Seagoing wagon train to Neuwerk
THERE'S A POPULAR TV series back in the States these days that concerns a wagon train crossing the Wild West and encountering all sorts of trials and tribulations.
But at the little town of Duhnen, a North Sea resort near Cuxhaven on the northwest tip of Germany, you can see — and ride — a real wagon train under circumstances no script writer is likely to dream up.
These caravans are the lifeline to the island of Neuwerk, a tiny speck six miles offshore that is the home of 70 rugged islanders and a popular tourist attraction.
When the tide goes out and the water drops to a certain level on the markers along the soggy trail, the high-wheeled wagons pulled by powerful horses plunge into the surf and start a trek that seems to lead into the oblivion of the open sea.
Under ideal conditions, the trip takes only an hour or so and only the horses get wet feet. Unfortunately, conditions on the North Sea are frequently something less than ideal.
The key man in the seagoing safari business is Willy Brutt, 60, a small, grizzled man, who is carrying on the service that was started in 1880 by his grandfather.
Other men in the village own wagons and make the run with passengers and supplies; but Brutt is the wagonmaster responsible for deciding when it is safe to roll.
And Brutt maintains there has never been an accident on the remarkable "voyages," no small claim considering the wagons cross an ever-changing terrain and must plow through a channel where the water is frequently shoulder-deep on the horses.
New horses are always teamed with a veteran of the run to avoid the danger of panic when the water gets deep.
Almost every trip is a race against time. Brutt knows he has only so much time to reach the island, unload the wagons, pick up the returning passengers and cargo, then make the dash back before the tide starts rolling in.
When the wagon train is a long one — the record for one crossing is 37 wagons — he must take extra precautions not to get behind schedule.
To the islanders, the sight of the yellow wagons splashing through the sea means mail from the mainland, tourists to take a look at, and a chance to ride back and catch a movie at Cuxhaven.
Brutt says that one problem for which there is no solution is that the pregnant women on the island always seem to deliver at high tide. "A boat can be used to send out a midwife if the doctor can't make it," he says.
Now inhabited mostly by farmers and their families, the island has a colorful history that includes serving as headquarters for pirates in the Middle Ages.
One Teutonic Jean Lafitte made his headquarters in the large stone tower that now serves as a lighthouse.
According to legend, this hotspur was named Klaus Stortebecker and he became a pirate only after he was refused the hand of an aristocratic Hamburg senator's daughter.
His luck at looting proved better than his luck in love and for a time he seemed to threaten the city's future as a great port.
But one dark night he was captured by the irate Hamburgers. When promptly sentenced to get the ax where it hurts the most, Stortebecker reportedly promised to build a chain of gold around the city in exchange for his freedom.
The city fathers didn't doubt his fiscal ability to complete the project, but they did doubt his intent. The ax swung on schedule and Hamburg is still without a gold chain.
Life is less exciting on the island today, but the constant arrival of visitors gives the natives something to look forward to. Former President of West Germany Theodore Heuss visited the island last year to do some painting. "I didn't recognize him until we were already out at the island," Brutt said.
Taking adults out in the wagons is one thing, but youngsters are something else again.
One day recently Brutt was scheduled to lead 10 wagons out to take 80 Hamburg youngsters to the youth hostel on the island. Low tide was expected at 5 pm, but a vicious, biting wind from the north whipped the water and made the trip impossible.
The next low tide was at 5 am the following day. The wind was still blowing, but Brutt decided it would be safe if wagons came out from the island and met his party halfway, the idea being to transfer the students on a sandbar to the other wagons and cut the time of the trip in half.
Out into the bitter cold went the wagons and they reached the sandbar without difficulty, but they were still separated from the island wagons by the 50-yard channel where the water is deepest. He waited a few minutes and then waved the wagons back.
"The water was still just a few inches too deep — about two hands — but I couldn't take a chance with the children," Brutt explained. The youngsters were brought back and didn't reach the island until the next low tide when the wind finally eased off.
Fortunately for Brutt and the other drivers, such difficulties are not too common during the summer months when most of the tourists head for the island.