Monday, 23 April 2012

Rest days with Gerald

 I had met Gerald aka Wildniswanderer on a German outdoor internet forum. He had found my blog and contacted me via email when he realised that I was in Germany earlier this year. And after a couple of phone calls and a lot of help from his side to prepare my route I was very eager to meet him - especially since he is living very close to my hiking route. Gerald has done a lot of wilderness trekking and rafting trips to rain forests all over the world. And he is working as a forrester. We would have a lot of topics to talk about!

Marburg castle
By coincidence I ended up in the Marburg area on a weekend and Gerald picked me up from the trail. With his help my resupply shopping in Marburg was so easy and I collected all the repair stuff for the parts I had broken in the previous weeks. He event treated me to a great Chinese AYCE buffet in Marburg. We then drove to his place which is a real forrester house. This was going to be my first real rest day in three weeks and I was really looking forward to it. And I had warned Gerald that I did not intend to do much walking on my precious rest day....

With Gerald being a forrester I had a lot of questions about our German forest. We made little trips into his forest and he explained very patiently what all those signs on the trees really meant. What had looked like Kabbala signs to me before all made sense now. I learned in which way trees are marked for felling or for special preservation treatment. I learned about the different trees and animals in the forest and Gerald pointed out a lot of rare birds and plants. We even saw a huge eagle owl and a black woodpecker! Most surprising for me was to find out why some trees have dirt and mud at the bottom of their trunk: When wild pigs are bathing in nearby mudpools they scrub their skin against the trees afterwards and leave those marks. ("Was kuemmert es eine deutsche Eiche wenn eine Sau sich an ihr kratzt....") And the little depressions in the forest floor without leave cover are sleeping places for deer. I must have asked about 5 million questions and Gerald gave me a crash course in forrestry. And my one rest day turned into two rest days which I had desperately needed.

But today I left refreshed without any aching feet or knees and will tackle the next part of my long trek across Western Europe.


View of the Wartburg in Eisenach
The Rennsteig terminates in Hoerschel which is a tiny suburb of Eisenach, where the Elisabethpfad starts. I was cold and tired after the Rennsteig and decided to start my pilgrimage on the Elisabethpfad with a stay in a pilgrim’s hostel in Eisenach. This was the first pilgrimage trail I have ever hiked and I had no clue about what to expect. There is an accommodation list for the Elisabethpfad and I just called the number for one of the hostels where a sister took down my reservation and told me to arrive before 6 pm. I hurried, made it to Hoerschel in time and took a bus which took me to Eisenach centre in 17 minutes. My hostel was smack bang in the historical centre of town and at 10 to 6 pm I rang the bell there.

My first pilgrimage hostel
A lovely old sister answered and took me in. I could not believe my eyes when she showed me the pilgrim’s quarters: An incredibly nice and clean room with several beds, but only me staying there! The whole place had just recently been renovated and was sparkling clean. There was a nice kitchen and a fantastic bathroom with one of the best showers I had had in a long time. I was even asked whether I wanted to have breakfast, too! I could not believe me luck – this place was great. And I was so tired that I nearly collapsed in my bed after taking a shower. Next morning the sisters gave me breakfast and when I attended their morning prayers I was blessed and even given a small present. I wondered whether I would have to pay for all those luxuries, but the price was very moderate. When I checked out the sister asked me for a donation of 10 EUR, and I happily donated 15 EUR. This place had been paradise for a tired hiker.

After buying a new gas canister and some food I took the train back to Hoerschel and my start of the Elisabethpfad. Normally I would have had a rest day in Eisenach, but in 5 days I could stay with an internet hiker friend and therefore I decided to hike on and rest there.

Art on "Ars Natura"
The Elisabethpfad and pilgrimage trail turned out to be a mixed bag. As expected it involved a lot of road walking. On a pilgrimage trail you want to easily get from A to B involving a lot of churches, whereas on a hiking trail the emphasis is more on nice trail and nature scenery. Still, the trail was not too bad. The Elisabethpfad and a Camino are parallel for most of the time using a lot of bike paths and road walks, but occasionally the two split up and then I followed the Elisabethpfad which usually took a route through the forest. For half a day it even follows “Ars natura”, a hiking trail adorned with art objects in the forest. Although both trails are usually close to civilization stealth camping was not too difficult. I was thinking of staying in another pilgrim’s hostel, but felt more flexible with stealth camping. And although it was still unusually cold, the altitude was hardly above 500 m and there was no snow whatsoever.

