De 4 Vaargetijden - Barge cruise in the Ardennes?
27 May 2020

Barge cruise in the Ardennes?

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Noty vertelt

I love the Ardennes! I can race through the woods there. There are sticks everywhere to gnaw. And wow… so many smells…

But is there water in the Ardennes, Noty?

Yeah! Lots of water, with those rocks to jump over. And brrr… that water’s pretty cold. Sometimes this water goes very quickly from top to bottom. It makes such a roaring noise…

Your vacation boat can’t sail on those brooks, can it?

There are boats on that water. Those small boats with paddles, we call them canoes and kayaks. But no, my houseboat doesn’t fit in there.

Yet we sail to the Ardennes with my houseboat. Maybe not all the way to the highest point, the signal the Botrange (yeah, I looked it up… We’ve already gone for a walk there. It is almost 700m higher than the sea. How many church towers is that?). But to Liège and that’s already in the same province, right?

For me, forest and mountains are just the Ardennes. I just asked owner Olga. She showed it to me on the map: the tourist Ardennes are south of the Sambre and the Meuse. Although those are officially the foothills of the Ardennes.

Wait, I’ll show you a map. It’s too complicated otherwise…

So we sail up to that dark green. The real Ardennes are bluegreen here…

Cruising up the mountain by boat… you should be able to!

To cruise from Oudenaarde to the Sambre and the Meuse, we have to go up… and a lot!

We’re not pushing the boat up, are we? Actually, we’re just cruising straight, level, all the time, until we get to a lock. There we go, all of a sudden, one step up. On the Scheldt, those steps are small, just a few meters. So you need a lot of locks…

Further south you make a step of more than 10m with every lock.

Do you know how a lock like that works?

I came aboard here as a young pup. I have seen how we pass through such a lock, very often. But still, boss Olga had to explain to me how such a lock actually works.

You know an elevator for people and dogs, don’t you? You’re downstairs and push the button. The elevator comes to your floor and the door opens. You let the other people and dogs get out first. Then you get in and the door closes. The elevator is hoisted up to the next floor. The door will open and now you can get out first. The other people and dogs are waiting patiently for you to get out.

A lock for a ship is such an elevator, but without a roof. And you go up with the force of the water and not with cables. Such a lock is also much stronger than a human elevator… our ship weighs 120 tons and it’s only a small one compared to the cargo ships. They easily weigh 1850t and even much more!

So a lock is a shoebox without a lid, with doors in the short sides. You can recreate it yourself in the bath…

So we’re approaching on the lower side of the lock. The water in the lock is also low. The doors are already open. We’re lucky to enter without waiting. My owner Olga plays cowboy and catches a bollard with her rope. We’re moored and the doors behind us are closing. Now the water in the lock is lower than the water beyond the lock, which is where we want to go. There are holes in the door to the high water level. The lock keepers open those holes. So the water flows from top to bottom until the level in the lock is as high as the high part. And that’s how our little boat went up as well. The lockkeepers are kind enough to open the doors and we can continue the journey!

You can see it a little better on a drawing:

Zo werkt een sluis
This is how a lock operates
DeMoor cc-by-sa-3.0

Come in and close the door! So many different lock gates…

An elevator has doors to go in and out. So a lock also needs doors. And I know all about it! I don’t have to ask about that first… I’ve learned from experience…

You’ve got revolving doors, just the same as in an elevator. The hinges are on the side. There’s no doorhandle in the middle. These are always large solid doors. They used to be opened by hand by the lockkeepers. I saw that before in Nieuwpoort. Now thick hydraulic pistons open and close the doors.

Manuele sluisbediening
Nieuwpoort manual swing doors

There are lots of locks with rotating gates. Usually they turn outwards to make the lock as big as possible. Actually, the 2 gates are too big for the opening. The gates fit with a point against each other. That point always points to the highest side of the water. Otherwise the force of the water could push them open, right?

