The car groans, protests and stutters when we reach the parking lot. It’s been acting up for a few days now and I’m pretty sure we’re in (car) trouble. Glad to have reached our destination, we get out, stretch our legs and look around. The signs all tell me that we’re right where we’re supposed to be, but I can’t help but feel that we’re not. We’re right by the side of the road and though there is a stream running along the side of the car park, trees amassing behind us, it doesn’t feel like this is the right place. Not sure what I was expecting, but after check-check-double-checking the signs, we head into the direction the arrow is pointing us in.
I’m somewhere between Remouchamps and Stoumont, in a village called Sedoz. Google ‘hiking Ardennes’ and the Ninglinspo trail/hike is without a doubt the first hit you get. It’s a popular hike, but we’re off-season travellers and there are several cars but not a soul in sight. High up in the hills that I’m staring at is a place called La Fourchette – the source of the mountain river Ninglinspo. It is the only mountain river and thus the only mountain river hike in Belgium. The river, which is also been labeled as a stream so not sure which to use, carries on, cutting right through the rocky landscape for 3,5km with a 7,5% decline (if you’re going down…). Along the way, little waterfalls mark the abrupt and at times steep way down and the water pools to turn into water-basins. All those basins have names, such as Venus bain which is the highest at 330 metres above sea level. The 6,15k hike – that should take 2 hours and 20 minutes – actually reaches the 388 metres mark, though it must be said that you start at 160 already (making it a 128 metre climb). I’ve been told that the Ninglinspo hike is challenging, but we’re not deterred in any way. This is supposed to be one of the most beautiful hikes in the area, so bring it on.
Perhaps, by now, you can imagine my skepticism when we found ourselves (the car engine still roaring in my ears) at that parking lot and the only thing beckoning was a wide path leading to a farm house at the foot of a hill. For a moment, I even think that we’re lost as it looks like we’re crossing private property. And then the road suddenly goes up in a slight angle and there’s a sign in the distance. I spot the first point where we have to cross the stream.
The small river is wide and despite it being winter and the river running low, it’s still strong (they did call it a proper mountain river, albeit a small one). The water babbling as it playfully glides passed the rocks and finds its own way down. There are bridges build at every crossing, but since the water is so low, it’s quite easy to cross and get your shoes wet. It takes a good 10 minutes before we both realise we don’t have to soak up on this piece of incredible nature in what little time we’ve got – when my eyes trail the path and I see nothing else but water and trees. I ease down on the pictures I take, become less rushed and more content. We fill up slowly and don’t have to take it all in all at once. There’s more where this came from.
Climbing over rocks, ‘wading’ through the stream, hopping from one rock to another, some unstable, some providing solid footing, we follow the river for minutes. Since one can hardly get lost following the flowing water, we sort of make up our own route and more than once I find myself walking a bridge I was supposed to cross the other way around.
The only times the cobbling water gets interrupted is when we approach a waterfall. The Ninglinspo rapids around, what I’ve read, blocks of quartzite, thus creating the pools, and when there is no rocky bedding to flow down, it comes down. I’ve spent quite some time in pools, but this sound is like no other. At the first large (ish) waterfall we stop and while Mace is exploring the rocks, dipping his feet in the water like a pup, I lean on the wooden fence and simply stare down – at nature, at its might, at its beauty. There’s a soft hum of chirping birds in the distance, the roaring waterfall dominant, and still I feel as if I can hear the rustling and falling of leaves. It’s beautifully peaceful here and I now know why they call it one of the most beautiful places/hikes in the Ardennes.
The way up is deceptive. At times we’re moving through the valley over feigning flat pathways, too infatuated with the river and the rocks to notice much else. Then suddenly, we’re at the foot of a climb, using hands and feet to conquer big rocks or masterly steep ones, nearly sliding off the side because they are nearly angled vertical. I catch glimpses of the other side, where the trees are standing tall in disarray, where moss covers the grounds if leaves haven’t covered it. At some point, I do venture up onto a side on our right side and notice the dramatic change in temperature and colour straight away. It’s a lot warmer away from the water valley in both colours as air. Looking down where the river runs, it’s blue. Cooler. The air is also colder. Perfect for a challenging hike. We step back into the tunnel that is the Ninglinspo hike and though I gaze up and around from time to time, we stay in the comfort of the water’s lullaby.
(A brief impression. Shot handheld because handheld is authentic….)
We’ve reached the top and the sound of rushing water and the coolness of the valley dissipates with each step we take. We follow a wide path – big enough for a car – that is flat, level, going up steadily and running right across the hill. So full of the might beauty of the river hike, the woods offer us little, if only occasional stunning sceneries. We’ve got our eyes set on Drouet, which supposedly offers hikers a panorama view of the valley. Signs tell me that it’s only half an hour away, but despite being on the lookout, we don’t see it. I stop at some point to take some pictures. Through the wood of the trees I can see the vastness of the valley beneath us. With the trees obscuring our view, however, it’s far from the panorama view I had imagined. We march on and with no mountain river, slippery slopes or rocks to climb, we’re moving rather fast for no particular reason.
We make a sharp turn and I feel how the pathway starts to decline. Gravity pulls gently yet swiftly and I almost miss it – on our right is Drouet. It’s almost like a birdhouse, with picnic table, and though I have to admit that it’s not a 360 panorama view, what stretches out before us is incredible anyway. Instantly, we spot the hill that we saw from the slopes opposite. With the slight curve in the road I knew that we were circling around it. We can’t make out the valley or the river since it lies on the other side of the hill, but as I gaze around it’s a sight to behold still. We rest up for a little while and I’m thinking how funny it is that so little as miles of trees on hills can occupy a person’s mind and thoughts for such a long time. It reminds me of Mardasson Memorial – the ‘simple’ war memorial that left me completely and utterly intrigued for an hour, still not wanting to leave after that.
When reaching the car park, I take a moment to gather my thoughts and my things. After busy days, driving all across the area with so much to see, so much to do, so much to experience, taking the time to turn a 2 1/2 hike into a 3 1/2 hour one, allowing myself to sit, take a minute to look and observe how wonderfully beautiful something so close to the Netherlands can be, I realise that it was something I needed. I needed a breath of fresh air and Ninglinspo and the Ardennes were so generous in offering that to me. I guess the same is in life, really. It’s all right there – right outside your door, just beyond your reach but not unattainable. I’ve often felt that I don’t really experience things as fully and as intensively as I’d like, as if I’m fleeting, a ghost. Little things like this, these lessons I pick up when I wasn’t looking, they remind me of things I already knew, yet have forgotten somewhere, somehow, for no particular reason. All you have to do is allow yourself it.
And then you breathe.