Rolling hills, forests and fields interlaced with one another, ancient paths that criss-cross the countryside and a simple assumption that one does in fact walk. We are – by happenstance – in the far east of Germany, based in the village of Herrnhut in the region of Oberlausitz (Saxony). Full of curiosity (and not a little longing) about the former East Germany, we succumb to the temptation and walk everywhere – a simple backpack on our shoulders, and nothing more to ponder than food, lodgings and place to put tired feet.
Soon enough, as feet and shoes have become accustomed to one another’s intimate presence in a new way, we long for a decent expedition. Our walk takes us south-west of our village, across farmland to a large Wald (forest), from where we turn in an easterly direction through the villages of Nineveh (!) and Ruppersdorf until we hit another forest. Eventually we wind our way back to the north-west to Herrnhut. Open fields, forests, villages, all in all about 20 kilometres.
We might have warmed to the countryside in our hearts, but colder weather had returned, with bitter, biting winds from the southeast. So we strike out into the teeth of the wind, across open fields that had dared to show the first sprouts of spring a week or so before. Would they draw their weather hoods tighter, don windbreakers, grit their teeth and bear it out, or would they wither before warmer winds returned? As for us, we bend into the wind, wipe noses, look longingly to the shelter of the forest ahead, wonder what in hell possessed us to head out today and what it was about hiking that has attracted us in the first place ….
After what seems like an infernally endless trudge, the trees begin to throw their shadows over us and break up the wind. At the forest edge, we pause for the obligatory piss, snack and drink. And I look out over a land of rolling hills that has begun feel very familiar indeed. There to the south is the higher hill with the Spreequelle I had explored earlier. There is the wind park by Bernstadt. There is Zittau in the distance. There is the sheltered hollow of Berthelsdorf. There is the fold between two hills where Herrnhut lays – our temporary home.
Pondering the scenery while stationary does not make the kilometres roll by, so we get the legs moving once again, sinking into the forest. Now the wind rustles the leaves and pine needles above us, occasionally wafting upon us around tree trunks. Once these forests covered the whole land and in its cool shade the tribes lived as forest dwellers, as hunters and gatherers. At a turn of the track after we have climb the low ‘berg’, we can see far afield over an increasingly familiar landscape. I squint my eyes, blurring the view and imagine it all covered with the dense growth of ancient forest. Perhaps a cooking fire threads its smoke into the sky halfway to the horizon, over its flames a deer or wild boar or hare that was more plentiful then – in direct proportion to the sparseness of human beings.
Romantic imagination may be one thing, but the reality is that Europe has arguably the most managed landscape on earth. Given that less than two per cent has not been cultivated in some way, one does not find true wilderness, where human beings have not yet been, that has not been altered in some way by human interaction. And given the German propensity for organising and ordering all dimensions of one’s life, forests themselves are managed very well indeed. Trees are logged selectively in a way that maintains the forest’s integrity. Signs appear well before you might get lost. All cycling and walking trails are marked simply and easily – a small white square with a red, green, yellow or what have you colour depending on the trail. Of course, you can take other tracks if you wish, but inevitably these have some sort of insignia.
The paradox is that this entire organisation enables you to relax, be absorbed by the land, enter another world and let your mind tumble. You don’t need to spend hours poring over maps to plot every step of the way. At a deeper level, a subtle easy-going nature among German farmers begins to show itself. Australians might be fabled as an easy-going people (although one needs to be properly suspicious of such cultural stereotypes), but you always find plenty of signs saying ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’. By contrast, here you may walk across a farmer’s field, make your way through some roadwork, walk along someone’s back lane without a worry. Everyone does so, for it is the most normal act in the world. As we do – and much more.
But perhaps the greatest thrills are those serendipitous moments, fleeting moments that happen at a singular and unrepeatable conjunction of time and space. ‘Thrill’ is perhaps too strong a word, but they make the walk worthwhile, keep you feeling that the hike is never over, that you have merely taken a break in a much longer venture.
An older woman appears on a turn in the track. Fifty-something, fit and slender – unlike many of the locals – she is out alone in the forest. She strides along at a great pace, and has the sinewy legs and well-worn hiking boots of someone who has been out on the track for many, many kilometres and no doubt has many more to go. Where is she going? I wonder. Walking to see a friend in the next village? Out for a regular weekend hike over familiar and beloved countryside? A constitutional rendezvous with an old lover? Escaping something? A simple love of forests and fields underfoot?
A forester emerges from behind a massive tree trunk, chainsaw in hand, cigarette hanging from a lip. He stops beside a small pile of timber – small since his primary responsibility is to preserve the forest rather than raze it to the ground. A couple sits quietly on the edge of the forest, looking out over the fields. Binoculars in hand, they watch for the riot of life of early spring. Or so it seems. What about lovers, especially now that the sap is rising with spring. I am sure that the quiet corners of forest and field have been the location of more than one tryst, but we meet none – apart from ourselves.
But are there fugitives here too? A man walks furtively from some dense undergrowth to his car. He avoids our gaze, leaps in and drives away. Something to hide? A drug deal? Or perhaps a more sinister venture? No greetings here. Two men pack away sleeping gear into a van. Strictly speaking, you are not supposed to camp here, but who’s to know if you break camp quickly? And in time past, the forest would have provided refuges from wars and famines, hideouts for freedom fighters and revolutionaries, quiet paths for dreamers of a better world.
Yet I do not walk to meet other people – plenty enough of that in the world. Instead, I prefer the glance of sunlight through the trees, throwing a play of light and shadow before me. Or the ice-bordered stream that rushes away in the excited anticipation of spring. Or the dingo pausing on the track ahead. Dingo? Hardly. I look more intently and espy the erect ears of a hare. Through the trees a deer looks my way for a moment, before turning back to its own business. Scratchings on the forest floor suggest wild pigs have been here. Bear? Wolves? Only in the wilder and higher reaches of the mountains in the Czech Republic perhaps, or Italy. But not here. By now I am pondering the fact that these moments merely scrape the surface of field and forest, even in these few hours we are on the walk. Unroll the months, years and centuries and the land has its own history that is wider and probably more fascinating than the human beings who have been wandered about on its surface.
But what is it like to walk such a distance in a day, or really an afternoon? It would hardly be necessary to ask such a question if we still lived in the time before motorised transport, for people would do it as a matter of course. The first quarter of the hike seems to go on forever. If you happen upon a sign that indicates the distance from your base, then you will be disappointed. ‘3.5 km’! I thought we had walked at least ten! The thought that the bulk of the trek is still before can be disheartening. You may well ponder cutting it short and heading back via the comfy looking village below.
Resisting temptation, you trudge on. Now the most enjoyable part of the walk begins, for your legs are in rhythm, your feet feel at home in your beloved boots, the forest is full of subtle delights, the energy from the snack kicks in and before you know it more than three quarters of the hike is completed. But then, when you spy your destination through a fold in the hills, the beacon atop a last climb, you begin to feel the day’s hike in legs, feet and mind. The pack grows heavier, the climbs steeper, the wind colder. Until at last you step over the thick basalt threshold and through the heavy timber door and find one of those heavenly drinks the Germans know how to brew so well. By this time your appetite is so huge you could eat three meals in one – which I do.