The sun is so low as we drive along the sea defence wall that it’s impossible to see the road. The sky is glowing golden yellow and the warm air of the day wafts around the dusty fields. It’s a flat landscape punctured by the sharp and ordered masts of wind farms. I’ver been met by a couple of German friends, Doris and Felix and we’ve driven from the small thatched villages of Denmark into North Germany where fields and fields of maize sway around in the gentle breeze. After checking into an overly regulated campsite and sworn to complete silence until 8am the following morning, we set the car alarm off by mistake and pass through a small gate with ‘Costa del Sol’ written above it. The setting sun has turned the sky a bright and vivid pink, the contrast with the dark blues and blacks of the muddy flats in front of us is like a painting. Small rivulets run out from the shore like the glittering skin of a mackerel heading out to sea. A woman squelches in the mud and pulls her wellies out of the sticky ground, low walls make field like divisions and in the distance we can see Wyk and Föhr, closer in, there are islands which aside form the farmsteads are almost completely submerged at high tide. It’s a cool evening as we walk in search of a fabled surf beach, enjoying the freedom to talk. Sheep roam the dam wall, keeping the grass short. A funny thing happened the next morning as we lay on the grass consulting charts, weather info and tides. We looked and then looked again, discussed several plans and all at once the three of us seemed to come to the same conclusion - if we are going to kayak the 50km to Helgoland, we need to do it today.
We’d selected this weekend for the spring tides and the hope it would work out, we could see a gap in the weather with almost no wind for a few days, what wind there was would be largely behind us. We packed up quickly and drove through the Bourbon biscuit brick villages with pointy orange pantile roofs. It’s a hot and languid morning and the whole of Germany seems to have crammed onto what little bits of beach they have here. We negotiate the huge area of parking on the sand and start the long drag of kayaks through the crowds. The trolleys we have are easily overcome by the fine sands of the North Sea coast. A combination of dragging, pulling, tugging and carrying gets us to the water’s edge, hot, sweaty and agitated. We look around and are surrounded by tanned bodies in brightly coloured tight swimwear, the sea is gently lapping at the shore and a series of timber frame beach cafes teeter on stilts pinned into the sands. It’s a long flat beach and I suspect there is nothing to stop it taking a huge belting if the winter storms feel like it. We lather ourselves in suncream and feel an immediate sense of relief as we float away from the shore. We pass bike parks, paddle boarders, wind surfing and sailing schools, pulling away from the sandy strip towards the tiny spec of a cardinal marker we can see in the distance. The visibility is crystal clear, almost strangely so. The sky is a deep blue and theres a very subtle swell sauntering around. The surface of the water is like a sheet of smooth silk gently billowing. We pass the yellow marker of a weather station in the middle of sea and scour the horizon for the next point “The next big thing is right in front of us” Felix says, and he’s right, on many levels. We stop every few hours to snack and regroup before pushing on toward the tiny humps of land we can start to see emerging in the distance.
The light softens and the temperature drops, pinky skies tinge the sloppy waters. The silhouette of a ship gets gradually closer although for a few hours it seems impossible to tell how big it might be or if it’s moving. It’s customs ship ’Schiffarhts Polizei’ moored off the coast of the tax exempt outpost. These lands have been contested for a long time and have significantly changed shape as result of human and natural actions. They’ve been German, Danish and British, after swapping them for Zanzibar earlier in the century, the British deciding to take things a bit further following the end of WWII and use the islands a bomb testing ground, destroying large parts of the main island. The Nazi plans for expansion of the archipelago under Project Hummerschere (Lobster Claw) would have dwarfed the existing land and are straight out of an evil villain textbook had they not have been so frighteningly real. The project was not completed but remnants of the fortifications, gun emplacements and harbour walls are still very much present and in plan, make the islands look like a strange sea creature. There are two islands, the main red sandstone triangular rock which juts out of the water and the low lying Dune which as the name suggests is flat and sandy. There’s a distinct military feel to the place as we near the coastline of Dune and can see the dominant, square lighthouse tower on Helgoland and a smaller red and white striped tower on the south beach. We are under instruction not to land on Helgoland so head for its sandy neighbour. A few people are milling around on the beach and seals bask lazily in the setting evening sun.