Despite the high percentage of walking on pavement of all sorts the Elisabethpfad had a lot of positive aspects: Due to its nature as a pilgrimage trail it visits all the churches along the route. Almost all those churches are open during the day. They are all very pretty and some of them real gems. A lot of the churches cater for hikers and offer refreshments! Not only were the churches pretty, but also the little villages and towns. Leaving the former GDR and entering the state of Hesse on the Elisabethpfad was like entering a new world. All of a sudden the settlements were all so pretty. Even tiny little hamlets had newly restored houses and towns like Spangenberg, Homberg or Treysa were real gems. And of course they all had supermarkets….

The locals all knew about the Elisabethpfad. I was stopped several times every day and people told me how much they admired the pilgrims and how much they wanted to hike it, too. I was totally surprised how popular the trail is not only with locals, but with hikers. I met several other pilgrims and judging by the entries in church guest books there were even more pilgrims around. It is absolutely amazing how much pilgrimages are booming! Still, if you are more after hiking than doing a pilgrimage I would not overly recommend the Elisabethpfad. But if you like nice villages and towns and want to a roof over your head at night the Elisabethpfad is a nice alternative. There is a little guidebook with overview maps and lots of historical explanations. On the internet you can download an accommodation list including cheap pilgrimage hostels and normal accommodation plus a town service overview. You will need a pilgrimage "passport" to stay at the pilgrimage hostels. All is available from the Elisabethverein.


At Blankenstein several long-distance hiking trails meet: Frankenweg, Fraenkischer Gebirgsweg, Rennsteig and Kammweg. Here I changed from the Kammweg to the Rennsteig. I changed trails, but the weather stayed the same: cold, cold, cold. Even the snow remained in the higher regions. I was starting to wonder whether we would ever have something like spring this year. I had hiked the Rennsteig before which is the oldest and one of the most famous hiking trails in Germany. Back in the 19th century it connected several little kingdoms, dukedoms and what not. This is the main reason why mark stones abound along the Rennsteig. They are everywhere and date from all centuries. To my big surprise some had little metal signposts next to them with a telephone number. Call the number with your mobile and get a guided tour. I like interactive sightseeing, but cell phone guided tours on hiking trails is a bit too much for my taste. But at least there was cell phone reception.

Mark the "R" for Rennsteig
The Rennsteig is a very popular trail. I had hardly met any other hikers on the Kammweg, but here on the Rennsteig I saw 30 and more hikers every day – and this was not even high season. The advantage of this popularity is that there are fantastic and huge shelters all along the Rennsteig. I loved them for cooking, but did not dare to camp in them. It is incredibly well marked with an “R” for Rennsteig. There are “R”s on almost every other tree! The disadvantage of this popularity is the amount of toilet paper along the trail. German forest can hardly be called pristine, but I have never seen so much toilet paper in the woods. In one shelter someone had even taken a poo inside the shelter and just covered the mess with toilet paper – how disgusting.

Again, everything above 800 m was still snow covered. Sometimes it was amazing to see that the forest floor was completely snow free, but the trail still had 20 cm and more of ice and snow on it. Most of the hiking trails double as cross country skiing trails in winter and because the snow gets compacted by skiing it takes longer to melt. Through bad planning I tended to always end up in the highest and most snow covered areas for camping.

The container
On the Rennsteig I also had the scariest experience in a German forest. Again one night I ended up at high altitude at the Inselsberg. As usual it was cold, damp and foggy when I came down the mountain and started to look for a decent snow free stealth camp site. To my big surprise I saw a huge white cubical container right in the middle of the forest! It was almost all glass and had tables and chairs in it. What could that be? I was more curious than anything else and inspected it when to my big surprise I found the door unlocked. It turned out that this container had been used by referees for ski races – therefore the tables and chairs. It was very clean and much warmer than outside….and I started to wonder whether I could sleep in here. The big disadvantage was that the whole front side was glass and you could easily look inside. But as it was quickly getting dark I decided to risk it and spread out my sleeping bag. At 10 pm I was almost asleep when I saw someone with a flashlight passing the container. I was a bit worried but I thought it must have been just a late hiker. But half an hour later two flashlights were coming the other way going back into the forest. I was getting more and more worried but still tried to explain this with people on a night hike. But nobody had discovered me and eventually I fell asleep.

