Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Europe Diagonal: The idea

The idea of this hike is the result of a quick look at the map: I have already hiked across Europe from East to West and from North to North, which can be seen as a vertical and horizontal traverse of the continent. So what is next? A diagonal! Ireland to Greece!


I liked the idea immediately because the route crosses two countries I have not hiked in before but always wanted to: Irland and Greece. When I then did some prelimenary research about different route options I came across a trail in Belgium called GR 129 "Belgique en diagonal". I decided to regard this as a hint of fate and was set on the idea thereafter.

As there are two obstacles in the way - the Alps and some private and professional obligations - I will hike the route in two summer seasons: This year I will start early July in Ireland and hope to get as far as the Alps before snow starts falling and my publishing house is calling me back to my computer.

This year's route includes the following trails:
  • In Ireland I will follow the European long-distance trail E 8. I am really looking forward to this part as I have never been in Ireland before.
  • In Great Britain the E8 coincides with the Transpennine Way which is more of a biking and than hiking route. I therefore decided to cross the island a bit further North on Wainwright's classic Coast-to-Coast. As I have already hiked the length of Britain from John O'Groats to Land's End I thought that this time an East-West-traverse is enough ...
  • In Belgium I will follow the GR 129 which is so aptly named "Belgique en diagonal" - another part I am really looking forward to as I have done shorter hikes in Belgium before and really liked this underestimated hiking destination.
  • Luxembourg poses a bit of a problem as there is no decent hiking trail in the Southern part of this tiny country but I guess I will somehow work my way across the tiny country on local trails.
  • In Germany I wanted to use trails I have not done before - a bit difficult because I have already traversed my home country several times on foot. But I discovered some totally unknown routes like Saar-Mosel-Weg and Saar-Rhein-Weg and a diagonal traverse of the Black Forest on the HW5. From Lake Constance I will either take the popular Maximiliansweg or use some pilgrim routes - depending on how far winter has advanced. 
This first half of the European Diagonal is only 2,500 kilometres, the second half next year will be longer. 


Sunday, 31 March 2019

Greater Patagonian Trail: Conclusion

Jan Dudeck and his wife Meyllin, creators of the GPT
When I started on the GPT I had already hiked 43,000 kilometers primarily in the United States and Europe. I am not only a Triple Crowner that thru-hiked the famous scenic trails in the US, but I’m also home on the European long-distance trails. Therefore I was convinced that I had walked enough that no trail can surprise me any more.
The GPT immediately taught me that I was wrong! It turned out to be very different from what I had expected and from any other long-distance trail I had hiked before. My previous experiences had led me to a wrong anticipation despite a meticulous study of the 700 page „Hiker’s Manual“ and long talks with other GPT hikers. It took me a long time to adapt to this trail and to enjoy it. These were my primary challenges:

Endless snow on the Puyehue Traverse
 I was annoyed by the high unpredictability of the GPT which I had never experienced on other
dedicated hiking trails. Hardly any day went as planned. Again and again unexpected obstacles turned up: large snowfields, overgrown trails, impossible river crossings, volcano alerts or denied access. My average „mileage“ dropped from 30 - 35 kilometers per day to only 20 - 25 kilometers per day on the GPT.

If you are not 100% free of vertigo and 100% sure-footed you will need a lot of willpower to cope with some of the steep, exposed and eroded trail sections of the GPT. I‘m personally not much afraid of heights and have hiked thousands of kilometers in alpine landscape. But I learnt on the GPT that it is a big difference to traverse a steep slope on a well maintained dedicated hiking trail in a popular area or on a badly eroded horse trail in the middle of nowhere. On one occasion I even turned back because the traverse of a very steep slope seemed too dangerous to me.

Relatively good horse trail
Most of these trail sections are technically not too difficult and although a fall or slip would probably not be fatal, it could still lead to serious injury – and on the GPT there is no one to help! A Carabinero (Police in Chile) in one of the lonely outposts put it this way: “If you slip here you probably don't die immediately from the fall. It takes around three days before you die of thirst or exhaustion. So please leave us your passport details so that we know whose bones we have found.” I carried a PLB for emergencies but you have to be aware that it can take days before someone comes to rescue you.

