Four cyclists stand on the bank of the Oste in Hemmoor, Lower Saxony. From the opposite side, 80 metres away, shouts Erwin Bergander, “Do you want a ride?”
The two couples say yes, so the 71-year-old rings a bell and gets Germany’s oldest bridge ferry moving. The electric gondola crosses slowly over the Oste, a tributary of the Elbe River, taking six and a half minutes to reach the cyclists on the other side.
“We had heard that the bridge ferry here turned 100 this winter, so we definitely wanted to use it on our tour. To see such a historical sight is really great,” says Monika Brandt.
Brandt is a few days through a bike trip with her husband and their companions Reingard and Dieter Kruse, taking them from Ganderkesee to Stade. In Stade they intend to board the historic Moorexpress, a train route that has been going since 1909. But first, they have a journey to make on this 100-year-old transporter bridge.
As they travel suspended over the river, the visitors hear about the “delicate construction” of this masterpiece of engineering. More than 250 tonnes of steel were used to build the 38-metre contraption, which allows ships, even tall sail boats, safe passage underneath. Indeed, on this particular trip, once the gondola has passed by, two rowers continue under the bridge arch, shouting “hello” as they go.
There were once 20 of these bridge ferries worldwide, but only eight remain today. Along with the ferry on the Oste, there is one more in Germany, in Rendsburg.
“The ferry is a tourist magnet,” says the owner of the Fährkrug hotel Horst Ahlf.
With the construction of the train line from Hamburg to Cuxhaven, cutting right through the Oste area in the late nineteenth century, traffic through the area rose sharply.
“The Oste area was the richest between Hamburg and Cuxhaven at the time,” explains Ahlf.
But later, in May 1974, around 300 metres of the landing for the popular ferry was dislodged, ending its regular service. One year later, Ahlf established a development fund for the restoration of the bridge ferry, which, he says, his family has been using since 1934. Work was completed and the service restored to normal again finally in 2006, after €1.7 million in funding and several years of work.
Having completed their journey, meanwhile, the cyclists are happy with their experience on board. “You could hardly feel it moving,” says Reingard Kruse.
Safely reaching the other side, Erwin Bergander, whose grandfather was the first ferryman here exactly 100 years ago, opens the gate to let the guests off and settles down to wait for more customers to come.