At midnight I was awoken again. A car came down the forest trail with its front lights seemingly pointing straight at me! My heart nearly stopped beating as the car stopped only 50 m away from my container and several people came out of the car. Torches were shining everywhere and car doors were slammed. I did not dare to move – and apparently nobody seemed to realize that I was there. I could hear muffled voices but could not understand what they were talking about. After 10 minutes the car left – going back into the forest. What was all this about? I wondered whether I should stay or go, but eventually fell asleep again. The same thing happened again at 2 am. By now I was pretty sure that something illegal was going on. Cars are forbidden on forest roads and I could not come up with any decent reason why someone would be driving around on steep snow and ice covered forest roads at 2 am. When the car had left again I decided to check it out. I inspected the area where the car had parked but could not find anything suspicious liked corpses (or more likely illegal garbage dumps). I was still outside when I heard the car coming back. I wondered whether I should hide in the forest, go back into my container and/or call the police. I went back into the container and lay flat on the floor. Again the car stopped, lights flashed….and finally the car left towards the main road. Nobody had discovered me and the car was now probably gone for good at 3 am. I could still only sleep fitfully and left early in the morning.

GDR memorial
Even in broad daylight I could not make out what mysterious car driver had done here at night. Only a couple of days later a friend came up with a possible explanation: Geocaching! Apparently there are specific night geo caches that are marked with fluorescent signs that can only be seen at night with special torches. And probably the cache hunters had not wanted to walk, but driven a car. I still don’t know whether this is the right explanation, but it is the only one that seems to make sense. But I will never camp again in see-through containers!

Shelter on the Rennsteig
Generally the Rennsteig is a pleasant trail to hike: Very well marked, great shelter and fantastic infrastructure. Lots of interesting mark stones and some very nice and untouched nature stuff due to the location on or near the former German border. But on the flop side there are a lot of hikers (this must be hell in summer!) and long stretches along busy roads! There is very little actual road walking, but there is a whole day of walking next to busy roads in the middle of the trail. If it was not for that stretch I would really recommend that Rennsteig, but as it is I think there are nicer trails in Germany.

Kammweg Erzgebirge

Snow right from the start
I knew I would have a cold start, both physically and weather wise. Before my start date I had studied webcams in the Erzgebirge and had watched how the snow was slowly melting. Ski season in the Erzgebirge had only been finished 2 weeks before I started…. I had also studied weather forecasts and realized that spring was still very far away. It would be cold, unusually cold and too cold for my summer gear. I had the choice of either changing gear and carrying a warmer sleeping bag for the beginning of my trip or just layer up with clothes. I wanted to avoid the hassle of mailing gear back and forth and decided to carry the summer gear I had planned and just layer up with warmer old clothes that I could just throw away when the weather got warmer. Unfortunately, already three weeks into my hike the weather has still not gotten much better….

German Czech border
But let me start at the beginning. I took the train to Geising in the Erzgebirge on April 1st and realized already in the train that I had committed a gear mistake. I always carry a waterproof document pouch for valuables and electronics and this time I had taken an old one that I wanted to “use up”. But even for good German Ortlieb gear ten years is too much of a life expectancy – the glue had dried up completely and the velcro closures had come off. The same evening I also discovered that I had taken an old set of Aquamira bottles that would not let any drops out and on day four I broke a tent pole (which I could fix with a repair sleeve). So here I was at the start of a trail with already three gear failures, but luckily a quick phone call to the next outdoor shop en route revealed that I could replace all of those items within 3 weeks.

Start at Zinnwald
I also should have experimented more with my new smartphone and camera because I had a hard time taking pictures of myself at the official start of the trip at the border crossing at Zinnwald – and discovered only afterwards that I had taken black and white photos only! I must have looked rather ridiculous standing there for half an hour in the freezing wind with my camera trying to take auto portraits under a “Federal Republic of Germany” signpost.

