2016 Barging Belgium

Dog Aboard: 15/08 – 17/08


In some ways, our mentors from ‘t Majeur were our most anticipated guests. As fellow bargees we could look forward to in-depth and informative conversations about our shared lifestyle; we would benefit from their advice and example as the experienced waterways cruisers that they are; we might even get a chance to be mere passengers on Catharina Elisabeth. Most of all, we would have a pet on board.

Panache has grown up on Rebecca and Michel’s barge – brought onboard as a puppy. He’s a ‘Lagotto Romagnolo‘ – Italian Waterdog. Sure footed, easily trained, doesn’t shed fur, medium-sized and with a robust constitution – Panache is a perfect dog for a barge. Pets are common on barges, particularly for those who live aboard all year; dogs, cats, birds, goldfish – who knows what else? For those who come from a distance and only cruise for part of the year, pets are generally not practicable (although there are some exceptions), so visiting pets will be the only experience we will have on Catharina.

Panache on board ‘t Majeur.

 We had met Panache on our first canal voyage in 2013 and a better behaved and more friendly dog would be hard to imagine. After a couple of barks to greet strangers, they are then pretty much relegated to being mobile, potential laps.

His favourite spot, head buried in your lap.

As soon as you are seated, he is up close for a pat and his favourite spot is head buried in a lap where unless you keep petting and tickling his head, he glances up mournfully.

He’s comfortable and agile on board – very happy on the fore and aft deck, but sensibly cautious as he moves along the gangway from bow to stern. His favourite task is to help Rebecca or anyone else handling the ropes on the foredeck. At dinner, he lies quietly either nearby or in the cabin – but listening. When he can no longer hear the clash of cutlery, he is out, politely waiting for treats from guests. We were delighted he would be joining us for the cruise.

Given that Michel and Rebecca have been cruising for the better part of a decade in the Netherlands, Belgium and France we were thrilled that the next leg of our cruise, up the River Sambre towards France, was a cruise they had not undertaken before. So after a leisurely start to the morning, we planned to cast off and head upstream on what would be a quiet waterway – although a Monday, it was Assumption Day – a public holiday. This holiday was the reason we had to wait a little longer for our genny to be repaired (if it was even possible to repair it).

As it was a short cruise and we had the luxury of a car available, we decided to begin this year’s Quest before casting off.

The Quest of 2016: Episode I

Last year’s Quest was for cans of duck. It was, ultimately, very successful. Unfortunately, most of these are no longer with us. Fortunately, we did enjoy every one that we opened. (Ian packed several in his suitcase that year and brought them back to Australia, where, over a period of several months, we treated all of our children to dinner parties featuring duck confit.)

Nine cans of duck confit – should keep us going for a while! (Only a few left by the end of the 2016 cruising season.)

This year’s Quest was rather more prosaic – a gas cylinder. Briefly, we have a nice gas Weber 2000 for our barbeque meals (tr. braai for our South African readers) that we bought in the Netherlands along with a 9 kg gas cylinder. All cylinders in Europe are sold on an exchange basis (in our experience) so a refill means an exchange. As we were well into our second season, a refill was likely to be needed, especially as we were using the BBQ for many more meals while the genny scattered around in pieces.

The problem is that while the EU has dispensed with customs at borders, national currencies, national tax rates and sundry laws – gas cylinders are completely regional. No country will exchange or fill another country’s cylinders and, worse, the regulators can be different in each country. So, all you can do is buy another gas cylinder and may also have to purchase and fit a new regulator. That made no sense at this point for us in Belgium as in a matter of a few weeks (cruising time – but not until 2017 in real time) we would be in France where we plan to cruise for several years. So, what we needed, post-haste, was a full French gas cylinder and regulator for our Weber to take us through the rest of this season and into France for the beginning of the next season.

The quest began with an attempt to exchange or fill our Dutch gas cylinder. So the following morning, armed with Michel’s French and travelling in his car, Ian was taken on a tour of Marchienne-au-Pont attempting to find a compliant service centre, on a Sunday, to fill our Dutch cylinder. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this was ultimately unsuccessful, but Ian was treated to the spectacle of Michel explaining away why he could not pay for the full tank of petrol he had just gathered because both his Dutch bankcard and the Visa card he offered next were unacceptable. Lots to learn from that exchange! Meantime, Rebecca, Lisette and Panache took a long walk back along the river to the intersection with the Canal du Centre, passing the many abandoned warehouses and such that must have been an integral part of Charleroi’s industry days.

