Care to break a leg next time you’re out hiking with me? Develop mild hypothermia or suffer from heat stroke? You’d be in good hands. After four days of lectures, drills and simulations, I am officially Wilderness Advanced First Aid certified!
In December, Stefaan and I signed up for a four-day Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA) course taught by Wilderness Medical Associates International and hosted by Outward Bound Belgium at the Chateau Varoy in Anhée.
From 8:30am until 6pm, we broke limbs, burnt ourselves, fell out of trees, got hit by lightning, cut our arms, went unresponsive, developed severe hypothermia, had allergic reactions, experienced volume shock, hit our heads, choked, suffered from urinary tract infections, had strokes and heart attacks, … You name it, we had it!
Four intensive days of lectures and drills taught us how to assess emergency situations and provide medical assistance in the field. We also learnt to determine when an emergency evacuation is necessary and how to get a patient out as safely as possible, while also keeping ourselves and others out of harm’s way.
Signing up for a WAFA course had been on my mind for years, but it turns out that I am incredibly skilled at making up excuses. Medical conditions have made me squeamish for as long as I can remember, sometimes even making me faint. But with huge hiking plans on the horizon, it only felt right to do the responsible thing and finally take the course …
… which leads me to the big announcement. Two years after the pandemic cancelled my plans to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Stefaan and I will finally be setting off from Campo this April! If all goes well, we should arrive at the Canadian border sometime in September.
I sincerely hope none of my future blogs will include any of the techniques we practised during the course. But if disaster does strike, I now feel confident that I will handle the situation in the best way possible. While first aid courses aren’t cheap, that peace of mind is priceless to me.
Photos by Diederd Esseldeurs, Stefaan Van wal and myself
Our train ride back to the Ardennes for the Hoge Ardennenroute’s final section is livened up by a squealing toddler and an entire Scout group. With ringing ears, we digest the journey so far – along with a pain au chocolat – on a tea room’s terrace in Bouillon.
But the action-packed morning is far from over. A delivery truck’s side mirror taps a first umbrella, causing the entire row to topple over like dominoes, targeting the table of an elderly couple that manages to jump up just in time. Luckily, no cappuccinos or croissants are harmed in the process.
As we set off on our steep climb out of the valley, the tourists relaxing on the river in hot-pink pedal boats adorned with giant swan heads soon drop out of sight. Accompanied by the local youth’s speakers blasting Estelle’s American boy, we make our way up the grand watchtower for one last view over the old town.
At last, we reconnect with the woods’ solitude. A whole other range of sounds takes over: a finch singing cheerfully, bees buzzing past and a soft breeze rustling the maple leaves that shield us from the sun, while the river Semois leads us to an idyllic lunch spot.
The trail then hits us with a second long climb before guiding us through dense vegetation. By the time we reach the quiet town of Vivy, the muggy weather has made our water supplies dwindle. A local lady kindly fills up our bottles, while a jeep flies by with screeching tires, Belgian flags waving from the sides and young lads dangling out the windows.
The whole country is getting ready for the kick-off against Italy tonight and we could not feel further removed from the Euro madness. Following the match from the forest through texts and emojis from friends and family, we give up after the first half. Disgruntled boars trot past our tents all night, clearly as upset by Belgium’s loss as we are.
A less romantic version of nature
A blueberry bush graciously supplements our breakfast in the morning, while the fresh paw prints in the mud allow us to speculate who else passed by last night: a deer, some squirrels, a fox?
Through dewy fields we reach the town of Naomé, where a bench by the church calls our names. As we let our socks dry, we take another peek at the weather forecast and try to estimate how far we can still make it before the elements catch up to us.
“Do you ever wonder if we just romanticize nature when we’re in the city?” I ask Katrien, while staring down at my legs that have been transformed into battlefields by the nettles, ticks and horseflies, all eager to leave their mark. “Nature sure isn’t always kind.”
A narrow trail winds up and down along the Our until the Lesse takes us further towards Daverdisse. On a comfortable looking rock, we sit in silence and try to catch our breath. But nature grants us little respite: mosquito swarms have started their evening shift, giving us just the push we need to rush further up the hill.
Thrilled that the storm seems to have blown over for the night, however, we count our blessings. When we finally sit down for dinner in the beautiful forest we call home for the night, a hare pops his head around a rock. The moment his eyes meet mine, he shoots off into the bushes.
