“By the way, says the First Mate. “Do you know that it is pronounced Houda, not Gouda? You have to make it sound really guttural. A bit like you are clearing your throat.”
We practise saying Houda. Saliva flies everywhere. It is just as well we are on the boat.
“I think we had better wear our masks”, I say. “Otherwise they will think it’s raining.”
We are on our way to Gouda, cheese city. We had squeezed our way out of Maartensgat marina in the morning, turned right, and headed north along the Ould Maas river for a bit before it joins the Noord river. It is a beautiful sunny morning. Only the wake from a speeding water-bus disturbs the peace.
“What do you think that thing is up ahead?”, says the First Mate, as we approach the outskirts of Rotterdam. I rub my eyes in disbelief and pinch myself to make sure that I haven’t dozed off. It’s a Noah’s Ark! Isn’t that supposed to be on some mountain top in Turkey somewhere?
It’s real. Well, not real-real, but not a figment of our imaginations at least. It even has a giraffe peering over the bow, looking as perplexed as I am. A quick Google tells me that it is the handiwork of one Johan Huibers, a wealthy Dutch building contractor and a devout creationist. Having €4 million kicking around, he decided to capitalise on his love of boats and the Dutch fear of floods and build a full-size replica of Noah’s Ark and use it to spread Christianity to the godless. It is 134 m long and 13 m high, apparently the same dimensions as the mythical one.
It takes all sorts, I guess, and one can do what one likes with one’s own money, but I can’t help thinking that there might be better uses that €4m could be put to. The Noah’s Ark story isn’t even true – there is no historical evidence to show that it even existed, despite several attempts to find some.
“It may not be true”, says Spencer, emerging from the canopy. “But it has been a powerful human narrative since the dawn of civilisation. Apart from the Noah’s Ark story, several other Middle Eastern cultures have had similar stories, all probably dating from the Sumerians. It was likely to have been based on some local flooding events, as many of those cultures were built on flood plains and rivers where flooding would have been a regular occurrence.”
Ever since he linked his own web up to the World Wide Web, Spencer has been a bit of a knowall, and a slight pain to be honest, but he is right. I remember seeing a TV programme on the Black Sea deluge – a hypothesis that water had catastrophically broken through the Bosporus due to sea level rise from melting glaciers around 8400 years ago and had started flowing from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. Such a huge deluge would have destroyed Neolithic human settlements and provided the basis for the flood myths. An intriguing and highly controversial hypothesis, but one of many.
“But why do you think that it became associated with punishment and rebirth of a new order?”, I ask.
“People probably weren’t happy with the status quo, and somehow it became part of the stories told around the fires that they are living in the last times and that floods were sent by the gods to punish them for being evil and wicked”, says Spencer. “Even nowadays, people feel that they have been evil in pillaging the earth’s resources, and that it will catch up with them in the end. But don’t worry. There is usually a hero in these flood myths who saves a select few by building a boat, surviving the flood, and then starting to rebuild civilisation anew.”
“In fact, dare I say, your own voyage is a microcosm of that – there are just the two of you on this boat, supposedly safe from all the pestilence raging around you, doing your bit to reduce carbon emissions by using wind-power, and preserving biodiversity by taking creatures such as myself on board. You are just a modern-day Noah, whether you like it or not.”
Hmmm. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. Well, not exactly, anyway. It certainly does feel that we are in the last days, what with climate change, pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, overpopulation, hunger, disease and poor leadership. Perhaps we are using this voyage as a kind of escape from all those problems? A way of surviving? But Ruby Tuesday the centre of rebirth for a new order? A nice thought, but unlikely.
We pass Johan’s Ark, and I notice that the planks of wood at the waterline are rotten and broken. The giraffe looks down at us morosely, as if she realises that she is just a figment of someone’s bizarre imagination. There is a message in there somewhere, but I don’t have time to think about it just at the moment, as we are approaching the junction to decide whether to continue on the Noord river into central Rotterdam or take a right onto the smaller Hollandse IJssel heading for Gouda. None of us has any real desire to go into the centre of Rotterdam, so we opt for the latter.
The way narrows, and the sprawling Rotterdam conurbation slowly gives way to picturesque little villages and agricultural land, with the occasional windmill.
“Ooooh, look, that’s cool”, says the First Mate, pointing to a house with a small motorboat hanging from a hoist like a lifeboat on a ship. “I wonder if they use them as runabouts to go to the shops instead of using the car?”
She has a point. At one stage, almost every house we pass seems to have a boat hanging from its davits at the end of the garden.
“Perhaps they keep it for the Great Flood”, I say, recalling our earlier encounter. “Fear of flooding is etched into the Dutch psyche, you know. It’s a bit like having your own ark.”
“Ha, ha”, she says.
