Anyhow, since last Sunday (that means ten days ago, not three), we have completed our trip up the Dender and the Blaton-Ath Canal. What a lovely waterway it is. Imtimate and very pretty. What amazed us, however, was the difference when we crossed the language border into Wallonia. On the one hand, the service stepped up a couple of notches: we had a whole team of lock assistants helping us through, all with uniform T shirts although the French being thus, they each had their own style. On the other, we had the waterway virtually to ourselves. Gone was the struggle to find a mooring and we had perfect spots in both Chièvres (Lock 15) and Ath, complete with electricity and water, and at the former there was even a shower. We paid just €5 for the night there and nothing at Ath as the Capitainerie was not open, so our lock keeper, whom I dubbed Gerard (he was a shoe-in for Gerard Depardieu if ever I saw one) shrugged and smiled and that was that. On the subject of Gerard, he really was a character and told us with great pride about his beautiful Russian wife who could speak 5 languages and was a complete Francophile. When he first met her, he was bowled over to find she knew more about his history and culture than he did. A lock keeper with a difference for sure. One of the other lock keepers on the Blaton-Ath section sported a ponytail and blue-lensed mirror glasses, while his colleague wore a straw Fedora and had a cigarette perpetually hanging from his lips as he zoomed between the locks on a moped. As I said, their own style. We spent the last night on the canal in the penultimate lock, whose gate refused to close. By 8:15 the next morning, it was fixed by the official electrician who probably just flicked a switch, officially of course, and off we went down the last two locks. I must say, the locks on the whole canal were easy for us. Very regular and not too tumultuous. I liked that.
After leaving the Blaton-Ath, we moved out onto the big highway canal, the grand gabarit as the French call it, but not for long. For years, I’ve wanted to go by boat to Pommeroeul, to the disused lock that I wrote about here. It only took us thirty minutes or so to reach it, and there we stopped for a couple of precious hours. It was largely deserted and we walked around in the hot sunshine enjoying the space, the open vistas and the peace. We chatted to the security man/lock keeper who watches over the lock and serves any commercials who want water. His was a sad story. He suffers from glaucoma and can no longer do the more responsible security jobs, so he works here. We found him collecting up litter. He was bemoaning the lack of rain; everything was so dry, he said, that not even the bees could get nectar from the flowers. A lock keeper with an environmental soul. He was right, though. The ground is parched, the grass is simply brown and the wild flowers are shrivelled. We walked to the other side of the lock and I was astonished to see how deep the drop is on that side. I’d never noticed it before, but it must be at least 10 metres.
The next leg of our journey took us through two big locks to our destination for the night. In fact, it was the destination of the whole trip for me because we finally arrived at Strépy Thieu, at the great boat lift that I’ve been longing to go through for years. But I think I’ll write about that in my next blog or this one will go on forever. Needless to say it was with a big smile that we approached the final lock of the day into the marina. However, the grins were short-lived as we couldn’t figure out how to go through it. The automatic rod that operates the system is so far from the entrance we didn’t see it. I’d been up through the brambles, scratched myself silly and watched the last official driving away from the office before going back and finding that a camper on the quay had shown Koos where to find it. Then we managed to push it the wrong way, so by the time we got into the lock, our tempers were collectively frayed. Of course, the lock held its own challenges. It was deep, there were only bollards on the ladders and they were too far apart, or at least that’s what we thought. At last we were up and through and found our way into the marina. We were greeted with shouts that there was no room, but the harbour master, a kindly Englishman, directed us to what has always been our dream spot. We had to moor up alongside a rather neglected looking empty barge, but it was at the back of the marina where we had always wanted to be. He was relieved that we were happy, so it was with revived smiles that we tied up, settled down and finished what had probably been our longest day so far.
More soon allemaal. I’ll catch up with you all when I can but forgive my absence these weeks. We really have no internet on board at all. Bliss!