All these obstacles and threats prevented me from getting into the “flow”, the state in which I can hike mindlessly and unimpeded for hours and days. On most other trails I take a rest day every seven to ten days, but the GPT was so stressful for me that I took more rest days than normal. I also had to say good-bye to my diehard principle of connecting footsteps. This rule is just not feasible on a trail with unpredictable river crossings and volcano alerts.

I climbed dozens of these fences
Another source of discomfort was the frequent trespassing over private properties. I had to climb so many gates and fences without ever knowing if this barrier was built to keep the cattle in or if the owner really wants me to stay out. I had several encounters with security guards, was occasionally escorted out of properties or sneaked in and was hiding myself. Although I had not a single aggressive encounter whatsoever I very often felt uneasy about this situation.

I am usually a very happy solo hiker and prefer going alone but on the GPT I wished for company - not only for safety reasons, but to share the frequent frustration with unexpected obstacles and to take decisions with a hiking partner. This does not mean that you cannot hike the GPT alone. I did it and will do it again. It just means that you will endure a lot more mental stress than on other trails. Be prepared to be psychologically overwhelmed and treat yourself accordingly.

Frolicking in the hot springs while washing my clothes
On the positive side the GPT is one of the most spectacular trails I have ever hiked. Its beauty and variety rivals any of the American Triple Crown Trails and I felt an incredible sense of freedom being out there. I was particularly fascinated by the unique landscapes that you will almost only find in Chile like the Valdivian rain forest or the numerous volcanoes. I absolutely loved the hot springs!
There is no trail community whatsoever and you will hardly meet any other hikers but I have had the most interesting and friendly encounters with settlers, arrieros (Chilean cowboys) and Carabineros. It was a cultural experience that was completely new for me.

Shop owner in Trappa Trappa
I found Chile a very easy country to travel and Chileans to be some of the most friendly and helpful people in the world. But keep in mind that I speak fluent Spanish. Without at least some basic knowledge of Spanish you will have a hard time on the GPT and you will miss out on the interesting encounters with the locals. A lot of important logistical information for GPT hikers, like bus schedules or the location of resupply options are not available on the internet. You will have to ask the locals and understand their answers! This was one of the most adventurous and fascinating trails I have ever hiked – and one of the most challenging.

 Did I like the GPT? Yes and No. On the GPT I have been singing with joy and I have been screaming frustrated curses. I loved it and I hated it - sometimes both within five minutes. Would I do it again? Yes, I am planning to hike and paddle the Southern part, too - but only after a decent break recuperating from my first hike on the GPT.

Greater Patagonian Trail: GPT 4 - 3

My time on the GPT was now slowly coming to an end. With less than two weeks left before my flight back to Germany it became clear that I would probably not be able to hike all the way up to Santiago de Chile. Therefore I was not very disappointed when I heard that section 5 was closed due to another volcano alert. I skipped forward to section 4 which was not rated as particularly attractive. As I was soon to find out this rating is completely wrong.

After more than one day of continuously ascending in dry mediterranean landscape I reached two alpine lakes - and a herd of wild horses and cows.

As I did not want to be woken up by a four-legged friend, I camped a bit further up and away from water. When I looked out of my tent into the sunrise I saw a big cloud of smoke in the distance and realised only after a while where it came from. This was not a forest fire - this was smoke from an active volcano! And this volcano was the reason why I was not able to hike section 5! Although this volcano was more than 50 kilometers away I felt pretty uncomfortable and tried not to think about a volcanic eruption ... But when I woke up in the morning the sky was clear again and all the smoke had disappeared.

After some climbing over rocky slopes I reached another beautiful mountain lake in the morning and could not resist the temptation to take a swim. Continuing up to the next pass I came across two arrieros on horse back - and right on top of the pass 4 G cell phone reception ...
I must admit that I ignored the spectacular mountain scenery for half an hour while checking on my smart phone what had happened in the world.
The descent was as long and dusty as the ascent and when I finally reached the valley bottom I could not even find a campsite!

