Hello and welcome to the latest blog from The Olivia Rose Diaries on May 12th 2023.
Belgium may be renowned generally for beer and chocolates but in the boating world it has a reputation for boat lifts. In our first week in the country we were fortunate enough to have the Strepy-Thieu funicular vertical boat lift on the Canal du Centre as part of our route.
When a person steps into a lift it tends to be done on auto-pilot: we punch in our floor number and think about something else until the lift doors open and we step out and get on with our day. Driving a boat into a lift is not an everyday occurrence and the Strepy-Thieu lift in particular is a modern-day marvel of engineering. The best way to describe our lift chamber is to think of it as a giant bathtub filled with water. There are two of them, although only one was in use on the day we passed through.
Once inside the gates closed behind us, we attached our lines and then had nothing to do but enjoy the journey skyward. Each bathtub measures 112 metres long by 12 metres wide with a depth of water of between 3.35 – 4.15 metres. The lift rises 73 metres into the air, which is just a statistic, albeit an impressive one, until you’re actually inside it and can fully appreciate the ambition behind the achievement. We counted 72 steel cables on each side which pulled the bathtub up, counterbalanced by huge blocks of weighted concrete that sunk slowly down as we rose higher. When the electric motor started up it sounded like an air plane preparing for take-off.
The whole thing is, as you would expect, controlled by computers and monitored on screens, but the front-of-house human face of the operation was an impossibly young, albeit reassuringly confident, woman in skinny jeans who opened and shut the gates and took all our details. At the end of it we waved goodbye and exclaimed at what an impressive experience it had been. She gave us the weary smile of someone who has heard the same sentence countless times each day of her working life. I calculated that if she took the lift up and down ten times a day, five times a week for 48 weeks of the year, she would have 2,400 lifts to her name. Even the most incredible examples of human ingenuity can become mundane in the face of repetition on that level. I was grateful that I was doing it only the once, and so could remain wide-eyed with awe and wonder.
The next day we cruised through Charleroi, a different day entirely. I am fortunate enough to have never visited a war zone but the view as we reached the junction between the Canal Charleroi-Bruxelles and the Sambre was of a desolate place. A barge was moored up, a crane slowly filling its hold with scrap metal. The rubble-strewn land behind the mooring quay was littered with heaps of scrap metal and behind it, blackened chimneys stark against grey, sodden skies, was what we guessed to be a smelting furnace for scrap metal processing. Next to the barge, behind razor wire fencing, was a building that looked as if a bomb had landed on it. It was no longer square and symmetrical, but tilting backwards on its haunches as if about to sink into the land. The metal structure of the roof was twisted and buckled, the windows and doors gaping, the concrete walls scoured with toxic run-off from a roof that was no longer there, looking as if someone had spilt sticky black treacle down the front of it.
The Martinelle lock was upon us almost immediately, forcing us to drag our eyes away from the scarred and ruined landscape in front of us and instead to concentrate on the practical matters of getting into the lock and tying up on the bollards. From the lock we had a ringside seat into the Charleroi steel plant, the workings mostly hidden from view, encased in a series of massive box-shaped buildings. There was a constant thrum of machinery and, as the water gushed out of our lock and we began to descend, the steady thrum turned into a roar, a banging and clanging as if a giant trapped inside was throwing things around in a temper tantrum. There were no signs of humanity, apart from one small opening which put me in mind of a mouse hole in the bottom of a skirting board, where a dumper truck was being loaded with waste product from the furnaces. A digger tilted its bucket into the waiting truck and out poured a fiery cascade, burning red and orange like the coals in a domestic fire. The heat was so intense we could feel it on our faces even though we were a hundred metres away and the bucket itself glowed an angry orange even after it was empty.
The air had a metallic, malignant tang to it and for a second I was tempted to find one of the much detested masks that were part of the Covid years, but then the lock gates opened and we were off again. On the opposite bank were rows of small terraced houses, one of them burnt out, another with geraniums in a window box. A woman sitting out on her balcony despite the pouring rain waved at us cheerily and I waved back, trusting that the horror I felt that she had to live in this environment wouldn’t show on my face.
At one point the surface of the water in the canal became greasy with diesel seeping from an old tug moored alongside a concrete wall, the smell of it lingering in my nostrils long after we had gone past it, and everywhere there was rubbish: ragged bits of plastic sheeting floating on the surface that would have jammed up our prop if we didn’t keep an eye out for them, black bin liners swollen with gases from whatever was inside them, plastic bottles, tins, bits of wood, and even old face masks, flimsy and yet seemingly indestructible.
And still the rain kept coming. If I have ever had such a persistently wet and miserable day on the boat I can’t remember it. My old waterproof jacket was not up to this sustained onslaught and I could feel the rain soaking into my fleece across my shoulders. My scarf, usually such a comfort, was heavy and cold with the rain and my hat was saturated and had started to drip onto my nose.
Charleroi’s growth was fed by the coal industry, and it was at its height in the 19th century, when the mines in the Sambre valley supplied the heavy industries of steel and coal. As the coal mines closed down, leaving behind pyramids of slag now clothed in greenery, new industries in new concrete boxes began to spring up as the old buildings were left to fall down. Recyling had become the dominant industry, the bulk of it scrap metal collection and processing, the commercial barges forming a never-ending conveyor belt that moved the discarded elements of our human lives from one place to another, each part of the process further depleting our planets natural reserves and contaminating the surrounding soil, air and water.
