‘Whisper’ your way through the Biesbosch

21 Feb 2013 | Genoveva Geppaart

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‘Whisper’ your way through the Biesbosch or ‘wave like a willow’ in the Biesbosch, a forest that sits between Zuid-Holland and Noord- Brabant and spans an area of 9,000 hectares.


The Biesbosch National Park is a unique freshwater tidal area on the border of the provinces of Zuid-Holland and Noord-Brabant, spanning from Dordrecht in the northeast to Geertruidenberg in the southeast. The Nieuwe Merwede canal divides the National Park equally between the two provinces into areas, which are respectively known as the Hollandse Biesbosch, and the Brabantse Biesbosch.

The National Park consists of a large network of rivers and smaller and larger creeks with islands. Although mostly comprising of willow forest, the area encompasses wet grasslands and reed fields, which attracts plenty of wildlife. You can walk or bike through the Biesbosch but the most exciting way to explore nature is by boat, either by yourself or by joining a guided tour to learn about the flora and fauna.




Origin of the Biesbosch

Until 1421, the Biesbosch was a polder, surrounded by dikes but the St. Elisabeth’s Flood changed this area into an inland sea. For many centuries, tides have been able to enter from the sea without any obstruction, so banks and pools developed. On the sandbanks, vegetation appeared: rushes (biezen), followed by reed (riet) and willows (wilgen). The abundance of rushes gave this new area its name of ‘Bies-bosch’ which means ‘Rush-woods’.


For centuries, there was willow cultivation in the Biesbosch. The branches were cut or chopped once every one to four years. Around 40 different willow varieties were used, for basketwork or binding bundles of branches or reed, for handles and beanpoles, depending on the thickness and willow variety. From the end of the 1950s, the exploitation of willow beds (grienden) diminished due to the competition from synthetic materials such as nylon and plastic. The work in the withy-beds was hard and reaped little reward for the workers, thus over time; willow beds that are not cultivated develop into lush willow woods. The drastic storm of October 2002 created open places from which other species of trees and plants profit.


Outside the Biesbosch museum is an area of about eight hectares where you can see how the landscape was originally. It is a small version of how the Biesbosch was in the past. This area is called ‘ Pannekoek’ . There are several walking routes available.

The Biesbosch visitor centre in Dordrecht has a so called ‘ griendmuseumpad’ . From the end of March until the end of September, it is possible to make a five km walk over this path, seeing willow beds and willow forests. You will also see some of the sheds in which people who used to work in the Biesbosch lived.  This path can only be reached by using a pedestrian ferry. There are also guided tours, called ‘Levendig Biesbosch verleden’, which also offer a boat tour through the Biesbosch and a meeting with ‘griendwerkers’ (people who cut the reed and willows were called griendwerkers). You will be offered a lunch similar to the griendwerkers used to eat. After a major flood in 1953, it was decided to close most of the estuaries, where the sea extended inland into the south western part of the Netherlands with the Delta Works Project. As a result, the difference between high water and low water was reduced from originally two metres to 20 centimetres in the Brabantse Biesbosch and 70 centimetres in the Hollandse Biesbosch. Thus the Biesbosch turned from a saltwater into a freshwater area.


Living and working

People usually lived in small villages at the border of the Biesbosch but there were also farmers and (duck) hunters who lived in the Biesbosch itself. Men from the villages cut the reed and rushes and manufactured willow hoops for wooden barrels, agriculture and fishing. From November to May, the men cut reed and rushes thus the willow growing season was during the spring and summer. For the rest of the year, the men looked after the maintenance of the reed and willow forests. They lived in wooden sheds in the Biesbosch during the week and only went home on Sundays.


During the Second World War, the Biesbosch, with its wide maze of creeks, offered an ideal shelter for people who needed to hide from the Germans. A resistance group formed, late in the war, captured Germans fleeing to the north from what was then the Allied held south of the Netherlands. In the winter of 1944, refugees crossed the area from the occupied north, while medicines were smuggled across the Biesbosch to the north. The people that coordinated these activities are known as the ‘Biesbosch crossers’.


The Biesbosch museum has an exhibition about the area in the Second World War. You can see many weapons, documents and both real and replica boats used by ‘crossers’. You could almost believe you were there yourself during the Second World War.

When the Biesbosch became a National Park and an area with reservoirs of drinking water, many people moved away but there are still many people working in the Biesbosch such as farmers, water supply companies, river maintenance staff, rangers, police officers and companies that offer cruises.


