Now my bicycle odometer says I’m about 700km into the Tour de Nederland…phew almost done!
The last couple days I took a ferry across to some islands in the northern part of the Netherlands and rented a bike there that I could use for some cycling. The 5 Wadden, or Frisian, Islands are sandbars which stick a little bit more out of the North Sea than the surrounding landmasses. You see, in the north of the country you have a huge sea, the Wadden Sea, which is muddy, sandy, and barely underwater. It is extremely difficult to cross and there are specifically dug out routes through the water that are deemed safe for those ferries. On one of the least inhabited islands, Vlieland, I biked as far northwest on the island as possible and climbed on top of the dunes there. With no one around for kilometers, the wind howling, the sea storming, the sand blowing and my arms wide open I stood there on top of the world. It was an eerily similar feeling to 5 years ago when I stood on the top of a mountain on Ellesmere Island, Canada’s most northern island! There is such a powerful feeling that you get standing there, feeling like you are the only one in the world against this wild, untamed force of nature.
Turns out that this is in my blood.
They say that “God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands”.
60% of Dutch people actually live below sea level. How can this be? Parts of the Netherlands actually used to be very similar to those Wadden Islands that I described before. Very muddy land and very shallow water: above sea level during ebb and below sea level during the high tide. This led to hundreds and hundreds of years of battle against the sea by the Dutch. They got better and better at it, and tried to reclaim land by building dikes (giant sand walls) and pumping away the water that gets trapped. The land that is created in this fashion is known as a “polder”.
My aunt and uncle are “Moleners” – people who operate and take care of traditional Dutch windmills. Yes, I am actually related to these fantastic people! They gave me a tour of their Molens, got a history lesson and I learned all about the inner workings. I also found out that about half of the Molens were built to pump away the excess water in the newly created polders. Of course if you have all this low land, the water from new rainfall and incoming rivers also gets stuck there and flood the farmland. This continuous problem of having to pump away water was neatly solved by thousands of Molens.
But still you had massive storms which wreaked havoc when they broke through the dikes and flooded the polders. The Atlantic Ocean was essentially the same as the so-called South Sea which came into the heart of the Netherlands. This is where the majority of the problems came from. In 1933 the Dutch geniusly built a dam called the Afsluitdijk across this ocean. A 32 km dike across the South Sea, effectively shielding Holland from the effects of the ocean! I am proud to be Dutch when I hear things like this.
This dike allowed for control of the inner sea, turning it from a wild, salty ocean to a relatively calm, freshwater lake. It also made room from gigantic land reclamation projects, one of which created an entirely new province now known as Flevoland. Almost 400,000 people now live on this polder which was sea only 70 years ago. Today I rode around in this province and you would never have guessed that it was ever completely underwater.