Occasionally there would be a brief interlude of greenery and I began to breathe a sigh of relief that we had left it all behind, but then there would be another quay, another line of barges, and pile after pile of waste. One pile had been sorted into washing machines and was the height of a two storey building. I couldn’t begin to guess at how many households had taken their old appliance to the local tip to produce this mountain of scrap metal, how much diesel had been used to get them here and how much more would be used to process them and then take them to their next destination. A mish-mash of mangled car parts formed another pile next to them and between them stood a giant crushing machine.
The next day was no better. The number and size of the commercial barges continued to increase, the piles of scrap metal joined by similar piles of sand, of gravel, by rows of concrete blocks, even great slabs of broken tarmac. The glowering skyline was broken up by power plants spewing out clouds of vapour and our companions as we travelled were huge pipelines and conveyor belts.
The world was leached of colour and all we had were grey buildings, grey concrete quays and grey skies. The soundtrack was suitably harsh, the scrape and thud as diggers swept up their loads and tipped them into metal holds, the deep chunter of lorries and, as I write this blog on the quay in Liege with Olivia Rose being tossed around by the wake from the barges hurtling past, there is the constant scream of compressed air as workmen renovate a nearby bridge.
There have been a couple of times over the last few days when I felt myself sliding into despair at the thought of what we are doing to our beautiful planet. The River Meuse is described as the queen of rivers. In other more rural stretches of water she may well deserve that name, but here she was presiding over a kingdom that sucked the soul out of you. How it would feel to live and work in one of these factories, to spend every day shovelling scrap metal and breathing polluted air? I had always known that this section of our journey would be through an industrial landscape but I was unprepared for the stark reality of what I was now seeing. It shocked me and at one point I had to close my eyes for a moment and imagine a different picture, one of blue skies, green meadows and silence, and remind myself that it was still out there.
Tomorrow we cross the border into the Netherlands and will spend our first night in Maastricht. I hope the pictures in next week’s blog will be happier ones, lifting our spirits. These past few days may have been depressing, but they have also been an education, given me something to think about and when you travel full-time you can’t expect it to be constantly wonderful. The contrast only serves to heighten the appreciation when things get better. And maybe next week the sun will come out – it has been sorely missed!
See you soon.
12 thoughts on “A week of wonder and despair”
Hello again. We are just40 miles N of you, completing repairs at Stevensweert (YCS), close toMaasbracht ( where you’ll find a good mooring, excellent Baker & a PLUS supermarket & much else). Intend to cast off later today or Saturday. 🤞Hope we see you along theMaas. For balm after the Charleroi experience, look up River Linge (short & peaceful). Will keep in touch. – on Libellule.
Hi Lesley. We are in Maastricht, yay! Probably stay two nights and then up to Stevensweert. Thank you for tip on the Linge. I just looked it up and it looks gorgeous. A balm indeed. Hopefully catch up with you soon.
we have been on this section of the Maas in 2017, when we bought Henriette and went down to the RhÃ´ne. The evening in Maastricht was our very first evening on our way with Henriette! We moored right in the middle of the river next to the quai wall that leeds to the bridge. Not very quiet with the barges and the waves â but we were so excited and happy! What is your plan now in the Netherlands?
If you go to Friesland, we can recommend you to download the navigation software from Stentec in the google Appstore. The company is from Heeg, Friesland, and just the Section of Friesland is for free. But it is very detailed and good. You can easily find the free Marrekrite Moorings.
you can find everything about these free moorings.
We are still on the âHavelâ, soon arriving on the âElbeâ. We have done 120 km so farâ¦ We enjoy this very natural river and finally the weather is good! We are biking a lot and discover this region of our country we did not know at all.
Enjoy you time in the Netherlands!
Melanie and Matthias
Hi Melanie. We’re moored exactly where you were. Have been to the market and treated Olivia to a hanging basket and cookies for us! We’re heading on up the Maas towards Gouda and Amsterdam but exact route not fixed yet. Have just had a recommendation for the River Lunge which looks idyllic so will include that if we can. Thanks for tips on Friesland. Not sure if that will be this year or next.
Wow, that lift is amazing – what a feat of engineering! I would have loved to see it move!
Hi Mike. Yes it was an amazing experience.
We’re very lucky.
That boat lift is amazing! But I can see why you were despairing while cruising through that desolate landscape. What dreadful things we’ve done to our planet. We are shielded from the industrial realities down here in leafy SW France, so it’s a salutary lesson to us. Wishing you happier cruising after the horrors of Charleroi!
Hi Vanessa. We are moored up in Maastricht in The Netherlands and feeling much better! And a tiny patch of blue sky.
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What a week of highs (literally) and lows. Amazing feat of engineering in that boat lift. The industrial landscape through which you sailed was indeed depressing. The thought that came to mind is that there are places like this all over the planet and they are usually tucked away from population centers, rightly so, but as they say, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ so there isn’t the push to clean up the polluting mess. It does create despair that humans are really a terrible species. 😦
Hi Eliza. I think you are right. So often these places are out of sight. The human race needs to do better! MJ
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And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these[c] dark Satanic Mills?
Does this ring any bells, and how about Lowry’s drawings of industialised England. At times I am not certain that mankind deserves to live on this planet. It is not only how we treat the planet but also how we treat each other, especially in places like Ukraine and Western China. Can we have a more cheering input next week. Please do not be put off by my comments, you as ever paint a vivid picture with your words.
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I promise there will be no dark satanic mills in next blog Antony! We had blue skies briefly this afternoon and there is much to look forward to. An uplifting theme next week! MJ