Upstream on the Dender and on to the Ath-Blaton Canal

6th to 22nd June 2020

This journey was both tranquil with at times a challenging edge, as you will discover! It was well worth the effort; there are several places I would stay at longer next time through.

The previous blog had us arriving on the Dender from the Boven-Zee-Scheldt and mooring up here just outside Dendermonde.

Dendermonde has been bypassed by the new canalised Dender, so we decided to walk down the old river, now closed off from the new part, and take a quick look at what has been an important town.

We walked into town on the open side, and back along the wooded side. It makes a very pleasant 3km walk, with young water fowl along the river at this time of year, screeching for more food!

Almost all the way along are huge bollards, spaced out for big commercial barges, evidence of the earlier importance of Dendermonde as a trading town.

Further evidence, if any is required, is seen when you arrive at the town. A huge lock is still in place, although no longer used.

The town square still shows some of its former grandeur, although much of it is rebuilt side the two world wars to look the same as before.

Back to the barge for the evening and wonderful calm after being moored on the centre of Gent for a few days! In fact a group of 4 teenagers arrived with chairs and drinks to sit on the pontoon for a couple of hours; they were very polite, saying hello and asking us to let them know if they were too noisy. We hardly knew they were there.

The mooring is only allowed for 24 hours, so despite it being so peaceful and pleasant we set off the next morning – but only after a good chat to one of the three fisherman who turned up on the pontoon before I was even out of bed. He spoke excellent English and knew some of the other British boats that have moored there.

The river from Dendermonde to Aalst is generally quiet, and mostly rural. However there is some industry, and at one point the factory had commemorated the Tour de France which had its Grand Départ in Brussels in 2019.

Sod’s Law struck again as the only boat we passed on our journey was an extra large one on the narrowest section of the river! But the ‘skipperess’ of the barge neatly steered her to starboard and we passed by unscathed.

As we approached the outskirts of Aalst we made contact with the bridge and lock keeper. There are a couple of bridges in the centre of Aalst that must be raised (or tilted) for boats to move through. The Zwartehoekbrug was the only one we needed to get through to reach our mooring and it was soon raised.

The interesting thing became what to tie up to ….. few bollards, no cleats, no rings ….. but a line of large blocks of concrete to stop cars tipping onto the canal, so the bow rope was strung round one of these. It worked; this large laden barge passing by tested it out!

We were soon off for a walk round the town. We had read that it was a great place to visit, and it’s true. Under normal non-coronavirus circumstances they have three huge carnivals a year – one all about men dressing up as women, though nothing to do with transvestism. The statue above captures the moment a man happily takes off his high heels!

My main memory will be a waffle moment! Crew persuaded the Captain that it would be nice to sit in the shade with a beer – or with a fully fruited sangria and fully fruited waffle!

We stayed on board for the evening and were surprised by visitors at around 8pm, who made a return visit next evening as well. I must admit the bread we fed them was rather good. (Please don’t tell me off for feeding them bread!)

Next day was rather wet. In amongst some unexciting events like shopping we did get another surprise visitor – this time a moorhen on the roof. They don’t fly much to my knowledge – only when they skitter across the water, so I was definitely surprised too see it there.

Our other main event was a Scrabble match. It was closely fought, but finally the Captain’s superior verbal skills led to his victory.

Then it was time to carry on up the Dender (without Sid James and Kenneth Williams). It was an obstacle course of a journey!

It was like this ….

  • Request and wait to go through the Aalst tilt bridge Sint-Annabrug
  • Through the narrow Aalst manually operated lock by the sugar factory
  • Under a lift bridge .. to find we had to …
  • … squeeze past two moored working barges which were pile-driving a new edge to the river
  • Round a bend to find another large working barge and crane lifting new sections for the pile-driver
  • Round another bend to see a low narrow bridge with several canoes full of children the other side
  • And then, out into the country until our next adventure!

Here is the pictorial adventure.

All was calm until we reached the next bridge and lock at Teralfene. First there was a bit of a wait; no problem. We are happy midstream.

Then once in the lock, the lock-keeper asked us if we would wait half an hour for another boat to arrive so that he could save water; of course we said yes and had lunch in the bottom of a lock – not for the first time.

