The flood, the island of Neuwerk and what Hamburg has to do with it

EIn a bit of wind, there is always Neuwerk, that tiny island off Cuxhaven that is so small that there would not even be a place for an 18-hole golf course. At night, when the day visitors have disappeared, it is completely quiet on the three square kilometers. At most you can hear a “pop”. Then a pawn fell over on the hotel’s garden chess field, caught in a light breeze.

37 people live on the green spot in front of the Elbe and Weser estuaries. Most of them live from tourism. There are five guest houses in total, plus a Wadden Sea house, a bit of agriculture, a bit of port logistics. Neuwerk and the surrounding Wadden Sea are part of Hamburg, but the few island tractors have Pinneberger license plates. Sometimes wealthy horse owners bring their animals here so that they can recover from their lung ailments in the pure North Sea air.

So close that you want to start walking right away

This island is so different and so close that you want to start walking straight away. The temptation already begins at the Cuxhaven ball beacon and continues to the beach at Döse, where the huge container ships in the Elbe estuary are soon no longer a sensation. Here we really see it: two distant rows of trees shimmer like a mirage on the horizon, with a tower between them. It looks like a little Mont-Saint-Michel. But wait! You can’t just run out into the mudflats, no matter how seductive it is. The moon only pulled the carpet of the sea briefly. Soon the creeks will be full again, then the tide will come. When everything is back to the way it was, there will be a flood.


Emptying times on Neuwerk depend on the tide.
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Image: Christoph Moeskes

Tschelp. Dschubb. Our shoes squeeze the mud like in a Donald Duck story. Now we’re on our way to the island. Julia from “Wunderwelt Watt” leads us, together with the dog Ben. At eleven o’clock sharp, we left the land in Sahlenburg, less than a minute later. Today is low tide at 1 p.m. During the almost four-hour hike, we run halfway into the lowest point and halfway out again. Sahlenburg disappears behind us, other groups move away in front of us. Soon we 20 mudflat hikers seem to be alone under the pencil-gray sky. We stay together. Julia stops. It gurgles in the silt, bubbles rise – the work of sapling tube worms, which continue to filter food in the damp channels. We continue. It is still a long way to Neuwerk, around twelve kilometers in total.

“O”, just “O”. That is what the island was called in ancient times. Sometimes also “Og”, like at the end of “Langeoog” or “Spiekeroog”. Around 1300 Hamburg took possession of O and built a tower, the “Nige Wark”, the “New Factory”. The stone building, almost 45 meters high, served primarily as a defense tower. Even then, half the world was on the move with its goods in front of the Elbe estuary. But the area is treacherous, until today sandbanks and currents change. Pirates and wreckers could count on rich booty back then.

Happiness is knee deep

Traffic jam at the first large creek. A column of yellow horse-drawn carriages crosses the water. The people are wrapped in blankets and remain motionless. It looks like an antediluvian silent movie. Immediately a band of riders appears on black horses. Then it’s our turn with our sneakers and it looks like 2020 again.

We’re lucky, the water is only knee deep today. For a few years this has been becoming increasingly rare, and the tide can reach up to the shoulders for both horse and human. Environmentalists attribute the changed flow behavior to the Langendamm in front of Cuxhafen. Although this makes the Elbrinne safer, the two main prelays in front of Neuwerk are becoming increasingly unpredictable. The current is already fast, we have to hold on to iron bars.

On, on and on. We are points in an immeasurable world of gray. Olive gray the mudflats. Navy camouflage blue-gray the sky. The lifeboats are also gray. The steel cages on stakes were erected after a teacher with twelve students drowned here in the mudflats in 1979. Suddenly they were caught in sea fog. When he comes you won’t see anything at all.

Green island in the Wadden Sea: Neuwerk


Green island in the Wadden Sea: Neuwerk
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Image: Christoph Moeskes

Then finally, after three and a half hours, the first green. Neuwerk is no longer an illusion. We wash shoes, stockings and trousers from the cotton splashes and say goodbye to Julia and the others. In the evening, the group will take the ferry back to the mainland – like most of the more than 100,000 guests a year who visit the island in a combination of a boat trip, a mudflat hike or a wagon trip.

After that Neuwerk belongs to the Neuwerkers again. And the two self-confident hamburgers who smoke a cigar on the dike. And the young woman who jogs once around the island on the six-kilometer outdoor path. And a little bit us too. We have to play a game of chess tomorrow morning.

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