National Park Maasduinen
As Far as a Cannonball Would Travel
Ask anyone if they know of a big park in the Netherlands, and they are sure to come up with De Hoge Veluwe National Park. However, another park that is at least equally as deserving in fame is de National Park Maasduinen in the northern part of Limburg – just 34 kilometers southeast of Nijmegen.
The park measures 4,500 hectares and is flanked by several picturesque villages. As it runs a length of approximately 25 kilometers, there are several entry points to the park, many of which are located in the villages themselves, or along the route.
The park also has three official reception areas; one in Afferden, one in Well and one in Wellerlooi. If you go to the park’s main reception area, on Bosserheide 3e in Well, you will find a touchscreen, offering you approximately 200 different hiking routes, as well cycling, mountainbiking, horsebackriding and other routes – organized according to theme: through the forest, historical, art&culture, child-friendly, villages&cities, wheelchair-friendly, scenic, etc. In short, there is enough to keep you occupied for days. Once you select a route, it prints out a one-page map of the route, with brief descriptions of what you will find along the way, as well as instructions on how to drive from where you are to the starting point.
Clearly, from the moment you set foot in the park, you are in good hands. It should be noted that these print-outs are in Dutch – however, the maps and even the driving instructions are pretty self-explanatory. If you are the type that prepares in advance, you are in even greater luck: the park’s website has been translated into English and German – and all possible information, including a large selection of the routes, can be perused online. Here, you will also find accommodation if you choose to spend more than a day in the area (which you will certainly not regret!), as well as places to eat.
'If you run into Scottish Highland cattle as you make your way through a deserted part of the park, they grow in size exponentially as they approach you'
The routes that their starting point in Well will lead you to and around Reinders Lake (Reindersmeer), created by sand and gravel excavations in the last quarter of the previous century. Due to the uncharacteristic acidity of the water, which is caused by the presence of pyrite (or fool’s gold) in the aquifers, the water is relatively free of organic material and nutrients. Consequently, the lake has a beautiful azure color and is crystal clear, allowing you to look straight down to surprising depths of some 10 meters. If you follow the signs to the entertaining playground for children, made up of climbing material, ropes and wood, you come to a bridge that will take you across a narrow section of the lake, setting you off on a full circumference of it.
As befits a park, Maasduinen has its own version of the Big Five and your chances of running into a woolly mammoth – to be honest, these are Scottish Highland cattle, but if you are caught unawares by them as you make your way through a deserted part of the park, they grow in size exponentially as they approach you – a long-horned Dutch land goat, a herd of sheep with their shepherdess, or a flock of geese, are quite real. While there are also beavers, foxes, roe deer, bats, badgers, weasels and whole lot more. And don’t forget the ‘Little Five’ on land – which includes snakes, toads and lizards – and the ‘Little Five’ in the skies. Unfortunately, the one thing photos cannot capture is the constant accompaniment of the orchestra of birds – for there is a rich diversity of these, as well as of larger birds (of prey), which provide you with a musical background for all your excursions.
Maasduinen Park was created when the river Rhine and the river Meuse (Maas), still flowed through the area. As the rivers meandered their way through the landscape, they deposited gravel and sand, thus creating terraces. The first, or high, terrace was created 400,000 years ago by the Rhine and runs along the east side of the park. The second terrace lies between what is called the high terrace and the low terrace and was created 150,000 years ago by the Meuse. The low terrace is found along the current banks of the Meuse and was created 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. During this Ice Age, westerly winds blew the exposed sand to the east banks of the Meuse – thus lending the area its name; Maasduinen or Meuse Dunes. It is also these winds that are responsible for the unique shape of these sandbanks, which are also referred to horseshoe or parabolic dunes. As it continuously blew away the tops of the sand mounds, only the perimeters, open on one side, remained – creating the shape of a horseshoe.
The heaths that can be found spread across the park came about in the Middle Ages. The grazing of the sheep – whose dung was used as fertilizer – the mowing of the plants and the use of the turf hindered the growth of natural vegetation, so that the only plant that could survive was heather – fortunately the staple food of the local sheep. So it all worked out rather well, it would appear. In fact, there is something surprisingly moorland-like about the area; if you wander through the hills behind the village of Afferden, you could almost believe you were in the Scottish Highlands (and this is where you will indeed find the eponymous cattle), with the arid, sandy ground, the crunch of the dry heath and lichen as you walk across them and the wide views (on a good day, you can see as far as at least 10 kilometers, meaning your eyes can make a trip across the border to Germany) of deciduous and evergreen trees. This is the one place in the Netherlands where you do not see at least five church towers, wherever you look. In fact, going around 360 degrees, you see only one. If you climb up the Lookout Tower, on top of one of these hills – it does a bit of a hula dance in the wind – this will extend your view even further.
ORCHESTRA OF BIRDS
'Birds provide you with a musical background for all your excursions'
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, on a clear day you can see Germany from any high point in the park. A fact that leads us on a quaint little detour through Dutch history. If you look at a map of the area, you will see that the border between the two countries more or less follows the same path as the Meuse – only it lies three kilometers further eastward from the river. This would appear to be an interesting coincidence, were it not for the fact that it isn’t. In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, a number of powerful countries came together at the Congress of Vienna to draw the new boundaries. In order to defend the smaller country of the Netherlands against the powerful nation of Prussia, the decision was made to draw the border east of the river Meuse. But then the question arose as to, How far east? Which was answered using units of reference that were important – not to mention logical – at the time: as far as a cannonball would go, if shot from the river. Hence, the parallel meandering of both the Meuse and the border with the old state of Prussia.
For those of you who would like to go in search of a bit of tangible history, be sure to visit Bleijenbeek Castle in Afferden; built in the 14th century, it has since been home to knights, dukes and field marshals. This imposing castle survived the many centuries that followed its construction, including attempts by the Spaniards during the 80 Year War (1568-1648) to destroy it, until the British RAF was forced to bomb it on February 22, 1945, in order to facilitate the liberation of northern Limburg.
If it is cultured gardens you are looking for, then you can travel to Arcen Castle at the southernmost tip of the park. Its gardens occupy 32 hectares of the castle’s entire territory of 450 hectares and include a rose garden, a water and sculptures garden, a vegetable garden and their mountain garden (Bergtuin), with steep rock-faces, narrow brooks, grottos and waterfalls – including the Netherlands’s largest waterfall.
All in all, a trip to this part of the country is sure to be an adventure with something for everyone – and several days’ worth of something at that. For information on the park itself, visit www.np-demaasduinen.nl (and click on EN, for English), for Bleijenbeek Castle, visit www.kasteelbleijenbeek.nl, and for the gardens of Arcen Castle, visit www.kasteeltuinen.nl.