The changing skies pour over the rippling water giving the feeling of dipping into a shimmering pool of liquid gold, it’s a beautiful evening. We round the corner into the harbour in Dune and immediately notice how deserted it is, tall concrete walls with no landing stages loom above us and form a huge rectangular enclosure, we failed to notice the no entry sign on the charts, something that will get us into all sorts of trouble later. There is a small steel ramp in the corner and we paddle towards it, we’ve been on the water for around eight hours. There are a cluster of people waiting on the jetty and a man shouts loudly and aggressively at us whilst gesticulating wildly. I can’t make out what he’s saying, Doris says he’s drunk and we should ignore him. As we near the end of the ramp, more people come to shout at us, ironically with the backdrop of a banner that says ‘Welcome to Dune’ There is a small ferry arriving and it turns out we’re not meant to land there. A stern, over tanned orange faced man steps off the small fishing boat-cum-ferry, followed by his overweight colleague. A complicated conversation ensues in German, I don’t pick up much of it at all but can tell by the facial expressions that it’s not good. There’s talk of the ‘Dune Inspector’ No room at the campsite, taxes, having to return to the mainland, three people journeying from afar, it’s starting to sound like a strange summertime version of the nativity. It’s eventually agreed that we can sort it out in the morning which is a relief as its getting dark, we’re tired and hungry and have no intention of going back today. With that, the lobster coloured tourists waddle onto the ferry glaring at us on the way and the little boat disappears, leaving us in the sinister harbour with a group of youths swigging a bottle of wine and throwing rocks into the sea, beneath a sign that points to a nude surfing beach.
We’re woken in the morning by the familiar sounds of Oyster Catchers busying themselves around the tents. They’re massive and very tame, strutting their bright orange legs along the timber decking that runs through the dunes. It’s a funny place, not permanently inhabited and as such a series of makeshift structures are scattered around on the ground. Large signs reading ‘Restaurant’ and ‘Shop’ on the buildings keep things simple and I’m surprised when standing by what I think is a small, disused airstrip, the purring and sputtering of a prop plane coming into land, fills the air above my head. There’s a slow atmosphere around this ramshackle encampment and sweaty joggers plod wearily in the hot morning sun. Families with suitcases and trolleys move in a steady stream between the pot wash and toilet cabins to the large canvas tents that must remain here for the whole summer. We’re up relatively early as we plan to try to take the ferry back to the mainland and want the explore Helgoland before we do. We make an undercover launch into the forbidden harbour and swiftly round the entrance, having been told by some workers painting the slip that we should just land on the North Beach. Theres a noticeable tidal push against us as we cross between Dune and Helgoland, passing the yacht harbour and hugging closely the long arm of fortification that lines this side of the island. As we round the corner and catch our first glimpse of the large stone stack of Lange Anna, we spot some other kayakers launching on the beach. Keen to find out where they landed and stayed, we go and say hello. They were not warmly welcomed here either and had camped near the beach with the begrudging agreement of the nearby hostel. They also tell us that it is not easy to get a kayak on the ferry to Bussum, we see why later and decide to kayak back to the mainland the following day, spending the rest of today looking around. It’s a welcome decision as it would have inevitably been a hassle and will feel much more rewarding to have kayaked here and back.
We drift on through crystal clear waters where you can see forests of weeds in green, brown, yellow and red, swaying and wafting in the the turquoise blue water. The sound of Kitiwakes with their shrill call is deafening as we near the base of Lange Anna, they’re lined up on the ledges, the white stains on the rock in high contrast to the deep orange stone. Doris has saved a small bottle of fizzy wine which she says has ‘Dreams’ written on it in German. We’ve been talking about this trip for a few months and it has been in Doris’s mind at least for a lot longer than that. The excitement has been building for all of us and I’m glad that somehow my trip has meant that we actually did it. We are pleased that we can come here as an Anglo-German team and we toast to friendship as we swig from the warm and salty bottle of Dreams. Inquisitive seals pop their heads up all around us and follow us as we move on around the northern most tip. It is hard to obey the rule of staying 30m away from the seals if they are deliberately following you. In German they are Seehunde - sea dog, and their friendly canine features, big eyes and good nature make us feel welcomed in these waters. We follow the impressive cliffs around the west of the island spotting Gannets swooping and gliding high above us. Tiny jellyfish spin around in the water, their decorated strands and tentacles making them look like fairground carousels or fancy lampshades. We negotiate the wide arms of another massive harbour to the south and pick our way through the busy channel. It is now full of ferries discouraging passengers onto a host of smaller boats which busy around taking passengers to either islands. It’s clear now why is would be hard to get three kayaks onboard although it’s not clear why they don’t use one of the many harbours on the islands. We land on a small sandy beach, Doris changes into a pretty summer dress and looks glamorous, Felix puts on some clean shorts and I try to make myself look presentable. We’re in a holiday resort after all.