We near the outskirts of Gouda. The First Mate has phoned ahead and arranged for us to stay at a small landing pontoon to the south of the city, about 15 minutes’ walk from the city centre. But to get there, we need to pass under a lifting bridge. Often such bridges are unmanned, and are connected by video camera to some central control centre somewhere who are supposed to see if anyone is waiting to pass through. We loiter around for 15 minutes trying not to drift into the river bank, but it is difficult as the wind is quite strong. The bridge refuses to open. From the bow, the First Mate spots that there is a small notice attached to one of the posts in front of the bridge. We motor gingerly towards it, to find that it has a phone number to ring to get the bridge to open. Back in deeper water, I ring the number and say that we are waiting. Within five minutes we are through. My phone tells me that the number is a Den Haag one – can it be that everything is controlled from there?
A kilometre further on, we find the pontoon. Unfortunately it is full, and the only option we have is to raft up alongside one of the other boats. Four people are on one of them enjoying glasses of wine in the sunshine.
“Do you mind if we raft up to you?”, we ask.
Not everyone likes being rafted up to, as you then have other people tramping across your boat to get to shore, even if the etiquette is to go around the bow to respect the privacy of the cockpit. Especially when you are trying to enjoy a glass of wine.
“Of course we don’t mind”, they answer. “That’s what you have to do here. We were rafted up ourselves yesterday and only shifted to this place this morning. The ones in front, there, are leaving at 0700 in the morning – you can probably move to their spot after they go. Power is over there, and the harbour master will be along at 0800 sharp in the morning to collect the fees.”
They seem like perfect neighbours. We tie up to their boat, which turns out to be another Jeanneau Sun Odyssey, like ours. We immediately feel a kind of a bond.
Once secure, we amble into town for a coffee and cake and to explore. I am conscious that these streets are probably much the same as when Erasmus the philosopher lived in Gouda in his youth. We find Le Grand Café in the town square, and sit and sip our coffees while admiring the Stadhuis with its red and white window shutters. It reminds me of the one in Middelburg. It turns out that we are sitting where the weekly cheese market takes place in the summer. This year it has been closed due to the coronavirus.
Most Dutch towns are nothing if not for their canals. Gouda is no exception.
A mural captures the terrors of a storm at sea.
A small street leading off the main square seems to be getting rid of out-of-date Gouda cheeses by stringing them on wires across the street.
“Mmmm, they look tasty”, I say.
“I think they are plastic”, says the First Mate. “Don’t eat them.”
Where would I be without her?
We come across a Gouda cheese shop. Two other people are there – the limit is four at any one time. It has every sort of variation on a theme you could imagine – normal Gouda cheese, farmers’ Gouda cheese, black Gouda cheese, pink Gouda cheese, walnut Gouda cheese, cumin Gouda cheese, pesto Gouda cheese, you name it, there’s a good chance it is there.
We learn later that Gouda cheese is not a specific product of Gouda the town – it has no protected geographic status under the EU as it is a process rather than a product, and can be made anywhere. Gouda itself was and is more a place where cheeses come from all over Holland to be sold there. It is boerenkaas, or ‘farmer’s cheese’, that has the protected status. We buy some of that.
In the morning, the boat in front of us has gone, and we move Ruby Tuesday into the gap by rigging some lines and pulling her over. At least we now have our own piece of pontoon rather than clambering over someone else’s boat.
Our neighbours come out for a chat. Their names are Marco and Anna, and they are full-time liveaboards with no other home. They used to live in Gouda and still have many friends here – the other couple that were with them when we arrived were two of them. But they sold their house and now just move around from place to place and work from the boat. They love the freedom of their lifestyle.
I wonder if it is something that we could ever do. Both of us like spending summers on Ruby Tuesday, but over the winter is a different matter. In our minds at least.
“We also have a small campervan that we use to travel long distances in a hurry and go on holidays with”, Anna tells us. “In fact, last year we took it across to Morocco and spent several months exploring the country in it. It was fantastic. We love the nomadic lifestyle. This year we were going to drive down to Belgium for a family get together – I have siblings who live there. But unfortunately we had to cancel it because of the strict coronavirus regulations there – we would have had to self-isolate for two weeks before seeing my family. Here in the Netherlands, we are much laxer than they are there. So we have spent the summer on the boat. Where are you from?”
Their ears prick up when they hear that I am from New Zealand.
“We have relatives in Auckland”, Marco says. “We went out last year to see them, then hired a campervan and travelled around the country in that. We loved the South Island – so rugged and mountainous compared to Holland.”
“The country was named after the place in Holland we have just come through”, I say. “Zeeland. The first European to discover New Zealand was a Dutchman called Abel Tasman. And in the 1950s a lot of Dutch people emigrated there. So there has always been a strong connection between the two countries.”
“And what a Prime Minister they have”, Anna continues, referring to Jacinda Ardern. “She is so young, but she has done a fantastic job with the Christchurch shooting, and now with the coronavirus crisis. She is a natural leader, and just seems to know how to make the right decisions. If the world had more leaders like that it would be a better place.”
“Certainly better than two leaders I could name”, says the First Mate with a snort.
I rack my brains to work out which ones she means.