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Wattwagenfahrt to Neuwerk with Bärbel and Anni



A ride in a horse-drawn carriage across 13 kms of dry sea bottom to the island of Neuwerk is the most amazing and unique experience Cuxhaven has to offer. A marked solid trail leads through 13 kms of mudflats and through a couple of Priele (water flows). The carriages make it to Neuwerk with one hour stay in the island and then back to Duhnen or Sahlenburg during one single low tide. This is impossible to achieve for pedestrian hikers because on foot you’d need about three hours one way.

The tours start every day from spring to autumn, if the weather allows. The hours change according to the tides. The tourist office provides a list of addresses but won't be of any help booking the tours - this has to be done directly with the stables. Tours depart from Duhnen and from Sahlenburg. There are at least a dozen stables that offer these tours. Their advertising in the streets is difficult to miss, so you'll find them. Book the tour at least one day in advance, during peak season earlier.

These carriages were especially built for their purpose. They are high so passengers won’t get wet if the cart has to pass through a deep Priel. The reins are made from ropes because leather would rot in the wet and salty surroundings. The benches on top are loose. In case a cart gets stuck and the water returns, people can hold on to them. All safety measures are taken to avoid trouble, and such incidents happen rarely to never. They leave in time when the tide is lowest in order to have enough time for the way back even if there is a problem, they never go alone, and everyone would help each other when necessary. Then there is also the DLRG keeping watch.



After checking the weather forecast carefully, I tried my luck with a stable in Duhnen and got a place for the next day. I arrived in due time for boarding. Staff assigned the seats in order to avoid quarrels among the passengers, an excellent idea. Each carriage seats 7 or 8 people plus the coachman, so trouble might occur if the choice of seats was left to the passengers. The decision was very much in my favour: I don’t know how I deserved it, but I was given the seat in front next to the coachman. Perhaps because I was the only single traveller on our cart. So I was able to take fine photos without anyone’s head getting in the way, talk to the coachman and watch the horses. He even let me hold the reins for a little while.

Bärbel and Anni are getting dressed for work

Each carriage is drawn by two horses. Ours were two mares named Bärbel and Anni.

Dun-coloured Bärbel was an Ardenner, I’d say, while white Anni was of undefinable race.

I learned that each coachman has two pairs of horses. They work every second day, taking turns, so they have a day off to rest in between. Due to the saltwater they run in all the time, they all have very healthy legs and hooves.


We rode through the centre of Duhnen, crossed the dyke and entered the mudflats from the ramp at Duhnen beach. Then we travelled first parallel to the beach, then in a wide curve towards Neuwerk. The direct line would not be safe, a certain detour has to be made. The route is checked and re-marked every spring. Since the sea bottom and the run of the Priele changes, the route may also change. The safe trail to Neuwerk, nicknamed the „Mudflat Highway“, is marked with Pricken, bushes of birch twigs. Pedestrians, too, have to follow this marked trail if they want to do the whole hike from the mainland to the island.



The carriages set out as early as the lowering water allows. In some places the water is still quite deep, that's why the carriages are built that high. The horses have to cross several Priele. Sometimes the water is up to their belly.

Halfway we encountered oncoming traffic from Neuwerk. Going either by ferry or per Wattwagen is the only way to reach the island.


Neuwerk gets its share of holiday makers, usually people who want it simple, quiet and down-to-earth, close to nature. There is camping and there are some farms that offer accommodation.

After about an hour we reached Neuwerk. Just like in Duhnen, a paved ramp provides an easy exit for the carriages onto solid land and across the dyke. We proceeded to the lighthouse where all carriages stopped and let their passengers get off. On this day in May about 25 Wattwagen assembled in the parking lot. In peak season there will be 40 to 50.

Neuwerk parking lot


We had one hour of spare time on the island, which is not very much but allows seeing the lighthouse and going for a short walk. There were of course some people who wasted their precious time with lunch at the (very low-key) eatery next to the parking lot. I had taken provisions and ate my rolls on a sunny bench on the dyke.

Neuwerk’s most important attraction is the lighthouse, a mighty brick tower that dates from the 14th century. Since Neuwerk belongs to Hamburg, the lighthouse is in fact Hamburg's oldest preserved building. All families who live on the island own a room inside the lighthouse as a refuge in case of storm and spring tide.

The lighthouse can (and should) be climbed. The gallery on top offers an amazing view over the whole island, the surrounding wadden sea, the coastline and the bird islands of Scharhörn and Nigehörn. These small islands are protected nature reserves and off-bounds to everyone except the ornithological warden.




I still had time, so I went for a walk over to the small cemetery. This was quite moving. The so-called Cemetery of the Unknown holds the graves of nameless sailors whose corpses were carried to the shores of the island. Even if nobody knew who they were, they were to rest in proper graves in sacred soil. The inhabitants of the island take good care of the graveyard.


Back in Duhnen

Then it was time to get back on board. The carriages set out for the return journey when the tide is lowest. This gives them enough time to make it back to shore even if anything unexpected happens on the way. The return is much less spectacular. The water is at its lowest level. What used to be deep Priele on the way out, were shallow puddles now. So we reached Duhnen at relaxed pace. The horses were glad that their working day was over. They were looking forward to their pasture and a day off.


In the evening I went for a little walk along the stream near Stickenbüttel. By chance I found the pasture where Anni and Bärbel and their colleagues from the same stable were grazing. The horses have worked hard, pulling the carriages to Neuwerk and back. Now they had time to relax, clean their legs and fur in the grass, and eat. They obviously enjoyed their dinner.


Posted by Kathrin_E 14:18 Archived in Germany Tagged animals hamburg north_sea cuxhaven niedersachsen lower_saxony

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This looks wonderful, and I love your opening photo over the horses' heads :) How lucky you were to get that seat! I am certain being a lone passenger must have helped - if ever I make this trip I should be sure to leave Chris at home ;) The view from the lighthouse looks lovely and the small cemetery very picturesque. The whole experience reminds me a little of Holy Island (Lindisfarne) in north-east England, although there you can drive across the causeway at low tide - no need for horse.

by ToonSarah

I forgot to say, I didn't know the word 'Priele' so I looked it up. In English I think we would say 'creek' or possibly 'channel'

by ToonSarah

"Priel" is a local and very precise term, so I'll stick with it. This blog already has a couple of draft entries which are stíll invisible to you;) - one will be about the tidal mudflats and their peculiarities, in there it will all be explained.

by Kathrin_E

That will be interesting to read :)

by ToonSarah

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