A small water fall in the valley was a very popular picnic spot and very crowded in this hot summer evening. Luckily I did not have to pay the entry fee as I was walking out. First it was too busy and crowded to camp, then everything was fenced in and in the end I had nearly reached the road. With a little detour I eventually found a decent campsite but I could still hear the noise from a nearby youth camp.
I woke up next morning to a rare phenomenom in this area: fog! I even had to pack a wet tent ...

 As soon as I had reached the road I came across a mini-market where I could buy some more snacks and delicious freshly baked bread. I needed this motivation because there was a long road walk ahead. It would have been unbearably hot and dusty in the sun, therefore I was more than grateful for the fog.
But where the route presumably turned off the road there was a huge fenced-in private property with a farmhouse right at the entrance. No way I would be able to sneak in there. So grudgingly I continued walking on the tarmac road which meant a huge 10 kilometer detour!

When I saw a bus shelter next to the road I decided to try my luck, sat down and waited. And for sure, after only half an hour a bus arrived and saved me 16 kilometer road walk! I was so happy that I bought some ice cream in a mini-market before finally embarking into the mountains again.
The GPT route took me along a very popular valley where now dozens of families were picknicking and camping. At the end of the dirt road a locked gate was decorated with several "no entry"-signs. All the locals ignored it and there was even a soical path around the gate ...
Unfortunately a couple of kilometers later there was another gate like that with even more "no entry"- signs. I climbed it and felt very uncomfortable. I walked several kilometers with seeing anyone and already felt relieved when all of a sudden I heard a truck approaching. I disappeared into the bushes. The car stopped just a couple of hundred meters later. I decided to walk around it off trail. Very bad idea! I ended up fighting my way through blackberry bushes, lost half an hour of time and got several scratches.

Plus I discovered that there were discarded beer cans and old fire rings all over the place. Despite all these "No Entry"-signs this was a popular fishing area. The people I had tried to avoid were probably harmless fishermen trespassing here as much as I did.
When I climbed out of the valley I encountered a group of arrieros descending you told: "If we had know that you are here we would have brought wine ..." Luckily they were going the other way ...
And when I finally had found a nice campsite I was visited by a lonely cow.


Next day was very hot and very dry - and unfortunately I had not brought enough water from the last water source. The trail dragged on forever under the relentless sun and I was cowering under a bush to get some shade during my thirsty lunch break. When I finally reached a water source in the evening I drank 1,5 liters straight ...
I was now a bit worried about the rest of this section because there was a river crossing ahead which Martin had not been able to do two months ago. I hoped that the river would now be passable after snow melt. I fortified myself with a lot of blackberries which were growing at lower elevation.

The river was very cold and very swift and I had to concentrate hard to find the best way but I made it safely to the other side. Relieved I took a thorough bath to wash off all the dirt before I started another long ascent.
I had been warned by other hikers but the route now took me through one of the worst bushbashes of the entire GPT. Apparantly now cattle was driven up here and therefore there was no trail. But when I finally reached the pass the view into the next valley more than rewarded me for all the hard work. It is so typical for the GPT to go from "this is horrible" to "this is so beautiful" within five minutes ...

Unfortunately on this occasion it changed back to "this is horrible" within one hour. As usual the "trail", in this case a faint horse trail" was routed high above the river in the valley and in several places I was afraid of slipping. But by now I was already so used to this kind of hiking that I just walked on until I found a flat spot near the river for camping. Although I did not know it then this was my last night on the GPT ... In the morning I wondered if I could make it out to civilisation in one day. It was more than 30 kilometers to the next road - but God, I needed some time off the trail after the last hard days.

And the day started difficult indeed: Within half an hour of walking the trail disappeared completely into blackberry bushes. I first tried to fight my way through the thicket with the help of my trekking poles but I soon gave up. Without a machete there was no way I could make it through several hundred meters of the thorny jungle. I ended up wading directly in the river! Eventually in lower elevation the trail got better and better and I was hiking faster and faster despite the fact that I still had to get up and down several little passes. In the evening I passed some wonderful campsites and stopped briefly. I could stay here another night and hike out to the road next morning instead of rushing it now. But I felt that the hike was over for me. As spectacular as it had been - I have now had enough!
But this is the GPT and therefore it had another surprise waiting for me: When I emerged onto the brandnew and paved road there were plenty of trucks carrying sulphur from the mines - but no bus!