So, The Quest must continue.

Sunny cruise to Thuin

This was our path up the Sambre and we followed the exact same route returning.

The next day we cruised through some really pretty country, very green, with houses peeping out of the trees high on the hills that bordered the river. When Michel offered to take the helm, Ian quickly got off at the next lock and cycled along beside us for a while, taking pictures and videos. It isn’t often that one can actually get off while we cruise but with Michel’s experience it didn’t take him long at all to get a feel for Catharina.

Winding along the Sambre, overlooked by the well-to-do.

As we passed through the lock at Abbaye d’Aulne, the lock keeper told us the lock would be temporarily closed in a week’s time. A festival was set to take place along the river here and they simply shut down the lock for a few days. Lisette checked carefully to be certain she had understood and was certain about the timing of the lock closure. Our next guest was due to join us in less than a week and we had planned a leisurely cruise along this stretch of the river but this closure meant we would now have to plan and keep to a schedule. We would have to be sure we could get back through this lock before it closed.

Another problem arose when the éclusier asked for our number. What number? He became a bit agitated and a bit of discussion revealed the problem. We were aware that while it does not cost anything to cruise the waterways of Wallonia (in Flanders you have to purchase and display a vignette), you are supposed to be entered in a database the first time you enter the region; give them your approximate route; and establish where you will leave Wallonia. You can be checked at any lock and, as we were heading for France, this chap wanted to see that our route matched his database. We weren’t there.

What must have happened was that the ructions that happened after Geraardsbergen (in Flanders), with the unscheduled stop in Lessines (in Wallonia), must have disrupted their system. So they forgot to get our details on entry. Fortunately, our éclusier had the French view of bureaucracy and with a shrug, entered us into the database, falsified our start and end point and gave us our number on a scrap of paper “l’ordinature est cassé” with another Gallic shrug – broken computers are a fixture everywhere. Armed with our official certificate, we were now legally able to cruise in and eventually leave Wallonia.

The cruise was just lovely, meandering along, very green on the banks. At one lock, there was a family of goats, just hanging around, watching the boats pass through. Very rural and pretty.

War on the Waterway

And so to the last lock for this day, where we would arrive in the little town of Thuin (‘twan‘). We came through the lock and around the bend were faced with a bunch of men, small boats and lines strung across the canal. Concern soon turned to delight as we realised the group of men were jousting with each other, standing on small wooden boats pulled across the river, holding fearsome poles to dash the opponent into the river. Our planned mooring was just beyond the activity and, as we slowed down to work out what we should do, a man hailed us from a large commercial boat tied up to the left bank. He said we would have to raft up against this boat and wait until the jousters took a break.

Some sort of event blocking the path to our mooring.

Well, that was obviously not going to be a hardship! We had a perfect view of the boats and the activity but, after a while, realised there was a sausage sizzle and beer opportunity just behind the judges’ bench. So, leaving Panache in charge of Catharina, we clambered over the big commercial vessel and queued up for our sausages and beer. Who would have thought – a sausage sizzle in Belgium? And as all Aussies know, whether it’s the opening of Parliament or the launch of a new art gallery, there is no Event that cannot be improved by a sausage sizzle.

While walking to the action, we passed one of the historic trams out on display and it was probably taking trips (which we missed) to nearby Lobbes which is conducted on special occasions. Thuin is the site of ASVi Museum, which specialises in the trams that once were used on the Belgian narrow gauge Vicinal system. Although we did not visit it, the museum would warrant a visit for anyone with a little time.

The A9073 tram, manufactured by Electricité et Hydraulique in 1901.

The jousting was as hilarious as it was unexpected. We had heard of this taking place in the south of France in the summer thanks to a series Manu Fieldel (one of our resident French chefs who is often on television in Australia) but we didn’t know it is a very popular summer event in southern Belgium too. Water jousting dates back to the tenth century in France and was well established in the south by the sixteenth century. The event spread throughout France and nearby countries but was only recognised by the government as a sport in the 1960’s.

