A journey through the hidden and dark history in the Netherlands

Every country has it’s black pages in the history books. Sometimes all evidence is erased, sometimes statues or memorials remember us from these dark times. In our case the history is hidden. Small pieces are found here and there, even though they are hidden under a thick layer of sand. This is a journey into the dark history of The Netherlands.

A month ago Eveliene asked me if I wanted to go on a trip with her. A journey where we would go on a search for pieces of WW2 history; a search for bunkers built by the Germans during the occupation. The Netherlands was part of a project called “The Atlantic Wall” where a chain of bigger and smaller bunkers was built to stop an allied invasion. Plans where made, dates where set, but sadly in the end Eveline was busy with other awesome projects. (Check her website, she gives some great tours in Haarlem!) I decided to pack my bag, load up the bike and go on a little solo adventure!

The start of this journey was at the “Hoek van Holland”,  about 80 kilometers southwest of Amsterdam. Around two kilometers landward there was a place hidden in a forest close by that I was eager to see. Cycling trough the sunshine I approached the forest. Birds where singing, old people where riding their E-bikes and I was exciting for the history to unfold itself. The first bunkers I encountered where two small ones hidden in the sand. It has been 70 years ago they’ve been built and nature is taking over. The structures where built in a way they could stand the most tough weather conditions for years on end. But these where not the ones I was so eager to see.

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I cycled further into the forest,  not knowing what to expect. While cycling and searching for the dot on the map in the book I previously bought I saw it. It was enormous!

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I counted two, three, four, five… I think there were about 15 bunkers made out of armored steel and concrete, standing there, looking at me, silent and breathless. 70 years ago there were two headquarters of a regiment of infantry and one artillery bunker. There was a hospital bunker, two ammo storages, an eating quarter and more housing units. I can’t imagine how the people must’ve been living there. A concrete brick as a house, cold and practical without any form of decoration. For me, it felt like alien spaceships landed and turned into stone.

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All of them where closed down, so sadly I could only check the outside of these giants. These blocks of concrete are now the houses of huge colonies of bats. Next to this there are certain types of endangered and specific mosses growing on them. Without knowing, the Germans made a great habitat for flora and fauna.

Strong headwinds made sure I wasn’t going north too fast. Because of this I found some bunkers hidden in the dunes not too far from The Hague. When checking them out one thing popped in my mind. “This would be an awesome place for the night!” And so it was. When the sun had set, a small bunker on top of a dune became my roof for the night. With a full moon shining trough the broken concrete and my own little Atlantic wall for my candles this was the blueprint for a great night of sleep.

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Next morning I would search for a whole line of bigger and smaller buildings. Maybe ten, maybe 50, maybe just five. For some I had to climb over fences, go trough forbidden zones or crawl trough small holes in the concrete.

On the south side of The Hague I found the first one, hidden in the dunes. It was closed but a little stairway into the ground revealed some hidden rooms.

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The rooms and hallways where filled with trash, beer cans and other shit. Nothing left of their spirit. It was exciting to explore these dark and damp rooms but sad as well. It showed my how people deal with importent things from history. When there is no wall around it, people come and use it as a dumpster.

With dark skies around me I peddled to the north of The Hague, to see some real fat basterds. The Hague was an important town; many high placed nazi’s took residence over there. With this information, the town had to be hugely defended from an upcoming invasion by the allied forces. Therefore a line of huge structures was set up. Some of them had radars within, others canons. Now the biggest colony of bats in Europe lives in these concrete buildings.

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In February 1944 a small group of six French commando’s came ashore deep in the night. Their objective was to go inward and scout the landmarks and dunes for a future invasion. An English ship left them with a rubber boat close to the shore and would pick them up next morning. In the night the German patrol saw there was activity on the beach or in the water and fired some red and green flares to see what was happening. At sea the English ship sees the flares, but doesn’t act, afraid of being spotted. There was shouting and screaming and they see German flashlights on the beach towards the landing place of the six. Next morning at dawn the six are not at their meeting point and the English ship leaves back to the U.K. without the six. When darkness sets in again, the plan was to go back for the six commando’s. The weather was very bad and very stormy so the ship was unable to sail out. In the darkness of the  morning, the German patrol hears screaming from the sea once again. They go onto the beach to only see a rubber boat with three dead bodies. Later that day the other three bodies of the French commando’s would drift ashore. This was later called: “Wassenaarse Slag“.