In the morning, a little mouse greets me as I open my tent door to find clear blue skies and pleasantly warm sunrays piercing through the foliage. We pack up and sprint towards the finish line, stopping only at an old mining site to marvel at how resilient nature truly is.
The multitude of mountain bikers and fishermen indicate that we are nearing Mirwart and with only five kilometres left to go, the predicted showers finally erupt. After starting our adventure on the Hoge Ardennenroute in the snow in April and bathing in the sun in June, it feels only fitting to finish during a summer rainstorm in July.
Having walked 278 kilometres through some of the most beautiful parts of the country, I can safely say that although nature may not always be kind, I would let it bite me all over again in a heartbeat.
Other blogs on the Hoge Ardennenroute
A week and a half after completing the first section of the Hoge Ardennenroute, Katrien and I continue on our way south on the 278-kilometre long trail. A few lefts and rights from Trois-Ponts’ train station lead us straight into the forest, where the crisp air and tiny snowflakes wash away society’s stresses and welcome us back for another adventure.
Disney to reality
We follow the ridgeline overlooking the valley and then descend to Lierneux, where we treat ourselves to instant coffee and biscuits on the town hall’s steps. In these biting temperatures, sitting still for too long is not an option, so we hastily hike on. The patches of snow grow deeper and deeper until the temperature drops to -6° Celsius at night.
In the morning, a furry fox shyly greets us before disappearing into the woods. In the afternoon, five deer leap out of the bushes right in front of us. We stand transfixed, as they run, stop, look around. Run, stop, look around. Run, stop, look around.
Crossing paths with more animals than humans in a day still awakens my inner Disney princess. Unfortunately, the fairy-tale is short-lived, as the shooting pain in my right knee serves this city girl a bitter dose of reality. When I can no longer hide my limp, we decide to leave the trail early. Biting through the pain, I hobble another six kilometres to catch a bus in Dinez.
Admitting that I am not okay does not come easy to me. While hitting the pause button to tend to my body is no doubt the wiser choice, feelings of defeat creep up. I tend to shrug off successes with remarkable ease, but when not reaching a goal I set, I am my own worst critic.
Luckily, the trail always provides. And this time quite literally so, as I suddenly spot a five euro note right by my feet. “Looks like the trail is buying us coffee!” I exclaim. “Or maybe even a Chouffe next time!”
Gnomes and rivers
Ding! The bell resounds through the bus, as we approach the stop where we left off. With a lighter pack and a rested knee, we are ready to hit the trail again with our newest hiking buddy Erik tagging along. Last month’s cold front has even made way for an abundance of sunshine.
We cross Dinez and head back into the forest. The Martin-Moulin brook leads us straight to Achouffe, where a giant red hat points to the brewery, famous for its family of gnomes representing the different beers. After months of corona-induced deprivation, we cannot resist the appeal of the Brasserie’s recently reopened terrace.
From Achouffe, we follow the brook until it flows into the Eastern Ourthe. A narrow trail curves along the steep slopes, testing our endurance while rewarding us with stunning views over the valley. Where the Eastern and Western Ourthe meet in the Parc naturel des deux Ourthes by the Nisramont dam, the forested hills make it hard to believe we are still in Belgium.
A row of yellow-flowered broom shrubs then leads us up to the majestic rock formations of le Hérou. Blessed with long summer days, there is no rush and arriving late in the day means we get this phenomenal viewpoint all to ourselves.
The rock in the Ardennes
We follow the Ourthe further in the morning, as it winds around a peninsula-slash-beaver-paradise. A steep hill then takes us to Le Cheslé, one of Belgium's largest Celtic fortresses. Legend goes that the treasure hidden in its central well resurfaces every Christmas at midnight. To seize it, you are to throw a black chicken into the abyss and take the treasure without saying a word.
After walking up a shallow stream, we reach open fields again, overlooking the rolling hills, farmlands and villages around. An airplane propeller resting on a stack of rocks commemorates the crash of the B-17 bomber The Joker after it attacked a German ball bearing factory in 1944. Our lunch break by the World War ll monument quickly turns into a nap.
Coffee and ice cream in the hamlet of Borzée wake us up from our beauty sleep and give us the energy to carry on to La Roche-en-Ardenne. Entering the town from atop the famous rock, we descend past the castle to the shopping street, where the scent of tourists’ laundry detergents and perfumes pervades the air. A likely indicator of our own odour.