Not a happy hiker in a snow storm
As the weather forecast had predicted it was cold which is not a good thing at the start of a trip. I was hopelessly out of shape after four months of sedentary life in Berlin. Usually this is not a big problem: You just take it easy for the first couple of days and get in shape while hiking. But it is difficult to take it easy when the temps hardly rise above freezing even during the day and you freeze your butt off during every little break. I could not take many rests and just had to keep hiking to stay warm. Also getting up early in sub freezing temps in not an easy thing and therefore I started hiking at 8 am or even later. At least my sleeping set up worked better than expected: Although I did not feel exactly cosy at night and was not shivering from cold. My BPL quilt worked extremely well. It helped a lot that the Erzgebirge is a popular region for cross country skiing and therefore lots of shelters had been constructed along the trails. Those were great for resting and occasionally sleeping in at night.

The first couple of days snow had not been an issue and I had not expected snow to be much of a problem. But I was wrong… The Kammweg goes over the Fichtelberg, with 1,200 m the highest mountain in the Erzgebirge and approaching it I realized that everything above 900 m was still completely snow covered. I tried to walk around the Fichtelberg instead of going over it but I still had to hike over 1,000 m and started postholing. To make things worse there was thick fog everywhere and I could hardly see 50 m. Soon any trails disappeared and I had to traverse steep ski slopes. Of course there was no more skiing, but the slopes were still covered with snow and ice. Everything was so compacted that it was impossible to cut steps. I started to wonder whether I could kill myself on a ski slope in the Erzgebirge and when my corpse would be found in that fog! As you can see I survived…., but the amount of snow made progress very difficult.

View out of my tent on Easter
On Easter Saturday I woke up in my tent in a shelter and overnight 10 cm of new powder snow had covered everything. It looked really pretty but made progress even more difficult . I had not expected to be hiking through a snow storm at Easter in Germany! To sum it up: I was a bit fed up with the cold and the snow and decided to treat myself with a night in a youth hostel in Schoeneck. This huge place was more or less empty: Other than I only a family of four was staying there. The warden told me that April is the Erzgebirge “mud” season with very little visitors. Now I know why. The whole place was geared towards school groups and looked like 100 young pioneers would come around the corner any minute. In the communal bathrooms 20 wash basins where next to each other and there was even a “club” room. Almost all the furniture was definitely still made in GDR, but at least the central heating was working. I slept like a rock despite the fact that I could hardly squeeze myself into the tiny bed. Halfway refreshed I tackled the rest of the Kammweg the next morning – after a nice breakfast that was even included in the price.

Old border installations
The route through the Erzgebirge would have been really pleasant if I had not encountered so much cold and snow. Lots of forest and fantastic views plus several sightseeing attractions like the German-German museum at Moedlareuth. Moedlareuth is a tiny village with 70 inhabitants that was called “Little Berlin” because the German-German border went right through it. You can still visit the old border installations and a great exhibition and video about the daily life at the border. A fascinating place and the Kammweg goes right through the place and continues on the “Kolonnenweg” which was used by GDR border patrol to secure the wall. Because this was no man’s land until 1989 nature is still very much intact there and an interesting hiking experience.

Kolonnenweg with "death strip"
But as much as a liked the nature the towns were a bit of a disappointment. Erzgebirge is still the “Wild East” of Germany and if I had to film a remake of “Deliverance” in Germany I would do it here. People were very friendly, but almost all the towns looked pretty desolate. Almost everything was closed and despite all my previous research two supermarkets I wanted to re-supply in were shut. Locals directed me to other grocery stores but most of them looked still original “GDR” – expect for the Western brands. And there were other unpleasant “GDR” symptoms: There were very few churches and those were all closed! Very bad when you count on them for shelter and recharging your smartphone. Of course some of these places were tourist towns like Seiffen, which is a regional centre for wood carving, but beside the tacky tourist stuff the town looked very unwelcoming and maybe I am just pissed because they even charged money for public toilets which I needed for water resupply. Or maybe the places look better in sunshine…. I don’t know.

Correct trail marker
 Navigation was pretty easy expect for the snowy bits in whiteout conditions, but the trail marking can be a bit confusing. The Kammweg is marked with a blue strip on white and the word "Kamm". Unfortunately there are other trails with blue on white without "Kamm" and also a ski cross country trail called "Kamm" in blue on white... Several times I did not pay full attention and ended up on the wrong blue on white. Bottom line: The Kammweg is a nice and interesting hiking trail, but the trail towns are pretty desolate (but interesting for GDR aficionados).