Antwerp, Belgium

Sur la route - Part 2

Date August 2009
Posted October 2010
Dropping into the Antwerp Pre-metro
Having ditched the car and climbed through some bushes for an inspection, the verdict was not positive. The other two called from behind the fence, and so I replied: there's no way down. Sixty feet away the opposite side of this giant open shaft revealed the void as featureless as a French grade 9a climb. Some crazy hero may find purchase on the rusting water pipes or crumbling concrete, but none of us were sufficiently skilled. The bus ride from Paris meant that ropes and the necessary kit to rappel into a hole as big as this had been left behind. And now there was nothing but frustration peering down forlornly at the base of the shaft where unfinished metro tunnels disappeared in two directions.

Slick Rick and friends, Amsterdam, Netherlands (2009) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Naturally it was agreed that the challenge would be risen to. This was beyond question. A way in would be found and if possible a way out too. Driving north to the Netherlands was loosely planned for the following day, but instead we brought it forward. First stop, a big climbing store to procure the necessary equipment, second, TF's house for feeding and rest. The next day we left, but even now over a year later I still don't understand the concept of the Dutch breakfast.

Rain started as battered road signs welcomed us to Antwerp. Fifteen minutes later we were parked, sorting kit before braving the onslaught to set up anchors on the not too solid iron fence close to the shaft. Looking down into the darkness we could see little save for a small bright LED. Was this an alarm, a light switch, a sensor? Rigging the figure-8 descender on the slippery, new, 9mm rope (soon to be nicknamed Slick Rick), I could only hope that my hastily thought-up braking-carabiner arrangement would work. Over the edge and into the pit, ascending gear attached to the gear-loops on the harness in case a hasty exit was required.

Antwerp Pre-metro, Antwerp, Belgium (2009) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Marc followed me down, the priority being to investigate the red light which soon revealed itself as a lightswitch. Pressing the switch stirred several hundred filaments into life, bathing the tunnel ahead in a warm glow. Meanwhile dsankt buzzed down the rope and landed beside us. We were ready to continue.

The portal through which we now passed was the entrance into an unfinished section of Antwerp's 'Pre-metro' system. The system was given this name as it is in reality underground sections of the tram network which connect with aboveground lines, and was started in the mid 1970s. To quote the Wikipedia page, "In the original plan a route was proposed from the south-western suburbs via Opera and Astrid to then eastern suburbs. Some of this line was built but construction stopped in the 1980s due to lack of funds". The unfinished tunnels were not abandoned and some of them now make up the Pegasus Plan, approved in 2004, which seeks to open certain sections. This will also involve opening a number of new stations, the basis of which are already constructed. Thanks must go to Slyv who made us aware of the network, and also to whoever originally provided the map that we found.

Antwerp Pre-metro, Antwerp, Belgium (2009) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Pressing on down the tunnel, the first junction was reached. Housing various builders' junk the spur tunnel, according to the map, continued on to several other stations before terminating further north. Deciding to stay with the main route we arrived at the first of the stations on this line, served by a single platform and reached from street level by one of a series of staircases. Climbing one of them we arrived with surprise at an upper level platform, tunnels stretching off in either direction, presumably to allow one of the tram lines to dip underground to connect with the subway.

Back down in the system we once again continued, each section of track or station host to its own section of lighting. A number of stations were passed over the next hour, the line stretching towards the centre of Antwerp. Next we reached a second junction, the section of the tunnel now changing to rectangular as the two lines ran side by side, ending up in a terminus. The Pre-metro isn't all that simple in it's design, or maybe it is. When exploring it you're not always sure exactly where you are, so it's probably hard to picture in your mind. The system is therefore difficult to describe further in any depth so you'd be better off saving the time trying to imagine it's intricacies and going there to see it for yourself.

Antwerp Pre-metro, Antwerp, Belgium (2009) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


Antwerp Pre-metro, Antwerp, Belgium (2009) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


Antwerp Pre-metro, Antwerp, Belgium (2009) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


Antwerp Pre-metro, Antwerp, Belgium (2009) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

A few hours later we were exhausted and mindful of the effort we'd need to drag ourselves out. On the off-chance that an easier exit could be found more stairs and passageways were checked. We didn't find one, although rumour has it there's an easy-bail route down there somewhere should you not feel up to the ascent. Still, if it happens to be locked and you didn't pack your jumars, well...

All kit bagged and ready Marc attached himself to the line and began the upward assault, working away at the ascent until hand jumar reached the point at which rope met concrete edge. Here the momentary trouble began as, tired from the climb, Marc struggled to lever himself over the top. For a little while I cursed myself, enthusiasm and haste pushing us to undertake this escapade with only one set of kit. What if Marc became stuck? How to rescue him? With a last concerted effort the two flailing legs disappeared over the rim of the shaft and the rope went slack.

Antwerp Pre-metro, Antwerp, Belgium (2009) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

The kit was lowered down for me and once rigged my own ascent began, but not before reminding dsankt to stand well clear to avoid any further lumps of concrete dislodged by my feet. The shaft sides, old and weathered, are not averse to shedding significant parts of their skin. Upon reaching the top I just about managed to haul body and mind over the wall.

Finally, or so it should have been, dsankt ascended, reached the top and joined us. Whilst de-rigging, a momentary lack of attention on my part saw a perfectly good Petzl head-torch tumble into the void, striking concrete but not extinguishing. ds passed the harness back, and down I went again...

(If you haven't already then you can read what dsankt had to say about it all here.)
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