“Society of Lifesavers and Jousters”: Knock them into the water – then rescue them!

Basically, two small wooden craft are tied one each to the opposite shore of the river. Four or five people (it seemed to be mostly men but, later on, we did see some young girls having a go) get into each boat. They are wearing white shirts and pants, with a coloured cummerbund – blue or red, to signify which team they are on – the boats are also either red or blue. One person on each boat stands on a gangplank mounted on the bow, holding a long wooden pole, with a rubber cap on the end. The remaining crew bend over and pull furiously on the ropes essentially dragging the boats across the river, towards each other. The two holding the jousting poles aim them towards the other jouster and push them into the chest of their opponent. This often results in the players losing their balance, and tumbling into the water headfirst.

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A couple of things quickly became obvious. Firstly, we could see why fewer women participated than men – taking a blow to the chest would be very painful. Secondly, on a couple of occasions, the pole struck the opponent much lower down than the chest region, and we were horrified to witness a man just bobbing in the water when he surfaced, trying to come to terms with the pain from being bashed in the goulies and getting his breath back.

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The whole event is accompanied by much shouting and clapping, amidst the judges’ decisions: “Bateau rouge gagnant” or “Bateau bleu gagnant”. It turns out the last one to hit the water is the winner. Or the last one standing. There were about five rounds and the team responsible for the most dunkings wins.

After an hour or so of this, they were all ready for a rest and lowered the ropes so that we could cruise across, with our propellor held still. We pottered down a few metres and tied up against a low wall at the far end of the quay.

Drifting gently over the ropes – engine stopped.

Time for dinner. As we were too far from the free power points even without extension cords, it was to be roast chicken on the Webber. One of our favourite dishes – easy, tasty and succulent. About ten minutes into the cooking, the temperature began to fall. No more gas! We were out of options for this meal until we noticed that further down the quay, closer to the power, there were some other folks who had a long extension cord and a multi-outlet power box. We soon had arranged a power feed and were able to carefully (after blowing the fuses twice) cook the chicken in the convection microwave. We signed the IOU to Michel and Rebecca for “one Webber-cooked roast chicken” to be redeemed at a later date.

Pierre saves the day

The next day Pierre, Mr Deutz, was expected to attempt the repair of the diesel motor that powered the generator. He had arranged to come first thing in the morning and, around 9 o’clock, arrived with the parts for the genny engine.

The fault with the genny was a broken injector. Sourcing new ones was initially thought to be so expensive that a new engine was considered a better option. However, the helpful folks at DPS Power sourced some replacements (both injectors on our 2-cylinder diesel were to be replaced) at moderate cost. They had said that while they felt this was the problem, as Pierre had never seen the engine working, there were no guarantees this would be the fix. After a couple of hours, everything was reassembled and we gathered in the engine room, somewhat in trepidation, for the test.

Whir, cough, cough … but no start.

Repeat – the same.

Pierre gave the engine another examination. Ian looked around to the fuel valve and noticed it was closed. Oops!

Whir, chug, chug, chug, putter-putter and off she went! Slaps on the back for Pierre.

All good. Pierre did a bit more testing, checked the thermostat switch that stops the engine if it overheats and then packed up his tools. Just before he left, he asked if it was alright if he took a photo of Catharina. “Of course,” we said, puffed up with pride that he also thought she was a beautiful barge. Turns out, they always take a photo of a boat they work on in case money is owed. The photo can be passed onto the waterways authorities who can then impound the boat when they see it.

Actually, in this case, we had pre-paid and eventually, we received a few hundred euros back into our account because their estimate had been a little high. Good service!

Touring and war on the streets in Thuin

Thuin is a very pretty town, nestled in the valley the town has the main ‘commercial’ part on a level with the river and then the rest of the town climbs up the steep hillsides. Above us was the city square which had the belfry. So up we went. The belfry was closed, so we continued on walking tour through the narrow passages that separated buildings from the famous Hanging Gardens (Jardins Suspendus) of Thuin. A product of the terracing engendered by the fortifications the town once needed, the small plots, the stone walls that surround and the southerly aspect create a microclimate that makes them suitable for vegetable gardens and grapevines. The gardens cascade down the sides of the hill, full of plants, trees, flowers and vegetables.

