05 January 2018

Birding By Bike | The Netherlands in November


Late last year I was taking a bird identification class for school, which naturally required a couple bird-watching field trips (birding to those who take it very seriously.) To me, a birding field trip sounds like a great reason to go camping, and a bike is a great way to get to your birding destination with the added benefit of not being insulated from bird calls you might encounter along the way. So I picked a site in the Netherlands close to a national park where camping was allowed. 

National Park De Biesbosch is about 30km to the southeast of Rotterdam or 30km west of  ‘s Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch to locals), which was my point of departure for this trip. Just outside of the park in the town of Hank is a former forest worker’s hut that is designated as an overnighting location for hikers and cyclists, so I set that as the destination on my GPS and left the train station in that general direction.



This time of year there isn’t a whole lot of daylight, and doubly so when the weather is a drizzly overcast. So by the time I was outside of Den Bosch city limits, it was already getting dark. This affected my route choice, as travelling by the Dutch cycling network is fairly easy and straightforward, but nowhere near as fun as hunting for singletrack and off-road means of conveyance. So the later it got, the more I relied upon the paved, lit bike paths that run from city to city. I joined the evening commute of students and workers riding home on their upright Dutch bikes, and a couple others on mountain bikes who were headed to far more remote destinations.



Den Bosch is a really cool city that I wish I’d had more time to explore before leaving, but aside from traveling the wrong cardinal direction for 20 or so minutes, I didn’t see much of it. I did happen to come across a citadel surrounded by a moat, which was pretty interesting, although I know nothing about it, or much of Dutch history in general except they’re the reason that carrots are orange.


The landscape in this part of the Netherlands is at once halcyon and bleak during winter; as a backdrop, it makes the villages and cafes seems all the more quaint and inviting. One such example I passed is a stately windmill that has been converted to a restaurant, glowing warmly from within. I was tempted to stop and have dinner, but I had a dozen more kilometers to go before the next town, and I couldn’t afford to spend the time it takes to enjoy a European meal, which is approximately half a day. I snapped a photo and made a note to return to it someday, knowing I probably never will.


Night arrived and I was still pedaling on, second-guessing the closeness of the next town. An illuminated cathedral spire beckoned in distance, and the rain was like a mist that couldn’t make up its mind. According to the GPS, I needed to swing northward at some point and cross a river, or canal, indistinguishable in the dark. My phone started buzzing in my pocket and I knew it was the Mrs. who must be concerned that I hadn’t called in a while. I answered it—it was my friend asking what brand of mineral water we get from the supermarket. The phone call with my wife would be much later, and much less trivial, or so it seemed at the time.

After a quick stop in Hank, the town, (named after Hank, the person?), for a quick bite to eat at the supermarket grab-and-go section, I entered what I can only describe as the abyss. There was no light from the sky, no light from streetlamps, nothing but the photons from the light on my handlebars. A milky fog rolled in further obscuring the ability to see, and my GPS was running on the last trickle of electricity from its battery. The mud-covered road was nearly indistinguishable from the mud alongside it, and sound was all but absent save the spinning wheels under me. I pedaled on, making my way deeper and deeper into the void, as my fortitude began to fade. A rabbit dashed across the road in front of me, a streak of white in an otherwise black landscape, and my heart jumped into my throat.

Finally, I found a sign indicating the worker’s hut was nearby, so I followed it into the woods. Mud was as thick as peanut butter and unavoidable. The trees were cropped and deformed like a waiting room full of amputees. With the lights turned off. I arrived at the spot I set as much GPS waypoint just as it died, only to find nothing there. I was lost and alone in the absolute darkness.


After re-tracing my route through almost un-rideable mud, I came upon a path I hadn’t taken yet. By process of elimination, if the hut was going to be anywhere, it was down that way, so I followed it and was relieved to have finally found my accommodations for the night. Secretly, I hoped I would be joining another camper, but inside was nothing but two leftover jars of baked beans, and years of pictures and inscriptions on the walls. Oh, and blood. There was an unsettling amount of blood splattered on one of the sleeping platforms.

murderhutinterior crimescene

I called the Mrs. and checked in, letting her know I had made it safely, but not sure how safe I would be staying in a murder hut by myself. Admittedly, I knew that I was over-reacting and letting my imagination get the best of me, but I couldn’t shake the uneasiness and sense of dread, which is pretty unusual for me. Ultimately I dismissed the idea of leaving because I didn’t particularly want to go back out into the forest until daylight, and barring a secret murder entrance, the door had a slide lock on the inside. I would be fine. I lit a candle, rolled out my sleeping bag, and fell asleep to an NPR podcast on my phone.


In the morning, I awoke and made some pour-over coffee, heating water on an alcohol stove that was simply a catfood can with some holes punched in it. I attempted to unlock the door and couldn’t get the bolt to move, so I gave it one good tug and as it came free, the lock itself sliced my finger and I began to bleed, leaving a pattern on the ground much like the one on the sleeping platform I definitely did not sleep on. Huh, go figure, I thought to myself, and laughed at how disturbed I was at something so innocuous. I opened the door, slipped on my camp Crocs, and relieved myself in the gray light of day.


Now, on to the bird watching. The weather wasn’t great; actually it was pretty awful for birding because when it’s raining, birds tend not to be very active. So, I was hoping to spot some water fowl at best, maybe some migratory birds if they were still around and hadn’t arrived at their warmer vacation destinations in the south. I navigated out of the (probably) haunted forest and back towards civilization, if only to find a map that would point out the best means of accessing the national park. I didn’t find a map, but I did find a truck selling kibbeling (fried fish nuggets, Holland’s true treasure), so that was nice. As to getting to the national park, I just guesstimated where it was and headed that way.


I never found it. Which, looking at a map, is pretty incredible considering I was almost surrounded by it on three sides, but there are roads and canals and kibbeling trucks, it’s all very confusing. So instead I followed a main artery that opened out to the western coast and hoped I would spot some birds along the way. Maybe I would make it to Rotterdam and then take the train back home from there.

Well, that didn’t pan out either, but I did find a protected nature area that ran along the river, and was actually a great birding spot. I parked my bike, unpacked my birding paraphernalia, and went on my way, spotting over a dozen different species of bird in the course of a couple hours. Thoroughly damp at that point, I was eager to get back to riding if only to warm up my core body temperature. 


After birding,  I eventually made my way to a local train station and took a few detours getting back to a main junction, but was able to grab a seat in the bicycle car before rush hour filled the train with commuters. As a service employee came by to punch my ticket, he looked at my mud-caked bike, dripping onto the relatively clean floor of the train car and asked if I had called it quits, to which I replied, “yeah, I think so.”

-Bicyclist Abroad

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