East of Antwerp - the Kempen
Albert Canal: Antwerp - Schoten
- Herentals - Kwaadmechelen - Briegden - Liège (135 km)
Antitank Canal: Oelegem - St-Job-in-'t-Goor (10 km)
Kempen Canal: Herentals - Dessel - Blauwe Kei - Bocholt (58 km)
Zuid Willemsvaart (ZWF): Nederweert (NL) - Bocholt junction - Briegden (61 km)
Turnhout Canal: Schoten - Turnhout - Dessel (65 km)
Bels Lijntje rail trail: Turnhout - Tilburg (NL)
Dessel - Kwaadmechelen Canal (16 km)
Beverlo Canal: Blauwe Kei - Leopoldsburg (15 km)
Maastricht island (30 km)
Maas River/Juliana Canal: Maastricht - Maasbracht (43 km)
The Kempen is a flat, sandy, not very fertile rolling plain covering most of the area from Antwerp (the Schelde) east to the Maas. The plain slopes gradually up from west to east, reaching a height of about 60 m before the Maas valley west of Maastricht. In Roman times it was quite marshy and had few inhabitants. Over time the marshes became peat deposits, and these were mined (for fuel) from about 1250 to 1750. As part of that process, many small canals 4 to 6 m wide were dug to drain the bogs and to allow transportation of the peat to the navigable rivers. Parts of the routes of some of these early canals were probably included in the canals built later. As the peat was worked out, agricultural development spread over part of the area. Energy again became a factor in the 19th century with the discovery of coal.
The Meuse/Maas River to the east of the Kempen has been used for navigation since antiquity. South of Liège the river is constrained in a valley of its making, but to the north and particularly north of Maastricht it flows through flat lands. There are constant meanders, sand bars and (previously) frequent changes of channel. To ease transportation through the flatlands, a bypass canal from around Maastricht to the Schelde was proposed at least as early as 1517. Work actually started under Napoleon, but ceased with his fall. Work resumed under Willem (William) I of the Netherlands in 1823 with the Zuid Willemsvaart. This runs northerly from Maastricht to Bocholt, where it turns NE across the border to Weert and then north again to meet the lower Maas. Work was completed in 1826.
The Zuid Willemsvaart was a considerable help as long as Belgium and the Netherlands were one, but that ended in 1830. Waterway access across the new border was cut off until 1863. A connection that avoided the border was necessary, and work started on that in 1843 on the Kempen Canal. Starting west from Bocholt, it was opened to Herentals in 1846, and a connection was made with the Klein Nete River in 1856. Barges could then continue down the Nete, Rupel and Schelde to Antwerp. (Note: de Selys says that the canal was extended from Herentals to Antwerp in 1859, but West and De Lock do not indicate any such extension. I presume majority rules in this case.)
A branch canal, from Dessel north and west to Turnhout, was started in 1846. In 1866 it was extended to St-Lenaarts. By 1874 it had been further extended to complete an arch with the west end at Schoten, where it turned west to enter the Antwerp docks. From 1854 to 1858 another branch was dug from Dessel south to Kwaadmechelen and then SE to Hasselt where it connected with the Demer. The network was designed for a maximum barge of 600 tons.
While these developments allowed barges to travel from Liège to Antwerp, it was a slow trip - typically two weeks. Major bottlenecks included the many locks, a narrow canal through Maastricht, border controls with the Netherlands at two places, and numerous lift bridges in Antwerp. Nonethless, the canal network opened up the Kempen to industrial development.
The solution to the above problems, and to improve service for the new coal mines of the Kempen, was the construction of the Albert Canal between 1930 and 1939. It runs in a nearly straight line, with only 6 locks, from Antwerp to near the Netherlands border. There it turns south to bypass Maastricht. At that point there is a northern branch to connect with the Zuid Willemsvaart, again avoiding Maastricht and Netherlands soil. It incorporated the western end of the Turnhout canal (Antwerp - Schoten), and the section from Kwaadmechelen to Hasselt of the Dessel - Hasselt canal. These were widened. It continues south from Maastricht to join the Meuse at Herstal on the north side of Liège. Originally built for a capacity of 2,000 tons, after WW II (which in any case resulted in much damage) it was improved to allow barges (or rather typically two unpowered barges being pushed by a tug) with a total capacity of 4,500 tons. (One article in Le Soir said the capacity is 9,000 tons.) The final step in that project was the opening of the new Wijnegem lock in about 1995.