We continued on with the other boat, a cruiser with pleasant crew. They let us know that one of the bridges on Geraardsberge, just upstream, was closing at the end of the day for 5-6 days! It has to be said that I should have known. I receive all the emails about closures every day, but this one slipped past my (non)eagle eye.

It was either make a dash for Geraardsberge that day (no thank you) or remain downstream for almost a week.

We were following the path highlighted green on the map. Pink indicates a lot of what we did on 2019.

A plan was hatched and we drew in at Okegem, on a sloping wall and very low mooring cleats. The Captain made us safe with re-corded fenders!

As usual we went for a walk, initially around our side of the river in Pamel. Right next to our mooring was a sculpture of Victor de Klerk. He was an unfortunately fat man, around 55 stone, and possibly the heaviest man in Europe during his life in the mid 19th century. His is not a happy story.

Later I went over the bridge to look at the village of Okegem, after a tasty prawn pasta supper.

Skies became blue and the scene changed, becoming beautiful and tranquil. We sat on the back deck until sunset, revelling in the places our Piper has brought us ….

…. and enjoying Stewart’s shadow art!

Although we liked to at Okegem we decided to carry on to Ninove – at least a 4km cruising day! Calliope moved from a pink sunset to a pink bridge, welcoming us into Ninove.

The mooring we had expected to use was occupied so we went astern for a hundred yards or so and came into moor on a good long floating pontoon next to a footbridge laden with petunias; what a beautiful scent.

It was clear that we would be here a few days, so I will not repeat days of shopping in the local Del Haize supermarket! We did attempt to get an idea of the town, including the Graan Markt, where a big building was in the process of being pulled down by a monster munching machine!

Later that day Captain Stu did his good waterways deed of the day, hauling out a huge long wooden log/pole that was floating downstream ready to cause damage to someone or something.

I did go for an evening stroll on the first evening juts as the sky was clearing for sunset. The clarity across the town was superb.

Day 2 we were settling in. We went for a walk up to the next mooring along the river, next to an old rail bridge, to see if it was worth moving along a few kilometres, but the pontoon was filling up as we arrived.

On the way back, dodging the rapid cyclists sharing our path, I noticed the giant colourful ‘cotton reels’ across the river. Not sure what they are, but a colourful display nonetheless.

Early that evening we had a couple more items to buy at the shops, and that morphed into a couple of cold beers (and Sangria) at a local bar, segueing into one more drink and a good burger and frites at an other hostelry – a good time was had by all!

Back to the boat. It certainly is no hardship being here.

Over the days we got to know Ninove a little better, seeking out the remaining older parts of the town amongst the new. Two of the city gates still remain, appearing suddenly along otherwise relatively modern streets! Koeport seems to mean Cow Gate, but I suspect that is wrong. There is a story attached to it – when the town of Aalst, just down river, laid siege to Ninove they were desperate to lock the gate but could mot find the key, so a carrot was used to bolt it shut. A passing donkey ate the carrot, unlocking the gate for the invaders, and ever since the people of Ninove have been known as Wortels – Flemish for carrot.

We also went to the abbey, all that is left of what was a big monastic community. It is huge! Even the size and style of the confessional box is awesome. Outside some archeological work has begin to find the remains of some of the previous buildings.

We were entertained by the young waterfowl as always. The high call of adolescent moorhen, coots, grebes and ducks were all around. The adult moorhens were much bolder than I am used to in UK and happily stalked about on the pontoon beside the boat.

My walks often took me along the river bank and up to the next lock, just over a kilometre away. The locally typical weir mechanism, with its pulleys and chains, was a sight to behold!

We used some of our time for more maintenance and cleaning. Stewart got to grips with some painting whilst I cleaned metal and we both had a real go at all the glass!

I am realising that we are rather good at rewarding our efforts with a refreshing drink – this time at the swimming pool café just across the park. I have rather fallen for the Sangria, a 14% concoction full of fruit so that I can make believe it is healthy.

Dreamer behind Calliope

Two days before we were due to leave we were joined on the pontoon by an even bigger barge than us! Dreamer belongs to Frans and Meike, the latter being a WOB member, so automatically an immediate friend.

the second pot of mussels

After inviting them aboard for a few drinks on the first night we received an invitation back that could not be refused! We are asked to a supper of fresh mussels! We supplied the frites from an excellent local frituur and a red berry gateau from a local bakeri. They supplied and cooked huge pots of delicious fresh large mussels!