Beach near Valparaiso
There was a huge container building nearby in the middle of nowhere so I walked over and asked the security guards about public transport. There was none - I was told. But this was workers' housing and I could ask people exiting the premises. The first truck was occupied by three worker who happily gave me a lift into the next village from where a bus took me to Rancagua. I must admit that I booked myself into a push four star hotel to get a bit of luxury.
After some brainstorming in the hotel I decided next morning that I would indeed spend my last week in Chile sightseeing instead of returning to the trail. The last missing sections were not the most attractive ones and I basically had had enough. I spent my last days in Valparaiso and Santiago de Chile before flying back to Germany.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Greater Patagonian Trail: GPT 6 Circuito Condor

GPT section 6 coincides mostly was a rather well known Chilean trek, the Circuito Condor. There are even dedicated hiking maps for this route, a rarity in Chile. When I left the bus in Vilches Alto, the starting point of the Circuito Condor in a National Reserve, two dozen backpackers were already waiting to take that bus back into civilisation. Everything was fenced in to prevent the masses of backpackers from wild camping - I did it anyways ...

But I obeyed the regulation that each hiker has to register with the park rangers and pay an entrance and camping fee. I soon realized that most backpackers were just hiking in for around 20 kilometers to the first view point and camping at the designated camp ground there. This view point was indeed very spectacular but what delighted me a lot more than the alpine panorama was the fact that there was a well maintained hiking trail descending down into the valley - another rarity in Chile ...
First viewpoint and good trail!
First glimpse of Volcan Descabezado
 As I was still in the National Reserve that night I had to camp in a designated camp site, an old and long abandoned farmstead. I considered wild camping but the many old plum trees lured me into the official site where I met Hugo, a Chilean weekend warrior who had injured himself when hiking in and was now waiting for the rest of his group to help him hike out again. After hiking for weeks without company it was a pleasure to have someone to chat with for a while.
Next morning I met his friends who were coming back from having climbed Volcan Descabezado, the "beheaded" volcano. Although it is a relatively eassy climb I had decided not to summit it because I had already climbed too many mountains on this trip ...

 
 
I passed the "base camp" where several tents were pitched while their owners were climbing the volcano. But I walked on to do a side trip to Laguna Caracol. The moon like landscape was so fascinating that I took an incredible number of photos. Despite the breathtaking scenery there was no other hiker and I camped all by myself next to an ice cold stream.

Next day took me forever through this moon like landscape and walking in volcano ash was pretty demanding. There is no trail marking, but luckily I could follow the footsteps of other hikers. A Chilean couple asked me for help because they wanted to take a different route and did not trust their smartphone navigation ....




I was totally amazed to find so much water in this otherwise totally barren landscape. Next to the small streams colorful flowers were just in bloom and the scenery looked like someone had started coloring it with one stroke of the paint brush.

My map showed hot springs along the trail but I had no intentions of reaching them that night because I thought that the place would be two crowded. But then I met two Chilean backpackers who told me that I would probably be on my own. There was no one camped there when they had left and they had not seen anyone going there. I decided to try my luck. Of course the trail seemed to drag on forever. There was even a swift river crossing to do until I finally reached the famous hot springs. If it had not been for the steam I would have missed them. And indeed, there was no one else there which meant that I could soak naked in the hot water. What a delight after a long dusty day!

There were three pools that had been dug out with an old rusty shovel which was still laying around. Unfortunately, as soon as I stepped into the pool all the muck from the ground started floating up. It was still nice to relax in the hot, but muddy water. When taking this picture with a timer my smartphone nearly fell into the water ...

I slept very well that night despite the sulphur smell from the hot springs. Former visitors had even built rock walls as wind protection around the camp sites. And a big horse shoe collection told me that this was a popular spot for riders, too!


Still, I was not entirely happy when I left next morning. The map told me that I had to traverse several incredibly steep slopes - something that I had learnt to fear and to loathe on this trail.