Kempen Canal: Herentals - Dessel - Blauwe Kei - Bocholt(58 km)
(Junctions 12 - 13 - 23 - 44 - 21 - 20 - 95 - 96 - 73 - 74 - 75 - 260 - 232 - 231 - 230 - 227 - 228 - 221 - 240 - 220 - 202 - 205 - 212 - 211)
Earlier names are Bocholt - Herentals canal, and Maas - Schelde connecting canal. The Kempen runs mostly through woods, nature preserves and by lakes - a pleasant ride on generally excellent pavement.
Herentals was founded in 1209 by the Duke of Brabant. It quickly grew into a regional trade and religious center. Two gates remain from the 14th century city walls. The town hall was built in 1534 for the cloth guild. The transept and tower of the St Waldetrudiskerk dates from the 14th century. On the ring road east of the center is a McDonald's.
Just past the N19 bridge, the towpath on the north bank loses its pavement. The hard-packed dirt is rideable, but the paved south bank is much better. Cross the canal over the upper lock gates of lock 7 (junction 21) and continue on the south side through a nature preserve (junctions 20 - 95). At the next bridge (lock 6, where there is a pub on the south bank - junction 95) cross back over to the north side toward junction 96 and then 73. At Schans, near Dessel, there is another canalside pub. Just before this lock is a side canal, now closed to shipping, that connects to a former quarry. You can follow a footpath along this branch for a bit over one km, mostly in a nuclear research center park. A bit further along on the main canal is a power station where you might see coal being unloaded.
By Witgoor (Dessel) (junctions 73), the Kempen and Turnhout canals cross at grade. You cross the Turnhout on a narrow bridge - which is also used by cars. On the east side of the bridge (at junction 74) in July 1998 there was a pub-boat, the Pannenkoekenboot, a nice place to stop for a brew and/or pancake. (December 2000) Website
Further along you pass on the left a Belgian military installation which houses vehicles used by the UN in Bosnia. The vehicles were returned to Belgium by barge - the Danube, Main-Danube canal, Main, Rhine, then back down into Belgium by one of the several connecting canals.
About one km east of the canal junction is a Bailey bridge, for pedestrians and cyclists only. Then there are now three locks in fairly quick succession. They each have a lift of 4.3 m. They are the last locks as you go east on the Kempen - in fact you can continue 72 km along the Kempen and then Zuid Willemsvaart to Maastricht before you see another lock.
Just past the third lock (junction 232) is Blauwe Kei and (on the south side) junction 260 which marks the north end of the Beverlo Kanaal.
Approaching Lommel at junction 230 the canal passes very close (less than 1000 m) to the border with the Netherlands. From the first Lommel bridge (KP 20.2) you can make a short detour north to set wheels on Dutch soil. (Note: there are three bridges in the Lommel area, marked from west to east as Lommel III, II and I. On the boaters map they are Lommel 3, 2 and 1. These are different from the numbers assigned when the canal was built: the builder's number for the middle bridge is 12.)
Continuing east from Lommel III you can ride either side, but on the south side several km are not paved. Some is quite soft when wet. The north side is best. (January 1998) (October 2005: Tim Freh reports that there is contruction on the south bank in this area. It is best to stick to the north bank.)
Note for students of military history: on the south bank a short distance east of the Lommel III bridge is a small monument to a British soldier who died nearby and was buried here in September 1944. In July 1946 he was exhumed and reburied in the military cemetery at Leopoldsburg. (René Proth, March 2004. She is searching for anything on the history of this monument.)
The next 16 plus km (junctions 220, 202, 213 and 212) are uneventful, pleasant riding on a smooth surface. The countryside has a gentle roll, and to avoid the need for locks the canal is built up above ground level for a stretch. The canal runs through broad borders of trees, mostly mature oaks. You will pass signs warning about oak caterpillars - they have "stinging hairs" which after a while create some pain. Part of the route is on paved towpath, part on service road with little traffic. Every few hundred meters you will see a pillbox on the south bank - part of the useless defenses against the 1940 German invasion.
At the Kaulille Bridge (KP 2.3) (junction 212) the paved path on the north bank ends. To stick to the canal, cross the bridge and continue east on the south side. You reach the junction (junction 211) with the Zuid Willemsvaart in 2.3 km. This is the official end of the Kempen canal and the beginnning of your ride south on the Zuid Willemsvaart towards Maastricht. Just before the junction is a bridge you can cross if you want to turn north on the Zuid Willemsvaart.