And sometimes there are double sets of swing doors on both sides of the lock… Can you guess why? If not, come with me to Nieuwpoort!!!

A variation on a swinging door is a sliding door. As with a patio door, a large gate slides to the side to a recess next to the lock.

Then there are dripping doors… I soon got to know them and our guests always quickly notice. The gates are lifted up and come dripping out of the water. Fortunately, skipper Maurits always waits a bit until most of the water has fallen off the door. But the deck and those who remain standing get wet anyway! The cushions and the camera’s better be put inside or under the shelter…

Sluis Peronnes 2 druppeldeur
Dripping door

And you think you’ve seen it all now? But no! There are also drop-doors. They fall forward and disappear under water. They do! We can’t go on until the door’s completely flat on the bottom. We don’t want to hit the door and damage it, do we? That’s why there are traffic lights. When the lights turn green, we can continue safely.

There are also ship lifts! And no, these aren’t locks…

So a lock works like an elevator, but with water. You got that right!

Then I’m just going to make it a little more difficult… a ship’s lift doesn’t work with water, it works with cables. Except for the old ship’s elevators… …they don’t work with cables, they work with hydraulics… So that’s water again!

Wow, so hard… These are the old elevators from the center canal at Thieu:

Oude scheepslift thieu
left box up
old elevator at Thieu
Monumentale schepenlift Thieu
the right box goes up
old ship elevator Thieu

It’s a bit similar to the Eiffel Tower, don’t you think? It works a little bit as a balance scale. When one box is a little lighter than the other, it’s pushed up.

Here are a lot of information panels explaining how it works. Actually, boss Maurits can always explain it properly. Then I understand it too… almost!

And you know, when you see it, it’s not that complicated anymore. I find it very clever that each old elevator brings a ship of over 300 tons 15m higher. And they do that almost without using any extra power. They were pretty smart back then. They were built between 1888 and 1917, with war and everything… There are four elevators and together they span 68m.

The old center canal is very nice to cycle or walk along. Sometimes there is a tourist train and you have to step aside. On the way you see many old lock keepers houses, bridges and nice villages. I am more interested in the scents of the local beauties. And I take a dip among the fish when I get a bit warm…

Now the ship’s elevators are Unesco heritage and only used for pleasure craft. The big ships use the new lift.

The new ship lift, the highest ship elevator in Europe!

Scheepslift Thieu onderaan
Ship lift Thieu below
Scheepslift Thieu versassing
Thieu in the lift
Schepenlift Thieu
Thieu top view
ship elevator and aqueduct

Notice how small my vacation ship is down there in front of the new ship elevator? What’s that lift big, huh?

They’ve been building it for a very long time. It wasn’t finally finished until 2002. I think they started building it back in 1976… But it’s a real achievement! They also dug a new canal and 2 aqueducts…

They had to figure it all out for themselves. It was the highest ship elevator in the whole world. Ships up to 85m long and 1850t heavy fit in one container. The whole building is over 100m high and 135m long. There is also a large part underground, but I cannot see anything of it anymore. Since the opening, the freight through this elevator has become 13 times more…

This one lift bridges the 4 old elevators. So we fly over 70m up here. It’s really fast, although you don’t notice it when you’re on the boat. In 15 minutes we’re out again…

Would you like to take a look at it? There’s even a visitor’s center. They’ve recently updated the exhibition. I’m curious! No, of course I’m not allowed to visit. But my boss Olga will tell me all about it.

If it is allowed, we barging to Thieu and Ronquières again in July. These are real highlights for our guests. Literally of course!

Now I’ve told so much about how we can take the boat to and through the mountains… There is certainly a lot to do along the way. I consider Wallonia very green and the people always friendly, yes the dogs too!

Would you like to hear more about Wallonia’s assets next time, the green Hainaut with its castles and the beautiful old towns on the Meuse?

Till next time!

Noty's pootje

PS Are you curious about the Ardennes in winter? I’ve walked there in lots of snow! That was great fun… a real adventure…

Just read it here!