The bustling square and town food are tempting, but we do not linger. We still have a hill to climb. As we ascend further and further into the forest, the evening glow radiating through the trees slowly turns the world bright orange.
“Is anyone still navigating?”
When I open my eyes, I notice that I am not the only one sheltering in my tent. A small army of slugs has moved in overnight, claiming the space between the inner and outer sail as their own. First order of the day: serving them an eviction notice.
The tall grass treats us to a morning dew foot bath, after which wider paths lead us to the town of Cens. Won over by the promise of artisanal ice cream, we happily waste an hour or two on the benches in front of the Biofarm.
The further we follow the river out of the town, the denser the vegetation gets. “Is anyone still navigating?” Erik wonders, as we bushwhack our way through. Blood-thirsty ticks attack our calves, but we successfully fight back with a pair of tweezers.
In Lavacherie, we leave the fields behind and dive into vast forests again. When evening falls, we reach the observation tower La Billaude, where a couple in their late fifties has their eyes glued to the pond, binoculars at the ready. “Have you spotted anything yet?” I whisper. “Not yet, but we have seen deer and wild boars here before. With a lot of patience and a bit of luck, we are hoping to spot a beaver!” he gloats.
We follow the trail all the way down to the river, where a small deer is startled by our appearance. As soon as we sit down, a more bothersome type of wildlife makes itself known. A swarm of mosquitoes terrorizes our feet, arms, backs and faces until we crawl into our tents. The sound of boars grunting softly in the distance finally rocks us to sleep.
The life of an adventurer
A sweet smell permeates the morning air. Berries, perhaps? We can’t quite put our finger on it, but it brings back memories from summers past. After a short descent, we pass the open-air museum in Fourneau Saint-Michel dedicated to rural life in Wallonia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fog wraps the fields in a mysterious cloak, making it is easy to imagine ourselves in the Alps with the high peaks hiding behind the clouds.
Having caught wind of a nice café in Grupont, we start fantasizing about our order long before reaching the town. Finding the café closed and the streets abandoned is not quite the finish we had in mind. “No coffee in this town, nor in the next, nor in the next,” a local confirms when he pops his head out to check who his dog is barking at so fiercely.
“The life of a great adventurer always comes with highs and lows,” I jokingly shrug, while killing an hour with nothing but boring crackers for lunch. With the dilapidated train station looking an awful lot like a haunted house – with wooden boards barricading windows and doors – we are pleasantly surprised when a train does show up according to schedule. A definite high in my book.
Photos by: Katrien Rigo, Erik Aerts and myself
Other blogs on the Hoge Ardennenroute
With the borders still closed, Katrien and I found the perfect recipe for adventure close to home in Hiking Advisor’s Hoge Ardennenroute. Over the Easter weekend, we hiked the first section of the High Ardennes Route from Eupen to Trois-Ponts.
Fields, forests and fens
We start our trek in the charming town of Eupen, where we stock up on the necessary calories for three days in the woods. As always, Ostbelgien instantly gets me in the holiday mood, as I pick up snippets of conversation in German left and right.
Paved streets quickly make way for fields and forests that lead us close to the German border before turning south, even deeper into the Parc Naturel Hautes Fagnes-Eifel. After gradually climbing for a few hours, the woodlands open up to a vast plain with bogs and heathland. Boardwalks guide us through the fragile Brackvenn, where we feast our eyes on the wetland’s undeniable splendour.
As we dive into the woods again, it dawns on us that we did not pass a single house since Eupen this morning. Even in one of the world’s most densely populated countries, there is still a piece of wilderness to be found.
For dinner, we relish one of our classic trail dishes: a dense mush of vermicelli, sprinkled with instant tomato soup and parmesan. This brick to the stomach not only replenishes the calories we burnt today, it also provides us with the fuel we need to keep warm at night. The temperature is already dropping noticeably, creating the ideal conditions to test if my new sleeping bag will deliver on its promise to keep me ‘comfortable’ at 0° Celsius.
“Excuse me, is there something to see over there?”
With sleepy eyes, I wipe the fresh snow off my tent. For lack of caffeine, I rub a handful of snowflakes in my face, which instantly does the trick as well. We are grateful to slowly feel the blood circulate through our toes and fingertips again, as we make our way to the nearby stream.
Just as we have filtered and boiled our water, sleet decides to spoil our little tea party. To our great delight, however, the ‘modest clearance’ promised to us by the Royal Meteorological Institute quickly turns into a generous one.