If you decide to stick to the north bank, just east of Kaulille bridge turn to the left, following the signs for the LF 5 bike route. In about 200 m you turn right into a country lane. In another 1.6 km you join a road along the Zuid Willemsvaart, and 500 m later you reach lock 18 with a bridge. Cross the bridge and continue east on the nicely paved path. (June 1998)
Access to Herentals: E313 to exit 20 or 22. Follow the signs for Herentals and then Turnhout. This will put you on the Herentals ring. Just past the turn for Geel, turn off on the first side road and in a short distance park by the canal. If you reach a McDonald's, you have gone too far.
Zuid Willemsvaart (ZWF) (61
Zuid Willemsvaart (ZWF) (61 km)
The Maas north of Maastricht flows through flat land, resulting in shallow water and a winding, often-changing course. The Zuid Willemsvaart (South William Canal) (hereafter ZWF) was built by King Willem (William) I of the Netherlands to provide a better connection between the upper and lower Maas. The full length of 41 km was finished in 1826. The canal runs SE from 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands to Nederweert, then SW to Bocholt in Belgium, and then SE and S to connect with the Maas (in French Meuse) by Maastricht. The current capacity of the canal is technically 600 tons, but in fact you see barges up to 2,000 tons on the southern section.
One minor bit of frustration with this canal is that the official distance markers have different bases. The KP posts show a distance 1.5 to 2 km higher than the distances shown on bridges. However, the KP posts are only sporadic, and have disappeared entirely on the southern half of the canal. The bridge markings give you a good idea of relative distance, and are good for identifying specific locations. Bridge markings are given to 2 or 3 decimal places.
Bocholt - Nederweert (NE) (19 km)
(Junctions 211 - 08 - 75 - towards 77)
This route is, with the exception of the town of Weert, through countryside, farms with some parks and nature preserves. Unfortunately, much of the way is highway riding. On the Kempen en Maasland bike network, Bocholt is junction 8. From there follow to 75 and then 77 for Weert.
From the Weert bridge to the Nederweert canal junction is about 4 km. The south bank is a mixture of street and unpaved towpath, the north minor street and bicycle path along a highway. (August 1998) (First 10 km verified by Jan Steyaert Jul 2003) (Verified by Karel Roose 31 July 2004)
Bocholt - Neerharen - Briegden (42 km)
(Junctions 08 - 07 - 11 - 12 - 13 - 47 - 44 - 48 - 55 - 56 - 57 - 58 - 54 - toward 59 to canal junction at Briegde)
This canal is one of the finer rides in Belgium.
One reason to ride the west (more south here) bank for a short distance would be to take a break. Following the west bank southeast from Bocholt junction, in a little over 1.5 km you reach a small port area, which includes a pub, the Savannah, on a barge. Open Wed - Sun, from noon. A pleasant place to stop for a drink. Past the pub you join a road which takes you on a short detour around a side canal with a boat yard. At Bocholt bridge (N76) cross back to the east bank.
Passing junctions 07 and 11 toward 12, where the road turns into Tongerlo there is the 't Kieper pub which serves excellent Pax Pils from the nearby brewery of Opitter. The name suggests that the building was once the home of the person responsible for a lock and/or bascule bridge here.
200 m south of the pub, past an old water mill that drew water from the canal, is a war memorial to five Royal Air Force airmen. On 11 April 1943, Humphrey Chesterton, Bernard Bugg, Leslie Ellis, Walter Moore and Ernest Tolson died about here.
A couple of hundred meters further you see on the opposite bank the remains of a bunker that was blown up. The thickness of the walls - over 60 cm of reinforced cement - show why nobody is bothering to remove most of the old bunkers. It would be too much work.
800 meters after the blown bunker you come to a foot (voet) bridge, and 1,700 m later the north end of a branch canal. It is an earlier channel of the ZWF, one of three you will encounter. The old channel is slightly (about 300 m) longer than the new, and lacks a paved tow path, but it is very pleasant riding if not too wet. Follow the hard packed path on the east bank. The first 900 m is now a marina. You then cross a highway that cuts the canal, and pass a cement products factory on the other bank. 500 m south of the cross highway you are back on the main channel and lovely paved towpath.
