First, a word of caution. If you are looking for a gentle Sunday afternoon stroll in a pretty park with a conveniently located waffle-van, then the Verdronken (Drowned) Land of Saeftinghe near Antwerp isn’t for you. It’s muddy, it’s exposed, and there’s no waffle-van for kilometres. But if you are looking for a huge dose of fresh sea air, some peace and solitude, and a touch of wilderness, then it’s definitely worth a visit.
The Drowned Land of Saeftinghe is a vast 3,500-hectare area of the River Schelde estuary encompassing mudflats, sandbanks and raised saltmarsh. It’s hard to believe now, but up to the 16th century people used to live here. Thanks to the efforts of local villagers, who constructed numerous dykes, the region was fertile polder land and held four villages. Saeftinghe was the largest, with a castle, two churches, and a toll-house that charged shipowners for the use of the Schelde.
However, to prevent the Spanish from conquering Antwerp during the Eighty Years War, in 1584 the dykes were demolished, the whole area was flooded and the people fled to higher ground. Today, the place is a nature reserve and home to rare fauna and flora.
As the area is protected, access is only with permission, and you need a guide to navigate you safely through the gullies and quick sand. However, you can walk around the perimeter, where you can get excellent views over the whole region.
The nearest village is Emmadorp, where there is a car park, visitor centre, and cafÃ©. With your back to the centre, turn left and walk along the ridge towards the sea. Alternatively, turn right and walk along the southern perimeter, where a bird observation hide also gives you good views.
There are plenty of birds to see: immense flocks of greylag and white-fronted geese; ducks such as wigeon and teal; waders such as curlews, redshanks, lapwings and golden plovers. And, amazingly, when I was last there, a surprising and beautiful visitor from the Mediterranean: a great white egret. Even if you are not interested in birds, Saeftinge is an exceptional area to get away from civilization for a few hours. Just remember to wrap up warm and take your wellies.
For the kids – Useful websites where you can find out more about birds are Bird Life International, Birds of Britain, and my favourite, Bird Forum. On these sites you can find identification guides, quizzes, competitions, photographs, news and conservation issues. They are also very helpful for school projects.