Other bunkers didn’t reveal themselves as easy as the ones in The Hague. Or where behind a fence, but I guess a true bunker-explorer doesn’t get get stopped by something as small as a fence. The Germans also knew this, but in stead of bunker-explorers in the future they where thinking about allied tanks. To stop them you’ll need a wall. An quite long and thick wall. Here and there remains of these walls are still visible. For me it’s a weird idea; a wall trough a national park, almost dividing the nature.

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Straight trough the national park “Zuid Kennemerland” the wall is built. Many of these walls remain because they are hard to clean up. I guess they would do a pretty good job holding back tanks, if they even stand today.

After all these discoveries it was time to find a place to rest my head again. Although there were no more bunkers to be spotted, and all the bunkers I previously saw where closed or incredibly dirty. Cycling trough the treeless dunes I knew this was going to be a challenge for me and my tarp. Rain was suspected so a covered sleeping place was desired to spend the night kind of OK. And best a place with not too many people. By now it became dark, so I decided to use the good old tactic of just going into a small road that leads away from the big road. Within a couple of minutes I found myself surrounded by small trees. When I walked into a random flock of trees my eye fell on something. It was not a bunker, but it was the perfect spot for me, my tarp and some good dreams.

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This little hut was probably made by kids

During these days I’ve learnt a lot about the history of our little country. I’ve seen leftover pieces of these black pages, slept in them, felt them and seen what they mean nowadays. I can only imagine how it feels when your land, your home is invaded by others. Rules are pushed upon you and your old way of life is forbidden all of a sudden. You find yourself at war, you can’t trust your neighbor and “police” are coming for your friends. This is still happening everywhere, and we can just be happy that we live in freedom. I’m glad the bunkers are still here to remind us of our freedom. They will slowly fade, but the memory will not.

"Back to the silent beach; side issues blow away. Sea flows trough the dunes; surf rustles in the crown. Here is space; to love.

“Back to the silent beach; side issues blow away.
Sea flows trough the dunes; surf rustles in the crown.
Here is space; to love.

Have a look at my Facebook page for other journeys and plans!

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Your next door adventurers – Part one

You know that guy living next door? With his motorbike? Yeah, the one who is never at home in the summer. Also he is gone during the winter vacations. Actually he is gone during most free days. Setting off towards exotic destinations. Or maybe the national park around the corner, who knows? This is what I call “The next door adventurer”.

In this piece I’ve interviewed your neighbors. People like you and me, who made journeys of every kind. By bike, by motorbike, with and without backpack. With a camper or with a transport van. They talk about their journeys and give you some tips ’n tricks on travelling. This is part one, enjoy!

Isa (26)

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Erwin: Hey Isa, what kind of journeys did you make?

Isa: During the years I’ve made different journeys; of course the random vacations towards France (edit. every Dutch person does this). I also joined a friend for a photo project in Bosnia, but my big trip was in 2013. That was a journey to Australia and New Zealand. This journey took nine months in total.

E: What did you do during your journeys?

I: Well, I always try to link a goal to a journey, in stead of just going somewhere for the sake of going there. The project in Bosnia was the first journey with a goal. Together with a befriended photographer we tried to give a positive impulse in the country. It was totally ripped during the war over there, we tried to add some positive impulses by photographing positive things. We went to a all-girl soccer team, but also to a political cafe for the youth. They tried to fight the corruption on their schools for example, where you can buy good grades. By making journeys this way, you meet totally different people and get to special places you’ve otherwise wouldn’t meet. I want to meet people that inspire me, and where I’m able to learn from.

E: How did you get around during your journeys?

I: Hitchhiking, cycling, hiking, renting a camper, renting a car, camping, basically everything.

In New Zealand a lot of people go round with a campervan, it gives you loads of freedom. Way more then with public transport or even with a car. With a car I’ve noticed you tend to stay on the big roads, and with a campervan you’ll be able to find some more awesome spots. Cycling is a bit too slow for me in New Zealand, with a campervan you’re able to see some more of those sweet spots.

E: And you’ve also been travelling on a bicycle?

I: Haha, yeah! I did a tour trough the Netherlands with a 40 year old bike, still with the original tires. After 32 kilometers the gears broke down, so I had to walk to a bike fixer. Luckily there was a camping spot next by so the next day my bike was fixed and I was ready to go again. I really liked this; just grab a bike, ask your neighbor for a cart and go!

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E: Is this your style, low budget and take what is available?

