The “Lingenfelder Altrhein” is a nature paradise. The visitors onboard a Nachen, an electric driven boat, float almost silently through the unique flora and fauna of the Palatinate Rheinaue waterscape with its old meanders of the river Rhine. Early in the morning, the boat tour leads us past sleeping swans and muskrats doing their morning washing routines.
It is shortly before six o’clock in the morning. The jetty on the island of Grün north of Germersheim is still almost completely covered in darkness. Yet, in the east, the sky is already glimmering in a light pink glow. A bat glides over the meanders of the Old Rhine searching for food, crickets are chirping; here and there a bird is singing. Apart from that, there is silence. Two swans are rocking on the water idly like little white boats, their long necks still tucked into the plumage. They are startled briefly as Uwe Hartmann opens the gate to the jetty and the rattling sound cuts through the silence. Once opened, though, the swans resume their slumber.
The boathouse accommodates “Dieter” and “Klaus”, as the two Nachen are named that are moored here – simple boats without keels driven only by an electric motor. Normal motorboats are not allowed here on the Old Rhine arms. Disturbance of nature is to be reduced to an absolute minimum. This is why the town of Germersheim has relied on the silent Nachen boats since 2006 in order to give visitors an understanding of this nature paradise.
Uwe goes through the equipment. Are there enough life jackets on board, enough umbrellas? There are 13 boatmen to steer the Nachen barks. Since 2008, Uwe has taken visitors through the Old Rhine meanders. There are special tours like tours for birdwatching, beekeeping and edible plants and after-work trips to see the sunset. Plus, the early-morning-trips that take visitors right into the sunrise. “Watching nature as it wakes up always creates a very special atmosphere,” Uwe says.
Getting up before sunrise...
... is absolutely worth it, if it’s to go on a Nachen tour.
Because only in the early morning the Old Rhine is this peaceful and quiet.
The perfect time for watching animals...
... even if some are very difficult to discover.
The tour into the sunrise is an experience...
... evocative of boat trips in far-away countries.
By now, the clouds in the sky shine in hues of rose and violet. The concert of birdcalls becomes a cacophony; now and again, a loud squawking sound can be heard. “Ah, the herons have woken up,” Uwe explains. Time to go, that is. Twelve “early birds” have taken their seats on the boat. As “Klaus” is almost silently gliding out and away from the jetty, everyone takes to speaking under their breaths. The Old Rhine glitters in the faint morning light; at the riverside, the trees are reflected in the water. A grey heron struts along on a small beach, then ducks down and with a few strong wing beats lifts off.
Watching nature as it wakes up always creates a very special atmosphere
Watching these scenes unfold, it brings nature documentaries to mind. About an untouched and untamed landscape that the imagination envisions in some far-away country, in South America for instance or in Asia. Because it hardly expects this kind of scenery, this unspoiled nature here in Germany anymore, especially not right on the doorstep. Although the grey herons are, of course, as typical of the region as the willow trees, the poplars and alders on the riverbank. The sight of them, though, is anything but an everyday experience anymore.
This is why a Nachen trip is also a little bit of a journey into the past, into the unique natural scenery of the pre-industrial Rhine waterscape. The pristine world of the old arms of the river gives visitors an impression of how it looked like on and by the Rhine. Before the 19th century, that is. Before Johann Gottfried Tulla was able to put his bold plans of straightening the Rhine into effect (that helped provide an unusual ferry for Mannheim – here is the link to our Where Else story). Uwe reads a text of the time of the engineer out loud. Talking about the dangers of the unruly Rhine who like a “merciless conqueror” devours the land on its banks. A lion that should be put on a chain as quickly as possible. And enchained it was. Tamed, straightened and cut short. Forced into shape for navigation and the Industrial Age. 18 cuts of the Rhine between Strasbourg and Mainz were planned by Tulla; instead of its 135 kilometres, the Rhine finally ended up with a length of only 86 kilometres. Valuable navigation time was gained – at a heavy cost. Countless islands, wetlands, forests and natural flooding areas disappeared and with them the habitats of many birds, insects, fish and mammals. Only five percent of the Old Rhine arms have remained still as untouched as the one here in Germersheim, Uwe tells us.
From the “Kief’sche Weiher”, as the Old Rhine arm is called, where once a company called “Kiefer” dug for gravel, Uwe steers the Nachen into a small arm of the Old Rhine, which leads into the river Rhine further southeast. The silence on the water, gliding so quietly through a sea of green, is somehow meditative. A shrill call catches Uwe’s attention. “A kingfisher!” 13 pairs of eyes intently search the banks for the colourful feathers of the bird. Instead of the kingfisher, however, they detect something different. A beaver? A coypu? “A muskrat doing its morning washing routine,” Uwe clarifies. The animal cleans itself calmly, then gently glides into the water and swims to the opposite side.
On his first Nachen tour, Uwe was just a passenger. As a passionate aquarist owning several freshwater aquariums at home, he had hoped for some yield of fish food on the tour. “I thought that we would perhaps pass by some ponds containing some nice mosquito larvae”, he says laughing. His hope might not have come true, but the silent tour across the Rhine impressed him deeply. When shortly afterwards, he discovered an advertisement by the town in the official gazette, saying they looked for new Nachen boatmen, he applied at once.
Uwe, who is originally from Potsdam, moved to Germersheim for love in 1997 and stayed. “The Rhine, the Palatinate, the Palatinate Forest – I did not want to move away again.” Professionally, he has nothing to do with fauna and flora whatsoever. “I am an account manager at a Sparkasse branch,” he says. But whenever he has some spare time, on weekends or after work, he is out and about on the Old Rhine arms. “I love to be out in nature and have always been interested in biology – this is the perfect respite for me.”
Ever so often, he weaves historic anecdotes into his tours. Like the one about a locomotive that in 1852 slipped off a cargo boat quite close to here and sank in the Rhine never to be found again despite the many attempts to locate it. Or the story about the “Palatinate Woodstock”, the 2nd British Rock Meeting, where, back in 1972, Pink Floyd, Wishbone Ash and Uriah Heep amongst others gave a concert, luring more than 70,000 visitors to Grün Island.
“Klaus”, now buzzing slowly, is heading towards the mouth of the Schäferweiher pond (where – yes, you guessed it – a company called “Schäfer” once dug for gravel). The riverside slopes down steeply here, more than three metres. “The kingfisher loves these steep banks”, Uwe explains. It likes to build nesting tunnels into the vertical loamy soil. Several pairs of birds breed here. And indeed, after a short while, something shining blue arrows over the water, beating its wings rapidly. The bird sits down on a twig and shows off its rust-red belly and darts off again before anyone can pull out their smartphone.
Meanwhile, the sun is sparkling through a layer of clouds. A young woman is gliding past on a stand-up paddle board. A kayaker is ploughing through the water; on the riverbank several fishermen have taken up position. On the way back to the jetty, the Nachen passengers don’t have the Old Rhine arms solely for themselves anymore. Yet, for the terrapin, having found a habitat here several years ago, it still seems to be too early. “Maybe, it’s waiting until the sun is higher up,” Uwe says. In its stead, a purple heron stands in lurking position between the branches of a fallen tree, having discovered some dainty morsels underneath the water surface. And on the other side of the river, the muskrat has become embroiled in some minor territorial conflict with two swans. The only thing missing here is the off-screen voice commenting on this nature documentary-like scene in authentic BBC style.
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