Kilometres of boardwalks in various stages of decay await us, making our hike all the more adventurous. Though the river running through the valley is picturesque, my feet demand my full attention. As we trudge through puddles of mud, unsettling memories of sinking knee-deep into dirt not too far from here resurface.
Apart from one other hiking enthusiast, we do not meet another soul until we reach the final stretch, where the ever-increasing number of tourists allows us to gauge the distance to the nearest parking lot. The renovated boardwalks finally grant us the freedom to look up and take in the stunning scenery.
Our admiration for the vast bogland seems to be lost on the family approaching us, however: “Excuse me, is there something to see over there?” Wildly unimpressed with “just nature” for a response, they promptly make a U-turn and drag their feet back to the car.
The trail leads us past the Baraque Michel, at 672 metres the third highest point in Belgium. Though the restaurant is closed due to COVID-restrictions, the bakery alongside it fulfills our need for takeaway coffee. “Have some Easter eggs, girls,” the woman behind the counter offers, while already tending to the next customer. Don’t mind if we do.
Our tent sails dangling over the washing line behind the property are dry in a jiffy, so we quickly disappear into the glorious pine forests again. At dusk, we are greeted by a deer leaping silently past and are swayed by the wind rustling through the trees. A familiar pattern repeats itself: after two hours of shivering in my sleeping bag, my internal furnace suddenly jolts into action, allowing me to finally doze off as my limbs defrost.
In the morning, we descend to Malmédy, where we treat ourselves to an Easter brunch of pains au chocolat outside the bakery near the town square. A greenway then leads us out of town to the Rocher de Falize, an overhanging quartzite rock that offers a fantastic panorama over the valley.
As we hand our camera to another hiker to take our photo, his wife instantly transforms into a true director: “No, not from that angle. You should get more of the valley in the shot. Come stand here. No, another metre to the left. Yes, now hold the camera a bit higher.” He meekly obeys her orders. “That actually looks really nice,” she proudly concludes. “Would you mind taking our photo as well?” “Sure, we know exactly where to stand now,” Katrien winks. Even though the lady assures us that we have “toute liberté,” I make sure to follow her instructions to the letter.
All day long, the people we meet on the trail are unusually sociable for the typically more reserved Belgians. We indulge in the small talk and stop for conversation whenever the opportunity arises. Our most memorable chat is no doubt with a man living in a trailer under a bridge. “You were camping these past nights? Are you ladies trying to become soldiers?” he chuckles.
The jovial and good-humoured man’s knowledge of the region is unparalleled. While we listen to his stories, we cannot help but notice his big toe sticking out of his torn sock and the bottle caps he sewed onto his coat for buttons. As we part ways, Katrien hands him some biscuits from our stash, which he gratefully accepts.
We follow the river Warche all the way to Stavelot, where decorations for the town’s carnival – the Laetare des Blancs-Moussis – are still up. On the fourth Sunday of Lent, locals parade through the streets wearing white robes and long red noses. While the parade was cancelled for the second year in a row, the traditional masks dangling from the buildings and shops still create a festive atmosphere.
Though the forest is lovely as ever, our sore feet turn the remaining kilometres in quite the torment and an unexpectedly steep climb makes our glutes scream. After a final sprint, we make it to the platform right in time to pull out the stove before catching the 19:03 train from Trois-Ponts.
Our pumpkin flavoured pasta is al dente just as the train rolls into the station. Gathering our belongings in a rush, we hop on, abandoning a pair of hiking poles in the process. All in all, a small price to pay for three amazing days in the Ardennes.
IC 513: Train cancelled. The bright-red announcement immediately strikes my eye. Fadi and I have just rushed into my hometown’s train station, all geared up for a night in the forest. “Now what?” I grumble, when the wise words of Gilbert Keith Chesterton come to mind: “an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” If that is the case, we must be on the brink of a grand one.
When the next train also disappears from the board, it is time for plan B. We stroll back to the house and declare the backyard our new campsite. Fending off my self-proclaimed tiger – a ginger tabby whose eyes are firmly fixed on the tent's fragile mesh walls – promises to be our main challenge tonight.
It is still dark when our alarms go off at 7 am. We wriggle out of our newly purchased sleeping bags – our main reason for camping – and make our way to the station for our second attempt. Luckily, the train gods are with us today. An hour later, we find ourselves in the German-speaking part of Belgium, meandering through the town of Eupen in search of the GR 573.
