Hasard Cheratte – Spending a few hours in an old Belgian coalmine

Hasard Cheratte
Last saturday I decided to pull a quick one and go on a photowalk somewhere special. After some research online and especially having found some nice photos through FriendFeed the destination was set. I sent a SMS to Andre if he wanted to come along. About two hours later we found ourselves in the tiny Belgian town called Cheratte. A town where you could probably be killed in some alley and nobody would bother for weeks on end.

It happens that there’s an abandoned coalmine in the middle of town, which was the reason to go there. So I parked the car close to the mine’s main gate and the first thing we saw looking out of the passenger window were some chickens running around. We stepped out, got our gear and looked at the decaying buildings that formed the old mine. In the middle of the area is a huge tower that overlooks the whole town and almost even the hill that the mine was build against. Our goal was set: Get in there!

House of Cards
We walked around the walled area that is accessible from the main street and some side roads. As we were looking to find a way in, we saw another photographer inside the mine’s main area which is elevated a few meters. He was nicely dressed so we knew there had to be an easy way to get in there, rather than this description I found on the net:

I was literally surfing down a mountain; with one foot forward, wet leaves and brush slid underneath my boots while I tried to keep my balance by grabbing onto trees as they passed by. I hoped there weren’t any open shafts under the slick debris on the forest floor. I couldn’t see where we were headed exactly as the vegetation was summer-thick, and we only guesstimated where we should turn off the trail to get to the mine. I stopped short when I saw the ground drop off 20 feet into someone’s backyard (which held a rather nasty looking dog barking at us), and continued to traverse alongside the steep grade until we reached our destination.

We wandered around the north side of the mine. Barricaded doors and windows everywhere. It was a no-go. We weren’t going to break in. The south side looked more promising at first. The regular houses looked like someone was still living there, but no soul was to be seen as soon as we left the main road. Some houses were without a roof and looked like “under construction” for the past years. The old Mercedes’ – totally ripped apart – made the whole scene even more interesting.

Getting in

Left A MessAfter a short consideration we decided not to go up the rather steep hill behind the mine, mostly because of the well dressed photographer we saw before. So we went back to the main street and saw some fellow photographers entering their car. We decided to ask them how they managed to get in there.

But before we even made it to them an old man, leaning against the walls of the mine’s main entry saw our gear and starting talking to us, in french of course. Unfortunately the discussion was quite single-sided. He didn’t understand us, we didn’t really understand him. This is the time to blame myself for having four years of french in school and totally not being interested in it – even nowadays. Maybe it’s really time to change that attitude.

At some point we managed to understand that he had the keys to the gate and wanted to let us in. Ten minutes and some Euros later we found ourselves inside. He gave us his phone number and told us to call him when we wanted to leave. He would then open up the gate and let us out. He took us up to the main level and showed us around a little, which didn’t really help since we couldn’t understand a word. Bad for us, because I have a feeling that he was telling interesting stuff about the mine.

Under fire

Under FireAfter a while of moving around and taking the first few photos we saw some other guys roaming around the open area and inside of the houses and the tower. They were shooting around with soft air guns and hanging out mostly inside of what looked like the main building of the mine. We didn’t want to get caught in their crossfire, because they were shooting at the old windows which then would fall down. Our slogan “Only take photos. Only leave footprints.” didn’t really apply to them, unfortunately. Thus we still have a major part of the area to explore the next time we go there.

After some time Andre called me because two security guys showed up. There wasn’t a problem, because they saw that we were just minding our own business taking photos. We chatted for a while and then asked if they could open the gate and let us out.

After all it was a great trip. The next time I’ll go there with wide angle lens, the 24-70 on a 1.6x body doesn’t really work in this kind of area. You can find some of my shots in my gallery. Andre’s shots can be found on Flickr too.