BikePacking Ardennen: three days of sustainable travel

In 2019, the German outdoor brand Vaude was voted “Germany’s Most Sustainable Brand” for the second time. Since Antje von Dewitz took over the business management from her father in 2009, she set a very sustainable course for the brand. Sustainability and reducing the eco footprint became the most important goals in all business processes.

In fact, if Vaude can’t produce a product sustainably, they would rather not produce it. Vaude does not have the pretention to know the absoluut truth when it comes to sustainability. But from their own convictions, they are constantly trying to make a contribution and find out by trail and error how best to reduce their eco footprint.

With this principle in mind, we decided to test Vaude’s products during a Micro Adventure that was all about sustainability. With every decision we made, we tried to choose the most sustainable option.

It all started with the type of journey. Where would we go and how would we get there? Flying is not a sustainable option at all and generally speeking, neither is driving a car. So we went by bike, we thought. It had to be bikepacking through nature. And to challenge ourselves, we decided our route had to include some serious vertical meters. It was quickly decided that we would we start in the south of the Netherlands, for a 3-day Sustainable Bikepacking Adventure from Maastricht to the outdoor epicenter of the Belgian Ardennes; Houffalize. Or rather the neighboring Achouffe, where the well known Belgium beer La Chouffe is brewed. For this adventure we wanted to bring 2 sports minded and interesting guests, both with their own view on sustainability. We managed to find Wilco van Rooijen (alpinist, professional adventurer and sustainability pioneer) and Hanne Tersmette (Forest Ranger and Dutch media personality) ready, willing and able to come along with us on this sustainability experiment. Along with all our bike and camping gear, we took along our camera equipement to make a short documentary of the trip. You can watch the documentary or enjoy the written report below these lines. (You can scroll horizontally through the days).

1. Monday April 8th: Maastricht – La Gileppe

On Monday morning, April 8th, we take the train from Utrecht to Maastricht. We have our Mountainbikes with us, packed with tents, sleeping bags, drones, cameras, tools etc. At the Vrijthof we meet Wilco who has come to Maastricht in his Tesla powered with his own solar energy.

From there our journey takes us south, along the river Maas, to Belgium. When we are on the road for about half an hour, we have to cross the Maas / Koning Albert Kanaal with a little ferry. It all looks idyllic with lots of birds on an island in the stream, until you get closer. The birds in the trees on the island are not birds, but plastic bags and other litter. At the next stream we cycle past, we see traces of beavers everywhere. The contrast is huge.

The weather changes, but so does the terrain. And we are getting some serious vertical meters to deal with. Holy moly that is a bit harder..

Soon we want to eat something. What’s our protocol? What is a sustainable choice? We have a number of handles starting points. Of course we want to eat local products, preferably organically grown. Minimal meat and minimal packaging; plastics are out of the question. We decide to have lunch at the Brasserie Val-Dieu, next to the monastery and brewery that carry the same name.

Here we have lunch with a salad and we drink the most local product of them all; a beer from the local brewery. After lunch this we continue our journey, first on the well-laid-out RAVel cycle paths, and then finally through some real nature. The weather forecast has not delivered on its promise of beautiful weather and from 3 o’clock in the afternoon we get heavy rain. The Vaude clothing is doing really great. The fit is good, and it keeps us warm and dry.

The weather changes, but so does the terrain. And we are getting some serious vertical meters to deal with. Holy moly that is a bit harder with 10 kg on my frame and another 10 kg on my back. Totally rained out and tired from the first day we arrive in beautiful Limbourg, where we want to buy some food for the evening at  a local grocery store. Unfortunately everything is already closed. Except for the supermarket. Then we have to look what sustainable choices we can make there. It is interesting to look at and choose the products you buy with a different perspective, with sustainability in mind. We only buy vegetables from Belgium – of course without packaging – and some pasta in a cardboard package.

Back out in the rain we ride towards the camping where we will spend the night. As we leave Limbourg we are shocked by the enormous mess on the roadside along the local N-road. The roadside is covered with plastic glasses, plates, cans and lots of confetti. All remnants of Carnival that took place about 2 months ago.

