just infinite stretches of the finest sand marked by the faded greens of dune reeds and, on this occasion, perfect painted skies. I guess it’s a blessing our weather sucks about 315 days a year.

The idea was to round the northern part of the Netherlands, hopping from the mainland via three of the Wadden Islands back to the starting point. Our first day took off as you would want any adventure on a bike to begin. One of us nearly missed the first ferry but got waved on board two minutes past departure time by a friendly boatman and a supportive crowd of co-passengers. We celebrated with a beer.

The rest of the days were an endless summer blur. Shoes filled up with sand, and ocean spray marked our bike bags with salt stains while we travelled from one island to the next by yet another makeshift ferry. Silly inside jokes merged the group into a single-celled organism. And then that heat. It slowed us down in a wonderful way. So did an abundance of local beers and burgers. We couldn’t have asked for more.

The dark side of this best-ever weekend on the bike crept in afterwards. The Wadden are a gem. It’s not just us who think so. The Wadden Sea, an area that stretches out through the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It is the largest tidal flat system in the world, where natural processes proceed undisturbed, accommodating a rich biodiversity of both aquatic and terrestrial species.

The Wadden Islands hold a unique combination of cultural heritage and nature – and part of the region counts as an official Dark Sky Area. But they are also likely to be gone in less than 100 years from now.

We as a nation have made a name for ourselves when it comes to water management and protecting land from rising sea levels. But here’s a spoiler: our Dutch pride, the Deltawerken, are built to protect us from a maximum rise of 45cm. With the current global CO2 emissions, Dutch sea levels are predicted to rise 2-3m in the next 100 years.

We might be able to engineer our way out of that threat when it comes to protecting the mainland. But more vulnerable areas like the Wadden won’t be as fortunate. UNESCO acknowledge the Wadden for ‘the Outstanding Universal Value of the area and the progress made in protecting and managing it for more than a generation’. If we continue our current ways, this generation might be the last to enjoy this little paradise, and many others like it.

Those three days of eternal summer turned out to be part of one of the most extreme heatwaves Europe had ever experienced, with temperatures rising up to 45.9°C in France – the hottest June day ever recorded. It is these numbers that should make the hairs on the back of our necks stand up and kick us into action. Yes, by changing our own behaviour. But even more so by directing our actions towards the 100 companies in the world that are responsible for 70 per cent of our global emissions. And towards the governments that facilitate them.

We did ride paradise for three glorious days. But it’s a paradise that might be lost within the course of our generation if we don’t take action now.

If we love where we ride, let’s act accordingly.

Words and photos by Lian van Leeuwen


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