Later Meike and I went to see a street theatre / circus performance behind the town hall – all perfectly socially distanced. It was very entertaining in a typically French way, full of mime, acrobatics and comedy.

Throughout our stay we have enjoyed the changing view of the foot bridge before us. The shape of it lends itself to interesting photos against some lovely skies.

Bye bye Mieke and Frans

Finally we got the email to say that the bridge was now open and that next day we could move on upstream towards our next destination – so earlyish to bed, ready for our next voyage, and waving goodbye to new friends as we left.

Soon after we left Ninove we caught up with Piper boat Tadham Castle waiting for us at the first lock. We had a pleasant morning following them through a series of locks and bridges.

We were out in the country at last, with views across farm land, woodland, and left over parts of grand estates.

Waiting for bridge opening in Geraardsbergen

There was a bit of a delay while the lock/bridge keeper moved at his own pace from bridge, to bridge, to lock. Each had to be opened and allow us all through – and we had by now tagged onto a cruiser at the front as well. Finally we all arrived at Geraardsbergen, with its now famous newly opened bridge, just visible in the distance while we three boats wait for it to be raised.

This all took a while, and once we got to the final lock there was of course only room for the first two boats. Calliope was left below the lock, tied up, and allowing time for lunch.

The lock, when it opened for us, was in about the worst condition I have ever seen a lock before. The quays were topped with flaking plywood and the only things too attach to were plastic covered chains part way down the walls! Ah well, it all worked, and they seem well on the way to building a new one along side.

Soon we were cruising into our mooring place, the last space at the Geraardsbergen marina. I was glad I had phoned ahead and booked! We moored just ahead of Tadham Castle; this was fortuitous as they were able to lend us a hose to attach to two of our hoses, to stretch the 50 m. from the water tap to our tank!

Geraardsbergen is spread across two hills, either side of the Dender. A lot of walking up and down slopes is required! We had a couple of nights there, allowing Stewart and I time to sample several beers in the main square.

We also sampled the local ‘delicacy’, Mattertaarte, a sweet pastry, much lighter than it looks in the photo, with an interior of almond flavoured curd cheese – a sort of Bakewell tart without the jam. Our one meal out was far more global – Chinese.

As with many of the Belgian towns and cities we visit there are lots of wonderful old buildings. In Geraardsbergen there is also the original (apparently) Mannekin Pis, complete with a coronavirus mask.

(This is a completely random paragraph, thrown in so that I can show you our little-giant green grasshopper visitor who flew into in the wheelhouse in Geraardsbergen)

We had lovely weather while there, causing us to walk a mile or so to a Brico in the hope of buying a new parasol – our third attempt this year – but to no avail. You will continue to see us sitting in the sun.

one of the two large barges entering a lock ahead of us

When we left Geraardsbergen and arrived at the first lock we discovered that this time we were in a convoy of four boats …….

… two of which were massive barges, slightly unwieldy in these rather narrow waters and locks.

The lock keeper team who were travelling with put all four of us separately through each lock and lift bridge before continuing to the next one. We were the last of the four, consequently frequently in a queue!

Queuing became our new normal for the day!

The passage through Lessines was industrially interesting …. and we left one of the big barges there, shrinking our convoy to three.

Lessines looked an interesting place altogether and it was a shame not to stop their ourselves, but we were on catch-up from our enforced long stay in Ninove.

The éclusier team changed here, carrying us forward with some new faces. It sort of reminded me of days gone by when the team of horses pulling the barge would be changed; rest for horse and man etc. (You may not know that song – look it up – “Home Lads Home” – beautiful and sad, and nothing to do with barges!)

Rebaix

Calliope cast off from the convoy at Rebaix – a very pretty tranquil country mooring.

This was our peace and quiet at the end of a hectic day!

I went for a walk up into the village, then down to join the river further along, collecting photos as I went, before walking back to a perfect evening.

Forgive me for occasionally sharing my love of the nature we see along the way. At this time of year there are so many young birds own the water – moorhen, coot, grebe, goose, and of course duck – all with their own particular cuteness. At this mooring we also saw, but did not photograph, kingfishers and hares – the latter in a field, not the water!