The hanging gardens with a striking, perhaps even distracting, piece of contemporary art : ‘Silverado’ by Jérome Considérenant.

A little later, we walked down to the lower levels of the town, through a section that honoured the skippers of the boats that were home ported in Thuin. We sat down for a relaxing beer in the sunshine and watched the town go about its business. Today, that meant the gathering of a crowd of youths, followed by the wail of sirens as about half a dozen police vehicles rushed in cutting off the bus that the youths had hurriedly boarded to avoid the police. The police sorted it all out bundling a few of them inside their vans and dispersing the rest.

Apparently, a group of bored young folks from nearby Charleroi had come to town to see what mischief they could get up to – according to the chap who brought us our beers.  Seemingly, all handled with relatively little fuss. Were we concerned for our safety? Not so you would notice – instead, we all ordered another beer and settled back to enjoy the entertainment.

Some sort of disagreement while the group was getting onto the bus bought out the gendarmerie in force.

By this time, Lisette’s toe was causing her a lot of pain. She decided to scour the town for some medical help, with Rebecca providing company and a much better command of the language. The local chemist gave us a list of doctors who were not on summer holidays, and while looking up their telephone numbers, Lisette found there was a podiatrist in town, and Rebecca called to arrange an appointment for later that day. The wait was partly compensated with some retail therapy to pass the time.

Meanwhile, Ian and Michel decided to move Catharina closer to the power and water since the morning-leavers had left space. Instead of cruising, they decided to man-haul her backwards and around a circular fixture that jutted out from the quay. Hauling barges was common before the advent of motors when lack of or adverse winds would not provide a motive force. If you were well off, you might have a horse or bullock. If not – well you did it yourselves.

This is why canals have tow paths. Once moving, it’s not too hard but starting and stopping is arduous.

Now we were close to the power and to the one water point. Both free, as was the mooring.

A smiling Lisette and Rebecca returned from a successful visit to a very competent podiatrist – cycling across the bridge over the river and up the hill on the opposite bank.


To the Border

We had a relaxed morning as the cruise to Erquelinnes was only about four hours. We set off in warm sunny weather along the meandering river, dotted with small towns, framed by hills with houses overlooking us and passing under rusty old bridges as we leisurely cruised along.

Michel soon volunteered to take the helm, so Ian jumped ship at the lock at Fontain-Valmont and cycled along the towpath taking photos and videos Catharina Elisabeth and her four crew members. It was a wonderful experience for him to watch her chugging along, hardly a ripple in the water, just the faint cloud of the exhaust from the “smoky old DAF” (it’s a universal feature of these particular engines, very little can be done to improve it – the mantra is “if a DAF isn’t smoking, it’s broken”). A few videos follow including a longish one (about seven minutes) showing the operation of a full lock cycle in the lock at Labuissière.

First, a short piece cruising along the river.

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Next, here is a view of Catharina from above.

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Last, here is a longer (seven minute) clip of Catharina entering the lock at Merbes-le-Château and the full cycle as it fills and raises her a couple of metres for the next stage of the journey.

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We cruised onwards, past the dinosaur at Merbes-le-Château and arrived in the early afternoon at the customs quay at Erquelinnes. Again, disused as there are no longer customs checks at the French border, and the quay is unserviced. Not a problem – we now had a working genny!

Michel, Rebecca and Panache went on a walk to check out the railway station, as they would be leaving the next day, while we took a look at the boats in the Erquelinnes harbour that was just behind us. There we were pleased to have a quick chat with Lorna and Lawrence whose converted Humber Keel Waterdog has cruised through Northern Europe and Belgium as detailed in their excellent blog. They were just leaving in their car for a quick trip to the UK but we swapped route details in case we might meet later.

Back on board Catharina, we relaxed on the rear deck, chatted and petted Panache in relays well into the evening.

You stopped petting!

Tomorrow – France!

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    2 Responses

  1. It was our pleasure that Panache asked us to accompany him on this fun trip (and to be honest he needed a means of transport)
    We enjoyed it very much and look forward to that BBQ chicken one day.
    We stay on the list for first denial whenever you sell EC ????

    1. And we were thrilled he picked such convivial guests to bring along with him. Enjoy your sausage and potato meals this year!

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