A solo adventure in National Park Hoge Kempen
During our world trip by bicycle Niels and I have often said to each other how grateful we are to have found each other and share beautiful moments. Others also mentioned this often that it's very rare to share such a passion with another person. This is of course a blessing, but the downside of this is you start thinking you rely on the other person too much. So we both felt time has come to go out of our comfort zone completely and do a solo adventure, starting with Stefanie. Even though we share most of our feelings and moments, we also have the opinion everything starts within yourself. So I, Stefanie, went on a solo adventure. 100 km of hiking through Belgium's only National Park. A journey in search for self-confidence, self-love and also a bit of a connection to my homeland.
Why go on a solo adventure?
I am 32 years old and over the past 10 years I have traveled almost all over the world. It started with an internship abroad for several months in South America, there I got the so-called travel bug and this soon resulted in a backpacking trip of several weeks through Asia. Not much later I met Niels who shares the same passion and we went on road trips in the USA and New Zealand and finally spent the last 4 years discovering the world by bike. Wonderful trips and memories and I have always felt blessed to share this with my best friend, but there is one thing that started bugging me: I never did an outside adventure alone. And I also have to admit that I am actually terrified of going on adventures alone.
After returning from our world trip by bike, our life suddenly looks very different. We are looking for work and a house and travel and adventure suddenly feel very far away again. Before I realise it, I'm signing a contract for my new job and I tell Niels that I want to go on a solo adventure before returning to work. Fortunately I am married to the sweetest man who supports me in this.
Everything starts from within yourself and with this approach I want to push my limits. A journey to become aware of what is happening within myself. Learning to trust myself, and make my own decisions without having to consider anyone else. A quest for self-love because relationships with others will only improve when you improve your relationship with yourself. Listening to my own gut feeling without accountability while also learning to be gentle with myself.
Why National Park Hoge Kempen?
I hiked 100 km through the most diverse landscapes. From pine forests to flowering heaths. From blue ponds to drifting dunes. Vast plains to amazing views of the old mining trails. The only National Park in Belgium is as big as twenty thousand soccer fields and roughly 440 km of hiking trails, it is a unique experience to come for a walk. The area is close to home and feels familiar, so perfect to come here for a solo adventure. I only have four days and don't lose time commuting. It comforts me to know that Niels and family is nearby if I would run into troubles.
The trail shows you the most beautiful places of the National Park and you barely walk between buildings. The trail is well signposted and along the way you will find plenty of facilities to plan your route according to camping spots or you can choose to stay in hotels or B&Bs. On the website of National Park Hoge Kempen you can find all the info you need to plan your adventure, witha clear overview of maps and trail possibilities.
There are some things you must have done at some point in your life. In Slovenia, for example, they say that as a Slovenian, you must climb the highest mountain in the country, Triglav, at least once in your life. After four days of hiking in Belgium's National Park, I dare to say that as a Belgian you must have hiked the National Park Trail at least once in your life.
Daily overview National Park Trail Hoge Kempen
I re-plan the stages a little differently so that I can pitch my tent at a campsite. Wild camping in the National Park and in Belgium in general is prohibited. I have no ambition to go wild camping alone even though I have the opinion you can always try it out according to the principle of 'Leave no trace'. Still, for my first solo adventure, I think camping solo on a campsite is already a very big step.
And then I realize I don't have a tent at all for a solo hike. Dare to ask and so I post a message on Instagram asking if I can borrow someone's tent. Immediately I get several messages and I choose the one closest to me, with a tent that has seen most of New Zealand during the Te Araroa Trail Thank you Eef for the tent! To avoid messing around at the campsite, I decide to pitch the tent in the garden before I start the trip.
Together with Niels I check the route, this way he also has an idea where I will be hiking the upcoming days. I decide to take the small 36L backpack and leave our cooking stuff and dinner at home. This way I can save some weight. At the bottom of the blog you can find another overview of what I took.
Day 1: Kattevennen - Pietersheim
Niels drops me off early in the morning at the entrance gate of Kattevennen. We say a lingering goodbye to each other; for the past year and a half we have been together non-stop, 24/7. So the fact that I will spend the next few days by myself feels incredibly scary. One last time I look back and from then on it is really up to me alone. For the next 100 km I will have to make all the decisions myself and above all trust myself.
My heart is pounding in my throat, not quite knowing if it is from nerves or from the 'Bliksemtrap' I am climbing. As I take in the view from the 35-meter-high watchtower, I can't help but feel proud of myself, the first step to undertake this solo adventure has been taken.
It is still early so I am the first to tap the spider webs woven across the forest trails. In my head I go over the contents of my backpack, afraid of haven forgotten something essential. But after a while, I just let the thought go. The paw print, the symbol of the National Park, will be my hiking companion for the next 100 km, because I don't see many other hikers. Only when I share the path with bicycle paths, which is more familiar territory for me, do I see a retired person that kindly says "hello" from his bicycle.