I: I would say it’s more impulsive, I just do what I want at that moment. Just following an idea. Maybe this makes me a little naive too, though. For example, when I was cycling in the Pyrenees I had totally wrong gear inches, so it took me all my energy to get up that mountains! But then again, it was kind of funny to get in a situation like that, and find your way out of it.

E: Do you have a tip for other travellers?

I:  Well, I believe very strongly in intuition. If you want to do something, just do this and don’t let yourself be distracted by your own thoughts, surroundings or even your family. If you have a certain feeling that you want to do something, something comes your way what makes it doable. If you follow your feeling, you’ll find something good on your path. It will always be OK.

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Creatures in New Zealand – Picture by Isa

Remco (42)

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Erwin: Hey Remco, what kind of journeys did you make?

Remco: Well, it started with a couple months of backpacking trough South America. Then Eastern and South Africa. And from Egypte trough Syria to Turkey. I went to India and some other countries in South East Asia. Then I went by motorbike to the Sahara desert. But before motorbiking I was backpacking, and travelled with public transport. Always in between the locals, that was great!

But travelling by motorbike was the best. I wanted to make a really long journey, but decided to make a “short” journey at first, to see if I liked it. I left a week after I got my motorbike license, to ride for Marocco. It was so different then the backpacking I did before! Hostels, carrying around all your stuff on your back, getting taxi’s to airports, I didn’t like that too much. And when you’re dependent on the public transport you mostly miss the great nature area’s like national parks. Basically, you’re less free.

E: So you chose for a motorbike

R: Yeah! Backpacking costs a lot of energy, sometimes it costs a lot of time to go to a nice natural area, with a motorbike its way easier!

E: Yeah, but you can also do this with a campervan, right? Why did you take a motorbike to make journeys?

R: Well, my original idea was to cycle round the world. At some point I got two Couchsurfers over, and they came with their motorbikes, touring trough Europe. I saw this, and thought: “damn, this looks awesome!” The prospect of ploughing for days on end trough the hot desert, or cycling up huge mountains didn’t really appeal to me actually. I’d rather take those roads with a motorbike, that’s way more fun in my opinion.

Travelling in the Atlas mountains - picture by Remco

E: It seems you’re not really searching for something extreme or finding your limits.

R: No, thats right, I think you can see way more when you’re on a motorbike then on a bicycle for example. You can just take a 80 km detour to see a nice site and follow your planned route later on. With a bicycle this is a bit harder, so I think you’re more route dependent. With a motorbike you’re more flexible.

And next to this, I love being on a motorbike! I had no clue what I started when I got my drivers license, but after a week of tiny tours I knew I was ready for a big one!

E: Do you have some tips for people who want to explore the world on a mechanical horse?

R: For sure! There are loads of forums and online communities for motor travellers. One of the most important forum is “Horizons Unlimited”. It’s from two Australians who started in 1987 with motorbike travelling. They travelled for 12 years around the world. They started the forum to share their knowledge and now they organise (especially in the summer) monthly meet ups around the world. At these meetings long distance motor bike travellers come together. I’ve seen people in Germany coming all the way from New Zealand with their old rusty but trusty bikes. Sadly these meetings don’t find place in the Netherlands, but they do in Germany, Hungary, the UK, the USA, Australia and more.

And I have an extra tip! If you have the idea to make a journey, be it on a motorbike, on foot or by any other mode, just go for it. Don’t let the idea float around in your head, really go for it! If your idea sounds awesome to you, it will be.

This is in Iceland, where he took his iron horse for a ride - Picture by Remco

This is Iceland, where he took his iron horse for a ride – Picture by Remco

Remco currently is on a little tour again, from his hometown of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, to Mongolia. Of course with his beloved motorbike. I will try to interview him now and then about this awesome journey.

In the meantime you can like my Facebookpage and keep track of this space for the next part!

Guestpost – It’s hard living a dream.

It’s been a while I’ve posted or written something. But now I have something special in store for you, a guest post from adventurer Henk van Dillen about his 15.000+ km cycling trip from Rotterdam to Singapore. Rip it away Henk! 

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My bicycle is standing against a motorcycle. I just bought an iced coffee on a local market. I use the plastic holder to hang the iced coffee on my handle bars. I jump on my bicycle and cycle my way on the paved road in between palm trees. It’s hot. Even in winter in Thailand it’s hot. These people living here have never seen snow. At least the people here in the local villages. They don’t seem to care. Maybe they don’t even know.