The morning at Rebaix dawned as bright as the evening before.We had explained the the éclusiers that we planned to carry on to Ladeuze the next morning. This was apparently a little difficult to organise because of so much other boat movement along the river and its continuation, the Ath-Blaton canal.

But something was sorted, and they arrived next morning planning to get us to Ladeuze if possible. (Those’ thank-you’ cans of beer the previous day had been worth it).

Waiting for a new team at Ath

They got us as far as Ath – 3 kilometres – before having to abandon us outside a lock. We were told that another team would arrive in 20-30 minutes, so we settled down for an hours wait.

It is here that the waterway changes from the Dender river to the Ath-Blaton canal.

The next team, two young men, polite but slow, arrived and we set off through Ath with its lift bridges and six locks – all manually operated.

We were not clear of the city when it was their lunch time, so we were left at the bottom of a lock for a almost two hours; quite a pleasant place to be on a warm day and we had our lunch to eat too.

Our ‘likely lads’ returned and we carried on with our slow progress unit suddenly, at a lock, we were surrounded by additional éclusiers. By the time we were through the lock we realised that the team had changed yet again!

I flattered this team, talking them they were the meilleur équipe (best team) and they looked after us well up to Ladeuze. A few cans of beer was their reward.

The mooring at Ladeuze is lovely – a grassy bank with a few trees and picnic tables, plus everything a boat could need – secure mooring, water, electricity and a shower block – although all but the first were unavailable, whether due to coronavirus or other issues I dont know.

The other ‘institution’ of Ladeuze is Chez Gina. This local bar that has been run by Gina for other 60 years – she is now in her 90s and still to be seen sitting in the bar every day, although she has younger help to serve the customers. The bar is a museum piece, and the prices are almost as historic! It was the cheapest glass of Kriek I have had anywhere.

I took my usual walk, this time around sunset, along the canal then back through the fields; wonderful.

‘Breezey’ in our wake

In the morning the ‘likely lads’ returned, almost on time, and, along with the cruiser ‘Breezey’, we travelled to Grandglise. The first part of the day was still in the ascendence ….

…. but then at lock 11 we started our descent towards Blaton.

It was altogether a scenic route, starting with a lovely old lock house – how wonderful to have the opportunity to live in this!

Stu extracts a bike from the bike shed

At Grandglise, between locks 8 and 7, we said goodbye to ‘Breezey’ and crew and moored up for our last night on the Ath-Blaton. I chose to cycle the two and a half kilometres to an Intermarche for extra supplies – a more exhausting trip than anticipated. Must be my age! Or the weight of the beer, wine and mixers!

Despite this I went for my usual promenade around the area. Always interesting, but this time the only photogenic character was this cow, who was in a field at a level above my head!

After a quiet last evening on the canal, providing Captain with a chance to improve the cording to the red ensign, we settled down to a peaceful night.

yellow flower canal side mix

It was a good final day on the Ath-Blaton Canal. In fact it was a half day with just 7 locks within 2 kilometres, a couple of capable guys working with us, and a boat coming up, meaning that half the locks were ready for us.

I enjoyed the lock wall flowers, which get submerged each time the lock is full, and emerge, dripping, as the water empties out again.

At one lock I was concerned to watch a mother duck and three ducklings swim into the lock ahead of us! I made sure we did not crush them against the side, then looked on as the mother climbed out and called to her dizzy babies to follow. Eventually they did. But that was not the end of the story. Our éclusier noticed that a fourth duckling was now alone in the canal stream above the lock, and in a gentle way he herded the mother and three siblings back along the bank to find and join the prodigal son; lovely!

At lock 4 we had been told that we could take on water – and when we arrived it looked as if the lock itself had taken own more water than it could cope with! The lock was overflowing, with the mooring bollards surrounded by water.

Nonetheless we got tied up. Before we could deploy our hose we found an éclusier running a hose out from their shed, all ready for us to fill up as we went down. Somehow it worked, although I felt that ropes and hoses and water were everywhere in a tangle.

Just three easy locks to descend, and we were at Blaton – the end of the canal.

Blaton

We got a glimpse of the town from the old basin as we turned towards the Nimy-Blaton-Peronnes canal, one of the main arteries through Belgium, and the start of the next chapter.

Pont des Lilas – gateway to the Nimy-Blaton-Peronnes Canal