The trail leads us straight into the Parc Naturel Hautes Fagnes-Eifel, where an impressive collection of mushrooms is on display. We spot red ones with polka dots, brown and orange ones, white ones hiding between the moss and pancake-shaped ones with only the maple syrup missing. A pictogram tells us we are allowed to fill a 10-litre bucket each, but our lack foraging skills holds us back.
Instead, we follow the river upstream and keep ascending gently through the forest. The trees in the valley flaunt their fall foliage and when the sunlight hits the brown, yellow and orange ferns, I imagine this is the kind of place we are told about in fairytales.
"Do I have mud on my face?"
A little bridge leads us out of the forest and into the raised bogs, where small trails alternate with narrow boardwalks. “Attention! Boardwalk in bad state!” a sign reads and soon enough, the perfectly good boardwalks turn into post-apocalyptic versions of themselves. Staying upright is a matter of remaining dry or getting wet, a balancing game I quickly lose.
I suddenly find myself taking a mud bath, when one false step lands me knee-deep in dirt. The true depth of a puddle remains a mystery to the naked eye here. As I wipe some soil off my chin, I conclude that even accidental mud baths can be quite rejuvenating.
Our soggy boots pick up the pace when we reach the plateau, grateful to be on more solid ground. As the sky turns black, we rush to the Signal de Botrange: the country's highest point. We Belgians are known for our modesty, so luckily our highest point does not give us much to brag about. With its mere 694 metres, it is hardly postcard material. We quickly climb the small staircase that indicates its exact location and enjoy the panorama for a split second. And then the storm erupts.
Having grown up in Belgium, I am programmed to believe it is a boring place. Rich in concrete, low on adventure. Recently, however, a fresh pair of eyes has been proving me wrong. Ever since Fadi exchanged life in Jordan for that of a graduate student in Belgium, I have watched him explore my home turf with awe.
As we hop off the train in Pécrot – a mere 15 minutes from home – the first revelation of the day awaits: “they speak French here!?” The fact that my country the size of a peanut is blessed with three official languages is something I often take for granted.
Together with my friend Sarah, we make our way to the forest of Meerdaalwoud. “Look at these tall trees! And those ferns!” Not only does Fadi marvel at everything he sees, he also points out things Sarah and I missed: “Come see this! There’s a giant orange slug munching on a bright red mushroom!” No matter how well you think you know your surroundings, paying attention always pays off.
“The scent of the forest is amazing. Did you know that trees are great for your immune system?” Fadi informs us. “I read a Japanese study that said that forest bathing decreases the production of stress hormones. Trees also produce phytoncides. When these chemical compounds touch your skin or you breathe them in, they bolster your natural killer cells, which protect you from infections and help prevent cancer!” His enthusiasm is contagious and soon, Sarah and I find ourselves awe-struck by the trees around us.
The wide forest lanes slim down and the ferns grow denser. A small trail leads us further to the Tomberg. The term ‘berg’ – or mountain – is used loosely here at barely 102 metres above sea level, but the open field is idyllic and makes an excellent lunch spot. The tallest tree graciously shields us from the drizzle, while we peer into the dark woods.
After our loop through Meerdaalwoud, we follow the GR 512 from Sint-Joris-Weert through nature reserve the Doode Bemde. While manoeuvring around a giant puddle, Fadi clutches the fence, making Sarah shriek. “Whew, it’s not electric,” she sighs, when Fadi turns out to be unscathed. “Are they sometimes electric!?”
The hike continues through fields and over an elevated trail with flood zones on either side. Here too, a series of discoveries unfolds: “Is this a blueberry? Nope, it’s not.” “Look! A little frog sitting by the side of the road!” “Nettles sure hurt.” “Did they build this hut especially for people to watch birds?” "These little bugs are devouring an entire leaf!"
Sarah treats us all to homemade ice cream in the cafe of outdoor organisation The Shelter, while we overlook the Dyle meandering towards Leuven. “Everything is so green and interesting!” Fadi exclaims, when a stork spreads its wings in a field nearby.
We walk parallel to the river, where Fadi poses with his first remnant of World War II: a bunker. When we reach the Castle of Arenberg and the OHL football stadium, we are officially back in the city. After a cup of tea in Heverlee, we finish off with a peek at the Park Abbey before making our way home.