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.