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Andrys Onsman
[To Andrys Onsman’ index]

Cycling Around Ameland

In memoriam, Ida Onsman

Text, map and photographs by Andrys Onsman,
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, ©2008

[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L Travels collection as well.]


The 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.

Map of the West Frisian IslandsThe 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 author's daughterThe 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 island.

Areal view of Ameland

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 broiling 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 hearts they fling a passionate, fervent plea up to the Heavens, whilst with their bodies they wave furiously but it makes no difference. (Translation: A. Onsman)

Break by the beachThat 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.

Family homeAlthough 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.

LighthouseThe 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.

BykingUnlike the manic rides of the lycra-clad latte-drinking weekenders in the cities of the world, cycling on Ameland is non-competitive. Racing only means getting 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 on two 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 neither.

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).

North Sea vista

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.Posing 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 one day.


[To Andrys Onsman’ index]

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