Flora and fauna

The closure of the estuaries had a huge impact on the flora and fauna in the Biesbosch, because it changed from a salt water area into a fresh water area. Many flowers and animals disappeared, while others arrived. Flowers that currently occur in the Biesbosch are e.g. berry rushes, fireweed, nettles and bindweed. Nettles grow up to two metres at places where in the past reed used to grow. Amaranthus, cow parsley, hogweed and yellow flag also occur very often. Currently you will find bream, stickler back and pike in the Biesbosch. Also cary fish and fresh water mussels can be seen.

Some of the birds coming to the Biesbosch stay there for the whole year, others come only in summer or winter or just visit the Biesbosch on their route. You will find many breeding birds such as the nightingale, kingfisher and bluethroat.

The beaver once lived in the Biesbosch but disappeared because people hunted it for its nice brown fur. In 1988, the beaver was re-introduced. Deer, mice, rabbits, weasels, hares also live in the forest.



The National Park is only half the size of the original area of the Biesbosch. The rest is mainly being used as farmland. However, in 2020 about 2,000 hectares of this farmland will be given back to nature and reconnected to the main rivers in the Biesbosch.

There are also plans to open the estuaries partly, which will result in a rise of the difference between high tide and low tide to about one metre. Several areas will become dry during low tide, just as before the estuaries were closed. Once again there will be many changes in nature, water fowl and fish especially will have more opportunity to thrive. It is also expected that the willows and rushes will become a major part of the vegetation in the Biesbosch again, while some of the existing vegetation will disappear.



The Biesbosch offers a lot of possibilities for recreation throughout the year. Due to the weather, spring, summer and a sunny day in autumn are the most convenient times for a visit. It is worth starting your visit at one of the visitor’s centres or the Biesbosch Museum.  

Here you can tour the permanent and temporary exhibitions and find more information about the possibilities of visiting the Biesbosch. There are opportunities to rent a canoe, take a guided walking tour, a cruise or by a small ‘whisper’ boat.

A ‘whisper’ boat is a small boat, powered by electricity or by solar energy, which can go to the centre of the Biesbosch, even in shallow creeks.

This is a unique way to see parts of the Biesbosch where the big cruise boats cannot go.

In summer the ‘whisper’ boats are open, to let you enjoy nature as much as possible. In winter, they are heated.

Should you wish to explore the Biesbosch on your own, a detailed map is a necessity as it is easy to get lost in the network of creeks and islands.




Practical information

It is best to start at one of the visitor centres or the Biesbosch museum. Most of the guided tours are in Dutch, but sometimes there are also possibilities to have a guided tour in English. It is best to ask for this in advance.

A visit to the Biesbosch can be a day trip, but you can also stay a couple of days to allow more time to explore the area.


Suggested day trip

Visit the Biesbosch museum or one of the visitor centres in the morning, have lunch in one of the many restaurants and make a (guided) boat tour through the Biesbosch in the afternoon.


Two or more days

Should you wish to stay a couple of days, contact one of the visitor centres listed below for information about accommodation. There are camping sites, bed and breakfast addresses and hotels in villages around the Biesbosch. There are also two places in the Biesbosch where you can camp in the wild. However, you need to bring everything you need with you as there are no facilities and you can reach these places only by boat. Another possibility is camping with a farmer on the island Visplaat. On the island are some group camping areas and a field for those looking for peace and quiet. Cooking on a campfire and sleep in a place where it is really dark.

More information about this option is available on www.biesboschhoeve.nl  (Dutch only)

You can extend the programme of the suggested day trip with a walk along the ‘griendmuseumpad’ ,rent a boat and explore the Biesbosch on your own or join a guided tour to watch the beaver.

Most of the websites listed below are in Dutch only, but you can read it in English by using Google Translate (www.google.com/translate). It will not always give a perfect translation, but it will give you an idea of what the text is about.


Biesbosch Visitor centre Dordrecht

Baanhoekweg 53, 3313 LP Dordrecht

Tel. 078 630 53 53


Website www.biesbosch.org

Note: Dutch and English information


Biesbosch Visitor centre Drimmelen

Biesboschweg 4, 4924 BB Drimmelen

Tel. 0162 68 22 33

E-mail: biesbosch@staatsbosbeheer.nl

Website: www.biesboschcentrum.nl

Note: All information is in Dutch.

Guided boat tours are organised by shipping company;

Zilvermeeuw, www.zilvermeeuw.nl


Biesbosch Visitor centre Dordrecht

Baanhoekweg 53, 3313 LP Dordrecht

Tel. 078 630 53 53


Website www.biesbosch.org

Note: Dutch and English information


For an overview of the activities organised in the Biesbosch, please have a look at




Additional information about the ‘whisper’ boat is available on

www.fluisterboot.com and www.fluistertours.nl.


For more information about the Delta Works and an overview of visitor centres, please have a look at www.deltawerken.com/The-Deltaworks-visitor-centres-/366.html

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