As usual, the last kilometers are the hardest with a long climb with many vertical meters. We arrive at 19:00 at Camping de la Gileppe next to the reservoir Lac de la Gileppe. The campsite is deserted, we are the only visitors and even the owner has fled the site due to bad weather. We quickly set up the tents before it gets dark, put on warm clothes and decide we’ll take a shower tomorrow. Because a sustainable shower is cold shower and at that time we are just too cold. In the doorway of the blacked out dormitory we make our meal on a burner. The pasta tastes delicious and slowly warms us up again. After dinner we all go to our tent to sleep, because we are really tired. Our sleeping bags are warm and cosy. The patter of the rain on our tents lulls us to sleep. Tomorrow is another day!

2. Tuesday April 9th: La Gileppe – Hautes Fagnes – Signal de Botrange – Born

It has been raining all night, but when we wake up it is kind of dry. We quickly make coffee and wrap up our camp so we can leave. We decided to have breakfast later when we come across a place where we can buy some food. We all eat a carrot, drink coffee, het on our bikes and ride to the dam of Lac de la Gileppe. There we are hit with the the first flat tire of the trip. Followed by – you’ve guessed it – rain. We ride around the beautiful lake and suddenly we are in a kind of no man’s land. We are the only ones here.

We climb through the most northern Ardennes forests to where the Hautes Fagnes begin. This area is a unique nature reserve. It is a high moor area at around 600 m above sea level, but can be better described as an impenetrable nog with many dead trees, fog and 4,500 hectares of nothing. The yellow peat looks like a steppe. Every shower that passes over this area dumps its rain on the Hautes Fagnes. This water is filtered and purified by the peat bogs and by the underlying sand and stone. There are several springs in this area where very clean water is filtered from the soil for the production of the best Belgian beers (including Val Dieu, Belleveau, La Chouffe), but of course also for Spa spring water.

The Hautes Fagnes, no matter how beautiful and unspoiled, we now lovingly refer to as the “yellow hell”

The first part through the Hautes Fagnes is on a well-maintained trail. “This is not too bad,” we smile optimistically to ourselves. But eventually we also have to go straight through the bog. There is a sort-of path through the swampy terrain. Occasionally there are so-called “north shores” (risers) where it is too soggy to manage, even on foot. But it is not possible to really make speed in this inhospitable terrain. We still haven’t had any breakfast and that is starting to take its toll. We all eat a carrot, a tomato some peanuts from our last trip we have brought along, all to still the worst hunger. The Hautes Fagnes, no matter how beautiful and unspoiled, we now lovingly refer to as the “yellow hell”.

At approximately 2.30 pm we have finally crossed the Hautes Fagnes and arrive at “Signal de Botrange; the highest point in Belgium with 692m. It is not a mountain top and doesn’t command a beautiful view, but it does have a restaurant that stands next to a provincial road that runs along the border of the Hautes Fagnes. Because it is just under 700 meters high, the Belgians have placed an 8m high stone staircase to still reach that height.

Finally we can eat and drink something; we are exhausted. In the restaurant we eat a simple plate of pasta and an omelet. We do not know whether this is a sustainable choice, at least it is the only option to have breakfast (at 2.30 p.m.). In the meantime it has started to rain really hard and we still have about 30 km to cover. We decide to do these kilometers by road, because otherwise it will be difficult to reach our sleeping place before dark. The advantage of starting at the highest point is that it can only go downhill from there. With high speed we ride down the hills through heavy rains along busy roads.

At 5.45 pm we arrive at a local shop where we buy some local vegetables and some pasta for the evening. Meanwhile, despite our super gear from Vaude, we are now really wet and cold. When we arrive at the campsite, the rain is really pouring from the sky. It will be 2 degrees tonight, the tents are still wet from yesterday and we are completely shattered. I look at the faces of Hanne, Mark and Wilco and decide that we should take care of ourselves now. I ask the owner of the campsite if we can sleep under a roof somewhere. This feels very good and very bad at the same time. This doesn’t live up to our sustainable intentions. On the other hand, tomorrow we have to cycle another 70 km off-road again with 1100 vertical meters, and it is also important that everyone is a bit happy, otherwise this will be the last trip with this group. We don’t take a hot shower, but the heater is turned on a bit tonight. We can also charge our camera equipement in a dry place.