The Unterland has a distinct holiday vibe with a collection of hotels along the front and shops selling souvenirs, cheap cigarettes and lots of duty free booze. There’s a man with a moustache playing ‘You are my Sunshine’ on a keyboard organ in the bandstand, sadly for him it just sounds like he’s pressed a demo key and is miming the rest. We eat the must have thing Fischbrötchen, a fish roll with herring, shrimps, salmon or mackerel, from a small fisherman’s shed in the harbour before taking the stairs to the Oberland. There is an elevator but we decide we’re able to propel ourselves up the cliff. I’m very pleased with myself having not only found a Helgoland sticker for my boat but also a CD of the local Fisherman’s choir singing traditional sea shanties, my world is complete, for now. There is a distinctly different atmosphere when we get to the top, it’s quieter and the buildings are a smaller scale, it feels largely residential and there is an impressive spike of the modernist church spire. The buildings soon give way to open land and a path leading to the cliff tops and around the headland. We stop to look over the sea we’ve just been kayaking on and gaze westwards towards the UK somewhere out there. Rounding the next corner, there is a surprise in store as we come up close with Germany’s only colony of Gannets. They’re clustered on the clifftop right next to the path and seem unaffected by the presence of humans. They’re beautiful birds, their yellow heads and bright white bodies contrasting with the deep black of the wing tips, they’re graceful and slick in flight and can dive to incredible depths, shape shifting their bodies into a super charged dart. Its a hot day and they are relatively still, the perfectly preened elders sitting on the scruffy, scrawny young. Heads pointing towards the sky, their necks are quivering and juddering as they search for the most minuscule draft of wind. From time to time, one will glide effortlessly away from the cliff or land less effortlessly, crashing into the perfectly poised group, causing mayhem. We amble back along the path and read of smuggling, wrecking and pirating as well as seeing the crater left by one of the bombs dropped by the British. A delicious fish dinner with bacon and buttery potatoes rounds off the day. We kayak back to Dune and sleep on the nude surf beach.
Leaving early in the morning, the journey back is dreamlike, the visibility is not as good as before and a low haze blurs the horizon line whilst the water lolls around gently. Small tourist boats buzz around near the coast and we pass the same markers we saw on the way and then take a different bearing to head a little further south. Small crabs float about a meter below the surface of the sea , it’s so clear, you can see the shafts of sunlight piercing into the depths. I keep the VHF turned on and am excited to hear the German Coastguard read out the Shipping Forecast for Deutsche Bucht in a monotone voice and rhythm that seems strangely familiar. We meet the string of buoys marking the Eider channel and a safe water marker which floats like a robotic centurion. Whistling, pooping and parping as the small waves slosh through a plastic organ pipe fixed to its side. It’s a strange encounter as there’s no other sound around, it seems like it’s talking to us but perhaps we’ve just been on the water too long. The beach and stilted huts start to appear in the distance and we pick out our landing spot which is slightly less busy than it was two days ago. All camping locally is full and the beach is busy and patrolled. We end up staying in a relatively soulless edge of town business hotel which advertises itself on a sign outside as a health farm. We’re salty, tired and after a large, slippery herring dinner, I fall into a deep sleep, totally content.
In the morning, Doris and Felix have Kindly offered to take me to a different bit of the coast to continue my journey along the Frisian islands chain. We cross the Kiel Canal, cutting across Germany from the North Sea to the Baltic. We have a brief stop in the outskirts of Hamburg to pick up some drysuits that have been repaired at ‘Dry Fashion’ Hamburg having been an important city in the Hanseatic League and now Germany’s largest port, if anyone knows how to fix a hole in foot or a defunct neck seal it is them. We reach the coast with the penultimate, low lying East Frisian Islands, Spiekeroog in clear sight. I’ve decided to leave Wangerooge for another time. I’m treated to a traditional Frisian afternoon tea at a TeeStube in a pretty harbour. This part of Germany drinks more tea per head than the UK and there are some important rules. The wind blows the paper napkins around as we eat generous portions of cake and watch the clouds form in the delicate blue and white cups from milk added from a special spoon. The cafe is called Störmhus, there’s a picture of a sailing ship on the sign and dark wooden panelling inside, a wooden ships wheel hangs in the stairs with ‘Greenwich, London’ carved into it. Armed with tips from local kayakers and the German saltwater union, I launch on a falling tide waving an emotional goodbye and setting off for the necklace string of small, sandy islands stretching round to the Netherlands.