In the afternoon I plop down on a bench, the temperature rising to 28 degrees. Even though the hiking trails go through wooded areas that give me the shade I need, I still feel the heat pressing down. I share the bench with a friendly man who asks where I'm heading with my heavy backpack. "I'm trying to hike the entire National Park Trail," I say enthusiastically! "Are you doing this by yourself?" is his reply. I tell the story of our bike trip and share that we wanted to do something separately. "Then I think your husband will miss you," he says. "Well, I kind of hope so!", is my reply.
The first day goes smoothly and I make good progress, but the closer I get to the campsite, the more stressy I become. Now the most difficult moment of the day is getting close, camping alone. Eventually I find a nice spot for the tent at Jocomo campground. It is quiet next to the fishing pond, an ideal place to recover after a hot day.
Setting up the tent and organizing my backpack all goes smoothly. When I walk to the cafeteria to find out they don't serve vegetarian food, I regret not bringing the cooking kit and my own dinner. Fortunately I can also order fries at the local snack bar. I sit down alone on the terrace and a sort of emptiness overwhelms me. I already feel like calling Niels. In the evening, my camping spot is no longer so quiet, I am annoyed with some noisy guests at the campsite, and am already thinking to go wild camping the next day.
Day 2: Pietersheim - Mechelse Heide
I wake up to my alarm and barely recognize the sound. Normally Niels is the one who wakes up first and then wakes me up. Describing myself as a morning person would be a big lie and usually I need some encouraging words from Niels to get me out of bed. Now I just have to do it myself.
After yesterday's irritations, I send a friend if she has any tips for going solo wild camping: she says "just do it, count from 5 to 1 and go." It is a consideration I will have to make for myself: a night at a campsite where I find no peace because of the crowd or a night alone in a forest where I find no peace because I am there alone. The latter is an assumption, of course, because if I were to do this with Niels it would give me the most peace of mind. I decide for myself that I will walk through the forest before going to the campsite. If I come across a good spot I will go back and camp there and indeed count from 5 to 1, if not I will stay at the campsite.
Today the whisper-quiet forests of Pietersheim are part of the trail. Lovers of little wooden paths will be in for a treat today. On the first path, a little frog jumps up in front of me as if to show me the way. Alone I set off until suddenly I hear a voice behind me, "Are you hiking the whole trail?" The park concierge comes up behind me with a shovel in his hands. "Yeah, I'm on Day 2," I say sturdily! "I put all these signs here, thanks to me you know your way around," he jokes. "Soon you will encounter the quietest spot on the trail, enjoy it!" and we say goodbye to each other.
And indeed, when the green woods give way to the purple heather, it is quieter than quiet on Molenberg. This morning the concierge had spotted another deer there. I don't have as much luck but I enjoy this beautiful place either way.
By noon, I feel the impact of the backpack on my body. In recent years, I carried my travel gear in my panniers and not on my back. I am going much slower than the first day and wonder if I started this too unprepared. My feet and legs are doing well but my shoulders and hips are suffering more. It may be slow, but giving up won't make it any faster, I think to myself, so I take a long break on one of the benches you'll encounter plenty of on the trail.
Then I am treated to the purple gold of the Mechelse Heide. One of the reasons why I wanted to hike this trail now is because in August you get spoiled with purple carpets of flowers by the heather in bloom. The spectacle is in one word beautiful and once again I am surprised with our small beautiful country of Belgium. Finally, you climb up to the views of the Meuse Valley just before you reach the gateway to the Mechelse Heide. Whoever says Belgium is flat is wrong because I reach the top while puffing.
After the Mechelse Heide, I leave the trail in the Mechelse Forest to head toward the campsite. I keep my eyes open to see if there is a good wild camping spot to pitch the tent. Unfortunately, the forest is very densely vegetated and suddenly goes up and down a lot making a flat section even harder to find.
Exhausted, I arrive at the Salamander campground. The entrance to the campground has a bike and walking café and feels crowded. Gone is the peace and quiet. Too tired to find another place to spend the night I decide to pitch my tent on the not so charming campsite between some mobile homes. I am disappointed in myself for not managing to find a wild camping spot.
A missed opportunity for the NP to create bivouac areas for the slow traveler who really wants a full nature experience, I think to myself. Fortunately, the vegetarian lasagna on the terrace makes up for a lot, and with my book I already feel less lonely eating alone. When dusk arrives I crawl into the tent and immediately fall asleep. Around four o'clock I am awakened by an animal that comes sniffing at the tent, I am startled and my thoughts go all directions.
Day 3: Mechelse Heide - Oudsbergen
There is no movement to be seen at the campsite when I pack a wet tent. My sense of hunger is not yet big so I decide to walk a bit before I have breakfast. A good choice, because not much later I discover a path completely shrouded in blackberry bushes, ideal for breakfast.
By the water I find a nice spot overlooking the terrils to enjoy the fresh breakfast. It is here that I see the only other female solo hiker. Today she is hiking the last leg of the trail, which she herself spread out in ten stages to hike in four weeks. So if you don't like camping, this is also an option.
After breakfast I decide to hike straight up the twin terrils, normally the route still passes the gateway of Terhills. I puff as I climb up the 133-meter terrils. I also did this part of the hike once three years ago, so I know what the view looks like and wonder why I'm even making this detour? But there is something new in every hike you do, including here on the former mining trails. This time I can enjoy the view by myself and feel totally proud of myself for starting day three and making it on my own.