The slopes turned out to be really steep and a fall looked potentially mortal, but luckily I was walking on volcano ashed which provides a wonderful tread. When I had passed an exceptionally scary section a group of seven day hikers with small backpacks were coming towards. They surprised me with a weird question: "Have you smelled anything strange?" I told them about the sulphur smell of the hot springs but they just shook their heads and left - leaving me rather clueless.




Veronica was waiting next to the lake
After climbing up to another spectacular pass and descending down to an alpine lake I found out what was behind that all. A lonely female was sitting next to the lake waiting for my arrival. She introduced herself as Veronica and told me that she had injured herself on the way up and asked me if I could accompany her down again. Of course I was willing to help but I wondered what she was doing here. Veronica was part of the volontary search-and-rescue team that I had come across earlier. They were looking for a 30 year old hiker called Sebastian Joffre who had gone missing here 16 day ago. Because there was only little hope that he would be found alive the SAR team had asked me for a "strange smell"...

This sad story told me that my fears of slipping and falling were not altogether unfounded ...
In order to locate him Chilean military was coordinating a big search including soldiers, volunteers, helicopters and dogs. Their base camp was in the valley and Veronica was in contact with them via radio. But the military headquarter had not allowed her to try descending on her own. She was now waiting for her group to come back and help her, but she was afraid that they would arrive very late in the evening with very little daylight left for the descent. And then she would have to rush - something she could not do with her injured knee.

Paramedic, me and Veronica
What happened now was more like a story out of a James Bond movie than a normal hiking day. After she had received permission via radio to descend with me we slowly started hiking. In fact, despite her injured knee Veronica was still walking faster than me. Various times concerned military were asking for hour progress via radio and announced despite Veronica's protests that they would send as a paramedic. And for sure when we had nearly reached the valley bottom two soldiers came towards us. Veronica had already told me that this rescue action was probably more due to the fact that one soldier had cast an eye on her than to medical necessity ...

In order to "rescue" her, they had driven up the valley cross country in a military vehicle - and asked me whether I wanted to get a ride to their base camp. This was something I did not want to miss - and it was the bumpiest ride of my entire life! While Veronica was riding shotgun I was trying to stay alive in the back of the track while being thrown up and down.
I wondered why we had not waited for the rest of the rescue team but I was just told that they could walk back to base. Special treatment out here was apparently for women only! When we arrived in the base camp we were celebrated like heroes - but I still preferred to camp on my own a couple of kilometres away.

Nothing dramatic happened while I hiked out to civilisation the next morning ...

Monday, 25 March 2019

Greater Patagonian Trail: GPT 7

El Puente Ingles
GPT section 7 starts at "Puente Ingles", the English bridge which was constructed by a British engineer in order to drive cattle across the river. Nowadays it is a popular picnic spot. When arrived late in the evening there were still plenty of locals frolicking in the water. I walked half a kilometer to get away from the hustle and bustle and camped.

Next day started with a long and dusty road walk but I refused all offers of rides. When I finally turned onto horse trail I was passed by a group of friendly carabineros on a patrol ride.


They knew the area so well that they used this last chance with cell phone receptions to make some calls. To my big surprise they did not object at all to have their picture taken.
The following day turned out to be one the most beautiful on the GPT for me. The trail took me up a pass in the morning and down the pass in the afternoon. Views on each side were absolutely spectacular and I did not see a single soul that day which ended even more spectacular at the Laguna Maule. Although horse drops told me that this is a popular campsite I had the lake all to myself and enjoyed a wonderful evening swim.


Laguna Maule (photo with no filter ...)
I was a bit nervous in the morning because I now had to walk around the lake - but there was no easy beach! The horse trail contoured the steep slopes fifty or hundred meters above the lake. If I slipped I would just fall into the water but this did not make me feel a lot better ... I even walked short bits in the water in order to avoid the eroded horse trail. In the middle of this stretch I even came across a lonely puesto and met the arriero who was living there a couple of hours later on horse back.
I still could not relax because at the end of this stretch the horse trail took me up to a pass and contoured around a terribly steep slope where a fall would send me down several hundred meters ...


