The duck in us

Every year, hundreds of amateur athletes hurl themselves into the River Elbe's ooze at the "Wattolümpiade" - "Mudflat Olympics" - in Brunsbüttel. Our author Imke Wrage was among the throng - excavating the miry battlefield to find the primeval creature in urban man.


Muddy battle in Wadden Sea

To start with, anticipation is mixed with a touch of disgust. A shudder goes through me the first time the mud sloshes into my soggy cloth shoes and slithers coolly between my toes. Grit your teeth. You're a Duck. And ducks know no pain – or at least no fear of sludgy mudflats underfoot. The others in the team are less inhibited. Christin is already up to her knees in the mire, her hair covered with a yellow bathing-cap. Rebecca's face is already sprinkled with mudflat before the starting whistle blows. I pull my right shoe out of the turgid mass with a gentle "plop", teeter ineptly along the sideline. And I seriously wonder whether this had been a good idea.

The plan was as follows: a Saturday excursion into humanity's past, into the time when we still fought for our daily survival as hunters and gatherers. Back then, people slept on the skins of animals they had slain, and rubbed themselves with muck so that the bears wouldn't scent them. The light version of this battle for survival was the Wattolümpiade. That was the idea. City folks from the Hamburg metropolitan region, the rest of Germany and neighbouring countries wrestle in the mud of the Wadden Sea for Olympic metals, competing in such disciplines as handball, "Wolleyball" and mudsleigh races. Traditionally, the proceeds are donated to the Schleswig-Holstein cancer society. The perfect combination, in a word: a primeval battle in soft mud, with no risk of injury and for a good cause.

It’s all quite sedate to begin with, too: at a housing development on the edge of Brunsbüttel, where each family home resembles the next. The occasional car goes by, otherwise there's no one around in the light drizzle except me and a grey-haired dachshund owner. A muffled confusion of voices echoes from one of the houses. This is where I meet my team, "The Ducks", whose members are fortifying themselves for the events with a substantial breakfast. The Ducks are thirty-year-old Christin Riethmüller and her eleven team colleagues from Rostock, Bremen and Brunsbüttel – the last-mentioned being our hosts at the moment. 

Christin wears her long, brown hair in a plait, she has painted her yellow tee-shirt with slogans. Little tattoos on her arms peep out from under it. In Hamburg, she lives in a shared flat in Hammerbrook with other professionals: "From nine to four I work as a retraining coordinator in a Hamburg vocational training institution, then I meet friends, go to concerts or plan my next trip away," she says. A perfectly normal city life, then – she's just a step ahead of me in one thing: she's a Wattolümpiade veteran, it's her eighth time, so she's just the right person to take this novice under her Duck's wing. "It's one of the greatest days in the year," says Christin. We'll see.

Just two hours later, my face is covered with glitter, I'm wearing a yellow tee-shirt and have a little plastic duck beak perched on my nose. "Where are the Ducks?" Christin roars to the group. "Here are the Ducks," is the ringing response. I try rather sheepishly to join in the battle-cries – I haven't got my timing right yet. Rain drums on the roof of the shuttle bus taking us to the Elbdeich Soesmenhusen dike. The Elbe, just short of three kilometres wide, stretches before our eyes when we arrive. "The view alone is worth the trip," says Christin. Close to the Elbe's mouth, huge vessels from all over the world sail by. 200 metres beyond, sheep graze on the dike, beside them six gently revolving wind turbines.


"Look, Gerda, there's one of the mad Ducks," I hear a tall, bearded man say as I stroll along the dike on my own, taking a look around. It takes me a second to realise he means me. I should be getting used to the idea by now: I'm a Duck. And they seem to be well known here.


In the early afternoon, the "mudfight arena" below the dike fills up and the tide gradually recedes from the seabed. Several thousand visitors come every year. The sun comes out right in time for the start of the mud wars. The Ducks prepare for their "Wolleyball" match against the "Quicksand" team, a group of young men in pirate costumes. Just before the game, Christin dons her holey sports shoes and binds adhesive tape around them to make sure they don't stick in the mire later on. I hesitate briefly and then tape my shoes firmly in place as well. Shortly afterwards, a flock of shrieking Ducks storms down the stony river bank and into the mud.

I must admit: I'm not entirely happy. I'm still thinking about getting stuck, and fears of failure from sports lessons are looming large at the back of my mind – what if I don't hit the ball and spoil the game for the Ducks? But there's little time left for reflection. A tooting sound booms from the loudspeakers, then the referee's whistle blows. The other side to serve: a broad-shouldered man in his mid-twenties hits the ball over the net. Christin gets to it first and scoops it back to the opponents' side, ending with a bellyflop. Mud sprays in all directions. Precision landing, one-nil. "Neh, neh, neh," the Ducks bawl from the side of the pitch. Christin gets up, wipes the ooze from her face and everyone wades to the next position. I've barely moved, but I still have traces of the Wadden on my tee-shirt, hair, cheeks.

Then it's the Ducks' first turn, Rebecca to serve. She's coming on slowly, but in fact speed's of the essence: after four hours the tide will advance again and the show will be over. That's why a game is only seven minutes long and the loser goes out. "Prepare for boarding," screams Rebecca, straightens the yellow bathing-cap and casts the mireball into the air. With a lip-smacking sound, the ball lands out. "We only like ducks when they're sweet and sour," our opponents mock, joining in a jubilant chorus.

Five minutes later, grey is playing grey. Costumes can only be guessed at, faces are smeared and some bodies have sunk thigh-deep into the mire. But nobody's bothered by this time. I fight my way through the mud and catch myself yelling along with the others when people go up to their armpits in the ooze. We're into the last minute. Nine to nine, whoever makes the next point will win. Anna gets ready to serve at the backline and powers the ball over the net. It soars in a high arc into an empty corner on the other side. The Ducks start to exult, but at the very last second a muddy opposition arm reaches the ball. It only just tops the net, and lands on the Ducks' side. The referee's final whistle blows, the "Quicksand" team wins.

After just seven minutes on court, my Saturday excursion into humanity's past is over – and so is the Wattolüpiade for my team. The Ducks follow the rest of the games as spectators from the dry dike, accompanied by family and friends. However, no one’s really disappointed. "Seven minutes in the mud are like seven days' holiday," says Christin, and laughs. At this point my thoughts are straying more towards a hot shower. But before that, one last bellyflop – there's a duck in all of us.