1.6 km later you come to another stretch of old channel, which you have to take. The land between the old and new is an island, now 't Eiland caravan park and marina. (There is a café, open daily from Easter to the end of September.) 300 m after the old channel leaves the new you join a narrow road, and 300 m later you reach the one bridge to the island. Just past the bridge you regain the main channel and paved towpath.
From this point to Rotem bridge is 2.4 km. Most of that distance there is an area with large lakes (probably old quarries) on the opposite side.
From Rotem bridge (KP 20.55 - it passes over the tow path) to Rekem (junction 58 via 44, 48, 58, 55, 56 and 57) the east bank continues to be a delightful paved towpath. The remaining active industry (sand and gravel) is on the west bank. Former quarries on the east bank are now nature preserves - watch particularly for colorful kingfishers.
Half a km south of Rotem bridge is a former rail bridge, recently converted to improved as part of the line 21A rail trail (junction 44). The trial offers (or will soon offer) 16 km of pleasant, paved riding from Maaseik to As. Just past that bridge there is a very large derelict industrial area to the west of the canal. On the south side of that is the Dilsen bridge, and 300 m further a pub below the dyke.
Just about 1 km south of the pub the canal splits once again. When the canal was widened, it was decided to dig a new channel with approach space for a fixed bridge rather than disrupt the town of Lanklaar by widening the existing canal. The old channel and new are both 1,900 m long. The old channel was blocked and has returned to nature - a fine ride. The towpaths of the old channel are not paved, but there are decent hard dirt roads and paths. The best are on the east bank until you reach the highway that crosses the old channel on fill, and thence on the west bank.
Where the old and new channels meet at the south end there is a trailer (caravan) park, marina and pub. The canal is very wide here, and the pub is the home of a water-skiing club. Check out the pictures of pyramid tricks.
On this section of the canal you see several projects to make the canal more "nature friendly." Wetlands are being created by building retaining walls a meter or so into the canal. The walls are typically made of wooden posts, allowing free circulation of water, and there are occasional wider openings - wide enough for a swan. Within the retaining wall construction rubble is dumped to partially fill the walled area. Nature is then allowed to do its thing. In one case, the bottom of a canal barge is being used for the same purpose. It was sunk near the edge, and partially filled with dirt. In this case plantings were made in the ends of the barge, creating small islands. There are signs explaining the intent of the projects.
Going on 2 km south of the marina you pass the closed Eisden coal mine, with twin lift (elevator) structures, visible to the west. The canal is again wider, to provide space for barges to load coal. Then you pass under Eisden bridge number 2, and on the west bank is a ship (or barge) yard. Barges are built and repaired here, in a dry dock. Past the shipyard is Eisden bridge, and 7 km later Rekem bridge. Past Rekem bridge the east bank towpath is blocked by a harbor - you have to cycle on a road. To avoid that, cross the bridge. (Sep 1998)
The town of Rekem is a pleasant diversion. The street plan is clearly medieval, there are several 18th and 19th century houses, and there is a city gate from 1630. The church is 18th century, the castle 16th.
From Rekem bridge (KP 5.077 - junction 58) south toward junction 54 there is a fine paved towpath on the west bank. In 1.5 km you reach the Neerharen bridge (KP 3.5) and 400 m later a split in the canal. The ZWF itself takes the east branch (see Maastricht island route) and connects with the Meuse in 3 km. The west branch is technically the Kanaal Briegden - Neerharen. It connects the ZWF with the Albert, and is about 5 km long. (Some construction details suggest that it was built earlier than the Albert, as part of a project to connect the ZWF with the Meuse through Belgian territory and avoiding the narrow waterways through Maastricht.) (August 1998) (June 2007: Dirk Vande Putte reports that there is a cafe boat “Op de Hogt” in the canal just south of the Neerharen bridge. A good place to stop for a drink or snack. Open every day from 10:00 to 22:00.)
700 m further south is a lock with a bridge. If you plan to continue south towards Liège, or into Maastricht, cross this bridge and continue with the Maastricht island route.