Descent down to Laguna Maule
Views from the pass onto the dark blue lake were fantastic and luckily the steep descent was on sand. I was sliding down but not slipping and falling. When I arrived at the outlet of the lake I took a bath and had a long break. I thought that now the worst was over but as usual on the GPT I was wrong. What I had thought to be a nice afternoon stroll along the river turned out to be more nerve-wracking hiking on eroded horse trail high above the river. The trail was so badly eroded that someone had even tried to repair it with logs - it was still scary as hell.
At one point I had to cross a slope where the trail was more or less totally washed out. I clang to some thorny bushes to avoid sliding down into the river and promptly had several thorns in my hands and arms ...
At least the river crossing at the end of this demanding day was easy. I filled up my water bottles and camped at the first possible site being totally exhausted and fed up ...

Trail high above the river
Next day was far less demanding and a lot more entertaining! I passed an outpost of Chilean carabineros who are not only police but function as border patrol. When arrived at their puesto in the middle of nowhere I was immediately offered breakfast and mate. Their main job is to prevent cattle rustling but of course they check for all sorts of contraband. Or as one of the carabineros put it: "If you check on one of the arrieros we always look what he has in his saddle bags. If we find marihuana, we sit down and smoke a joint together!" This guy looked so serious when saying this that I almost fell for his joke. Because Chilean carabineros have an excellent reputation and are not corrrupt!

But beside all this joking around these guys did their job and copied all my passport details. Or as they put it: "If you slip and fall here, you will not die immediately. It takes a couple of days. But when we find your bones finally we at least know who you were ..."
With this comforting knowledge I left my new friends and traversed a very hot and dusty plain, crossed a braided river and camped under a plum tree full with ripe fruit!  There were only bushes in this plain - only around puestos there were huge green trees giving shade. This way you could see each settler from far away.

See the dark green trees in the middle - there is a house there

Two days later I came across another highlight - hot springs close to the trail. As the crow flies they were only around 1 km away from the trail but of course the path was eroded steep. Luckily I was the only person there and could frolick in the hot water. I kept my clothes on because I wanted to wash them.
Unfortunately there was no shade and you cannot stay long in hot water with the hot sun shining directly onto your head. At least I was very clean when I continued to the little village of Carrizales which turned out to consist only of around three huts, no shop and no cell phone signal - but another carabinero post!

Here I was greeted with cold lemonade and learnt even more about their job in the mountains. Most of their "clients" are Chileans who hop over the border and steal Argentinian horses or cattle. The other way around (Argentinians stealing Chilean cattle seemed not to happen very often ...). There are usually six men at these outpost. Three of them go on patrol for several days and the other three stay in the outpost for emergencies. Their shift is one month long and most of them seem to enjoy it a lot. "We shot rabbits and go fishing a lot ..."
But they have to bring in all their food for one month! The government is only paying for the horse feed ....

I joined them feeding their horses and was allowed to take pictures - but only after they had changed from shorts and T-shirts into their uniform ... Being a lot taller than any of them I kept my seat for the picture ...

The next was very hot and dusty walk through cattle country. Although being generally very dry there were huge swampy meadows that were difficult to cross. I finally emerged up on a high plateau were I was nearly caught in a thunderstorm and then followed by a herd of cattle. When they saw the steep descent at the end of the plateau they turned around ... Unfortunately I had to go down there ....


View into the valley
 Of course there was no trail and very carefully I descended meter by meter, sometimes sliding down on my butt until I finally reached some sort of cattle trail and the river. I pitched my tent on the first flat spot and thanked God that I had not hurt myself on the descent!

I had hoped that from now on it would be an easy stroll along the river out to the road and then back to civilisation but again the GPT was full of surprises. The cattle trail was generally routed high above the river and I was trying hard not to slip and fall. I finally reached a very well maintained dirt road and soon the highway came into sight. But to my utter surprise there was a locked gate and a guard station between me and my return to civilisation. But surely the guard would let me out! Well, he didn't. The poor guy was very apologetic but explained that the camera would film it all and get him into trouble. After a short discussion he showed me a hole in the fence out of camera view were I could get out to freedom ... From there it was a long road walk to some popular hot springs and a bus ride into town.