Thanks to the well-marked route, I have no fear of getting lost, although my thoughts often still take a run for it. Tonight I will sleep in a forest, alone. I found a Campspace address but the owner informed me that she would not be home herself. I could write down the fears that all went through my head, but just like during the trail, I try not to pay too much attention to them. Most of these fears are not realistic and I try to make myself strong by always telling myself: 'I can do this!
The day goes smooth and yesterday's pains all disappeared. In the end you get used to everything, even pain. And when I reach the centre of Opoeteren and encounter the first store in three days I treat myself to my favorite chips. Three kilometers to go until the camping spot, I will devour this bag upon arrival, I think to myself.
I walk out of the center of Opoeteren and go along the meadows back into the forest. It is dead quiet here and the only thing that crosses my mind: "Am I really going to sleep here?" I arrive at the address where a small abandoned forest house is waiting for me. The space where I can pitch my tent is actually really beautiful, but the first few minutes there feel empty. Rays of sun shine through the trees, leaving a beautiful glow in the forest. I pitch my tent, wash myself with the extra water I brought, and consider that this is the kind of adventure and exercise that makes me happy. Until night falls I read in my book. The book I had started in Slovenia and left untouched for the last three weeks, I am now finishing.
Tired and satisfied, I crawl into the tent and meanwhile it is completely dark and my imagination and also the forest come alive again. Every sound startles me. It is really hot in the tent and it feels like I am not getting any oxygen. My legs are on fire from all the mosquito and horsefly bites. Every time I roll off my sleeping mat because I haven't placed the tent flat, rooky mistake, I think to myself. It's the last night, I tell myself, I can do this, although time is ticking by slowly.
Day 4: Oudsbergen - Thor Park
I only sleep for a few hours and pack up the tent early. I start the last day on the trail and want to be back with Niels in time this afternoon. After three mostly sleepless nights, I look forward to sleep with Niels again without strange noises all around.
A magical moment is waiting for me as I leave the forest and walk into the Duinengordel. The Oudsberg is the highest and largest open sand dune in Flanders. It is hard work hiking through the sand but the panorama quickly makes you forget the hard work. The warm rays of sunshine through the heat make it even more beautiful.
And then the moment comes when I suddenly start focusing on the miles. The first monotonous stretch on the trail makes time seem to stand still. However, after all those kilometers on the bike, I know that the focus should not be on the kilometers yet to come but on the ones already covered. I have already covered more than 85 km, those last 15 km will be fine.
Unfortunately I can't stay dry the entire trail. When I feel like taking a lunch break, thick drops of rain fall from the sky. The first moment it feels like a refreshing shower but soon I'm walking through a solid rain shower. I decide to skip lunch and continue with a piece of gingerbread. All smiling, I walk through the rain with music playing in my ears. I inform Niels when I think I will arrive and enjoy another piece of beautiful heathland in the Heidebos.
When I see the terril of Waterschei it tells me that I have arrived in Thorpark. The last kilometers are coming and I get the feeling that I don't want it to stop, that I could keep going. Yet I am looking forward to see Niels again a lot, to tell him about the past few days, and this butterfly feeling overwhelms me, as if we are going on a first date.
The wide views in Thorpark are an ideal finish to the trail, when I see the mine shaft in the distance I know the end is in sight. And suddenly I see Niels appear on the path, my heart makes a jump and together we walk hand in hand the last kilometer.
Over the past four days I became more gentle with myself, got a boost of self-confidence, felt connected to nature, and it's an experience to carry with me throughout my life. I got to know myself a little better and feel the gratitude how everything went smoothly. And yet I can't help but close with this beautiful quote, "Happiness is only real when it is shared." It was a solo adventure, where I also felt alone at critical moments. I am incredibly satisfied that I dared to do it and that when I feel the urge for adventure I can do it on my own and not always have to depend on others. But still I would rather make memories together than alone.
Thank you Niels for always being by my side.
What do I bring on a solo hike?
Below you can find an overview of what was in my backpack during this 4 day hike.
Backpack and sleeping equipment:
Backpack Osprey Stratos 36l
Sleeping bag The North Face Golden Kazoo Regular
Exped Pillow Rem L
Hiking outfit: sunglasses, merinowool t-shirt, sportbra, short, underpants, socks, Shoes Salomon X Ultra 04W
Evening outfit: loos long pants, underpants, top, t-shirt, socks, windbreaker
Reserve clothes: compression socks, underpants
Extra: bathingsuit, rain jacket, pet, slippers
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Kula cloth en toilet paper
Band-aids, tick pen
Sunscreen, insect repellent
One Plus 10Pro + charger
Kobo E reader
Wahoo Elemnt Roam GPS
Notebook en pen
Breakfast and Lunch
Energybars, nuts and gingerbread
In this blog we use some affiliate links. For example, if you purchase or book something through these links, we receive a small compensation for this without you having to pay extra. Thank you very much in advance for your trust!