The Lommelse Sahara is a strange desert landscape of pure white sand planted with pine trees. It occupies an abandoned industrial site in the Kempen region where quartz sand was once mined and a polluting zinc factory killed off all the trees. This bleak wilderness was later used by a weapons manufacturer to test grenades, but it has been turned into a nature reserve, with hiking trails, an observation tower and a lake in the former quarry.
The landscape of the Doode Bemde is quite different from anywhere else in Belgium. The River Dijle meanders sluggishly between waterlogged fields where little grows except poplars and reeds. Beyond a railway line, you can follow two marked trails (blue or red) through this ancient desolate landscape. A short detour off the blue route brings you to a secluded bird hide on the edge of a small lake. You may be wondering if there is anywhere for lunch. Look out for the large church with two Romanesque towers on a hill to the south of the nature reserve. It stands in the village of Neerijse, where the village brewery De Kroon has been revived by a professor from Leuven University. It’s the perfect spot to stop for some Belgian food and a De Kroon beer.
A silent area of watery salt marshes and windswept dunes lies close to the beach town of Knokke. This was once the broad estuary of the Zwin, where 15th-century merchant ships carried English wool and Italian silk to Bruges. But the river silted up in the 16th century, turning Bruges into a dead port. The estuary slowly evolved into a desolate and watery landscape enclosed by dunes and pine woods. More than 100 different species of birds gather in this habitat, including Kentish plovers, crested larks and avocets. Several marked trails lead across this strange landscape on the border with the Netherlands.
HOGE KEMPEN NATIONAL PARK
This national park was created a few years ago in an area of abandoned mines close to the Dutch border. It’s an inspiring conservation project copied by other countries. The park has four main entry points leading to vast areas of woodland and heath with the odd mining relic poking up out of the ground. The main entrance to the park stands close to a coal mine abandoned in 1987. Here you find a visitors centre, a large cafe and a playground. You pay a small fee here to walk along marked trails and climb to the top of an abandoned slag heap for a sweeping view of woodland and flooded quarries.