3. Wednesday April 9th: Born – Houffalize – Achouffe

We wake up, have breakfast with a hard-boiled egg, a piece of bread and some pasta from the day before. We pack our things and get on our bikes as quickly as possible to write a great last chapter to this adventure. Blessings upon us: It has stopped raining. In fact, a shy, watery sun is shining.

It is really a pleasure to ride through this beautiful nature and further deepen our new friendship

We continue our route towards Houffalize and Achouffe. The nature is different from yesterday and the day before. More the Ardennes as you would expect it. Many pine trees, beautiful forests and extensive hills with wide meadows. But again a lot of vertical meters, and due to the rain of the last days a nice soft, muddy surface. The atmosphere is great. Hanne, who sometimes had a hard time in the first 2 days, is very strong. Wilco is as always very strong, but I have worse legs today. It is really a pleasure to ride through this beautiful nature and further deepen our new friendships. What’s more: it is dry and the sun is shining.

We want to close off and celebrate our trip with a beer at the brewery of La Chouffe, but will we be on time for that? The brewery closesat 5 pm. Because we also have to film and because the terrain is quite tasking, everything takes longer than planned.

As we get closer to Houffalize, we understand why this is also called the epicenter of the Ardennes. Near Houffalize there is great rock climbing, mountain bike routes galore, rivers for rafting & canoeing etc. All because the hills here become much more rocky and also much steeper. Once again, the home stretch is hardest. We crave that delicious beer from La Chouffe, but first we have to climb for half an hour (and downhilll for 5 minutes) to get there. Completely exhausted we arrive at the Brewery at 4.58 pm, find the brewery itself closed, but luckily a restaurant is open where we can drink our beer, have a meal and look back together on a tough but super cool adventure.We have that bear,…and another one.

In the conversation that follows we conclude that the elements, the (weather) conditions have made it very difficult for us and that therefore not every choice has been the most sustainable one. Of course we have traveled by train and electric car (on self-generated electricity), and in particular by bike. We also used our bikes instead of cars for the production of the film. We went for a local adventure, with as many local products as possible and as few packaging as possible. We spent one night in our tents, but also an evening in a cabin with a heater. We didn’t use hot water to shower (only Mark, Hanne and Jimmy only showered once), and didn’t use soap. All simple things that are quite easy to apply in normal life. But we also slept one night in that heated house instead of in the tent. All in all, we have considerably reduced our footprint during this trip, especially if you compare it to normal life at home. And maybe, most importantly, we have had sustainability on our minds throughout.

So making sustainable choices becomes more difficult when circumstances are more difficult. Actually quite logical of course, especially if you project that to your regular everyday life. When the going gets tough due to lack of time, finances, illness, etc. you are more likely to opt for convenience, comfort and the easiest way, after all you have to take care of yourself.

In addition, we conclude that sustainability starts with you, and that in taking all these many small steps, we might achieve great things together. Just as we have all but destroyed the environment in which we live in many small negative steps in the past decades.

So together we have to start make sustainable choices. As a consumer in our daily lives at micro level, and companies and governments at macro level. Only then will we succeed in turning the tide and begin changing the world back into a something resembling a good condition to hand over to our children and grandchildren. Don’t you feel that responsibility too? Join us and start making the right choices today!

P.S. A big compliment to our bad-ass forest ranger Hanne Tersmette who we asked for this adventure and spontaneously said “YES”. Hanne, you didn’t know any of the three of us, and you sometimes had quite a hard time, but you didn’t complain for a moment. Respect! Furthermore, many thanks to Wilco van Rooijen for coming with us, your wise words and your friendship. And of course to our partners in this project Vaude and Belgium Wallonie, and to our suppliers Natuurmonumenten (that we were allowed to “borrow” Hanne for a while) and Specialized for using the great bikes! Thank you all!

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