If you plan to turn west on the Albert canal, continue south on the west bank to Briegden junction. You are following signs for junction 59 on the Maasland bicycle network. For the first km you are on a quiet road, then just past a bridge a paved service road along the canal. 2 km later you reach Briegden junction with the Albert Kanaal. (May 1998) (Verified by Karel Roose 31 July 2004) (Reviewed by Dirk Vande Putte June 2007)
Dessel - Kwaadmechelen Canal (16 km)
Dessel - Kwaadmechelen Canal (16 km)
(Junctions 73 - 50 - 51 then 52 - 55 - 34 - 37 or 53 - 57 - 33 - 38 - 339)
Despite running through pleasant countryside with little industry and few towns, this canal is practically boring. The roads and service roads are mostly without blemish, the cleared areas on the east embankment extra wide, and the canal straight as an arrow except for one slight bend near the south end. The north end of the canal is flanked by enormous sand quarries. The one on the east side opens into the canal - barges go right into the quarry to load.
From junction 73 - the lock with bridge on the Kempen canal at its junction with the Turnhout and Kwaadmechelen - follow the south bank of the Kempen east for less than 100 m to the Kwaadmechelen and then turn south along the west bank toward junction 50. In a bit over one km you see on the opposite bank an opening into a quarry that blocks the towpath. Soon thereafter on the east bank is a small boatyard. Just past the boat yard you reach the first bridge, the Mol Sluis (KP 1.7 - junction 51). (The name indicates that there was once a lock here.)
For the next 13 1/2 km you can use either side of the canal. On the east side (junctions 53, 57, 33 and 38) the strip where the vegetation is kept very short (probably because at least three pipelines are buried along the towpath) is very wide. On the west bank (junctions 52, 55, 34 and 37) you are closer to trees much of the way, but also have to ride on roads now and then.
15.2 km from your start on the Kempen canal you reach the last bridge across the Kwaadmechelen, by the town of that name. If you are going to go east on the Albert, continue south from this bridge on the east bank toward junction 339; or if west on the Albert on the west bank toward junction 11. The junction with the Albert Canal is 600 m ahead. (September 1998)
Beverlo Canal: Blauwe Kei - Leopoldsburg (15 km)
Beverlo Canal: Blauwe Kei - Leopoldsburg (15 km)
(Junctions 260 - 267 - 268 - 266 - 275 - toward 277)
This stub canal provides a fine ride, mostly farmland through an arcade of oak trees.
After Belgian independence it was decided that a military base was required in the NE of the country. The heaths north of Beverlo were selected as the site. Construction took several years in the late 1830's and early 1840's. This stub canal was built to carry supplies for the fort. The fort proved a magnet for other settlers, and in 1850 Leopoldsburg was separated from Beverlo to form a separate commune.
According to a sign, the name "Blauwe Kei" (blue boulder) refers to a large rock found a bit to the west (Mol lock 2). The rock disappeared in 1928 when the locks were doubled.
At its junction with the Beverlo (junction 260), the Kempen canal has a fine new paved towpath to the west on the south bank, an industrial road to the east on the south bank, and a paved towpath (sometimes also used as a road) on the north bank. 200 m east of the junction is a bridge across the Kempen to junction 232. At the north end of the bridge is a sign pointing south, to Kerkhoven.
There is a narrow bridge across the mouth of the Beverlo. Just west of the bridge are two pubs. From that bridge, head south toward junction 50 on the west bank on a bit of road and then fine paved towpath. The first km or so are through pine woods, with a view of a large lake (sand pit) to the right as you approach a highway bridge. Past the bridge you enter the normal vegetation of the canal - a border of oaks, through farm country with a bit of industry.
600 m past KP 2 you can turn off the dyke to a pub, de Withoef. Open from 11:00, except Mondays.
Just before KP 5 there is a lift bridge across from the large Union Miniere factory complex. Cross this bridge to the east bank and turn right. After 250 m of riding on a road with little or no traffic you are again on fine paved towpath. At KP 10 there is a bridge and then a pub, de Waterkant (waterside) and yacht club. A little over a km later you reach Brug 5, Balan Zwalig. The east bank from here south is unpaved, but fairly good gravel road. Cross the bridge and continue south on pavement on the west bank. The basin at the end of the canal is another 2 km. (September 1998)
Access: E313 exit 24 to Beringen, then north on N73 to Beverlo and then Leopoldsburg. There turn north on N18 towards Balen. On the north side of Leopoldsburg this highway runs beside the canal for a short distance. There is plentiful parking by the canal basin.
Last updated 11 Apr 2010; 20 Nov 2008 amended to include many bike route junctions.
Copyright Dan Gamber, 1998 - 2010
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