I live in the North of the Netherlands, in Friesland, where there is a lot of water. We have numerous lakes and canals that crisscross the whole province. We also have the coast of the Wadden Sea and the beautiful islands. But what we do not have are rivers with ‘moving’ water, let alone some ‘wild’ ones. There are just a handful of those rivers in the country in general, and most of them are in the ‘deep South’. Or even better in Germany or Belgium. That is why when at the beginning of last December, I had to drive my wife and my daughter to the Eindhoven airport (and that’s almost Belgium as far as I am concerned), I decided to try and combine it with a nice day trip on one of those rivers. But which one?
I contacted Remi, a packrafting friend of mine from Den Bosch (‘s-Hertogenbosch), who I met during the first European Packrafting Meet-Up two years ago, and asked him if he would be interested to join me. He said “yes”. He also had a suggestion for a river – the Dommel. It originates in Hoge Kempen National Park in Belgium and flows north to the Netherlands for 120 km, until it joins the Aa near Den Bosch to form the Dieze. As a matter of fact, it flows just in front of Remi’s house and he had paddled some parts of it before.
This time what he had in mind, however, was a stretch between Neerpelt in Belgium and Valkenswaard in the Netherlands. Here the Dommel goes through the nature reserves Hageven (BE) and De Plateaux (NL), which form a natural area of heathland, fens, forests and grassland with the winding Dommel at its core. This part of the Dommel is a popular canoeing trail as it offers an uninterrupted natural area almost devoid of built environment – this is so rare in this overcrowded part of the world.
Funny enough, a few years ago, I came across a detailed description of this part of the trail from one of the Dutch kayaking clubs. It looked really interesting. I made a print out of this description and spent a lot of time looking at the maps, trying to figure out the logistics. However, one way or another, I never had a chance to actually paddle it. Which is why I really was happy that Remi suggested it for our little trip.
Having dropped my girls at the airport, I headed to Valkenswaard, where I met Remi. We drove together to Venbergse Mill, the end point of our trip, where we left my car, and then, took Remi’s one over the boarder to the official put-in point near N71, which has a large field for parking in near it. Even though the assess to the river was nice, the place itself looked too exposed and empty somehow (it did not help that there were a couple of shady-looking young guys on a scooter hanging around there). That is why we drove a couple of kilometers up to the visitor centre of Hageven, and parked Remi’s car there. As this is a good starting point for some nature trails, there were several other cars with Dutch and Belgian number plates there, which made us feel that it is a safe place to leave our car. The river was also next to the visitor centre and we even found a nice small pier that gave a really good access to the water.
Or so we thought. Because when we got onto the water there, it turned out that it was not the Dommel at all, but just a tiny pond next to it. (We realized in only after making a loop around it, searching for a passage to the river – it must have looked really silly).
And so, we had to get back to the car park once again and find our way to the river itself, which was just a couple of dozens of meters away. But as that place was not an official put-in, the river banks were high and to get to the water, I had to climb down a tree, while Remi, having ‘bushwhacked’ through the undergrowth on the river bank, found some kind of stairs (very slippery though) a few hundred meters down the river.
The Dommel at this place is relatively narrow. It is just five-six meters across. But due to that, there is some stream to talk about. “I thought it would be much slower” expressed his surprise Remi, who was used to a much more leisurely pace of the lower Dommel.
When we were planning the trip, Remi and I were not certain if we did not want to bring our bikes with us and turn it into a bikerafting trip. That is why I opted to take my two-person Oryx by Alpacka instead of my usual Gnarwhal. The idea was to put folding Brompton in the front, instead of another paddler. This way I did not have to worry about tying it up on top of a spraydeck. I was also curious to test this packraft on a bit longer trip than the local ones I had had with it thus far. “Ok, then I will take my Caribou,” said Remi. This is another Alpacka packraft that can be used to transport bikes easily. If I remember it correctly, when it came out a few years back, it was introduced as one of the first packrafts purpose-built for bikerafting. And though we eventually decided not to take our bikes (I left my Brompton in the boot of my car), we had some lovely paddling time on the river. We also got a chance to paddle each other’s boats as well. It is always fun to test something new.
The river went through some nice natural areas, and, indeed, we hardly saw any built environment at all – just a few bridges and some houses (already in the Netherlands). Ok, we saw some fences as well. Even when Remi flew his DJI Mavic Pro drone during one of the stops, the place looked quite wild.
It was also not completely clear when we crossed the national boarder. I could not really check that either as the phone reception was rather limited (another rare thing in this busy part of the world). So, when at one point Remi said that it should have been the Netherlands already, I believed him.
In general, the whole trip was just over 13 km and it took us 3 hours and 45 minutes to get to Venbergse Mill, where my car was parked (this included a couple of stops). As it was in December, by the time we got there, the dusk had set in. And by the time we picked Remi’s car up it was already completely dark. As it was a long way back to Friesland, Remi offered me to stay overnight with his family in Den Bosch, which I happily accepted. This gave me a chance to have a look at the city that I hardly ever visit otherwise. And of course, I saw the Dommel again – this time a very broad and slow-moving river that does not look anything like its ‘younger’ wild self.