Pauline - Unloved Countries
Member for 3 years 11 months
Ode to unsung places
DISCOVERING THE OURTHE VALLEY IN A PACKRAFT
1/2 day hiking and boating
Visiting the Ourthe valley is visiting an area with lush vegetation as far as the eye can see, traditional houses with slate roofing and hillcrests that culminate at 500m above the sea level. Mix this up with a packraft and hiking to round off your day with Luc Van Ouytsel, a keen hiker and enthusiastic nature guide.
First things first: pray tell, what on earth is a packraft?
As I mentioned earlier, a packraft is a boat that fits inside a backpack. You’re probably wandering how to get a boat to fit into a bag…indeed, it’s quite hard to picture the feat! It’s got nothing to do with a hardshell kayak: a packraft is a small, portable inflatable boat. Luc’s boat looks a life belt, and it is inflated by way of an ingenuous system: you fill a lightweight inflation bag with air, twist the bag shut, and squeeze the air into your packraft.
No need to bring a heavy air pump or start blowing up balloons to increase your lung capacity. It is as light as a feather (well, at least for a boat); the raft only weighs 3kg while the easy-to-assemble collapsible paddle hits the 1kg mark. And both can be packed into a run-of-the-mill hiking backpack. Once we’re equipped with our backpacks (provided by Luc), we set off for a day of discovery in the Ourthe Valley, first canoeing and then hiking.
The Ourthe Valley…or rather the valley of the two Ourthes
In the company of a merry band of 15 or so people, we start off the day from Nadrin nearby Houffalize. We walk through pretty flowered villages and the lush Ardennes countryside, which is looking its best in its late summer hues.
On the outskirts of Filly, a genuine haven of tranquillity for anyone looking for some peace and quiet, we take on a hiking trail that runs downhill all the way. Apparently, we are approaching our port of embarkation, and it is if I’m carrying air, I can hardly feel the weight of the backpack I’m carrying. After a hike of little over an hour and a half, the path suddenly opens onto the valley, and the view it affords is absolutely stunning! Below us the eastern and western rivers flow together and from thereon form one and the same water course. The water is calm, the sky is clear blue, and the temperature is just right…all the ingredients for a perfect day!
Assembling a boat in 5 minutes tops
Luc explains to us how to inflate the boat. Our merry band pays close attention to his instructions and then we all scatter the contents of our bags on the ground. First, we assemble our two paddles and then we get started on inflating our canoes. The fastest among us manage to tackle the task in 5 minutes tops. We catch the air in the inflation bag, twist the bag shut, and then squeeze the air into the boat, and then repeat the whole thing all over again. Bit by bit, the canoe starts taking shape. Luc is very attentive to our needs and keeps an eye out so he can lend a hand to the less gifted among us. I try not to take it personally, but Luc seems to think we need a lot of help!
Once our equipment is ready, we throw our crafts into the water, one by one. The water is pretty chilly so we do our best not to slip and fall in. As a precaution, and because I’d rather be safe than sorry I ask Luc if it is possible to go overboard or overturn the boat. “You’ve got to really want to overturn the boat” he answers mildly but nonetheless with an almost imperceptible smile. No need to panic then. Our phones and cameras won’t get wet, as long as we don’t fool around.
Rivers are no longer insurmountable obstacles
Serenely, we canoe towards the Nisramont dam. As we paddle along, our lovely surroundings work their magic. Green hills all around us, the cormorants are flying above our heads and we can hear the kites crying from afar. We are nearing the end of summer, and peace and quiet reigns here. We encounter a couple of other canoes but the river is definitely far from crowded. As we canoe along, the river widens and flows into the Nisramont lake. This expanse of water was formed after the dam was built in 1958.
When we arrive at the landing stage our stomachs start to rumble. We have canoed for a little over an hour. Lunch has been laid out on foldable tables on top of the dam. Once we’ve had our fill, it’s time to head back. We can’t travel any further with our canoes as the water level is too low downstream from the dam, because of the drought.
Beware, steep uphill climb!
The trip back is slightly more challenging. We walk along the river banks for 1 km before taking on the upwards climb. The group takes a break, while giving each other a pep talk and teasing the slower ones. The uphill climb is pretty steep, but mercifully short; after a couple of minutes we’ve managed to climb the hill. The hill path leads us to vast plains. A couple of grazing cows impassively watch us cross their meadow. The path winds its way between the grasslands before leading to the village of Ollomont. In this neck of the woods, hunting is an integral part of the traditional way of life, and we soon spot traces of this activity when walking past a huge abode decorated with twenty or so deer antlers! The charming village house - almost all of them with shale roof tiles - and the quaint village cemetery are picture-postcard beautiful.
We leave this charming village behind us, and take the last path through the woods. The edge of the woods comes out onto our point of departure, right where we had parked our cars.
The Hérou, one of the Ardennes’ iconic views
Before we leave, Luc advises us to go and take a look at the panoramic viewpoint located below Nadrin. Usually, he takes his group there to round off their day canoeing/hiking with a bang. We immediately take his advice.
Just when we thought we were done with hiking…well, not quite! We need to walk a bit more before we reach the famous viewpoint. The path takes us on another downhill journey, and the ground under our feet rapidly turns to rock. We take another path on our left, this time climbing steeply uphill. A little birdie tells me the viewpoint is that way….An extraordinary, craggy rock rises up in front of me. I climb up all kinds of natural hurdles to get to the top and there, bingo…I mean vertigo! The view is simply and utterly breathtaking!
The rocky spur forms a 1500 m long barrier, a dizzying 80 m above the river. As I stand on the edge of the precipice, I feel the world around me spinning and fight the urge to draw closer. Faced with this temple of nature, I suddenly feel 3 inches high…But the view makes it worth my while; we stay there for quite some time, enchanted by this unexpectedly stunning view, before heading back. Well, I never expected I’d experience vertigo in the Ardennes!
My top tips
A word of advice : if you want to enjoy this experience, do not confuse Nadrin (your departure point) with Nandrin, a totally different town near Liège, and a 45 minute drive from your meeting point ! Navsats tend to get them mixed up, so don’t take their word for it!
If you’ve taken the road with a campervan, there is a camper car park in Houffalize, where you can park your vehicle. There are service points for electricity, water and waste water disposal. Otherwise, there are quite a few campsites between Houffalize and Nadrin, among which the “Moulin de Renziwez”, or (more to the south), the “Camping du Bout du Monde”. And great news for beer lovers: the Achouffe brewery is only 12 km from Nadrin!