Don’t know? Well, I also don’t know. I kinda lost the fun in this. Yesterday was the same. The day before yesterday. Today. What am I doing anyway?

I take a sip from my iced coffee. It’s delicious.

Three days ago I had a conversation with a backpacker. He was complaining that Thailand has become too touristy. I told him that he might consider to buy a bicycle or do some hitchhiking to make his travels more interesting. He refused. Too much risk for him. You know, I don’t blame him for choosing comfort but damn boy, stop whining that Thailand is too touristy. Throw your Lonely Planet out and get off that beaten track! He told me that he liked the comfort in the hostels. Camping might be too dangerous with all that creepy animals in the jungle. And what about musquitos?

You’ve got to be kidding me!

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I try not to complain. And to be honest, I don’t care. Dirty food, dirty toilets, creepy spiders, itchy mosquito bites, sweaty nights, dirty water, dirty people. I try not to judge either. People are nice to me. Like they say a lot in Thailand: “Everything purfect!”

Perfect? No, not at all. I don’t feel perfect in many ways.

“Hey Henk! You’re living the dream man! You have to feel good right now. You’re off the beaten track!”

I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s so weird. Tears start to roll down my cheek. What is it what I’m feeling? I’m cycling but I am crying. I don’t feel bad. I don’t feel good either. It’s just that, it’s an intense feeling. Do I feel alive? How? Am I tired? Why? Why the hell am I crying? Is it the feeling of happiness? Is this the feeling of perfect life? Is this the feeling of a dengue fever? I really don’t know. Is this even what I want to do? Off course it is, isn’t it? Pedalling. Cycling. Another day. In another month. Stunning landscapes. But do I care? The sun deep in my red skin. Sweat along every part of my body. Pushing for hours and hours. To get there. But where?

I take another sip of my iced coffee.

Am I tired? No I’m not. Is it all too much? No it probably isn’t. But what is that I feel? Maybe loneliness?

The last 10 months I cycled from the Netherlands to Thailand on my rebuild second hand bicycle. Through mountains, seasides, deserts, winters, highlands, beautiful nights, horrible colds and almost every weather condition you can think of. From being robbed to having the most unexpected great generosity I even didn’t know existed. I might already have what I want but I’m still on the road. Lugging for more. More experience, more happiness, more sadness, some more of that addictive drug. That adrenaline. I have a goal within this trip. I need to achieve something. My journey isn’t finished until I got there. Where? In Singapore.

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But today. I don’t know. It’s that weird day again. I just don’t know what I’m trying to make clear in my mind. All I know is that someone is cycling and another one is talking. They argue. They often don’t understand each other. An hour after I started this day I already came into a harsh conversation with myself.

“You got to take a break Henk.” But I only did 15km today and I want to go for a 100+ day. If I take a break now I’ll be lazy the rest of the day.

“No, you need one. Feel your legs. You are already a bit tired.” That’s just the thing in my mind. I’m not tired. I’m just doing perfect like this. I can even cycle a bit faster.

“Put on some music, you’ll need it.” No, it won’t help! Yesterday I cycled the whole day with music. I don’t even hear people shouting from the road. Why always cycle with music? Not today!”

“You’ll go faster with music. Anyway, there is a place where you can buy iced coffee.” What the heck!? Shut up! Don’t do it. Not after 17km.

“But the breakfast you eat today was just juice and some peanuts. You need some sugar!” Why? Why I don’t shut up? Why I don’t have any peace in my mind? Ok, 10 minutes, only for 10 minutes to shut myself up for a bit.

And 40 minutes later. I leave again. Repacked with new energy. With new thoughts. I forgot about that 100+ day. And who cares?

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It’s just a beautiful day! The sun is shining. People are nice. I even got this iced coffee for free! Those Thai ladies they were so friendly. The older lady asked me to touch her son for luck. How weird was that! I tried to give him a handshake but he was too shy. It didn’t work. No. But those ladies! They were incredibly nice. I can’t believe it!

And then suddenly I’m crying. For God’s sake! Why!? “You’re living the dream Henk! Let it go!”

Yes, I will. But it’s hard living a dream.

I take another sip of my iced coffee.

I like it! I fucking like this dream! Look at that jungle! Where am I going to sleep tonight!?

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Thanks for this great story buddy, I think this is very recognizable for every long distance cyclist.

You can follow Henk on his Facebook page and website to keep track of his adventures.