Driving north we are on the upward span of a long, arching bridge. Up ahead the girders of the bridge, set against the monotone grey-blue sky, make it look as if we are driving towards a door in the firmament, opening into a hazy Great Beyond.
It’s not too far from the truth. As we crest the bridge we can once again see over the pastures and fields of windmills that seem to roll on forever. The far north of Germany is almost as far into the Great Beyond as you can get and still be in continental Europe. The weather looks menacing but we’re heading to a festival where a little rain really won’t hurt anybody – Germany’s Wattolümpiade, the Mud Olympics.
Mention the name Brunsbüttel to a German and they are likely to note that the only thing up there is a nuclear power plant. The little town is also pressed to the mouth of the Elbe River, one of Europe’s busiest shipping lanes. Here the river widens to over three kilometres wide before becoming part of the temperamental North Sea. It is here, in a kink in the large grassy dyke that protects the low-lying town, that Brunsbüttel plays host to the annual Mud Olympics.
Mixing amateur sport, fancy dress and thick, knee-deep, sucking mud, the Tideland Olympics as its otherwise known, calls out to a carnal, not-so-secret corner of our brains. It’s that atavistic section that harbours the fire-worshipper in us, that makes us sing too loudly in the car when we’re alone, and that dreams of making a spectacular dive catch into the water at the beach. Give us a field of mud and the chance to be a sporting hero and even the fastidious Germans will dive face first into the muck.
And so it is with the Mud Olympics. Competing in sports such as football (soccer), handball, volleyball and sled racing, teams in fancy dress use their given sport as an excuse to flop about and get slicked in thick black mud.
Yet even more oxymoronic than the idea of a Dirty German, is the reality of Clean Mud. The mud of the Elbe is gorgeous, there’s no other way to put it. It feels like squeezing wads of silk between your fingers and toes; it covers you in a comfortable second skin that insulates and protects. Most surprising of all is that that the mud has no smell – no toxic residue, or dead fish saltiness. It’s inconceivable for the bottom of a river that is constantly criss-crossed by the bulk of Northern Europe’s cargo freighters.
It’s as if the kind people of Brunbuttel had the floor of the river dry-cleaned prior to our arrival.
Alongside watching the various sporting matches along the foreshore mudflat, the Mud Olympics also encouraged everyone attending to get down an dirty by helping them set a new record for the greatest number of people doing mud-angels, the summer equivalent of your standard snow-angel.
And they succeeded, smashing the previous record with 350 people lain out across the mudflat, a scene of amazing abandon punctuated by the occasional squeal of people who had mud seeping into their ears.
Brunsbüttel may have set aside their quintessential German fastidiousness for the sake of fun but even this wilful carelessness has limits. As you emerge from the field, a newly christened creature from the Black Lagoon, expect to be met by one of the local fire-fighters armed with a fire hose and an intent on getting you clean in the fastest way possible. Be prepared.
Originally begun as a casual splash in the mud between friends back in the 70s, the Mud Olympics was revived and refocused 10 years ago by the local artist Jens Rusch. After a long battle with cancer Jens saw the potential of combining Brunsbüttel’s unique mud flats with a good cause. Since the first Mud Olympics in 2004 the Games have raised over a quarter of a million dollars for local cancer charities.
Other entertainment includes stalls, food and drink stands and also an unofficial Opening Ceremony the night before, which turns the dyke into an amphitheatre for a band and DJ.
The Mud Olympics is every big kid’s dream; it’s fun, it’s irreverent and it’s essentially one big mud fight. It retains the familiarity and friendliness of a local festival unspoilt by huge tourist crowds.